Home » Change, Future, Insight, Social Media

Learning in the Internet Age

Submitted by on April 3, 2009 – 10:51 am7 Comments

I am constantly fascinated by the myriad “small” changes the Internet is causing in our lives and how these changes, when writ large across society, are totally transformational.   This is one of the network laws I frame as “Small is Big” – In the network all things begin small (the individual, the faint signal, the single message) and roll up through collective action (the viral pass along, the “Digg“) into a swarm of biblical proportion (Obama’s donor list of 13 million).   Here is another example. To get to this example, first take a moment to think through this exercise.   You are back in junior high.  You get a very unremarkable assignment:  Write a paper on the three branches of U.S. government and highlight how the executive branch has changed over time.  How do you complete this assignment?   If you were like me – you would:

  1. Head to the library and try and find a generic reference book
  2. Look it up in your home encyclopedia – and get a two page (at best) summary.
  3. Ask mom and dad for their “expertise” (mine, by the way, had none but they still helped out)
  4. Call your smart friend on the telephone with a plea for help

All during this assignment you are copying sections from the encyclopedia in long hand – taking notes from mom or dad – and assembling your paper. Now consider the way this same assignment was completed last week by my friend’s son Jaime.  Jaime is 13 years old. Jaime logged into Facebook and began an instant message chat with three friends working on the same assignment.  Each was using Google to find  excerpts from magazines, newspapers articles, historical archives, university websites etc.   Each friend was sharing the choice links they found via the chat window.   When Jaime found something useful he did a simple cut and paste into a Word Document that was open in another window. Now take a moment to think of how powerful this experience is – and how much it differs from how you and I spent our formative years learning how to learn.  (1) Jaime is working collaboratively, with friends and (2) accessing a repository of documents that were completely out of our reach when we were in junior high.  (3) He is multitasking across several programs and lines of communication at once. (4) Jaime simply uses cut and paste to begin organizing his draft – moving text from primary sources to his personal paper. All of this represents a radical acceleration in productivity,  and shifts working time from mindless task (copy chunks of text in long hand) to  creative and collaborative thinking (what does this text mean in relation to the assignment I am completing, what do my friends see as valuable).  Small is Big:  Imagine this shift multiplied across the hundreds of millions of students like Jaime that are working in a new way – both procedurally (computer based) and behaviorally (collaborating). This shift is occuring not only in our schools but also in our work and home life.  


  • Hi Josh,
    It is fascinating to observe the ways kids acquire information these days and how it differs in a lot of ways from our own experiences. I still think that copying passages in long hand forced young individuals to actually absorb the information contained within. Keyword search and then copy and paste using modern methods somewhat allows bypassing the absorption of the knowledge. Thus while a lot more information is moving around – not much of it is really being absorbed by those potent young brains. I’m not advocating a return to the old methods, but I am noticing that a lot of information passes into these “compilations” without being read. As you say, kids share the links from which information could be “lifted” to a new container. And I would venture to say that they do not really share information on the subject, they do not discuss the subject matter.

  • Joshua-Michéle says:

    Hi Igor,
    Thanks for the comment.
    You present the flip side of the argument – that some of the constraints imposed by pen and ink culture actually had a beneficial effect on brain function. I am not a pure cheerleader saying that what we have is better across the board – but it certainly is different – and that difference is going to have a major impact on how we restructure work over the coming years.

  • Alora says:

    It’s interesting that you write this now, because my husband — who is 100% old-school, hard-core academic ludite when it comes to both research and what it means to write a paper — just had a TREMENDOUSLY frustrating experience. He’s in an adult education program and had a rather exhaustive writing assignment. He got very frustrated very quickly when people started submitting their “research papers” (which get posted publicly for the entire group to see), only for it to quickly become obvious that most of his classmates simply copied-and-pasted their research into a Word document. He, of course, spent two weeks barely sleeping, and painfully researching and annotating his paper. But by the time the assignment window closed, 3 out of 10 people had done truly original work (which is a topic that makes him extremely cranky!).

    Given that this isn’t a formal academic program, there are no repercussions from taking a short-cut approach, but what is interesting are the assumptions of all involved: to him — as a scientist and a true academically-inclined researcher — the idea of taking that short cut is OFFENSIVE to him. Yet others never thought twice about it. And as the whole thing was unfolding, I remember having precisely the thought you put in this title: “Since when is that NOT cheating?”

    It’s an interesting question, and in the Information Age the boundaries around academic conventions may prove to be even bigger stickier wickets than the ones around many of the business/economic conventions that we spend so much time debating. Who knew?

  • Joshua-Michéle says:

    Hi Alora,
    I have been trying to summarize this concept for a long time and your post gives me a chance to do so. It goes like this, “Don’t criticize new technologies for allowing old, bad behavior to continue.” I see the problem you describe above as a cultural one – the teachers are not emphasizing or rewarding appropriate methods of research. Secondarily, your husband will likely be desirable to any academic institution or workplace that rewards diligence and creative thinking (I don’t know him – but I am assuming from your characterization) while the other students will not have learned those skills. It has always been easier to copy than create. The technology in this case plays very little part in the equation.
    I get this same question when asked about social technologies, “won’t they proliferate – and then I will have 4,000 wikis at work? ” – The answer is likely yes – social tools solve certain problems – like communication flow, collaboration and slightly improved KM – but they don’t fix every problem in an organization – they even allow some problems to continue. It can still be messy. Don’t expect new technologies to fix all your old problems. If new tech can fix one or two – that is better than what you have now….

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