Book Week Day 7 – On The Internet

How do we learn, really? And what kinds of skilfulness it possible to acquire by learning online? What do we lose in a world in which there is increasing pressure for learning to go quickly, to be bite-sized, and to be done without a teacher (by streaming video, online lectures, online self-study)? These are the most urgent questions posed in this slim volume by Hubert Dreyfus, Professor of Philosophy at UC Berkeley.

Using many examples, Dreyfus shows convincingly why the acquisition and mastery of complex human skills always involves significant time in the bodily presence of others who have already achieved some level of mastery themselves. Distance learning can’t easily replace this not only because so much in the moment feedback is missing, but also because by leaving out bodily participation we rarely experience the emotional and bodily sensation of being fully engaged. Learning to do something well, argues Dreyfus, requires exactly this. We have to risk, to fully feel our successes and our failures, and most of all to jump in even when we don’t know at all yet what we’re doing.

All of these, Dreyfus says, are denied us when our primary form of interaction is at a distance, is disembodied, and is mostly anonymous. Just compare the experience of asking a question that matters to you when you’re in the same room as the teacher and other students, with the safety and relative hiddenness of a question by email. It’s in the felt experience of risk and its consequence, of being in the mess alongside others, and of caring deeply about what happens that much learning of value takes place. It may not be needed for learning facts alone, but if you want to learn do something well it’s vital, and hardly available to us online.

On the Internet also takes up bigger questions about how technology shapes us as we use it. Alongside Dreyfus’ account of what it takes to master anything, including a clearly described series of stages through which all learners must pass, the book includes chapters on the changes in human knowledge brought about through search technology, and a sharp critique of the net’s capacity – by disembodying us – to rob us of our own ability to discern what really matters. For this reason it is a wonderful read for anyone who cares about learning and change – in individuals, in systems and organisations, and in wider society.

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