The joys of not clicking links

In his inspiring article on “The Joys of Shallow Thinking…“, G. Siemens notes the insecurity of education about how deep or shallow learning should be.

“So much of education intends to provide ‘deep learning’. Often, however, ‘shallow learning is desired’ (i.e. we want to know of a concept, but we don’t have time or interest to explore it deeply). All we need at this stage is simply the understanding (awareness?) that it exists. Often, learning is simply about opening a door…”

Can we try to stuff ever more details into the heads of our students to cope with the ever increasing volume of information? Or should we teach them how to stay within a shallow layer of a superficial knowledge stratosphere that deservedly has the negative connotations of executives misjudging the reality from their aloof altitude?

I do think that deep learning of a topic is necessary, but not in its own right but as a sample or representative for the similar topics that, later on, can be touched more shallowly. It is, however, terribly difficult for a domain expert to acknowledge that his/her subject may be not the most important thing in the world for the learners, and still help them to gain exemplary mastery. Often, this conflict affects the attitude towards details as opposed to overview orientation.

With hypertexts and aggregators, we have now better methods to deal with

  • details (deep, vertical knowledge)
  • and horizontal type, alternate methods to gain awareness, sense of orientation, and overview of connections and relationships across broad disciplines:

We have links that we can follow or not. Not following a link does not mean being ignorant about it (see my #23 on “The Benefit of Not Yet Followed links”), provided that you have some idea about what might be hidden behind, based on previous thorough knowledge of similar or comparable topics. The hyperlink then serves as a representative or stand-in for the content hidden behind it, and we may choose to leave it hidden like a collapsed “+” sign in a expand/collapse user interface such as a folder explorer, or like a zoomable map that we choose not to zoom in.

Similarly, if we look at an abstract of a blog entry in our RSS aggregator and choose not to click the full text, this is different from missing the item entirely. And “opening a door…” (see quotation above) without entering the room behind the door, is different from leaving the door closed. The trusted bloggers serve as representatives of or proxies for ourselves in the remote knowledge domain, much like travel writers who mediate us the awareness about what exists out there, without requiring us to follow them through each jungle.

With such a vast network of “correspondents” in the various “countries” of knowledge, it is indeed a fascinating experience how much information we can scan and skim today. Much like the brain itself collects stimuli from a vast reticulated neural network of dendrites, we may collect alerts from feeds of an abundant variety of locations and domains. And like the brain processes these stimuli on multiple aggregation levels that fire only on activation of complex detailed patterns, our aggregators help us to maintain aggregated level informedness.

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