W-Learning: Potential and Peril

The Age of W-Learning is here. Another buzzword? Yet another gimmick? Before we write it off, let’s take a closer look. (By the way, “W-Learning” is “Wiki-Learning.”)

The funny thing about the human brain is that it has a mind of its own. It behaves like people do, perhaps in a less sophisticated way. Let’s pit that observation against something like Wikipedia and see what happens. Think about teaching, engagement, learning, retention.

The more you force-feed the brain, the more it will resist. The best way it compiles and retains knowledge is through associations, provided it has the right context. (Rote learning is bad because it doesn’t encourage association, and learner engagement is all about setting a context.) The context is often set by a specific need (“I need to learn this to be able to work on that”). The more obvious way in which context is set, though, is when a person is interested in a topic. You’ll have come across the type who can’t remember a single junior-school-level mathematical formula, but who will happily regale the audience with a rendition of the entire script of a movie from another era—replete with dialogs and detailed scene descriptions.

Infomaze!

This is where “Wiki-Learning” comes in. Think of how most people use Wikipedia: They don’t just read one page from top to bottom. They click on the links, based on their interests (context). Take a car racing enthusiast, who’s right now looking at the “Auto Racing” page. He clicks through the knowledge hierarchy along this path: Auto Racing >> Open Wheel Car >> Sports Cars >> Solid Axles >> Drive Shafts >> Front Engine Real Wheel Drive >> Automotive Design >> Henry Ford >> Thomas Edison >> Telegraph >> Telegram

The person wasn’t looking for “telegram,” and it’s a new idea for him. But he would probably have a reasonable takeaway from the “Telegram” page... because he reached “Telegram” through topics that interested him (each step had a relevant association for him, and hence a context). What would happen if, instead, he were told to read up on “Early forms of long-distance communications”? A bored face is what we’d expect to see.

But you’d never guess that he’d click through to “telegram” the way he did, so… That’s the problem. Wikipedia is an open sea of information. (So is the Internet as a whole. So are print encyclopedias.) It can set all the context you need; it can set minds racing; it can spur discovery and novelty. But can you create a structured universe of learning there? Some people have tried harnessing unstructured knowledge. We’ll look at a couple of examples in a later post.