I read a good bit of the New York Times and Tampa Bay Times last Sunday. It was a luxurious and sensuous use of time as I shared the couch with a greyhound; placing read newsprint to my right and picking up the next unread section from the pile on my left, sipping coffee as I pondered. Sugarman—the greyhound, who can read human body movement and meal preparations in the kitchen—two rooms away—was content with an occasional, quick ear massage.
Two articles riveted my attention. Because they relate to learning online, I would like to reprise a few points here.
An article titled “Building Attention Span” by Op-Ed NYT columnist David Brooks delved into the impact of the internet on our ability to concentrate. He quoted research on our brains being “re-sculpted by all those hours a day spent online.” Brooks likened being online to “the greatest cocktail party ever … going on all the time.”
As I read, I realized that it is easy to connect with people and ideas through email and social media. We never have to commit ourselves to in-depth interactions or sustained thinking. Whenever challenged or bored, a few clicks will take us to more inch-deep mental crossings to skip through. Indeed, Brooks explains that “The ease of movement on the Web encourages you to skim ahead and get the gist. …This fast, frictionless world rewards the quick perception, the instant evaluation, and the clever performance.”
Brooks’s description reminded me of infotention, a digital literacy that when not managed properly, can devastate our productivity. “Infotention” was coined by Howard Rheingold in his book Net Smart. Lisa has summarized this digital literacy as training our attention to make the best use of our time and online resources. It combines attentional discipline and information-handling tools for turning information overload into knowledge navigation.
Rheingold urges online workers/learners to recognize that no one can keep up with all the web has to offer. He recommends that we must recognize “that you have to say no, know what you are saying no to, and know why you are doing so.” Rheingold offers steps to greater mindfulness including rewiring your brain by repeating new behaviors until “paying attention has become habitual.”
Back to Brooks … he contrasts the (learning lite or browsing?) online experience with offline learning that he likens to a book club. While our time “online encourages us to develop fluid intelligence which is a set of skills that exist in the moment,” when we are offline, we “are not in constant contact with the universe. There are periods of solitary reading and thinking and then more intentional gatherings to talk and compare.” He observes that “When people in this slower world gather to try to understand connections and context, they gravitate toward … questions … about meaning.” They draw on their “crystallized intelligence … the ability to use experience, knowledge and the products of lifelong education that have been stored in long-term memory.” They “explore narrative, and place people, ideas and events in wider contexts.”
Denham Grey, an online knowledge consultant whom I met in an online workshop more than a dozen years ago, also endorses the value of people gathering intentionally with “The road to knowledge is via people, conversations, connections and relationships.”
We agree with Brooks and Grey on the value of people learning in purposeful conversation. We believe it can be done online as well as offline. It is a monthly routine for ECO—Encore Connect Online—the learning community of encore seekers that we host at WLS. After ECO members have researched and located web-based resources on seeking encores, they come together to “explore narrative” in online discussion with full audio and video. It is their time to spelunk on relevant issues without fear. The text chat is always open, too, for more dialogue. Participants can document the evolution of ideas, get questions answered on the fly, insert more content, and invite consideration of new topics during the exchange of views.
The second Opinion article from the Sunday NYT that intrigued me was “D.I.Y. Education Before YouTube” by Jon Grinspan. “A curator and fellow at the National Museum of American History,” Grinspan reported that in the late 1800s, a majority of America’s working class youth “supplemented formal schooling with their own makeshift curriculums.” They made learning a “self-driven, year-round process,” by attending lectures, visiting libraries, reading voraciously, and participating in literary societies where “young men and women gathered at night to debate, mingle, and flirt.”
As laws were reformed to discourage child labor and require public school attendance after 1900, a curious side effect occurred. The modern school system—which offered education to all regardless of class or income level—also reduced self-driven, independent learning efforts. According to Grinspan, it removed the “uncertainty” that “often inspired young people to set off on their own.” Grinspan then posed the question that I wanted to see asked, and answered it as follows.
So how do we reintroduce some of that lost verve today? The short, not particularly helpful answer is that we don’t; Independent learning must be arrived at independently. The best we can do is offer young [and middle aged and older] people the tools, the time and the knowledge that education can take place outside of the system. … Technology certainly helps.”
And that is our passion at WLS: showing adult learners how to shape their desired future with the help of D.I.Y. learning methods and tools to achieve what they want to do in life and work.
Please tell us how you are doing with your D.I.Y. learning online. For instance, have you written your goals to clarify what you wish to do? Do you have regular routines to focus your attention online, reflect, make sense of what you are doing, and then share back out to trusted peers, and with an even wider group of potential allies? Here is Jane Hart’s Seek-Sense-Share implementation of PKM (Personal Knowledge Management). What’s yours?
Featured photo of hourglass courtesy of Nile at Pixabay