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The web, ways of learning, interdisciplinarity and a history of knowledge

Our first round of applicants came to the Open Day of UCL Arts and Sciences BASc last week.  It was a very enjoyable day for us and great to meet so many interesting and interested students – but I will skip some the details of the day. This blog is about what I am learning about how students are learning, what that means for us at UCL BASc and how I see this as fitting in to some broad ideas in the history of knowledge.

For our Open Day, there was a lecture which students had to listen to and then answer questions on afterwards. We allowed students to access the internet to answer the questions and we allowed them to record the lecture and play the lecture back if they wanted, provided this did not disturb any other students. We allowed students to write with a pen or pencil or to type into their laptops. About 25% of the students wrote straight into their laptops. about 10% recorded the lecture. One student appeared to have (though I cannot say this for certain) some software which allowed them to type a word into the keyboard which would then jump the audio file to exactly the place in the lecture where the word occurred. Several students worked with three panels open on the screen: their lecture notes; a page from the internet; and the page they were writing. One student managed to use the internet to do the maths problems. One person wrote with a pencil.

I see these all as legitimate ways of sourcing, recording and demonstrating knowledge. If we want to facilitate knowledge acquisition and allow students to demonstrate knowledge in the way which is most effective for them, then we must look for ways to allow all these approaches.

This has interesting implications with respect to what we regard as plagiarism and it stretches our teaching of mathematics and sciences.

With respect to plagiarism, my first thought is that just about at the time when we have integrated plagiarism detection via Turnitin and other services into academic life, we are looking at a whole new set of challenges that make this approach look a bit antiquated. There is a good deal of creativity coming from mashups, and mashups means putting together existing things in ways which give something new. For mashups, think web apps but also music compositions, visualisations of data and even Steven Johnson’s wonderful example of the incubator for an African village made from old car parts. Now what happens if we get intellectual mashups? Aren’t we onto something new? Isn’t that what we would like to encourage? Isn’t this, in fact, one of the goals of an interdisciplinary education: to get people to put ideas together from different fields to create something new?

This needs more thought. There are clearly differences between putting two existing pieces of software together to get something new, and putting the works of two authors together. But the idea of ‘copying’ needs to be looked at carefully when we all copy, all the time, by checking our phones to get the knowledge and then passing it on as fact to our friends and colleagues. Do we want to be training students to look something up, and then to rewrite it in their own words, as if somehow this skill in ‘avoiding plagiarism’ has a deep value? Critical thinking, yes. Deeper critiques and problematizing of stuff on the web, yes also – but redrafting content in order to avoid charges of plagiarism appears, to me at least, to be reaching the end of some kind of shelf life.

With respect to maths problems, too, we are entering new territory. A great deal of calculus and other maths you need to do physics, chemistry and engineering can be done by computers. The important thing is to be able to recognise which maths is needed to do which problems, not to actually do the maths itself. The belief has been that you will only understand which maths you need to ‘model the flow’, ‘calculate the reaction rate’, ‘predict the orbit’ – whatever it is – by actually doing the right kind of maths. Many, perhaps most, maths and science educators believe that to really get a feel for the problem and the techniques required to solve it, you have to live through the maths, the practice and the techniques, applying this type of knowledge in similar or related problems. This approach may still be, overall, the best. But this could be changing. We need to keep an eye out and to see if there are innovative ways to ask students to solve mathematical problems even if they do not possess the analytical mathematical skills of a previous generation.

Now this interdisciplinarity thing. What strikes me increasingly about our new course is how some students really, really get the interdisciplinary aspect. They get it better than some of the older generation do. And I am coming to think that this is because of the way they are learning. Specifically, because of the way they are following links on the web while they learn.

Somewhere Berners-Lee mentions that one reason for his original design of the web is that it is close in abstract form to the structure of the brain: it is a ‘network of networks’. And part of the genius of the web is that it allows us to follow our thoughts in a virtual space, enhancing them and enriching them as we link from page to page, from related content to related content. This is what gets us going through our twitter links, Wikipedia, RSS feeds etc. But what I am now seeing is that the network of the web is working back on the minds of some of my students. Because they can read so widely and, yes, so deeply, they can start to make their own links. They can follow through from psychoanalysis to art history to politics, they can start with economics and quickly be in psychology or environmentalism, they can enter via AI and be led to a discussion of emotions and neurochemicals. In effect, they are making their own interdisciplinary connections all the time.

This is exciting. Of course there is a risk of shallowness and of course guidance is required in many cases, but this is interdisciplinarity happening organically because people are following their own intuitive links and making connections in knowledge that may not have been made before.

So let me say a little about the history of knowledge.

One view is that fields of knowledge have generally split off into specialisms as they have become better understood and then better delineated. Indeed philosophers such as Anthony Kenny have described how a great deal begins with philosophy before becoming, say, science or economics. Then, of course, within science there have been many splits – from natural philosophy into physics, chemistry and biology, and so on. This can be seen as a splitting and refinement of the body of knowledge, a finer and finer grain born of better and better analysis. This is no bad thing at all. Indeed, it can be regarded as the purpose of proper study: to identify a problem where none was noticed and to work to solve that problem, thereby setting up entire areas of research which did not exist before. This kind of ‘splitting’ reaches its apogee for me in the work of Cantor who was able to show that even the notion of infinity could be understood more subtly than had been previously believed. There are at least two types of infinity: the countable and the  uncountable. And this analysis led to much brilliant and fruitful work in maths and philosophy.

But this constant division of knowledge is also a problem. Indeed, within universities it is probably thought of now as more of a pain than a blessing. It is what has led to the ‘silo’ culture and the reluctance (perhaps even inability) for, say, one historian to comment on an area of history 10 years outside his ‘area of expertise’, or the situation in which one physicist is unable to understand the equations of her colleague who works on similar problems ‘but at different energies’.

No-one quite knows what to do about this. On the one hand specialism is kind of inevitable as more and more people get access to knowledge. This is a good thing, the result of democratisation and higher living and education standards for more people. It is also vital to have good specialists to push forward in research, to have new thoughts and imagine new questions – questions that require deep specialist knowledge simply in order to be asked. But too much specialism is also the result of a kind of ‘industrialisation’ of academia, driven by REFs, RAEs, societal ‘impact’ etc. Many academics are now no more that white-collar production line workers, turning out the next ‘paper’ to be read by 4 or 5 people. There is something deeply sad and wrong about this. This is useless specialism. There is a feeling among academics themselves that much is being lost in this fragmentation of knowledge. We would like to find a way to bring parts of it back together.

Maybe our students and the new way they are learning can give us hope here. They have historically unprecedented access to information and a historically unprecedented opportunity to learn. They are making new and meaningful combinations that correspond to their personal interests and which yet have universal applicability. So long as we support them in the right way, they may put back together some of our fractured body of knowledge in ways which span different disciplines and link together different academics and their expertise in new and relevant ways.

The fact that the way we think is moulded by the way we classify and record knowledge is not new. As Peter Burke points out, in his magisterial A Social History of Knowledge, the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ made famous by Francis Bacon and Descartes, knew many versions before settling into some kind of final picture around 1900. ‘The reclassification of books,’ he writes, ‘…[had] consequences, and it could be argued that our mental image of the tree of knowledge…owes more to the organization of libraries than to anything else’ (p 54).

If this is true, then the world wide web, the ‘infinite library’, is once more uprooting this tree, replanting it and obliging it to grow again in as yet uncompleted ways.

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