Hyper-Learning or Hype

In the second essay in his book, On the Internet, Hubert Dreyfus focuses on the following question: How far is distance learning from education? Answering this specific question leads, by extension, to answering a more general question: Can we learn anything on the internet? The reason I draw that conclusion is that much of "distance learning" is going to be powered by the internet.

Dreyfus' answer to this question is: it all depends!

First, he notes that learning has many stages:

  • The novice can understand tasks decomposed to their context-free features. The teacher says: Here's a tennis racket. Here's the handle. Here's the head. You hit the ball with the head, not the handle.
  • The advanced beginner learns some of the more subtle features through examination of examples and exercises. The teacher says: Look at how this champion or that champion of the game plays it. Try this move or that other move.
  • The competent goes beyond the beginner. The beginner is missing what is important in any given situation and finds it tedious and nerve racking to perform, wondering how any one could master the skills. A competent individual is more involved and discerns what is important in any given situation. The tennis player knows when to come to the net and when to keep his distance.
  • The proficient has reached a stage where intuitive reactions have replaced reasoned (or calculative) responses. Situational responses become more important than the performer's theory of the skill. The tennis player comes to the net and keeps his distance without any concern for the theory of tennis.
  • The expert not only sees what needs to be achieved but "thanks to his vast repertoire of situational discriminations, he also sees immediately how to achieve his goal." The expert can make more subtle and refined discriminations than the proficient.
  • The next stage is practical wisdom which has to do with exercising ones skills within a cultural context. Practicing the art of team work and programming in China, India and U.S. have subtle differences. Only through practical wisdom can one operate within each culture.

So what's the upshot?

Well, Dreyfus says that even if telepresence works really well, it is still quite hard to have a committed master-student relationship and the involvement which is necessary for gaining expertise and practical wisdom. Hyper-learning becomes mere hype. Dreyfus says that at best competence can be gained through distance learning but even that depends on how much presence can be had through telepresence . . . It turns out, the answer is "not much."

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