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The challenge of coherence

I’ve been thinking about coherence formation in the learning process for many years (it was a key topic of my phd). Traditionally, coherence of knowledge is formed by the educator through her selection of readings and lectures. The assumption underpinning learning design is something like “decide what’s important and then decide how to best teach it or foster learning activities around it”. When students take a formal course, success is measured by how well they internalize (whatever that means) and repeat back to us what we told them. Most grading and evaluation happens at the intersection where comparisons are made between what the student can demonstrate in relation to what has been taught.

As students advance through their studies, they are asked to begin contributing new knowledge. There aren’t any clear lines around when students should start contributing instead of consuming, but masters level learning is a common demarcation point. I’m drawn more to the work of Bereiter and Scardamalia and their emphasis of knowledge building at all levels of learning, including primary/secondary levels.

I’ve found it difficult to articulate coherence provided by educators in contrast with coherence formed by learners and the growing role of the internet in fragmenting previous models of coherence. Most courses that I teach now do not rely exclusively on one or two texts. Instead, a bricolage of readings, videos, and other mutlimedia resources form course content. This fragmentation, however, generates a lack of coherence. Learning is the process of creating coherence – of seeing how pieces (ideas, concepts) are connected. I found the best description of this process in a recent article about Hola (while most articles about Hola emphasize “a way to get blocked content”, a simple definition is difficult. Hola does a variety of things: peer to peer content sharing, sharing idle computing capacity, VPN, a way to circumvent blocked content, etc). I’ll take it a step beyond and say that this is the most prescient statement regarding the future of learning that I have read in years:

Our processing power has increased so much faster than our networking speed that it’s easier to piece together stuff from all these nodes than to get a coherent piece of media from far away on the network