The Complexities of Teaching in the Information Age


What is knowledge and how is it changing?

In school I perceived knowledge as a growing but finite volume. Standards had been set for each subject and a list of skills was assigned to be honed to at least a minimum competency. Literacy, history, math, science and art branched into more specialized subsets as I progressed upward through grade levels. As a college graduate one could expect to have a solid foundation of all the basics and some specialty skills funneling toward a career. That was in the 1990's. The vastness of information now available makes retention of "the basics" truly impossible. Moving forward, people can only be expected to learn to properly source information from the infinite library and combine it correctly for the objective at hand.

In the International Bureau of Education's quarterly journal Prospects from June 2001, Jose Joaquin Brunner summarizes three educational revolutions - the origin of schools, the development of public education systems and the shift to mass education - and then he introduces the fourth, which is hitting its stride as we speak. Since about 1960 we've been wandering into the Information Age which has so far generated imbalances in knowledge as we struggle to reach global interconnectivity. In other words, wealthy countries had access first and the others are catching up. But now that we are reaching global connectivity the bevy of information propagates at a staggering pace for all of humanity.

"It is estimated that the global stock of knowledge currently doubles every five years. It took almost 275 years for Harvard to collect its first 1 million books and only five years to acquire its latest million...Over the last two decades alone, between 1960 and 1980, more history has been published than was written in the entire period that preceded it, from the fourth century BC onwards." (Brunner, 2001) That. Is. Incredible.

I've been hearing some iteration of the phrase "we're entering the information age" since early elementary school. Our school bought two Macintosh computers in 1987 and closely protected them in a special room in the library. I have a vivid memory of one of the fourth graders (that was basically an adult from my first grade eyes) looking at a digital close-up of a centipede using the Encyclopedia Britannica software that our parent-teacher group had approved for purchase. It took about two minutes to load and each time he scrolled to the next segment of the bug there was a lot of calculating and flashing and glitching. There was this buzz about computers and how they were going to change the world. We've all been saying this for years, but as I've lived through the perpetual changes I rarely stopped to analyze the sweeping effects.

These are just a few examples from only the perspective of me:

Social effects

  • My friends constantly fighting to keep their kids off the iPad
  • My wife and I taking turns accusing each other of spending too much time staring at the phone instead of talking about our day
  • The millisecond it takes to source some random information about a song I heard fifteen years ago, instead of trying to dig it out of my brain for greater satisfaction and reward
  • A camera in every person's hand ready to record everything, whether socially poignant or completely mundane
  • When I walk at night, particularly in the cold months, I tend to have the streets to myself and notice every house is dark with a very bright box engulfing the occupants in flickering light

Operational effects

  • As a pilot I work together WITH the technology to fly the airplane, resulting in a severely improved safety standard
  • When driving my car I rely on the digital display for navigation, vehicle health monitoring, entertainment and comfort - it tells me when to go to the shop, how many more miles I can drive, the temperature specifically in the back seat and whether I have enough air in my tires
  • My mom, once a student of cooking, drops her ingredients into the SmartPot and presses "Lasagna" and the device prepares a perfect meal

 Financial effects

  • The only reason I carry cash is to tip the uber-friendly drive thru helper at Starbuck's - even street parking is managed via smart phone app; no need for dimes
  • I've automated all my monthly payments to draw from the correct accounts on exact dates - I can literally ignore accounts management so long as I sustain employment
  • My smart thermostat learned to manage heat and air flow more efficiently and saved me an average of $21.73 per month last year

You all know a million different ways to answer "how have computers in the information age changed the way we live?" Examples are everywhere. Reading the quote that we double our knowledge every five years, though, suggests an exponential delta compared to my personal curve. Everyone sees more technology in the classroom, and that's changing the way students interact with information. What I had not considered is how it's changing the way children learn - it's evolving the concept of learning from retention of knowledge to the ability to source it for situational use. Today I'm considering how computers have and will continue to change the way we teach and learn; how future generations will be different than mine and those before me because of their understanding of and interaction with knowledge.



Behaviorism, Cognitivism and Constructivism

I was reading Edward Snowden's book Permanent Record recently in which he explains his technological evolution growing up with early computers in the late twentieth century. He described a feverish addiction to keeping up with the knowledge accumulating online and how he had anxiety about staying right on the leading edge. That was circa 1990 and thirty years later I just don't think we can keep up anymore. So if the goal is no longer to learn as much as possible but to gather and apply information (learn how to learn in partnership with technology) we should consider established learning theories.

Behaviorism, considered the oldest learning theory, centers on the idea that all behaviors are learned through interaction with the environment. When I was six the microwave went "ding" and in an effort to help my mom I got up on my toes and pulled down a bubbling jar of honey, which drizzled down my arm and melted off two layers of skin. I still help my mom but continue to be very cautious with hot items. As it applies to teachers, behaviorism suggests that teachers can control the classroom environment and the knowledge dispensed within it to affect their students' behavior.

Cognitivism is based on understanding how the brain organizes and retains information and tailoring curriculum to those concepts. Teachers are more effective when analyzing their students' individual processes of perception, understanding, application and correlation to change behavior. I'm a tactile learner - biologically I understand things better through motor and sensory interaction, but I'm absolutely terrible at memorizing a check list. When learning idiosyncrasies are understood knowledge can be presented in more compelling ways to maximize comprehension.

Constructivism acknowledges the uniqueness of individual learners as a result of their formative social experiences. The theory suggests that students arrive with internalized structures for retention and organization of knowledge, and that adaptation of curriculum to their particular design offers optimum learning value. It employs the teacher as a facilitator in support of student-centered learning. The student drives their own learning.

In their review of inclusive education practices authors from the Asian Institute of Research find that "it is evident that each theory brings a specific focus on strategies for supporting students with special educational needs, but we would argue that by adopting only one of these theories it is not possible to provide an effective and inclusive education for the diverse range of students in general education classes." (Al-Shammari, Faulkner & Forlin, 1993)

Combining all three of these learning theories offers best results, but they will require further adaptation to meet the needs of learners in the Information Age.



"Connectivists claim that the background or the general climate has recently changed: a new generation of researchers, connectivists propose a new way of conceiving knowledge. According to them, knowledge is a network and learning is a process of exploring this network...According to Connectivism, it does not make sense to consider learning merely as an internal construction of knowledge. Rather, what learners can reach in the external network should be considered as learning. Moreover, the knowledge itself has a structure; it is not something fuzzy or mysterious. It is complex and chaotic, of course, but it has a structure. Connectivism uses what has been discovered so far in network analysis to interpret knowledge and assumes knowledge as a network." (AlDadhouh, Osorio & Caires, 2015)

On the first read-through this concept was a bit far out for me. But after reviewing the four ages of education and the first three learning theories Connectivism made more sense to me as a logical evolution in learning. The human brain was never capable of knowing all the information offered in traditional schooling, but at this point it's impossible to retain the basics without the assistance of a larger network. This is simply proven in asking "could I survive in society today without a computer?" and the answer is predominantly "no." I could live outside of society without modern technology, but inside society I would be quickly left behind. The ability to source knowledge from technology is required.

Literacy, basic math and connectivity are the only tools required to tap into the giant network of knowledge that's doubling every five years. The only variables are the speed and conceptualization for using that network. These are the proficiencies that will be pivotal for generations to come. The remaining lessons instruct on social skills - leadership, teamwork, creativity, confidence, communication.



The Modern Learner

I'm not daring to think that teaching chemistry is no longer relevant, or that calculus should be discontinued in high school. I'm saying that partnering with technology to advance the progress of knowledge is more important than achieving antiquated standards of intelligence. It's not vital for every student to be proficient at algebra because they can simply tap into a network of knowledge to learn what is needed for a specific problem set. Teaching algebra is useful as an exercise for mental strength but no longer as a life skill for everyone, unless of course that student decides to specialize in mathematics.

Technology-assisted constructivism promotes magnified individual advancement of knowledge and skill. Student-centered learning enables individuals to harness their strengths and augment them with network knowledge to reach new levels of discovery much quicker. The fourth educational revolution will probably shift our learning goals from a standardized volume of knowledge to a partnership between the growing knowledge network and a limber and individualized learning capacity.



I have no motive in writing this. I started reading about constructivism and then spent four days giddily following a research trail and found myself at the end wildly optimistic about the future. If we are indeed sixty years into the Information Age we're probably just getting our legs under us about how to manage it and how to succeed. It has changed life in so many ways and in any big transition the initial adjusment phase is confusing and difficult.

I finally realized that the volume of knowledge is so gigantic and available that committing it to memory is no longer the objective in school. The evolving objective is learning to connect nodes in the network to advance human acumen. My cohort Jill Rockwell points out that embracing this concept is easier said than done with the pressure of state standards on education, and that knowledge gaps due to economic disparities influence districts and schools the same as countries. It looks like everyone will catch up in time, and that today's youth will have a much better grasp on living successfully with technology, tapping into that knowledge network and balancing that with community and the human spirit. We hope.


Works cited

Brunner, J. J. (2001). Globalization, education and the technological revolution. Prospects, 31(2), 131-148. doi:10.1007/bf03220056

Al-Shammari, Z., Faulkner, P. E., & Forlin, C. (2019). Theories-based Inclusive Education Practices. Education Quarterly Reviews, 2(2). doi:10.31014/aior.1993.02.02.73

AlDahdouh, Alaa and Osorio, Antonio and Caires, Susana, Understanding Knowledge Network, Learning and Connectivism (2015). International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, Vol.12, No.10, Available at SSRN:

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Ike Martinson
Ike is addicted to life in the Pacific Northwest. He enjoys the mountains, the lakes, the food, the people and all the seasons. He is an amateur chef, a commercial pilot and a terrible painter.

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