(ASTD) Media are not interchangeable, a learner using the Web has a completely different experience from one in a classroom. As we use more electronic media for learning, it's essential that we understand the unique nature of each expressive medium we encounter. Here's a new theory for educational systems that's based on four primordial learning spaces: campfires (information), watering holes (conversation), caves (concept), and life (context).
Good stories embody a blend of the cognitive and affective domains. Therefore, it's no surprise that for thousands of years, storytelling was a mechanism for teaching. While it was not the only mechanism, it was (and is) an important one. Through storytelling, the wisdom of elders was passed to the next generation. In addition, storytelling typically took place in sacred places, around the fire. The focal point of the flame, the sounds of the night, all provide backdrop to the storyteller who shares wisdom with students who, in turn, become storytellers to the next generation. And so, from an archetypal perspective, the campfire represents an important aspect of the learning community. It does not stand alone, however.
Just as campfires resonate deeply across space and time, watering holes have an equal status in the pantheon of learning places. Virtually every hominid on the planet has, at one time in its historical existence, needed to gather at a central source for water. During these trips to the watering hole, people shared information with their neighbors, near and far. The watering hole became a place where we learned from our peers and where we shared the news of the day. This informal setting for learning provided a different kind of learning community from that of the shaman or troubadour who regaled us from the podium of the campfire. The learning at the watering hole was less formal. It was peer teaching, a sharing of the rumors, news, gossip, dreams, and discoveries that drive us forward. Each participant at the watering hole is both learner and teacher at the same time.
The learning community of the campfire brought us in contact with experts, and that of the watering hole brought us in contact with peers. There is one other primordial learning environment of great importance: the cave, where we came in contact with ourselves. Through legends and artifacts we know that learners have needed, on occasion, to isolate themselves from others in order to gain special insights. Indeed, we all have times in learning any subject when we need to internalize that knowledge. For Newton, it may have been under an apple tree. For us, this internalization may take place during a walk in the woods, but is just as likely to take place during a quiet moment (or day, or week) in relative seclusion in a library (another sacred place), office, bedroom, kitchen, or den.
First, and make no mistake here, all three sacred learning spaces will have analogs in cyberspace. If they don't, then cyberspace will cease to exist as a domain of interaction among humans. Those using the new media will create their own analogs for these learning places, even if they are not designed into the system. In this regard, cyberspace is like any other frontier: full of possibility, covered with brambles and weeds, but rich with fertile soil for development.
At first blush, it appears that the world of multimedia computing most closely resembles the domain of the campfire (at least as currently practiced). If it is the case that the glow of the campfire has been replaced by that of the computer monitor, we must ask if the stories being told around the modern fire are as compelling as those told around the old one. At this time, it's generous to say that the field is still sorting itself out.
And while new media can be used to tell stories in this fashion, the power of interactivity lets us move beyond the linear presentation of material. To be sure, it can be argued that virtually all multimedia products on the market today do provide some measure of interactivity. Unfortunately, the interactivity in many products is so limited that flexibility for users is nonexistent.
But when the user can craft a personal pathway through the content, even if the material is already in place, this freedom of true interactivity supports the creation of unique ways to resolve the conflict established at the start of the story. Interactivity of this type is rewarding at many levels. It facilitates creativity and the development of thinking skills by the participant in the journey through story space.
All of this is possible with the multimedia tools available. The major limitation comes from the mindsets of those who craft products and who are concerned with keeping development costs to a minimum and with getting products out the door in a hurry. The craft of multimedia design is not a linear mix of writing, image creation, sound composition, and selective placement of button clicks to advance to the next page. It is, instead, the storyteller's craft, a new medium of expression whose ideas cannot be captured or presented in any other medium.
If interactive multimedia represents at least one facet of campfires in cyberspace, then telecommunications represents a vast global watering hole. Anyone with a personal computer and modem can connect to a wide array of commercial and noncommercial services that provide access to email, real-time chats with other users, as well as other services.
This sort of peer-to-peer dialogue resembles the traditional watering hole activity with several special differences. First, rather than limiting discourse to people in a fixed geographic area, this watering hole is planetary in scope. Second, the current limitations of telecomputing restrict most interactions to text-based messages. This provides some measure of anonymity to the users of the system. This blessing is, unfortunately, also telecomputing's curse. When we have a peer-to-peer chat on any subject we wish, this interaction lacks the richness of face-to-face meetings.
Many of the same online services that provide electronic watering holes also provide vast resources of information that can be searched, extracted, added to, and commented on by anyone with the interest to pursue it. Through the Internet, for example, anyone can log onto NASA computers to download the latest images from space, can access Library of Congress archives, university libraries, government agencies, and even some private corporations.
This information-providing aspect of these services sets the stage for electronic caves, places where pursuers of knowledge can gather information in their quest for understanding or discovery. Working in isolation, threads of an idea can be pursued through the movement of fingers over a keyboard, rather than by running up and down library aisles extracting references from printed documents. Once the raw information is gathered and downloaded to the user's computer, he or she can then work in privacy to examine, interconnect, and otherwise draw meaning from the results of the search.
One of the greatest merits of the electronic cave is that information of interest can be found with automated searching methods that free the user to concentrate on the underlying quest without being encumbered with the magnitude or dynamics of the searching process. This capability stands in stark contrast to information published in paper form. For example, short of reading an entire document to isolate a particular piece of information, most of us depend on the document's index to narrow our search.
Telecosmic dreams, and nightmares
The power of such technology can be harnessed to provide modern analogs to our primordial tools of learning. Left to our own devices, many productive users of technology have gravitated to their own best mix of these applications. The challenge that faces us comes from institutionalized attempts to see technology as a replacement for one aspect of these modes of learning without thinking about the need for balance.
In the world of slow telecommunications, the multimedia campfire was far removed from the telecommunity's watering hole. Now that perceived bandwidth is increasing by leaps and bounds, and the price of high-speed access to the Net is dropping, these two worlds are starting to merge. With high-bandwidth connectivity, a mix of images, animations, sounds, text, and so forth will be ubiquitous. As a result, campfire, watering hole and cave come together in a new synthesis, the modern day alchemist's retort, from which we can distill the essence of learning environments that truly meet the needs of all learners whenever and wherever they are.
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