Chris Noessel > Masters Project: Free Range Learning Support> Free Range Learning Support
Introduction  |  Process  |  The Service  |  Experience Prototypes  |  Conclusion  |  Appendices

Free Range Learning Support

  Let's look at each part of this phrase, free-range learning support.

Why Learning?

Two principle reasons drive the need for learning infrastructures.

The push: Change is accelerating.

Everything in the Western world is speeding up, for better or worse. From the speed of computer processors to the time between events and their reporting, change is accelerating.¤ What are important job skills when we are in school can be quaint anachronisms by the time we join the working world. It is no longer enough to spend the first twenty years of our lives being "educated" and then leave learning behind to join the workforce. To stay relevant as individuals or cultures, we must adapt to change by learning throughout our lives.¤

The pull: Learning improves our quality of life.

The Buddha experienced total enlightenment.
The Buddha experienced total enlightenment.
Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi has made the study of innately motivated learning, which he terms flow, his life's work. He states that, at its best, learning transforms us into better humans. It makes us more complex, raises our self-esteem and personal empowerment, and, on a cultural level, fosters inclusion and even social regeneration. It is innately enjoyable both while we're in process and also when we remember these learning experiences.¤

With the need to stay relevant pushing us from behind and the promise of self-actualization pulling us forward, it is easy to understand why learning should be a concern, and ideally a goal, for every individual and the society to which he or she belongs. In fact, UNESCO came to this very conclusion in 1972 with its publication of Learning to Be, in which editor Edgar Faure argued for the member nations to prioritize learning as a cultural and humanitarian imperative.¤ The report popularized the term "Learning Society" and set into motion political initiatives on lifelong learning that continue, primarily in Western Europe, to this day.

What is Learning?

For purposes of this thesis, I began with a standard psychology textbook definition from Zimbardo and Gerrig's Psychology and Life.¤
    Learning is a process that results in relatively consistent change in behavior, or behavior potential, and is based on experience.
Tic-tac-toe playing chickens are an example of learning.
Tic-tac-toe playing chickens are an example of learning.
Two things are important to note in this definition. First, it does not specify that humans are necessarily the learners in question. This may be why it seems to exclude learning that occurs through conversation or reading, except as a subset of experience. Learning is observed in species much older than homo sapiens, and is not specifically dependent on any of our cultural constructs. This leads us to the second note, that learning is distinct from education. Education implies formal and often narrow systems dedicated to teaching and learning. These two points become important when we survey the history of mobile learning in a later section.

While the above definition helps identify learning’s effects, i.e., long-term change in behavior or ability, it leaves the activity itself quite vague: “a process.” Jean Piaget provides some further insight into the process. In his Genetic Epistemology theory, he identifies two distinct but complementary mental activities in dealing with new experience: assimilation and accommodation. In assimilation, new experience is simply stored in the learner’s existing mental model of the world. This might interchangeably be called memorization. An example of this would be learning new nouns for a foreign language after already knowing the grammar. For the most part, the learner is simply adding to the stack of nouns she already knows. Accommodation, on the other hand, occurs when a new experience won’t fit into the learner’s existing mental model. It might more accurately be called remapping, because it requires a reworking of things the learner thought he understood. Seymour Papert describes such a moment in a personal anecdote from his book, The Children’s Machine, in which he describes the moment he learned that, in a botanical sense, a daisy is not a flower.¤

A daisy, which is not a flower.
A daisy, which is not a flower.
    I can’t tell whether I was more shocked at this being so or my having lived so long without knowing it. A daisy not a flower? Come on! It's the prototypical flower-if you had asked me last year to draw a flower, I'm sure I would have produced something more like a daisy than like anything else. Though it seems silly now, and rather ignorant, I was really upset and excited. I ran from book to book in the small hours, trying to learn more. The news was bad: The putsch against standard nomenclature went beyond daisies to include sunflowers and black-eyed susans and chrysanthemums and dahlias. They were denigrated with names like “false flower” or elevated with fancy names like “inflorescence,” but it appeared that in many circles it is a definite gaffe to call them flowers.

This new understanding was a completely different experience for Papert than his other flower-learning activities of discriminating species and memorizing their names.

<em>Columbus Sailed to America</em>, by Kelli and Charlie
Columbus Sailed to America, by Kelli and Charlie
A common accommodating experience for US school children is having to learn that Columbus did not discover America as they had memorized years earlier. Such information, which at first seems contradictory, forces the learner not only to memorize the new data, but also to reconsider all events related to this event, and question the reasons why the information was incorrectly represented in the first place. Accommodation is an important aspect to learning, as it is more likely to affect perceptions and behavior. For example, when young learners discover that North America was already filled with long-established peoples and cultures before Columbus’ journey, their attitudes about Native Americans may change.

Zimbardo and Piaget’s views of learning are deeply rooted in psychological and cognitive traditions. These are not the only traditions that are concerned with learning. Anatomists dive deeper into the physical processes of learning and memory in neurological and neurophysiological theories. Behaviorist theories of the 1970s, led by B.F. Skinner, focus more on the behavior modification aspects of learning, and almost exclusively deal with animals. Constructivist theories focus on the internal processes of meaning-making, with a bent towards task-oriented, pedagogical conclusions.¤

While these theories all address important aspects of the complex nature of learning, they have not deeply influenced this project. Instead, a more recent development in learning theory has proven deeply influential: the situated learning theory, which developed from work at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center in the 1990s. Authors Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger put forth this theory, which builds upon Lev Vygotsky’s social learning theories that emphasize modeling and imitation by learners in groups.

Situated learning theory argues that most learning normally occurs incidentally, as a function of individual participation in communities that share a common practice. Using apprenticeship as a model, the theory explains how learners move from being newcomers on the periphery of the community through activity and engagement to become “old-timers.” The theory suggests that this type of learning is easier for us as social creatures. Notably for this thesis, this theory stresses the type of learning one would expect to encounter while being mobile and engaged in the world, though it may lead to more generalized types of knowledge as studied in schools.¤

The focus of this project is to design a support system rather than to attain a pedagogical purity, so I have not attempted to declare any one of these theories the correct or even the most correct one. Situated learning theory seems to share similar priorities and scope, so it has been the most influential. Nevertheless, it is with a synthesized understanding of these diverse perspectives that I move forward to specify what the subset free-range learning might be.

What is “free range” learning?

Hieronymous, the <em>Fresh</em> logo
Hieronymous, the Fresh logo
For those unfamiliar with the term, free-range refers to a type of farm practice in which animals are allowed to roam free on farmland rather than being kept in cages or in crowded pens. As a marketing term, it is meant to conjure images of happy lives lived on rolling pastures beneath sunny blue skies. It also carries a connotation of being a more natural and more humane experience. I coined the term free range learning to refer to these positive aspects of being engaged in the world, and enabling our learning wherever we happen to be. Academic circles refer to this type of learning as mobile learning or m-learning, and it is only with the recent increasing ubiquity of wireless networks and mobile devices that this approach has become feasible on a large scale.

It is my hypothesis that at the very moment we have questions about the world, we are more receptive to the answers and, thereby, in a better state to learn. This hypothesis has some grounding in the recognition of a particular physiological effect which psychologists call the orientation reaction or orienting reflex. Ivan Pavlov first observed it in his famous dogs, at the turn of the last century. Another Russian psychologist named Yevgeny Sokolov documented the same effect in humans more than half a century later, in 1963.¤

The orientation reaction occurs for a number of seconds in response to unfamiliar stimulus. Dogs tilt their heads and prick up their ears. Both dogs and people look toward the source of the stimulus and adopt a readiness stance. Meanwhile, many subtler changes take place in the subject’s body: muscle tonus increases, faster, lower-amplitude EEG readings, vasoconstriction in the limbs, vasodilation in the head, higher galvanic skin response, deeper, slower breaths, and a reduced heart rate. Sokolov showed that humans, additionally, display lower sensory thresholds during the orientation reaction. In short, the subject’s body prepares for both “fight’ and “flight” until the source of the stimulation can be resolved.¤

You may personally have experienced the effect after hearing an unexpected loud noise, such as a gunshot or a backfiring car. For a short duration afterward, your whole body feels a little loose and “buzzed.” The canine orientation reaction was captured for popular culture most famously in the RCA logo: Most everyone can recognize the physical expression as Nipper hears his master’s voice coming from the bizarre gramophone shape before him.

<em>His Master’s Voice</em>, by Francis Barraud
His Master’s Voice, by Francis Barraud
I believe that we experience a similar but less physiologically pronounced orientation reaction when we encounter some new information that doesn’t fit our understanding of the world. I am not qualified to formally test this hypothesis, but I have already offered some anecdotal evidence above. Papert explains being “shocked,” “upset,” and “excited” from his daisy discovery. These responses are clearly physiological. Most people can recall similar moments of excitement when they discovered something that didn't seem to fit into their worldview. This effect only lasts a number of seconds, but Sokolov’s research tells us that during periods like this, the mind is more receptive. If having an accurate mental model of the workings of the world is important, then we should not let this moment simply fade when we could instead act on it.

This free-range emphasis on knowledge-in-context also supports the situated learning perspective, as the learner is able to ask questions while engaged in real-world and social activities. Additionally, as we will see in a later section, the design of the system also enables anytime, anywhere contact with self-defined peer groups, extending and thereby supporting the learner's community of practice.

Why “Support”?

Learning is a complex, multilayered phenomenon. I am not yet sure anyone can lay claim to providing a systematized learning experience, as opposed to a systematized educational experience. But it is clearly possible to support learning, as I have tried to do. The title reflects this perspective.

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