Understanding versus Knowledge…the new role of ICT and eLearning
Michael Fenton, Ministry of Education
2008 eLearning Fellow
The beginning of the 20th Century dawned with
Early TC* Man technologically primitive. The airwaves were all but
silent, heavier than air flight was not yet possible, Einstein had not
yet developed his theories of Relativity…the Universe ran
according to the 17th Century notions of Newton's Classical Mechanics.
People lived without electricity, cars, antibiotic medicines and other
Contrast this with late TC Man in the late
1990's: His body bombarded by electromagnetic waves, waves that race to
the stars at the speed of light, unnatural waves that carry
information; one consequence of one of the millions of technological
innovations from the preceding 90 years. Our objective measurements of
Time and Space are actually subjective estimates of reality with more
than one solution. This was a transformed planet and peoples with
access to the sum of Man's history and knowledge; all that is needed is
a connection to the World Wide Web.
Governments began using the term "knowledge
economy" to indicate that technology itself was no longer an advantage
to a nation, since (nearly) all had access to the knowledge to
construct whatever technology was desired. It was the ability to create
and export "expert" knowledge, that in turn could enable a nation to be
seen as economically innovation and a world leader, which was seen by
many politicians to be the "mission statement" for a well educated
The dawn of the 21st Century coincided with
evidence of global climate change, high oil prices, and international
terrorism. Technological advances have been proposed as answers to
these problems. That is, each can be minimized or mitigated against
once a yet-to-be-developed technology becomes available.
One lesson that seems to have been missed
from the previous 100 years is that technological knowledge is not the
same as wisdom. Wisdom implies Understanding; understanding of the
consequences of our collective actions as a race of beings that
co-exist in a global physical system.
Having training and experience as both a
qualitative social scientist and a quantitative physical scientist, an
interesting perspective is possible.
On the one hand the Newtonian Positivist in
me believes the world exists independent of the model in my mind, the
model I have tried to teach to my Science students. That is, knowledge
is right or wrong, true or false, and the laws of gravity work for
everyone, even if they have no idea what gravity is or that it exists.
Knowledge can be transferred from my head to the empty heads of my
In contrast, the Constructivist and
neuropsychologist in me recognizes that I experience the world through
my senses and often my brain will filter or alter reality to suit past
prejudices and experiences. The model universe in my head in many
respects is reliable and useful…and is flexible to add
"knowledge" that it has (re)created from learning experiences during my
lifetime. Most of my learning has not been at school. I learn from
doing things, authentic real life problem solving. Try to be a good
parent. Be a good husband, teacher, citizen.
So on one hand we have "quantitative"
science; the way the outside world REALLY is…the clock ticks at
the same speed for everyone and everything…2 + 2 always equals
4… But on the other hand "qualitative" social science
investigates the way people build up a model world inside their mind,
depending on how they experience life and learn from it…time
flies when you are having fun, some find maths easy, some find it
hard…so the teacher uses different approaches to deliver
knowledge that the student must construct in their own way.
It appears that the social scientists are
willing to come half-way toward objective reality by using quantitative
methods to bring some objectivity to their reports. They can carry out
a mathematical analysis of how students describe their feelings about
maths and quantifiy the range of techniques used to solve maths
Why then is there a stubborn refusal by the
physical scientists to use qualitative methods when describing or
evaluating their research? A research paper would be more interesting
if the authors could comment about their subjective personal opinions
with regards to the importance of their findings…other writers
could contribute to the paper raising issues for debate as to the
consequences resulting from how technological innovations could be used.
If the 20th Century was the age of a Global
Technological Revolution where Knowledge is prized, shouldn't the 21st
Century be the age of Global Understanding where Wisdom is the key to
surviving the next one hundred years?
I would argue that Knowledge is not in
short supply. ICT and eLearning have been underestimated in their
importance for the 21st Century; seen as nothing more than knowledge
tools for delivery, assessment or manipulation. ICT and eLearning
technology enables rapid finding and filtering of digitally stored
knowledge. Why not develop tools/techniques or learning experiences
that collect and analyse wisdom in its many forms and guises. Social
networking, Blogs, and portfolios can demonstrate how a person's wisdom
develops with experience and time. ICT and eLearning should focus less
on isolated bits of knowledge and more on attaching wisdom to it as
well…perhaps from case studies such as from past mistakes of
Businesses and government institutes would
benefit from managers with knowledge and the wisdom to apply it
appropriately. No more robotic "following policy", the seemingly
persistent abdicating of responsibility, but instead the realization
sometimes rules can be bent or broken if the intention behind them is
understood. A global approach to "living for the future" rather than
the selfish egocentric "living in the now" would start in the
classrooms of today.
New Zealand's education system,
with a slight modification of the assessment standards could lead the
world for the post-knowledge era:
There would be no Scholarship exam as this is of
questionable validity and reliability anyway. Scholarships would be
awarded to students demonstrating wisdom.