The Evolution of Learning, Knowing, & Finding in the Digital Age

Knowledge, information, and intellect are fuzzy concepts. Knowledge may involve the ability to recall specific pieces of information. But, does knowing lead to intellect? The more information the better? And, what information is needed for intellect? Interesting questions, but definitely beyond my philosophical capabilities. Without a doubt these concepts have evolved in the digital age. An interesting piece entitled Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age  is worth a read.

In the past, there was an advantage (likely even an incentive) to “knowing” information, because “finding” information was slow, cumbersome, and time consuming. Think about performing a literature review prior to the internet. It was likely harder (both effort and time wise) to find facts, ideas, and concepts. Potentially, this may have lead to slower, more deliberate processing in the form of in-depth analysis and more critical thinking with reflection, analysis, and connecting to ensure strong knowledge recall.

With the advent of new technologies, and the ever increasing speed and ease of information transfer, the paradigm may have flipped. With the proliferation of the internet and search tools, finding information continued to become easier and faster (this does not address or speak to accuracy, validity, or utility of course). Taking the time to truly know, relate, and connect content was effectively de-incentivized as finding it became convenient beyond belief. Even Einstein was quoted as saying “It’s not what you know, it’s knowing where to find it.” For some information and procedures, this is absolutely true. Atul Gawande addressed this very concept in the book  The Checklist Manifesto (which is fantastic! check out this video summary).

But, do the manifestations of this paradigm shift have the potential to be devastating for students and learners, including clinicians, of all types? The incentive for laziness is present. Google search, “the abstract says…”, “so & so tweeted this.” One must consciously recognize the potential traps, and work hard to critically appraise, connect, reflect, and relate to information.

The same is true of evidence based practice. “Well, this article conclusion states X is good for Y.” “The systematic review recommends X for Y.” Now, I am not advocating against evidence based practice, just pointing out a potentially devastating short cut or pit fall. Without a conscious and attentive adherence to prior plausibility, principles of science, and critical thinking, we are all likely to fall victim to “citing the evidence” in this regard. Now, this really is a different topic, for a different time…

With the advent of Web 2.0 and social media technology information is pushed directly to you. For better or for worse, masters of technology and social media with large followings or broad connections have the power to proliferate ideas to large numbers of people, many of whom did not even seek this information. The term “viral” captures this concept accurately, as ideas or internet memes exhibit virus like tendencies. But, even small time social media users can have significant impact if the information they push is deemed useful by those that encounter it, and thus, pushed onward. And, viral growth is born.

The evolution of this technology may prove to be profoundly beneficial if utilized appropriately. People will encounter information in the form of Facebook status updates, tweet thoughts, blog posts, research articles, and news they did not even seek. Technology and social media including blogs, can be leveraged to not only encounter new information (most of which is not purposefully sought after), but to engage, connect, critique and more deeply understand. Both the author and the reader can benefit, as social media now allows the reader, or consumer, to engage via comments and replies. Learners armed with the power of new technology and the cognitive skills to appropriately use it can make a major impact.

In the future, I foresee the potential of these new technologies and paradigms fundamentally changing not just education, but the face of formal science and publishing. Jason Silvernail and I have discussed this before when discussing if industry standards were serving researchers, clinicians, and science. Building on that topic, Diane Jacobs at SomaSimple, recently posted a link to blog post Why Academic Papers are a Horrible Discussion Forum. These insights set the stage for how new technology and social media can be tools of meaningful change in the future of learning, knowing, finding, discussing, and learning.

This anonymous quote summarizes it best

Education means developing the mind, not stuffing the memory

Unfortunately, our education system at all levels seems on the cusp of  failing in this regard. Some of these technology tools, if not utilized appropriate, may have the potential to exacerbate the problem. But, as we have witnessed, technology has the potential to make big changes, for the better.

12 Replies to “The Evolution of Learning, Knowing, & Finding in the Digital Age”

  1. Kyle, you made some great points as usual. I stumbled across a really good article today on the Body in Mind blog about EBP, and critically appraising evidence ( Basically the point is made that we rely too much on abstracts, without taking the time to read the methods, results, etc. I think the majority of the problem is that we have such easy access to research that we fall into the trap of not taking the time to really read the study itself. On the other hand, technology allows us to have access to huge amounts of really good Quality information – if we take the time to actually read it.

  2. Tyler,

    Thanks for linking to that BiM post. Very applicable here.

    It is an interesting diachotomy that these new technologies and tools present. Easier access to more and more and more and more information from even broader sources, much of which we did not even have to seek or search for. But, then the trap of potentiall not reading deep enough or just reading the abstract definitely exists.

    A cognitive system of weeding through, organizing, and then analyzing information has to be conciously applied I think. Like any tool or skill, we must understand it, master it use, and then apply it properly.

  3. Great post Kyle! I really enjoy reading your thoughts.

    You make some really good points here. I do not work in academia but do have the opportunity to educate interns on many levels in physical therapy training. I do push for clinical reasoning and professional judgement rather than just quoting numbers, ROM, and facts. I think they get enough of that in school.

    I hope other CIs do this, and agree, that this will help the students develop into successful clinicians and not just quiz them everyday on miniscual information.

    I get very positive feedback from my past students and think this is the way clinical internships should procede.

    Hope everyone has a great 4th!


  4. To me, an education and learning are two related but separate entities. Education to me is about learning as it pertains to a particular societal goal. Learning in is a much more broad topic which may or may not be mutually opposed to the larger societal goal.
    Technology like the internet allows for a greater societal and individual interplay of learning that previously relied on top-down methods of dissemination.
    What I think is more interesting is how this learning through new technologies is coupled with new representations in the brain. How many followers, contributors, blog posts can I make space for in the bandwith of my brain allocated for representation of social media? How does the reflection and conversation online guide my trajectory of learning?
    While I agree with you Kyle that “information” finding has been streamlined. I do think that there is no short cuts to true learning because it is process of acquiring, application, and reflection. Therefore tech like the internet has greatly sped up the first stage in the acquiring but I see it offering little to latter stages. These stages seem to be much more dependent on the individual than the technology that immerses themselves.

  5. Eric,

    Very interesting reflection. To me, education and learning are dependent on the connection, reflection, and re-conceptualization of ideas, themes, constructs, and other information.

    I think social media and technology can serve, affect, and accelerate all parts of the process (to a certain extent depending on learner, content, etc). I agree, that the phase with the fastest acceleration, and most affected, is the information acquiring phase. And, this is why I think these tools can be so addicting, and dangerous. Without regard to proper learning or “digging deeper” we are constantly stuck in the first phase > information acquisition. This is where I see the current model of evidence based practice failing short in main stream application (due to misunderstanding and misapplication of it’s principles…”We need more RCT’s!”)

    Sometimes, discussion, the thoughts of others, schematics or themes from unrelated information, new information, new ways of thinking are necessary during the learning and education process. Social media provides us with the opportunity to connect with a much broader network of minds, thoughts, information, schemes, etc. (for both good and for bad).

    You could likely learn statistics with nothing other than the necessary information in a certain text book, but an excellent teacher may make the learning process quicker, more efficient, more enjoyable, and in the end more applicable/usable in every stage of learning?

    Technology and social media speeds up the entire process because it can utilized at the acquisition phase, the application phase (engagement/discussion/connection with previous ideas/examples of others applying), and even the reflection stage (broadcasting your reflections and reflecting on your broadcasts or others).

    Further, you can witness others going through those stages of learning.

    There are no shortcuts to true learning, but an improved road map, approach, or certain information may facilitate the process. But, how do separate the noise from the real signal?

  6. Reading this post takes me back to PT school. I remember sitting in class, watching everyone write every word the instructor said down in their notebook. I wondered, is it even possible that while friviously writing, anyone could first hear every word coming out then process the information, and finally make sense of it in specific context. I’m sure that because of current educational constructs, it is necessary for some to write, memorize, and regurgitate information, as if it were a series of lines in a scripted tv show. It allows PT students to “make it,” without actually understanding the applications of the material.

    This trend continues after school in the forms of poorly designed, biased research articles, advertisements for fluffy therapeutic devices, and an abundance of “expert opinions” on a variety of topics.

    The bottom line, is that if you don’t have, or have the ability to develop an understanding of good vs bad information, then it will always be a struggle. This is applicable across the board in professional circles.

    As far as PT goes, a firm understanding of anatomy, mechanical physics (kinesiology), neuroscience, some sort of manual therapy skill, and problem solving ability, will get you far. As a clinician, I know first hand that rarely does a patient walk in the door with a straight forward problem, as you may be made to believe at PT school graduation. The above mentioned skillset allows for informed patient management, and successful outcomes.

    You guys have a good thing going here. I enjoy reading all the inspired commentators.

  7. Very interesting blog post. One point you made is particularly interesting to me:

    “Technology and social media including blogs, can be leveraged to not only encounter new information (most of which is not purposefully sought after), but to engage, connect, critique and more deeply understand”

    While I agree that social media can allow clinicians to engage in meaningful conversation, do you think that we can utilize the same channels to educate the general populace? I have been blown away by the amount of PT’s having in-depth conversations on Twitter, and I believe that we need to find a way to provide a similar environment for patients to become engaged and connected with their clinicians. If we can quickly and easily connect and share ideas with our patients in a meaningful way, we will have a more empowered and informed clientele.

    1. YES. I think this technology holds massive promise from a public health, individual patient care, patient-clinician interaction (both within and outside formal treatment standpoint) and general education standpoints.

      I have not looked, but I would imagine there is the presence of social media in support groups and diagnosis specific dialogues between patients.

  8. Eric,

    Thanks for bringing this up. I just want to bring up a related article from a couple of years ago – “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” published in the Atlantic in 2008. The article contrasted internet reading with traditional book or magazine reading – the former cast as “shallow” and the latter cast as “intense”.

    You can get the full text by, how else? Google it!

    The article was expanded in 2010 in Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains”.

    The book overdoes the article a bit but both are excellent.

    Even more impressive is this quote I first read in the original article. Carr quotes Herbert Simon from 1978 (a full 5 years BEFORE anything like the Internet was conceivable!):

    “A Wealth of Information Creates a Poverty of Attention”

    Simon (who won the Nobel Prize in 1975) described how the human mind can only hold 3-5 pieces of information at any one time. In medicine (and physical therapy) this concept has been taken furthest by Lawrence Weed, MD and Nancy Zimny, PhD, PT.

    The human mind compensates for this lack of memory and processing power by assembling a “short list” of possible diagnoses or treatment options. This short list is supplied and reinforced by heuristic decision making styles, or “rules of thumb”. Many time these heuristics work well. When they don’t work they are called cognitive errors.

    To return to your original point: Is more information better? I also wonder how electronic media can help physical therapists and their patients if our minds cannot hold or process the data.

    Thank you,

    Tim Richardson, PT

    1. Tim,

      Thank you for your response.

      Book reading or internet reading can both be either shallow or intense. It depends more on the individual and their environment (internal and external) including state of mind, focus, and distractions (internal/external) than the actual medium (book vs. internet) per se. Granted, one medium lends itself more easily to distraction, I agree there.

      The quote(s) you provide appear to relate to information that we are consciously engaging, seeking, manipulating, or attempting to use. As more information is presented, or attempted to be engaged with, our attention falters. What then results are rules of thumb and heuristics, which no matter how accurate, can always be potential traps leading to cognitive errors.

      I am not arguing that point nor is the post. It was presenting and briefly discussing some of the incentives and resulting changes given the current technological landscape as well as some of the benefits and pitfalls.

      My point is that we can easily SEARCH and ACCESS more information when needed. Information that we used to need to memorize or TRY to remember. This leaves more cognitive space or room for critically thinking, learning about cognitive errors, and refining our searching, thinking, and analytical processes. We do not need to have a constant barrage of more information, small tidbits, statuses, etc. I am not advocating that.

      I don’t believe we need to hold or process ALL the data. That’s the point, I think. These tools hold some of the data for us, so we can focus on the processing. Connection, analysis, action. In addition, it pushes us potentially new information we would never seek out that may alter our thinking or lead to new insights or considerations.

      Does the technology and the tools need to be used wisely? You bet.

      In fact, we should study (formally and informally) then teach ways of leveraging, thinking, and controlling these information sources and technology tools.

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