The case for solitary acts of learning

Or “The internet and the hive mind”

I came across an article by Larry Sanger, the co-founder of Wikipedia, on Educause Review (March/April 2010).  In it, Sanger takes a critical look at education and the internet and explores some much-talked about themes:

  1. The  idea that instant access to information makes memorization of facts unnecessary or less necessary
  2. The celebration of the virtues of collaborative learning as superior to outmoded individual learning
  3. The insistence that lengthy, complex books, which constitute a single, static, one-way conversation with an individual, are inferior to knowledge co-constructed by members of a group.

(I’m quoting these points nearly verbatim from Sanger’s article.)

The article made an impression on me and I return to it as I see more and more articles about the important role of social media in education and training, and the need for just-in-time training and instruction parsed out in five-minute chunks.

To put my thoughts in context, let me say that:

  • I think that social media is playing an increasingly important role in education and training
  • Just-in-time training is extremely necessary
  • I happen to like learning something in 5-minute chunks as much as the next person

But  I return to these sentences in Sanger’s article, “Being able to read (or view) anything quickly on a topic can provide one with information, but actually having knowledge of or understanding about the topic will always require critical study. The Internet will never change that.”

Where Web 2.0 teachers fit in

The role of educators in a Web 2.0 world is often said to be one of facilitation, but it’s not facilitation in the sense of crowd control, or at least not just that.

The Web 2.o instructor should:

  • Help learners to actively think about what they know, what they don’t know, and how they can get better at applying knowledge (this doesn’t require memorization of facts, but a knowledge base can make the process more fluid)
  • Help  learners to challenge the assumptions of online information, and even the social networks they become a part of, in a constructive way
  • Reach for complexity enthusiastically to make sense of it by constructing their own mental models.

I think the best facilitators are those who let individuals sense the power of their own thoughts in the midst of a crowd (however, nurturing that crowd happens to be). Of course, multiple voices can enrich a learning experience, but unique interpretations  are the ones that ultimately lead to innovation. When many unique interpretations come together, that can be very powerful.


Sanger, L. (March/April 2010). Individual knowledge in the internet age. EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 45, no. 2  14-24.


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