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Community Contributor

Is Google a barrier in a learner's journey?

The search-based interface of the modern web has one key problem: how do you search for something you don't know exists?

Learning is getting exposed to the yet unknown, and we have to pause and reflect, is a search-based interface a boon or bane for learners?

Types of Knowledge pursuits.

To understand my slightly new, and perhaps a bit contrarian, critique on Google (and all 'search interfaces') we have to understand the modern day learner's journey and the types of knowledge pursuits.

There are two-type of knowledge pursuits: horizontal and vertical. Visualize your knowledge on every topic like a bar in a bar-chart and the ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical’ knowledge analogy will make sense.

Vertical knowledge: Vertical knowledge is incremental knowledge. For example, you’re a doctor and you want to look up a new disease: that’s vertical knowledge.

As a doctor, you probably know the right sources, how to filter information from misinformation: you know the right search query to put in and you know how to swift and filter through to the information that appears to get your desired (or expected) result.

Vertical knowledge, by its nature, gets incrementally easier to build. The scattered nature of the current Internet is great for that: since traversing information requires jumping from place (page) to place (page), and as a person with the prerequisite knowledge on the topic you can easily do the stone-jumping required to get to the other side of the proverbial knowledge pond.

Vertical knowledge, by its nature, is easier to build. Hence, is more 'research' oriented than 'learning' oriented. .

Horizontal knowledge: Horizontal knowledge is non-incremental knowledge. Horizontal learning is when you are trying to learn about a subject you have NO background knowledge in. Essentially, horizontal knowledge is building knowledge on a subject matter FROM SCRATCH.

In horizontal knowledge pursuits, all of the prerequisite knowledge required jumping’ from stone to stone isn’t there, so most just end up falling or stay at the same stone or worse don’t even start.

Ever looked up information on a disease your loved one has, and you have no medical science background? Ever tried learning an instrument or music starting from Google searches? Or looking up a financial reporting standard your accountant mentioned? Those are all examples of horizontal learning. And we encounter them a lot more often than we think we do.

For example, in the case of learning an instrument, even before you can learn you first chord (not to mention at that point you don’t even know chords exist lol), many questions arise: ‘what type of guitar should I buy?’ (blues players would suggest stratocasters, metal players would suggest, some pages would suggest to check the wood quality etc) , ‘what is a C chord?’ (Wikipedia lists the notes, but like, wth are notes?) and it' a whirpool of results but where to 'go next' is always a challenge. 

To relay my own journey of learning to code without a formal CS background was stunted at best. I knew I wanted to learn programming but many questions arose before I could even start: 'What language should I choose? Python, Ruby, PHP, C, Java or Swift?' (some people said C is best, some said Python, some said Ruby...all opinions but no answers), 'What even is the difference among language? (I barely understood the intro paragraph of the Wikipedia page)', And even though I got results, and most of them were opinions, it took me a few months just to understand how to pick a language AND IT HURT.

My point is, horizontal learning is a very uphill battle which only a small fraction survive.
MOOCs definitely do solve the problem of making acquisition of horizontal knowledge easier but we have to pause and wonder if the hill to gaining horizontal knowledge can be made easier to climb?

Because, in effect, vertical knowledge is just research and horizontal knowledge is actual learning.

Why should educators care?

The design of the modern web should concern educators due to the following reasons:

  • Regardless of how good you teach, Google is a learner’s best friend: how do we make a learner’s best friend EVEN better?
  • Google is more available, and easier to communicate with than a human. Google doesn’t have a face, and does not judge. That's why we all feel comfortable looking up information, we wouldn't dare share with our closest friends. Hence, how do we use that as an advantage to enable more skill growth among aspiring learners?
  • Learning doesn’t end in the classroom, and creating life-long learners is the pen ultimate dream of every educator. Given that, horizontal knowledge is SO hard to acquire will we create more life-long learners if this barrier is slightly lowered?
  • 50% of people change careers during this life time, and students are more likely what interests them earlier on if horizontal knowledge is easier to access.
  • Being able to understand other people's job is a key part of building empathy and teams. Hence, making horizontal knowledge easier to access will contribute to building better professionals.
  • Traditional educational systems build vertical knowledge. However, human progress has largely been driven by cross-pollination of sciences (MRI, photocopy machines, even Bitcoin). How much will the sciences cross-pollinate, when given all this abundant information, our most prized research tool is good for research, and not learning?

Democratization of information is a core tenant of the Internet, I just wanted to know how many educators agree that we should also make the information not only accessible but also UNDERSTANDABLE? 

In a world of too much information, news, and misinformation I think access to more horizontal knowledge will truly help the learners of tomorrow make the world a better place.


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