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Can We Learn From Blogs?

Jessica Watkins's picture

     As social creatures, human beings inevitably possess the drive to learn new things through collective interaction. Oral and written communication is essential in the development and nurturing of the human mind throughout its growth and even after it has “matured.” Realistically, learning is a process that never slows down but exponentially increases thanks to constant brain stimulation found in daily life. The brain is the one organ that arguably becomes “better” with age because it is capable of processing a never-ending stream of information from the outside world.

     With this in mind, it would theoretically be no problem for humans to mentally digest the information load that comes with the current age of high technology and multi-tasking. The world is immersed in the Information Age because of the advances made in communication speed and changes in the mindset of the population, particularly that of the United States. As a people Americans have come to realize and embrace the immediate gratification that goes hand-in-hand with technology like the Internet, and the world has been forever-changed as a result. The lightning-fast paths of communication that zigzag across the planet have intoxicated humans and made for a dependency on technology that is sure to last for generations.

     Of course with this change in communication has come a change in the way the human mind navigates through the world of information and successfully processes new data, of which there seems to be a constant supply. The mind must now adapt to rapid-fire signals from computers, cell phones and countless other sources of communication, which has undoubtedly affected the learning process and how humans absorb and remember information. Blogging as a form of learning offers multiple opportunities for the sharing of knowledge, and it is highly conducive to a society of quick-thinkers who are hungry for immediate facts. The format of a blog webpage—chronologically-ordered entries, links embedded into the body of text and, in the case of Tim Burke's blog, a neatly-categorized list of topics on the side of the screen—reflects the workings of the modern human mind and illustrates its multi-dimensionality as well as its ability to process large, unrelated chunks of information. While the capability of the mind to handle so many different thoughts at once is undeniably interesting, it begs the question of whether or not processing so much information in one sitting (like, for example, when one sits down to read a blog and gets caught up in following countless links) translates into actually absorbing and learning it so it can be retrieved later on.

     Psychology can help answer the question, and might prove to be the best source of information when it comes to delving deep into the inner workings of the human mind. Learning theory has long been a subject of interest in the field of psychology and continues to spark controversial discussion about which method of learning and memorization is most effective (Learning Theory). With the change in society’s means of communication came a dramatic change in which the mind goes about processing data, in turn changing which paradigm of learning theory is most compatible and relevant to modern life.

     The theory of constructivism seems to hold less value in today’s digitalized society than before the age of technology and information. It postulates that knowledge is a collective sum of personal experiences and that this collection of experiences is continually referred to in order to make new assumptions and navigate social situations. In a way constructivism is extremely self-centered, for the human mind is only in charge of its own experiences and retrieves information from none other than itself, and relies heavily on unique, personal experiences to shape the way one thinks and learns. However, in the modern age, very little remains personal and private, particularly when it comes to blogging.

     If constructivism is to be assumed as the correct theory of learning, there is very little possibility that humans can actually learn from blogs and use the information gleaned from them to formulate personal decisions. Blogging carries with it an extremely voyeuristic personality. Many personal blogs describe daily life—emotions, tragedies, conflict, boredom—in great detail, leaving little room for imagination. The reader is assumed to be one who is interested in “learning” about the author’s trials and tribulations, and very often the appeal of blogs comes from this sense of a lack of privacy, a window into the secret world of someone who in the reader’s mind is nothing more than a screen name. Thus, blogging is actually opposed to the theory of constructivism because of its openness and impersonality. How is a reader to learn through personal experiences if they are reading instead about the experiences of others? Is blogging really conducive to nothing more than “second-hand” learning? How can humans ever learn from blogs if "experience is the adult learner's living textbook?” ( Adult Learning Theory)

     By constructivism’s standards, modern learning in the blogging age is severely lacking a key personal element. And since this impersonality is a large part of the appeal of the blogosphere, it is unlikely that the majority of the blogging population will heed the call of constructivism and begin to connect in person rather than online. Social theory, however, supports blogs and their contribution to the learning process. This theory states that the most effective way to learn is through observing and possibly even imitating the experiences of others. Blogging is very compatible with this model because readers (learners) have ample opportunity and space in which they can learn about and live vicariously through the lives of others who have chosen to broadcast their personal experiences on the Internet.

     Because such a large part of social theory comes from the fact that learners learn through observation and imitation, though, it is questionable whether or not the theory is realistically effective. Again, the impersonality that comes with blogging specifically and Internet use in general allows for tremendous amounts of online contact but very little person-to-person interaction. With this in mind, is it possible that the observation and imitation necessary for social theory to work can translate from the “real” world to the digital world? So much of interactive learning involves observations of things like physical reactions to emotions and changes of facial expressions, and only so much can be observed from a one-dimensional, fixed picture or avatar on a computer screen.

     Granted that human beings can learn at least some information through media such as blogs, no matter which learning theory is argued to be true, one has to wonder whether or not the sheer amount of information available online is too overwhelming for something as complex as the human brain. The theory of Multimedia Learning postulates that learning is most successful when both visual and auditory components are present, and that the channels through which each of these is processed in the mind can only handle a certain amount of information at one time. This theory of “cognitive load” raises questions about whether blogs are doing more harm than good when it comes to attempting to absorb and truly commit information to memory. Blogs like that of Tim Burke are rife with links that lead readers to all parts of the Internet, in addition to the fact that Burke’s blog is already large and varied enough as it is. The pace at which the human brain leaps from link to link is almost akin to multi-tasking because of the lack of “down time” the brain has between new topics. Studies have shown that multi-tasking is detrimental to committing information to memory, and thus the learning process (Science Daily).

     No matter how harmful “linky” blogs like Burke’s may be to learning, or how conducive they may be to a rushed society, they will always be a reflection of the collective working mind. If one learning theory cannot prove compatible with blogging, or shows that the blogosphere is not always the right place in which to truly learn and memorize information, all the better. It forces human beings to slow down, take a break from their over-stuffed schedules and ask an important question: Are we really “Easily Distracted?”


Works Consulted

Brookfield, Stephen. "Adult Learning: An Overview." MA Distributed Learning. Royal Road University. Web. 12 Feb. 2010.

Burke, Tim. "Easily Distracted." Web log post. Web. 9 Feb. 2010. 

"Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning (Mayer)." Web. 12 Feb. 2010. 

"Constructivism." Web. 12 Feb. 2010.

Foerde, Karin, and Barbara Knowlton. "Multi-Tasking Adversely Affects Brain's Learning, UCLA Psychologists Report." Science Daily. 26 July 2006. Web. 12 Feb. 2010. 

"Social Learning Theory (Bandura)." Web. 12 Feb. 2010.


Anne Dalke's picture

Enacting the Theories

So let's begin w/ form. I want to invite you to think about making the form of your blog more reflective of its function.

The GREAT questions you are asking here are whether--and how--blogs contribute to our learning, and you try to answer the questions by applying a range theories of how we learn--constructivism, social theory and multimedia learning--to how blogs operate on their readers. You seem to conclude that, according to all three of these rubrics, they fail to operate optimally.

You give us a rapid ride here through these three learning theories, and use each one, in turn, to find blogs lacking as a medium of education. I'm curious less about what the experts think than what YOU think about how blogs work on the brain (on your brain in particular). How do you think you learn? What works for you, what not, in terms of this genre as a method of education?

Most importantly, though, let me nudge you to think about making your own blog here more conducive to learning. Would less text help guide your reader? Would organizing the text differently, w/ bullet points or less formal phrasing?? What about the size of your font (it seems large to me, and feels a little like "shouting").

Would questions that invite your reader to "think through" their own experience be an effective application of constructivism??? Would a picture of yourself, or a more concretely located account of who you are, where you are writing from, and why, be a more effective application of social theory???? Would using a sound track (see Legos, Rocks and Boulders) or images (see A Paper About How I Hate Grading Papers) be an effective application of multi-media learning?????

Wouldn't it be an intriguing experiment, in this blog devoted to critiquing blogs for failing to accord w/ any of the contemporary learning theories, if you tried to make your work work better for the learning brains who are reading what you have to say?

P.S. for a very different take on what you call blogging's "voyeuristic personality," be sure to read Voyeur, Lurker, or Sustained Silent Reader?