Educational Technology & Society 2(2) 1999
ISSN 1436-4522

Do it now, learn it later

John E. Buckley
Futures Education/Training Analyst
Office of the U.S. Army Training & Doctrine Command
Ft. Monroe, VA 23662 USA

The scene has been played throughout the centuries. A group of monks tediously copy manuscripts preserving the knowledge of their age to be passed hand to hand into the future. Several centuries and a continent away, a professor taps on a keyboard. His home page contributes to the vast knowledge array called the Internet. Although, separated in both time and space the two individuals demonstrate manís compulsion to generate, preserve, and disseminate knowledge for future generations. Todayís rapid technological advances provide mind-boggling capabilities which will cause dramatic changes in both society and pedagogical circles in how we storage, access and distribute knowledge or information.

Sir Francis Bacon once said, "Knowledge itself is power." If that is even partially true, then the 1900s are an age of "power" with the sum total of manís knowledge dramatically increasing. This knowledge has manifested itself in a variety of products from hydrogen bombs to artificial hearts. Certainly, we have all witnessed this phenomenal growth with the microcomputer metamorphous from the "large" 20-megabyte hard drive of the 80ís to the gigabyte capabilities of the 90ís. And, it does not stop there. Futuristic technologies such as ion beam micromilling promise a quantum leap in the early 21st century with storage densities approaching 400 terabytes per inch. Many times the information stored in the Library of Congress on a "postage stamp."

These storage technologies make the PC and Internet possible. From a pure knowledge perspective, (Or, not so pure depending on whom you ask) the Internet is a huge information reservoir. One estimate suggests that at a minute per page it would take a hundred years to look at the whole web. (Probably an underestimation considering the growth factor) As illustrated by the examples, digital storage is providing fingertip access to information, which not long ago would have taken a city of libraries to house and an army of librarians to maintain.

The question to the educational community is what do we do with this capability? To be useful, information must be put in motion. That is, it cannot remain in either a book or on a hard drive. People have got to be able to access and use information. One way we put this information into motion is by learning. We take information out of books, off CD-ROMS or off the Internet and internalize or learn it for later use. The learning process develops an internal capability, a reservoir of linked information, which we use to perform various functions, synthesize into new information or to solve problems.

Within some pedagogical circles, we have long treated learning as the end state. Students are successful if they pass some sort of end of course comprehensive exam or demonstrate a competency. They are then "certified" with a passing grade and eventually a diploma or degree. Much of our current energy is devoted to using technology to enhance the effectiveness or efficiency of this learning process. Our instructional design and development software restructures and reformats information into pedagogical packages for ease of learning. Once this learning occurs then the individual exhibits a "change in behavior", he or she knows something or can do something.

At a very simplistic level this application of technology is illustrated in figure 1. In this model, learning occurs during formal schooling "enhanced" by a variety of technologies. Proficiency occurs once an individual leaves the schoolhouse and enters the work environment to apply what was learned to perform various activities.

The model depicted in figure 2 suggests that technology may be used more effectively to by pass learning. It may be used like a pair of glasses is used to enhance vision as an adjunct to the human brainÖa performance support system. If technologies are not used to "train the brain" but as an add-on to achieve a given performance then learning, as we define it today, may become secondary. This suggests that the information required to perform a given function must be performance packaged to directly support the function rather then packaged for effective/efficient learning. Internalizing of the information/procedures, learning, occurs as a result of sequential performances. However, for infrequently performed activities, this internalization may never occur.

As an example, many of you have never seen a radar system chassis. Yet, by using a wearable computer and two-way audio/video contact with an expert, you can replace the magnetron in radar. In this case, the performance happens, the radar is repaired. You may or may not have learned the procedure. Learning would occur over a period of time if the performance were repeated. Eventually, the learner is weaned from the technology for this specific task. As another example, a major department chain has a help network for "do it yourselfers". Technology, in this case, a phone coupled with a repair manual, allows an expert to talk a home repairer through a complex repair process. The homeowner becomes the eyes, ears, and hands of the expert but never learns the procedure. This is not to suggest that technology is dumbing down society but is certainly changing what needs and does not need to be internalized. This phenomenon will increase as our artificial intelligence technologies mature and augment or become the expert.

As our storage and distribution devices become more compact and our search engines more elaborate and faster, the "just in time performance" may become more common place. Certainly, Computers and "cell phones" the size of hearing aids are technologically feasible if not affordable. And, without sounding too melodramatic for the first time in the history of mankind, the capability exists to reach any person, any place in the world, with any information, at any time.

The question is how do we use this capability to enhance our productivity and performance in a given field. The philosophical challenge to the educational community to define what information must be internalized and or what can be packaged as an external assist to perform a given function. This is especially critical in a human resource constrained environment, which precludes having the full time expertise of all disciplines on staff.