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Knowledge in an information society

June 29th, 2008 · No Comments · Uncategorized

I have been wrestling lately to understand the difference between knowledge and information. I am finding this very difficult. What adds to the difficulty is that, of course, both terms are social constructs. There is nothing in the world that is either knowledge or information outside of what individuals or groups so label.This doesn’t make them unreal of course. The prompt for this is a couple of observations on the nature of the so-called Google generation. One in particular is by Sir Ron Cooke.

3.14 But there is reason to believe this ready access to content is not matched by training in the traditional skills of finding and using information and in “learning how to learn” in a technology, information and network-rich world. This is reducing the level of scholarship (e.g. the increase in plagiarism, and lack of critical judgement in assessing the quality of online material). The Google and Facebook generation are at ease with the Internet and the world wide web, but they do not use it well: they search shallowly and are easily content with their “finds”. It is also the case that many staff are not well skilled in using the Internet, are pushed beyond their comfort zones and do not fully exploit the potential of Virtual Learning Environments; and they are often not able to impart new skills to students. (On-line Innovation in Higher Education Professor Sir Ron Cooke).

The gist of the argument I am following up is that in the new ‘free market’ in information offered by the web does not translate unproblematically into a free education or to the process of building knowledge. Access to information is one thing. Having the information literacy skills to turn the information into knowledge is quite another. Information needs a context to inform what counts as information and a context for evaluating available information.  That context is provided by knowledge. So I’m getting a picture of the relationship between information and knowledge that sees information as feeding the knowledge construction process. There seems to be a movement from existing knowledge to the setting of a problem or defining an objective that requires information. The information is specified and evaluated on the basis of knowledge and integrated into the knowledge building process accordingly.

Of course the distinction between information and knowledge (where does data fit in?) may be too crude. And as was noted at the beginning, they are both social constructs of one sort or another. There is nothing in ‘nature’ that is prelabeled as one or the other. It’s ‘us’ constructing the concepts and looking for the demarcation criteria. If this is the case then perhaps an analysis of common usage would be a clue. What distinguishes the terms in actual use? As a preliminary contribution to this, it seems to make sense to talk of information processing but the notion of knowledge processing doesn’t sound quite right. Perhaps knowledge is the outcome of information processing. But this would suggest a dialectical relationship between information and knowledge not dissimilar as that between facts and theory. Information is only information to the extent it is pre-specified in some way by a knowledge context. Knowledge is the outcome of information processing but not just information processing.

Another approach would be to think of the current focus in Higher Education on knowledge transfer. We don’t advertise these endeavors as information transfer. What is it that the notion of ‘knowledge transfer’ captures and promises that ‘information transfer’ doesn’t?

My main interest in this is what it implies for how we understand learning and the role of professional educators. If knowledge is simply information we have it in abundance and its out there for any one that wants it. But I wouldn’t want surgery conducted on the basis of Googled information or social policy made on the basis of Googled undergraduate essays. Clearly information is a precondition for knowledge but knowledge is required to make judgments and build on experience, our own and others. Knowledge provides the context for giving significance to information and for connecting it to decision making processes and action. The model that seems to be emerging here is that of students + information + teachers = knowledge creation. This sounds like a community of learners and learning objects. The specific role for teachers seems to be a combination of a model of professional learning (i.e. an expert learner), a learning mentor and a knowledge broker. This doesn’t seem to be far away from the model of apprentices and master practitioner. A key characteristic of an apprenticeship is membership of a community of practice where formal, informal and vicarious forms of learning are available. What would the process of module design, learning and teaching and assessment look like on this model?


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