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Posted by on Aug 5, 2011

Learning as balance between actual and potential; oscillating operational and the long tail

This is, not surprisingly, a half thought out post (ie, the norm for this space). I find as a person invested in learning and the use of technology to augment that learning that I am often quick to look at technology or a particular application through this prism. Namely, does technology afford the opportunity for greater learning? Does it expand what is possible? Does it make learning more accessible? That sort of thing. Not what it is, but rather what it can do.

I should specify. Not what it is, or what it has been used to do. What it can be used to do. I am talking in terms of potential here, rather than actual learning. I think many of us talk in these terms when we discuss learning technology. And it isn’t for a lack of imagination that we are unable or unwilling to produce evidence of this expansive learning, actual learning constructions of advanced scope and impact. Real novel constructions of knowledge. Less dealing with the potential and more the actual. This is a common phenomena, this focusing merely on the potential. Technology has always done this.
Imagine the introduction of the automobile. There have been experiments with machine powered automobiles for quite some time, dating back to the 17th century, but it was the patent for the Benz (see above picture) that stimulated the mass introduction and adoption of the automobile. Immediately, the technology oscillated the conversation from the actual (I just drove 5 miles in 30 minutes) to the potential (imagine if I could drive 500 miles!). It took a small proof of concept (5 miles) to establish the conversation for the larger potential. However, it took some time for the automobile to operationalize itself in the consciousness of people. For it to become a formalized expectation of society. In short, it took awhile (and was heavily dependent on the introduction of a supporting infrastructure, ie roads) for best practices and evidence of its ability to augment human existence to appear. Learning technology is like that. However, one might argue that it is perpetually like that and rarely operationalizes itself.
Imagine space exploration. A constant state of potential gazing. Certainly good for the imagination, certainly good for science, certainly good for expansive thinking. But perpetually embedded in the potential and less in the actual (what is the long tail of space exploration? Space tourism?). How much of space exploration was driven by political factors? Would it have existed except in disparate experimentation without The Cold War. A perfect storm of activity, so to speak, for seemingly unrelated scientific pursuits. The image is from the Apollo Image Archive.
Now imagine social media as a learning, organizing agent. The ability to craft networks of trust and authority. The ability to collaborate on scales greater than before. The ability to craft knowledge collectively, to tinker and refine, to even present that knowledge in novel formats. All the potential. We are starting to see instances of actual knowledge construction. Some best practices emerging. The educational conversation is focused (some of it is, anyways) on girding learning theory to practical application and the “big idea” talk. This is good, certainly. To see what works, what doesn’t, that sort of thing. This discussion, however, is a hint that we have yet to enter this operational stage with mobile/learning/social technology and perhaps we never will. Perhaps with the pace of technological change and development (I hate using technology there as many of these advances are social and not inherently technological in nature) being so rapid, perhaps with each successive wave of what is possible coming in lifecycles of months and not years, perhaps the average learner and the learning community in general won’t have a choice anymore. We must be firmly glued to potential and actual simultaneously.
Now is the age of balance, of equilibrium. We won’t be able to experiment with the new car for a lifespan or two before it operationalizes itself and we work out all the bugs. We are doing this on the fly and this requires balance. A mediation between doing (actual-in my estimation this should still be the lion’s share of personal and community activity) and posturing about the potential (stargazing). The real shift here is the balance. Both demand and deserve attention. One cannot be neglected for the sake of the other. The long tail is in the application and this cannot be reflected only in macro formats (community). It must be reflected in us individually, as confident, probing, experimenting individual learners.
As an aside, I do not think that mobile technology, at least the wearable kind, needs to be outlandish in context to pass as novel. I think it would look very very similar to how clothing looks now, but it would merely push out the potential of what is possible in the everyday. Once again, potential and not yet actual but exciting nonetheless. A good example of that is the Sixth Sense wearable technology.
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