Monday, March 05, 2007

Learning not to say Learning to Learn

With the power of hindsight, its easy to look at the library's online catalogue and lament the fact that the original OPACs were designed to mimic the paper-based card catalogue, rather than to imagine itself anew to take full advantage of the online medium's inherent benefits.

What's not so easy is to look at the array of online databases that libraries subscribe to and ask ourselves, are we just trying to mimic paper-based indexes, rather than to imagine the scriptorium anew to take full advantage of the online medium's inherent benefits?

That question came to mind after I had a conversation over coffee with a colleague of mine. We are both librarians at an academic library and when we are at the reference desk, most of our advice is given to students who are there only because they have been instructed by their professor to use "X" number of peer reviewed articles in their soon-to-be-due research paper. He and I share the same misgivings over the disconnect between 'find x recent peer reviewed articles' and the act of learning (we, of course, are not the only ones).

Keeping up with the most recent scholarly literature is a daily task for experts in their field but it isn't the way that one that one becomes an expert. At least not easily. If I wanted to learn about [insert something here... bone structure, castle construction, criminality], a very bad way to go about it would be to read 'x' number of recent peer reviewed articles on the topic.

So how would someone create an genuine online tool for learning? Would it resemble Wikipedia? A collection of textbooks? Or it would be simply a collection of annotated reading lists?

Now, it is commonly understood that learning is a constuctive process and a social process as well. The student pieces together bland writing in the textbook looking for emphasis and key themes brought out by the lecturer and then applies the concepts through writing and testing. The natural habitat of learning is in conversation and debate, in writing and argument, and in serious contemplation of ideas fueled by observation and by text. So now I am asking myself this: is there some form of social software that will emerge as a natural online tool for learning and will make us look at our array of online library databases and lament?

Or will the natural location for learning be where it always has been: right between the ears.

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