Courseware Unlimited: Knowledge Managers and the Internet

In terms of attitudes to Internet use, we see all sorts today. Some still use paper and pen, only occasionally looking up information online, while others do everything online. Just the same way, some read print newspapers, others read their news online, and so on.
But in a short few years, the Internet has changed from a collection of scattered nuggets of information. Today, much material online is organised; it is theoretically possible to get any and all information online. For example, it’s possible to learn computer networking and repair, free of cost and within a plausible time-frame, online and without external guidance.
It’s easy for some, but not straightforward for others. What are the “prerequisites” to use the Net as a large, free library? Does only “mere information” exist on the free Internet, or can people make sense of it in a useful way? In short, what is the state of the Internet as a learning resource?
For knowledge managers interested in the Tomorrow, the question might be: Will “online literacy” become as important as Computer Literacy is today? Ten years ago, we used to ask prospective employees for basic computer skills. Today, we assume that people know how to use common software. Five years from now, can we assume that people will be able to easily navigate the Net, find what they need to know, and share their knowledge with the team?
To answer our question – about the Internet as the ultimate learning resource – we need to look at how people use it today, as compared to a few years ago.
 
It’s All Online
Simple online searches can convince anyone about the Internet as the ultimate learning resource.
“Computer networking tutorial”: 350,000 results on Google. The very first result seems promising: “Perfect place for computer network tutorials and free resources for students and system admins.” Then there are video tutorials, books, step-by-step explanations… all of them free.
“How to play the violin”: More than 10 million results. Videos, books, articles… all of them free.
“Yoga for beginners”: half a million results, including “yogaforbeginners.com”.
Looking at the results, you can see that the people creating this information/knowledge are putting serious effort into making it easy to learn. They’re structuring the material. They’re encouraging others to learn. This is quite different from just five years ago, when online video was not widespread, free e-books were scarce, and structured material was mostly from paid sources.
The fact is also that most people still go to yoga instructors to learn yoga, take classes to learn computer networking, and engage personal instructors for music lessons! With that discrepancy in mind, let’s look at how some people do use the Net for concrete knowledge gain.
 
Online Places
 
Discussion forums, or forums in general, are treasure-troves of information and masses of confusion at the same time. For the discerning, motivated individual, though, forums are the straightforward places for self-education.
Looking up a topic on a forum, one gets a broad perspective on things; posts on forums most often contain links for further information. Users share knowledge and insights with little or no motive for monetary gain. The “gain” is usually in the form of reputation on the forum, which indicates how knowledgeable and helpful a user has been. Posters with high reputations make sense of information and effectively distil knowledge for others.
People looking for information naturally follow those with a higher reputation, which in turn increases the latter’s reputation. This is a self-propagating cycle which ends up in the truly knowledgeable individuals being “acknowledged” as teachers. In various other ways, forums “encourage” the best information; for example, people perceive posts with a higher view count as being more informative, and are more likely to read these.
The only skills demanded of the information seeker are the ability to get a feel for the topic, and the judgment to avoid misleading links or topics. These translate to “online literacy.”
At YouTube, Google’s popular video-sharing site, you can find instructional videos about most things that can be described visually. These range from everyday activities like ironing a shirt to major endeavours like playing musical instruments. In fact, there are thousands of videos that show how to iron a shirt, including some from clothes manufacturers! How-to videos are just one (obvious) facet of the learning that’s possible on YouTube. The range is limitless, spanning documentaries in areas like history and geography, to inspirational videos on management and leadership.
Wikipedia deserves special mention. It’s not just about the sheer volume of information available at the world’s free encyclopedia, where individuals author content free of charge, and where any individual can edit pages. It’s that writers and moderators spend a lot of resources trying to ensure that information is as accurate as possible. For example, many articles are referenced, meaning that the original information source can be looked up. Some articles are partially referenced, with the unreferenced sections being clearly indicated.
All articles are extensively hyperlinked. It’s common for a long article to have a hundred links (to other Wikipedia pages), which can be used to explore sub-topics. In terms of learning, the reader chooses his learning path.
Wikipedia is a good example of how knowledge on the Internet matures over time. In 2005 or so, people took to Wikipedia in a big way. As a consequence, for searches on most broad topics, the relevant Wikipedia article would show up first. This meant that the site was used by even larger numbers of people. It then became important that the information be verifiable to some extent; this led to articles being more extensively referenced. And that made Wikipedia more credible, again meaning more users.
Yahoo! Answers (and other “answers” sites) can be controversial in the context of learning. One asks a question, any question at all, and gets answers from individuals who claim to have an idea about the topic. The answers offer very little by way of authority, but they offer a lot in terms of human experience (which few websites can claim), and in terms of immediate value. For example, if you want to know how to grow hibiscus flowers in your garden given that there’s limited sunlight, you might go through tens of sites and still not get an answer; on “answers” sites, your question might be answered by someone who tried and did the same thing, and the answer might come up within a few minutes.
So the Internet as a learning resource is accessible, in plenty, and free. So what’s the catch? There are two, and they’re easy to see:
>> People need to have online literacy.
>> As learners, people need to be able to orient and motivate themselves.
 
Being Comfortable Online
In the context of being able to learn online, as opposed to finding entertainment, let’s look at what online literacy means. It’s essentially about being familiar with the Internet’s informal knowledge structure.
Most people are very familiar with the social Internet. Those who use Facebook, for example, are familiar with the hundreds of possible actions on the site, without having formally learnt any of them. Those who frequent video game forums know whose posts to look at and whose to ignore, and so on. But in terms of the informal knowledge structure of the Internet, many people can lose themselves online. Here are some of the aspects:
>> “Which page should I read?”
In terms of authority and credibility, some sites rank low, some rank high. Many people choose pages that seem to contain what they’re looking for; they should pay attention instead to the site itself. “Knowing what to click” is usually a matter of practice.
>> “I don’t have the time to read all this.”
The classic word for navigating the Internet – “surfing” – is pertinent here. Traditionally, people read material – a magazine article, or a book chapter – in its entirety. That doesn’t work on the Internet. One needs to choose what to read before reading. This, again, is a matter of habit.
>> “I spent two hours looking this up but I didn’t find anything.”
With the amount of information accelerating, the ability to create good search queries (using keywords) is becoming more important, despite the fact that search engines are getting more sophisticated. Searching for “which is the best cheap printer to buy” will lead to too many product pages and conflicting claims. The online-literate would use the full phrase “is the best printer in terms of cost and performance”.
>> “My browser keeps crashing.”
It’s sad that we still have this problem, a decade and a half into the commercial Internet: the problem of software not acting as it should. For those not able to deal with software problems on their own, computer problems – infrequent as they might be – can be a significant problem. Browser plugins, software crashes, slow computers, viruses. It’s a good idea in any office for everyone to spend a few hours learning about the most common computer problems and annoyances, and how to avoid them.
 
Self-Directed Learning
The second consideration in self-learning on the Internet is about motivation, and the ability to give oneself direction.
Self-directed learning as a formal concept has been around since the time of Malcolm Knowles, whose name everyone in e-learning circles is familiar with. Knowles, a leading  personality worldwide in adult education, wrote extensively about informal learning as well as self-direction.
As a unit of activity, self-learning on the Internet would also involve tracking one’s own progress and performing self-assessment. Drawing up one’s own schedule, and deciding upon the learning method (video, text, degree of interaction…), are other aspects of the challenge. All taken together, a good degree of self-direction and motivation are necessary.
Knowles said that self-directed learning is a process “in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.”
Knowles also offered reasons for why this process is desirable. One comes from looking at human nature: self-directed learning, rather than learning that involves an active or supervisor, is more aligned with the natural psychological development of a person. A second reason, more immediate reason is that those who learn on their own “enter into learning more purposefully and with greater motivation. They also tend to retain and make use of what they learn better and longer than do the reactive learners.”
The Internet has, after some evolution, made learning virtually free for the self-motivated learner. Online literacy is, as mentioned, a prerequisite of sorts. The interest in all this from the viewpoint of organisational learning is obvious.
Leveraging online learning is primarily a matter of organisational culture. Foster an environment that gets people online and makes them learn hands on about the technology. Equally important, identify and highlight individuals’ efforts in unsupervised discovery. An atmosphere that encourages informal knowledge-sharing will go a long way.
 
 
How easy—or hard—is it for people to use the Net for self-education? Do tell us what you think! Comment below, or e-mail the author: ram@focalworks.in.