On Distributed Learning

April 28, 2008

We are first and foremost physical creatures. We are able to manipulate objects, to lift, carry, and hold. But, as a species, we possess an innate urge to be physically close to others, to be part of a greater social entity, to interact and to belong. This urge manifests before our first aware sensory perception, our first thought or emotion. It can overshadow our instincts for self-preservation; it can lead us to actions that fly in the face of common sense, logic, and facts.

We are sensory creatures. Born with the capacity for direct perception without thought, we are able to experience our physical world in unique ways.

And we are learning creatures. Armed with intelligence, reasoning, and curiosity, we are gifted with minds that are suitable for, and capable of, developing thought and making meaning. We organize and analyze that which we perceive in our attempts to understand our physical world.

The combination of physical, mental, and sensory qualities enables us to be socially constructive creatures. Individual intelligence makes it possible for us to learn through personal observation and experimentation with the physical world. Our ability to engage in social interaction, to collaborate with peers, to learn from more knowledgeable others, to negotiate meaning within the group and to process that meaning into personal understanding through reflection, allowed us to come out of the forests, to build empires, and to explore other worlds—on this planet and beyond.

Our ability to learn is supported by the use of technology. The same mental, sensory, and physical attributes that enable us to create resources also guide the direction of such creation. Our bodies, and most specifically our hands, allow us to be tool builders. But that is not enough. Would the written word or crafted image have any meaning, would they drive the development of the pen, the printing press, the television, or computer graphics if we could not see? What would force the development of musical instruments, the phonograph, radio or CD if we could not hear? Even with these sensory capabilities, could we possibly have created any of our technological innovations without the mental capacity to draw together abstract concepts to create functional hypotheses, to organize them into theoretical models, and to produce working resources that meet our sensory, physical, and cognitive needs?

Our use of physical, sensory and critical thinking skills to create technology is advanced by using technology to further develop these skills, to discover or create new ones, and to increase our capacity for their use. Distributed learning is the natural extension of both our educational endeavors and our innate need to express abstract and critical thinking within real world contexts. By providing numerous avenues—multimedia, simulations, narratives, immersive and augmented environments, discussion boards, and chat rooms—and by employing them in a designed collection of situated learning, anchored instruction, collaborative activities, and reflective exercises for the delivery of content and development of meaning, distributed learning overcomes temporal and spatial barriers, differences in learning styles, weaknesses in cognitive processing, demands and proscriptions of culture, and the different levels of previous knowledge that exist within and between members of each learning community.

With the proper assembly of theory-based experiences and resources, distributed learning pushes students out into new environments and pulls in remote locations, resources, and specialists. The pedagogical focus shifts from content memory to process mastery. Distributed learning advocates the transition of knowledge gained in specific learning situations to expanded contextual application across multiple domains.

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