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 "modern" conveniences.

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 society.


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 students.

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 problems.

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 others.

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:
  • Achieved level NCEA exams can test knowledge
  • Merit level NCEA is about applying knowledge to new situations
  • Excellence level NCEA tests a student's wisdom.

There would be no Scholarship exam as this is of questionable validity and reliability anyway. Scholarships would be awarded to students demonstrating wisdom.

An awareness of the need for knowledge tempered by wisdom would generate a new breed of scientists, technologists, entrepreneurs and bureaucrats. This new breed is essential to the survival of a present day society that seems to have marveled at its cleverness but forgotten that our collective actions have consequences in the real physical world. The first steps appear to have been taken; there is already talk about "sustainability" in government circles but this appears to be out of desperation rather than an interest to evolve a less selfish culture of consumers.

We live on an island called Earth that is floating in the sea called Space. Man cannot afford to make this island uninhabitable. There are no Space Ships to take us to other island planets.

Why keep trying to come up with more technology to deal with the effects of the misuse of earlier technology? …didn't someone say we should work smarter not harder?

If nothing else, history has demonstrated time and again that wisdom rather than knowledge is the key to survival and happiness.

*TC = Twentieth Century


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