Not long ago I read Hubert Dreyfus’ On the Internet, and found it pretty interesting. He makes the case that the cyberenthusiasts’ vision of people becoming disembodied minds when they go online is, to use a phrase popular with the kids, bogus.
Dreyfus’s deep point is that learning isn’t just something that involves our brains processing information, with our senses (e.g., sight, hearing) just serving as inputs. Rather, our bodies are deeply, profoundly involved in our understanding of the world, and are very much part of the process of formal learning. Further, a lot of what we learn happens informally, even unconciously; and once you get above mere rule-learning, you get into a realm in which knowledge is communicated culturally. You don’t so much learn stuff, as learn how to be wise about things (or at least expert in them). One important aspect is this is that much of that knowledge is tacit knowledge– knowledge that is not codified, nad perhaps can’t be, but nonetheless seems to be shared by members of a group (and indeed helps define that group).
Bottom line: distance education won’t work, because while it may be a more efficient / convenient way to pipe information to people, learning involves MUCH more than just information processing. There’s no escaping our bodies, and that’s not a bad thing. We learn a lot from them.
When I read On the Internet, I found it to be a pretty convincing argument overall. It was a bit defensive about old-fashioned classroom teaching (I found its discussion of the virtue of lectures to be especially prickly, but maybe that was just me). But Natural-Born Cyborgs makes a compelling argument that our bodies are far less fixed and stable entities than we normally realize. You can do simple experiments that play with our perceptions of how tall we are, how we see, etc.. If this is so– if Clark is right– where does that leave the argument of On the Internet? (Clark actually talks briefly about Dreyfus, but doesn’t say much about On the Internet.)
I think the answer is this: Yes, Dreyfus is quite right that there are things that we learn through embodiment that cannot be replicated through today’s computers: the best course at the University of Phoenix cannot be as good as the best face-to-face course. And yes, soaking up tacit knowledge is a key part of what happens in advanced forms of learning (like graduate training). You could add that there are forms of learning that only happen in groups, and cannot ever happen via asynchronous learning (think of studying music, and the centrality of rehearsals and group performances in the training of musicians as performers and professionals); to say nothing of the forms of knowledge that you pick up through physical practice (plumbing and medicine, to give two examples).
This is all true… for today’s computers. The experience of interacting with WIMP interface (windows, icons, mouse, and pull-down menu) is pretty impoverished, and not one that can support the sort of close mind-technology meld that he argues humans are so good at. We may agonize over computers, and spend a lot of time with them, but that doesn’t mean we’re developing deep, mind-changing relationships with them. So it’s no surprise that they can’t hold a candle to the classroom. (Computers can also be surprisingly intrusive and disruptive in a classroom: leaving aside their ability to allow students to tune out and play Freecell, the various distractions of computer use– people leaning over their machines, looking at screens rather than each other, the clatter of keys, the whirr of fans– all work to break the social fabric of a class.)
But will that be true in the future? I think Clark would argue that 1) our bodies are not the fixed entities that On the Internet assumes they are, and 2) the technologies that Natural Born Cyborgs talks about– the ones that move us closer to worlds of ubiquitous or tangible computing– will be much easier to use, will allow a closer integration of user and technology, and extend our sense of self in ways that desktops cannot. If indeed these technologies “really do expand and alter the shape of the psychological processes that make us who we are,” (NBC, p. 32), then I think Clark has a winning argument. But that’s a very high threshhold for any technology to cross.