Wednesday, December 7, 2011

How best to view the internet as a learning tool

I work on some projects that require knowledge of basic biology, such as cell structure, biochemistry, and laboratory technique. However, I was trained as a physicist and engineer, and, as a result, have had an extremely limited education in the biological sciences. For example, my last biology class was anatomy during my junior year in high school.

The internet has been essential in bringing me up to speed in these topics. I've put resources such as MIT's OpenCourseWare and the independent OpenWetWare to good use. Companies such as Invitrogen provide valuable tutorials and explanations on laboratory practices as well. The best part about these resources is that I can find exactly the information that I need to know when I need to know it.

I believe that a very few doubt the usefulness of the web as a learning tool, but how to use it as a tool is certainly a topic of debate. Based on my own experiences, I think that internet learning is best used as an independent collection of bits of knowledge that are accessed as needed.

Let's break this definition down into parts. By independent, I mean that the value of internet resources is determined by the individual who needs to know something. A catalog of optical parameters of semiconductor materials will likely serve little purpose to a field biologist. The downside to this is that the web must contain an exhaustive amount of knowledge to be useful to everyone. If there's a possibility that someone may wish to know something, then it must be contained already on the web [1].

"Bits of knowledge" makes intuitive sense, but a formal definition may not exist. If I wish to know how to stain a cell using immunofluorescence, is each step considered a bit of knowledge, or is the entirety of the process considered one "chunk?" I don't think that this detail is particularly relevant to my discussion, but it is interesting to think about how one may quantify knowledge [2].

Finally, the ability to access knowledge as needed makes it efficient. The human brain can only hold on to a limited amount of data. Some details are best stored on machines; otherwise numerous human specialists would be required to perform complex tasks, each one intimate with one small part of the task. In my graduate work, I can learn about cytoskeletal filaments as needed, or my advisor could hire on a cell biologist to consult me on a small number of issues. The first option is decidedly cheaper. In addition, ease of access is important, and spans topics such as mobile devices, bringing the internet to developing countries, and search algorithms.

So, in my opinion, internet learning is best utilized as a user-valued collection of information that is accessed accordingly. Communications through the internet, such as e-mail correspondence with teachers, is important, and is compatible with my definition since I do not put limits on how knowledge is delivered. Failure to properly use the internet as a learning tool usually comes from poor access (e.g. bad search engine algorithms) or a user improperly identifying what they need to know. In the last case, the success of internet learning cannot be determined by machines; like many things it boils down to the human element.

[1] I can't get the thought of the internet as a causal knowledge database out of my head right now, since it can only contain knowledge that has already been generated. It will never contain knowledge from the future, unless, perhaps, new knowledge can be generated from data it already holds, but that opens the question of the definition of knowledge.

[2] Information theory comes to mind here. The information content of a signal is quantified as a logarithm of the number of symbols in the signal.