Changing communication and learning

The internet has changed how people learn. I’ve been realizing that lately as I read about marketing, branding, and how to make people want your product.

One article stated flat-out, “You cannot run a successful weblog and not have your comment box open. Don’t even have the comments moderated. People want to feel they can reach you and reply to your words without delay.”

Way back in the dark ages, when I was a wee slip of a girl and dinosaurs roamed the land, people listened to and consulted experts. We read their books. We attended their lectures. We watched their PBS specials. We followed their instructions.

So Carl Sagan didn’t answer your fan mail? You never thought twice about it. In fact, if Carl Sagan limited his astronomy lectures to twelve hand-picked students and had no office hours, you still didn’t think twice about it (although you snickered every time you drove past the privacy fences surrounding his home.)  That’s just the way things were. Experts lived atop the mountains, and they sent down their instruction from on high.

Wow, have things changed. I cannot say anything without someone arguing with me. I can’t quote an expert without someone arguing with the expert. I can quote an article, and someone quotes a different article. If I go to a Personality’s website and dislike what I read, I can post an argument against it in his com box. I can return later on and find he’s replied to me, and I can fire back at him again.

There’s  no passive absorption going on any longer. It’s a much more active style of learning, provided people are willing to let go of their own opinions long enough to let the enlightened debate do its job and whittle away the untruths in order to reach Truth.

The generation before my mother was given books on parenting, which they read and implemented. They went to their doctors, who said, “Feed this baby with a bottle, and have him sleeping through the night by six weeks.” And they did it.

My generation is given books on parenting, and we throw them away, find books we agree with more, and join online communities of like-minded parents. We go to our doctors, who say, “Feed this baby at the breast five times a day for twenty minutes each time,” and we reply, “That’s not what Dr. Sears said. In fact, studies show that unlimited nursing for the first six weeks is far superior for the newborn. And don’t even talk to me about making the baby cry-it-out.”

It’s both good and bad. It’s good that we now feel empowered to challenge the authority figures we find wrong.

It’s bad because I’m not sure anyone remembers any longer how to learn. Because primarily, we don’t learn by arguing. We learn by listening.

Feel free to argue with me in the com box.


  1. Capt Cardor

    I have always felt that when two sides argue, they are both on “broadcast” and neither are on “receive”. The learning part comes in when the audience actually pays attention to what is being said on both sides; then they make their decisions. In some ways the internet facilitates this process better than the old, “sit in a lecture hall with 30 to 100 others and receive the truth’.

  2. Ivy

    I will disagree with your expert on the unmoderated comments. I’m sure you’ve seen the spam flying fast and loose in the rejected column.

    We learn by engaging a topic. I could lecture for a million hours on how to knit a garter stitch scarf and no one would understand. Or, I could take out needles and yarn, show it, and ideally have them try it themselves. Then the person will learn.

    I could listen for years on the ins and outs of Windows Vista, or gather some knowledge, work with the OS, and then gather more.

    We have never learned by merely listening. That’s why the acclaimed Pimsleur language learning program is mostly question and answer and why we were asked to write essays and papers in school. It is in trying to use the information that we force ourselves to internalize and make sense of it. For many people, that means debate.

    Read “The Black Hole War” and watch how debate informs us on cosmology. This wasn’t Dr. Hawking handing down information and Dr. Susskind nodding and receiving his teachings. This was two informed minds hashing it out and making sense of all the factors. Read the Talmud to see the Jewish sages doing the same thing. Read the debates between Roger Penrose and Marvin Minsky on the promise and limitations of artificial intelligence. The Emperor’s New Mind is a brilliant work by Penrose on the subject. It is in engaging it, in forming questions, and in raising arguments, that we truly absorb any subject.

  3. kherbert

    I tell my students if they aren’t asking questions they are not learning. I also tell them if they aren’t making mistakes, they aren’t learning. I think a healthy debate generates more ideas because you have to listen to the other opinions. An argument or flame war is about silencing the other side.

    I think the expert was right about not monitoring comments. This is different than filtering for spam. I suspect the expert was referring to the sites that say “Thank you for submitting your response. It will be posted (after we read and approve it) or something to that effect.”

    To me filtering is like me telling a student “how long to recess?” or “what is for lunch?” is not an appropriate question during reading class. Monitoring is shutting down anyone that doesn’t agree with you. Like the university prof that kept saying the Mumms in a story were a sign of hope because they are worn at homecoming. Even after I pointed out the story was British, written in the 1800’s and that there and then Mumms were “funeral flowers” not signs of hope.

  4. Cricket

    I agree with Jane that we need to remember how to listen.

    All too often, I walk away from a discussion, not confident that the other person heard and understood my point, and realize I don’t really know what their point was, let alone how they backed it up. We’re so into expressing and defending our own opinions, or listening more for what we can comment than for what the other is actually saying, that we miss the opportunity to learn.

    Husband and I have a rule: Listen! You can make your own point later. (We usually find we shared the same final opinion, but reached it in different ways.)

    I change my opinion more often by watching others discuss something, and maybe asking questions, than by pushing my point. Often, I get half-way through writing a response, and by the time I’ve looked to see which of my points have already been made, and thought about which other points need to be accepted or (I don’t like the word attacked, but can’t think of a milder one), I realize I’ve changed my opinion, and haven’t much to actually add.

  5. redfear

    Learning, and listening, have definitely changed! Information overload or information user friendly… it’s our choice and I’m happy that we have it!

  6. Similar Situation

    A few days ago, my boss sat down with his new boss to talk. His boss said he wanted to understand what we do and, as a business analyst in the past, he was a great listener.

    Well, my boss came out of that meeting knowing everything there was to know about his new boss never having a chance to get a word in edgewise. He ended up emailing a small blurb about what we do and a project list to his new boss.

    Which goes to show that learning and collaborating is only as good as the intentions of all involved. If people are upfront with their intentions (during a lecture, a meeting or a blog), then it gives a chance for the others involved to adjust.

    It’s also hard to look past people’s preconceived notions:
    Wizard’s First Rule: People will believe anything they want to be true or fear to be true.”

  7. philangelus

    Good point.

    But your boss now knows a LOT about what to expect from the new one, doesn’t he?

    Is Wizard’s First Rule also know as “headology”?

  8. Similar Situation

    Yes, but as of today, he has an even newer boss (4th one this year) It’s not fun working in the financial industry.

    As far as headology goes, if I knew your answer, that would make a philosopher, whereas, I’m really just a sci fi freak.

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