Learning to Apply and Develop Technology


The Oxford American dictionary defines technology as:
"The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, esp. in industry."
I define it loosely as:
"The tools that help us organize our world:"
  1. Internal technology: Ways of Thinking.   
  2. External technology: Tools that augment your Memory, Strength, Speed, Ability to Communicate, etc.
The tools can be mental, physical or in whatever category one can think of, but the application of scientific knowledge appears to always have an aspect of learning involved. As a child I learned to use verbal language, crayons, a pencil, written language, typed language, numbers - all of these things are technologies that have been developed over time. Because of my interest in Apple, Steve Wozniak and Steve JobsDouglas Engelbart and the mother of all demo's, as well as Jef Raskin and his book The Humane Interface, which I bought but never quite managed to get through, much of my thought on the topic has been based around the use of computers.

Beyond Computers

However, during seven months working with an NGO in Kenya, I spent a significant portion of time working just with a paper and pen, to try to tease out what some of the benefits of using that technology might be versus using smartphones and computers. I also spent some time looking at papers on the impact of IT infrastructure in law enforcement agencies, and the papers I found indicated that large-scale IT engagements had the greatest impact when it was accompanied by a lot of training on the use of those systems.

Based on that experience, I believe that the ways of thinking that enable people to use tools, and develop new uses and new tools are just as important, if not more so, than the tools themselves. When I looked to translate the term "internal technology" into a pre-existing academic word, I came up with "Education." And that was really frustrating. To me, education isn't near as sexy as Steve Jobs and Apple Computer, or Google or Facebook; things that are all connected with fame, fortune and hot tubs. I don't know of any billionaire educators. But if we're talking about a "last mile" problem (See the Ted Talk on "the Last Mile in Healthcare") in technology, I believe it's the development of internal technology, or, education. If we can make breakthroughs in how we educate (maybe less top down, more social, more crowd-sourced, more individual, what's important) then I believe we will have breakthroughs in the value of existing technologies. 

Learning: At The intersection of Education, Information Technology, Psychology, and Neuroscience

There is so much to learn just to start making an overview of the process of learning. There are academic concepts such peer reviewed journals and citations that you need to use if you want to make a measured contribution to the dialogue on learning. Then there are things like the APA writing style, and then IT products like Zotero and Mendeley that help you manage citations in that style that help you boost your productivity in that arena. 

As a start on the learning journey, I'm going to use the Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) course, which is a US American project to prepare faculty members in all academic disciplines, with a focus on the process of learning at the graduate and postgraduate level. 

One of the first questions in a PFF course is "Define a learner or learning in a word/phrase – if you did not use the word “learner” or “student” what other words and phrases could you use?" Going back to the concept of internal technology, and tools, I'd define a learner narrowly here as "someone trying to develop internal technology", and I can think of three ways that people learn: 
  1. Through exploration of a technology on their own (intuition, reading, etc.) 
  2. Through communication with other people regarding the use of that technology
  3. Through formal programs designed to help them learn.
The formal programs may involve the use of humans in direct communication or not. From the PFF handout helpfully provided by the CGU PFF program coordinated by Shamini Dias, learning is the following things: 

Developmental. We learn differently as children, as teenagers, and as adults.

Differentiated. We have different preferences and styles as learners. We access information, sense-making, and build knowledge in different ways.

Universal. In spite of developmental and learning style there are some universal principles that facilitate learning engagement.

Dynamic. The way we learn or prefer to learn shifts and changes over time. Learning styles are not given for life … or even for a semester.

Contextual. We learn differently at different times and situations. Each learning moment is an outcome of multiple contextual factors, for example, prior experience, prior knowledge, relational interactions, physical conditions, emotional conditions, values and beliefs, perceived relevance.

2013-02-20 To be continued . . . 

Appendix A: Examples

  •     Zero-till farming is a technology that could help millions of people in Africa feed themselves and others.
  •     Pen and paper is a technology that helps us organize our work, lives, and play.
  •     Board games are a technology that can help us learn new models and adapt our behavior to them. (Simulations)
  •     A security wallet is technology that can reduce the threat of pick-pocketing.
  •     A personal computer is technology that can help you organize, process, and disseminate all kinds of information.
On the other hand, personal computers can fragment your mind and decrease your attention span. This is why I've found a use for paper and pen for some tasks until computer-based technology can solve those problems.

I'll talk about whatever technology meets my interest at a given time. In the pages below I hope to provide an eclectic mix of discussion and lists of technologies that can, (or should) impact our lives.