Monday, July 23, 2007

Gulliver Encounters the Learning Machine of Balnibarbi

Having been permitted to visit The Grand Academy of Lagado,

“We crossed a walk to the other part of the academy, where … the Projectors in speculative learning resided. The first Professor … said, perhaps I might wonder to see him employed in a project for improving speculative knowledge by practical and mechanical operations.” Here Gulliver describes a device large enough to fill a room, built something like a spinning cube, each side a twenty-foot square frame laced full with tiny placards of woods able to rotate and spin when the apparatus was set in motion. Can you see it? Each placard had a different and randomly selected word. The “practical and mechanical operation” of learning was to spin the entire device and then collect and transcribe the knowledge that would randomly appear across the several lines of text. “The Professor shewed me several volumes in large folio already collected,” Gulliver goes on to say, “which he intended to piece together; and out of those rich materials to give the world a compleat body of all arts and sciences…” (175).

As I read this passage from Gulliver’s Travels, I thought of student “research” I’d seen done by “googling” the first terms coming to mind and transcribing the returned information as a collection arranged to fill the assigned number of pages. “Works cited” were typically appended as numbered lists of URLs – no thought at all given to title, author, or date of publication.

I don’t want to say I was baffled by the practice; a number of plausible explanations account for the various reasons why students “shortcut” intellectual work – athletics, social activities, competing coursework, or family activities. Swift’s Professor argued his case for a learning machine in way many of my students would have appreciated: “Every one knows how laborious the usual method is of attaining to arts and sciences; whereas by [this] contrivance, the most ignorant person at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, may write books in philosophy, poetry, politicks, law, mathematicks and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study” (173). The key selling point here would be the little bit of labor required to learn. In their academic work, my students regularly reduced Google search to a version of the Professor’s machine – random returns, copy/paste, and print.

Students I worked with throughout the past year seemed to understand learning in encyclopedic terms: information to be collected, arranged, and filed “A” to “Z” – assembly line learning where, under teacher guidance, textbook knowledge transferred from one “storage” site to another. When the truck (or compact car, as the case may be) was full, class was over. They seemed to realize a responsibility for “picking up” information, but they would distance themselves from any expectation that they use information in a productive practice of critical thinking. For most, the test of learning was only a demonstration of whether or not the “pick up” had been made, and computer resources easily became the “practical and mechanical” means for reducing demonstration to a copy/paste and transcription exercise.

Reducing a workload or finding the most efficient means for completing a project is good by me – no problem there, but I wonder if the students I worked with during the past year were wrestling another kind of problem: connecting the traditional expectations of school and “the basics” they were being asked to learn with the reality of their daily lives. And I wonder if answers to questions like “Why do we need to learn this?” and “When am I ever going to use this?” aren’t becoming as hard for teachers to answer as for students. New technologies certainly facilitate the practice of old models in a first phase of application; Google search, for example, serves information acquisition for writing a paper, but when an explosion of new possibilities for thinking and learning – the very innovation we are all hoping to celebrate – disrupts old patterns, the traditional “paper” assignment must evolve. Of course, this outcome complicates a continued use of old patterns and traditional expectations, and notions “school” necessarily outgrow the nostalgic reminiscences of parents looking back to “when I was there.” …always a tough letting go, but in the end, if the paradigm for structured learning fails to maintain relevance to the fast, digital, and mobile realities of students, then inside the halls of learning, “machines” will facilitate no more than mechanical exercises, and we’ll join Gulliver in putting on a happy face to celebrate the production of nothing.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver's Travels (Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism). Ed. Christopher Fox. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1994.

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