Monday, 29 September 2008

Intellectual Augmentation

(image by twenty questions)

I've started back at University this week and now find myself doing a semester of my MsC. in e-learning entitled 'How people learn in an online environment'. This is some 'thinking out loud' about a position paper written by my tutor which touches on a number of issues to do with cognition and learning...

I'm fascinated by the issue of "Intellectual Augmentation". As some of you will have heard me mention, I work for the Police Forces of the UK. It's arguable that 21st century policing will be about information management - which is more than just learning about the job. It's about learning how to manage information about the job.

Recently I was half-way through reading a blog on something related to work and stopped to just tag it in Delicious. I don't know why, but for once I asked myself what the actual likelihood of me going back to read this was? Minimal, I decided. And if that were so, then why am I doing this? Why not keep reading? Why stop?

Is delicious making me dumber? Is it making me lazier? Or do I actually have to hold every exact reference, citation and date in my head?

Why can't delicious just hold that information for me, freeing up valuable 'RAM' in my head to concentrate on the bigger picture? Whatever that is.

It's an interesting set of questions and one which relates back to the Task-Artefact question - observing how social bookmarking facilities change our relationship with the information that we manage and acquire, perhaps driving us towards a relationship with learning which is now mediated by machine (the semantic tagging behind delicious and diigo etc.) and which assumes that we have a different, more surface-like relationship with a field of learning and it's constituent parts which we no longer hold in our own memories but only have a loose connection with via an external database of content and semantically linked objects.

Doesn't this raise some very fundamental questions about how we define learning? Does this change how we need to examine and assess people? Does it change what we mean by mastery of a subject? Is mastery no longer the ability to recite wholesale facts and figures but rather the abiliity to categorise that subject's constituent parts - and to assimilate new objects into that field?

Is 'learning' becoming a question of ability to manage information and categorise it for later access from an external aid? And if so, where do we draw the line in what we hold inside and outside of ourselves?

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