Monday, December 5, 2011

Ditch the GPS; Get Lost Instead

In Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky points out that major changes to society often happen so quickly they don't leave time for anyone to adjust. This results in chaos that traditional solutions can't fix. In fact, tradition has been displaced. There is no plan for going forward, but no way to go back. Shirky's main example is the beginning of the Industrial Era in London when a rapid influx of people into the city created social chaos, new opportunities for leisure, and mass drunkenness. Eventually, people began to use their surplus time to organize, become educated, and develop civic infrastructure. Ergo, we have modern democracy. (Sort of)

We are entering an era of chaos. The traditional approaches to education are being challenged by rapid changes in technology and economic pressures. And if the old model falls, we're simply not ready to replace it. We don't have any good ideas. Or...we have a lot of good ideas but no big picture.

In his opening post for Week 13 of #change11 MOOC, Clark Quinn addresses this problem:

I’m really arguing for the need to come up with a broader perspective on learning. I’ve been calling it learning experience design, but really it’s more. It’s a combination of performance support and learning (and it’s badly in need of some branding help). The notion is a sort-of personal GPS for your knowledge work. It’s knows where you want to go (since you told it), and it knows where you are geographically and semantically (via GPS and your calendar), and as it recognizes the context it can provide not only support in the moment, but layers on learning along the way. And I think that we don’t know really how to look at things this way yet; we don’t have design models (to think about the experience conceptually), we don’t have design processes (to go from goal to solution), and we don’t have tools (to deliver this integrated experience). Yet the limits are not technological; we have the ability to build the systems if we can conceptualize the needed framework.

[....] There’s lots more: addressing the epistemology of learners, mobile technologies, meta-learning & 21st C skills, and deep analytics and semantic systems, to name a few, but I think we need to start with the right conceptions.

Quinn suggests we think about "slow learning" as a way to make the reality of how our brains work match the pace and functional aspects of education design.

This sounds great. What I don't like is GPS as a metaphor. The problem is that the GPS simultaneously knows too much and too little. Have you ever watched someone follow their GPS around and around the block, expecting the little robot to do all the work? Chances are, if the driver would just look up and read a few street signs or use common sense, he could save 15 minutes of wandering.

We need to get lost. We don't need our locations constantly re-calibrated. Learning often means getting lost in the woods and finding your way out. It doesn't mean having a controlling voice talking you through everything, measure, assessing, re-assessing. That's one of the big problems with education now. Let's not replace a human program with a digital one. You can't hear yourself think with such a dominant narrator.

A better metaphor, I think, is the Hero's Journey of Joseph Campbell. Most of those myths would have been utterly destroyed with the careful directions and constant updates of a GPS. Heck, even Luke Skywalker, in his world of advanced technical wizardry, needed to close the blast shield and listen to his own voice .

It might be trite, but it might be true: do we need to focus more on the journey, less on the destination? (Destinations are good, too). The GPS won't shut up until the correct result is reached. We become dependent. We need her every time we go somewhere. We never learn to shut her off and read the landscape directly.


  1. Interesting post.
    I have to say that I disagree with you a bit. I think that we are constantly having our location(destination) re-calibrated whether or not we use a GPS device or not (GPS as a metaphor here). I think that the push-back I am reading is not on having a device guide you, but rather having a device *dictate* to you what you should and should not be doing.

    In my own practice I do turn on the GPS device when I am in the car, but I follow my own route. Once I get lost, it gets me back to where I need to be, but other than that I tend to not pay a ton of attention to it. Same thing with learning. We do go off on tangents quite frequently, but by the same token, we do need to get back on the road to reach a destination. We could always revisit those tangents, but usually learning happens for a specific purpose - this means that there is an associated time-table and so time spent on sidebars and tangents is limited.

    We can always silence the GPS and have it serve us, and not the other way around. The GPS doesn't shut up until the result is reached (the destination), that is correct, but as long as you are on your way to that destination, who cares what the GPS says? (unless you're on time restraints). It's just another tool to help you on your journey. Throwing away the GPS is my grandfather's solution. He was retired and had great amounts of time to do whatever. This isn't always an affordance for everyone :)

  2. This is probably where the metaphor (like all metaphors) breaks down. In all likelihood, GPS has made things easier, and we can save time and get places in a more timely fashion.

    But if we ditch the metaphor and think instead of clear, step-by-step instructions keeping us in check and guiding us toward a neat and clean finish line, then we're better off without a GPS in the classroom (again, as metaphor).

    This certainly varies from discipline to discipline. If I'm studying to pass the bar exam, I don't want to wander through any strange alleys. The goal is clear.

    However, what if passing the bar becomes more likely by wandering away from the content and learning how to incorporate 30 minutes of cardio-vascular exercise every day (research indicates this would boost your score). Taking 30 minutes away from studying to do something seemingly not related to the results of your exam can actually increase the results of your exam.

    I'm probably wandering away from my initial point, by hey, why not.

    I think you're right here: "We can always silence the GPS and have it serve us, and not the other way around."

    It's a tough balance though with technology. How many of us wish we wasted less time online and instead used the internet more effectively. Then again, I suppose wasting time, in my previous argument, can be good thing.