Yes, Virginia, There Is Knowledge Transfer

Because I have pointed out what I believe to be some limitations of MOOCs, some seem to have leapt to the conclusion that I strongly dislike the idea. Not at all. However, some of the Chronicle discussion seemed to be setting up the format as the salvation of higher education – which clearly MOOCs are not. But it’s not insulting to proclaim that you can’t turn a screw with a hammer, or that you can’t sweeten cookie dough by adding flour. Hammers and flour are imminently useful; they’re just not appropriate for every single situation. This is my only point about MOOCs – to me they seem imminently useful; they’re just not appropriate for every single situation.

Having said that, I have to deal with one of the comments left by a reader on Dave’s recent post.

In the end, though, my biggest issue with Wiley’s thoughts about MOOCs is the hint of essentialist epistemology that I sense in his argument. For me, Wiley is working out of the assumption that knowledge is a collection of nuggets that a teacher can transfer from herself to her students. I find this reductionism untenable. To my mind, knowledge is always a function of dynamic, complex networks, forged through the interactions of individuals with their discourse communities and their worlds. Knowledge is a fluid pattern that emerges through the dance we have with others and with the universe. It is not a chunk of information that a teacher writes on the blackboard for the students to write in their notebooks.

This kind of writing is the reason normal people hate academics.

Let’s be clear. The overwhelming majority of learning that happens in this world is the kind of knowledge transfer the commenter claims cannot exist. What time is it? Who won the game last night? Do you know where I left my keys? Are there any tissues left in that box? Where would you like to go for dinner? Who’s your favorite author? What’s the weather supposed to be like today? When will Brandon Sanderson release his new book? Is there any pizza left in the fridge? Ad infinitum…

Each and everyone of these questions represents a lack of knowledge. Each one is directed toward someone we believe possesses this knowledge. By asking, we are asking them to transfer their knowledge to us. By responding, they do so. There is no swirling cosmic dance of emergent fluidity. There’s a simple question, and a simple answer. And knowledge is transferred in the process. End of story.

The fact that academics are incapable of recognizing that 99-some-percent of all the learning that happens in the world is pure and simple knowledge transfer is what leads people to believe that we live in ivory towers disconnected from reality. It can represent only one of two states: (1) we completely fail to see that this is the nature of most learning, even though we claim to recognize the value of “informal learning” (i.e., we’re clueless), or (2) our floccinaucinihilipilification of such mundane, everyday occurrences places them beneath our concern (i.e., we’re snobs). Either way, our critics would have a valid point.

Now – is there some learning that requires more of a Paskian conversation than a simple question / answer couplet? Yes, of course. But should the existence of this extreme minority cause us to declare the majority to be either nonexistent or uninteresting? I certainly hope not.

BTW, if you need help preparing your counterargument to this post, might I recommend you use the Educational Research Title Generator?

P.S. My wife just said, “Wow. If people really believe the stuff in that paragraph, the elite graduate schools are doing a great job transferring knowledge.” LOL.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • dkernohan July 1, 2011, 9:57 am


    “What time is it? Who won the game last night? Do you know where I left my keys? Are there any tissues left in that box? Where would you like to go for dinner? Who’s your favorite author? What’s the weather supposed to be like today? When will Brandon Sanderson release his new book? Is there any pizza left in the fridge?”

    That’s learning?

    I’m in the wrong game, clearly. The stuff that I call learning changes people. It lets them find out things for themeselves, rather than asking me. You’re talking about the exchange of information, which is a basic human social interaction. And as no less an educational theorist than Frank Zappa put it, “information is not knowledge…”

    Sure, it’s important. But doesn’t “learning” rather than “information exchange” mean that people gain capability rather than just the answer to a question?

    When MOOCs are good (and I agree they’re not always good in all circumstances) they guide a learning through gaining new capabilities. If you just want to know how to embed a YouTube video in a comment, DS106 (say) isn’t for you. If you want to become confident in expressing yourself using rich media, that’s a different order of thing.

    (deliberately avoided EduJargon :) )

  • david July 1, 2011, 10:24 am

    Sigh. This is the “snob” response I mentioned above. “You call this learning?!?” Yes, it’s learning. When a person moves from a state of “not knowing” to a state of “knowing” we call it “learning” – even if that learning doesn’t grant them the intellectual superpowers necessary to problematize post-hegemonic populist pedagogies. Even if it does nothing more than empower them to dress appropriately before leaving the house (weather), decide whether or not it’s time to start saving for Brandon’s book (release date), or decide whether to get out of bed or not (time), this new knowledge is all immediately actionable – even if you find these actions mundane.

  • dkernohan July 1, 2011, 11:06 am

    My son is four. Giving him the knowledge that it is 25 to seven and giving him the capability to tell the time are two very different things. And the latter is about learning.

  • david July 1, 2011, 1:22 pm

    Yes, they’re very different things. One is knowledge acquisition (learning the time) and one is skill acquisition (learning to tell time). And they are both examples of learning. I hope you don’t mean to imply that only skill acquisition is learning, while knowledge acquisition is not.

    I prefer an expansive definition of learning that includes gaining any kind of knowledge. You want to restrict your definition so that only the acquisition of “worthy” knowledge is called learning. You’re welcome to your opinion.

  • dkernohan July 1, 2011, 2:12 pm

    I dunno. I think you’re missing learning being a distinct sub-category of communication, and I’m not sure what we gain in understanding by doing that.

    • david July 1, 2011, 2:20 pm

      Ditto – I think you underestimate the important contribution to learning of every little interaction and the way these tiny bits build up into more meaningful units. It’s like trying to study a snowball while declaring snowflakes to be uninteresting.

      • dkernohan July 1, 2011, 4:28 pm

        Not convinced. Do you need to understand typography or bookbinding to talk about literature? I wonder if factual transmission is a medium of learning… I want to think about this more and develop an argument in a blog post. This is, I suspect, useful stuff to consider in more depth.

  • dave cormier July 1, 2011, 6:06 pm

    wow. seems a bit ad hominem-y dave. I think of most of the ‘proofs’ from your argument as fitting a pretty low bar for what might be called ‘knowledge’. The location of my keys is something i might call a ‘fact’ or ‘information’.

    *normal people?*

    Tough to engage with a post like this.

    I can see the debate tactics being used to win the argument… not really seeing your argument.

  • Ken Anderson July 1, 2011, 6:30 pm

    @David Bravo. Well said. Enough with the hyperbole surrounding ‘MOOCs’.

  • Anthony July 2, 2011, 1:06 am

    Hello David,

    I think you are trying to oversimplify what is actually a rather complex question. You attempt to sum everything up with the following:

    “Each and everyone of these questions represents a lack of knowledge. Each one is directed toward someone we believe possesses this knowledge. By asking, we are asking them to transfer their knowledge to us. By responding, they do so. There is no swirling cosmic dance of emergent fluidity. There’s a simple question, and a simple answer. And knowledge is transferred in the process. End of story.”

    I have to ask, is this really what you believe all learning to be? Or “99-some-percent” of it at least?

    In our day-to-day lives there is some truth in this. Throughout each day we have a number of information needs we want to have met. “Where did I put my keys?” I ask my wife. ” “What time is it?” I ask the clock. We ask the questions, we get the answers and are temporarily enlightened.

    However, this is not the kind of learning we send our children to school for. This is not the kind of learning I put myself tens of thousands of dollars into debt for. This is not the kind of learning we do out of a sheer love of learning or to learn more about the world and our place in it.

    This is not to claim that one type of learning is more important than the other, but to recognize that much learning cannot be reduced to a simple questions and answer dichotomy. Much of the learning that we go to school for, for instance, cannot. History, science, language, literature, economics, philosophy … all of these subjects are far too complex for that.

    Okay, there are some aspects of these subjects that can be reduced to question/answer type knowledge transfer. Who wrote David Copperfield? What year did Einstein publish his general theory of relativity? What is the definition of ‘fork?’

    We very quickly move beyond this point in our studies. Take the study of language. Once we get past defining ‘fork,’ ‘door,’ and ‘window’ and start trying to define words like ‘knowledge’ or ‘learning,’ for instance, we need to move beyond question and answer and start having a discussion. We look at various definitions of these words, the people who put forward those definitions, the history of how these definitions have evolved, what contexts they evolved in. We discuss, we debate, we come to a consensus or we don’t. I would argue that this is actually the most common type of learning.

    We’re taking part in this type of learning now, or we should be at least. By trying to provide simple answers and dismissing the ideas of others as snobbish (without taking the time to understand those ideas or ask for clarification) you are putting an end to learning rather than being a part of it.

  • Sally July 2, 2011, 1:47 pm

    It’s come to splitting hairs, I see! What fun. I wonder if all might agree that there’s a continuum of facts knowledge learning.

    Facts can be either everyday and mundane, or they can be life-altering and paradigm-shifting, and everything in between.

    Knowledge is the acquisition [noun] of such facts, all kinds, but also truths and ideas, which are built of facts, their implications, attitudes built around them, as well as the internalizing and remembrance of such facts.

    Learning is a way of being, the continual acquisition of knowledge, the processing of knowledge to mean new things.

    That’s how I look at it anyway.

    I have no idea what MOOCs are. Linky, please?

  • Keith Hamon July 3, 2011, 2:35 pm

    This has become a rich conversation, and I’m pleased. First, because it gives us all an opportunity to discuss some serious, engaging issues about modern higher education and where it might be heading, and second, because it shows that people really can have disagreements and still be civil. You were kind, David Wiley, not to attack personally the writer of the paragraph you disagreed with or even to identify the writer. However, as I am that writer, I’ll take credit—or blame—and address the issue. And this brings me to the third reason that I’m pleased with this conversation. Only through such conversations are we challenged to reconsider our points of view and our attempts at communication. Your comments give me reason to pause, and I thank you.

    If I understand correctly, your primary objection to my statement focuses on the word transfer. I’ve reread what I wrote, and I can see how a reasonable person could assume that I am arguing that teachers do not transfer knowledge from themselves to their students, but this assumption is a breakdown in communication. My emphasis was not on the word transfer but on the word nugget. I DO, indeed, believe that humans transfer knowledge among themselves. It’s why I was bothering to respond to Dave Cormier’s blog post. It’s why I blog myself. It’s why I’m responding now to your post.

    So what was I arguing? I was arguing against the kind of knowledge transfer—those little nuggets—that you illustrate with questions such as: what time is it? or where are my keys? You are correct that much of common, everyday life is built about these exchanges of information and that such exchanges are important to the smooth operation of everyday life. Yet, your examples point precisely to the kind of information exchange that I find damaging to modern teaching. Here’s why:

    The question where are my keys has but one correct answer, one little nugget of information, which makes it an uninteresting, trivial exchange of knowledge. Once you have the answer, the nugget, the discussion is over. There’s nothing left to say. This sort of question is similar to saying 2 + 2 = 4. Factual, testable, but uninteresting.

    Ahh … you are already protesting, but knowledge of the exact location of keys would be very interesting to me if I was late for work or needed to go to the store for food. Well, you are correct, but notice that you made the knowledge about the location of keys interesting, important, and significant by contextualizing it. The knowledge ceases to be trivial NOT because of any change in the knowledge itself, but because it now has a context. In other words, this particular knowledge exchange:

    Where are my keys?
    In your sock drawer.

    might be contextualized, for instance, by a husband who has a history of misplacing his keys, by a wife who is thoroughly annoyed with his habitual forgetfulness and her assumed role as the keeper of the keys, and by the need to feed a hungry, crying baby. Of course, the same knowledge exchange could be contextualized by a billion other situations that humans can get themselves into. My point is that knowledge becomes engaging and memorable when it becomes contextualized or complex by being placed in a rich, dynamic, unfolding ecosystem of speaker, discourse community, and world situation. It must become a dance among the communicator, his audience, and his world.

    Too often in school, a bit of information (for instance, this bit: the Continental Congress ratified the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776) is treated as part of a collection of somewhat coherent facts (all about US History), contextualized merely by their appearance on next Tuesday’s test, and flushed from a student’s memory as soon as the test is over. This is a problematic approach to education.

    Of course, I’m overstating my case to make a point, but I suspect that you know as well as I teachers who define their jobs simply as the neat transfer, usually through lectures, of a collection of facts about art history or zoology or whatever, followed by a short-answer quiz on some of those facts. These teachers who define their jobs as the mere transfer of simple facts are doomed, in large part because Google handles that transfer so much better and mostly for free and always without those annoying quizzes. If we educators are to sustain a relevant role in society, then we must quit trying to be the sole source of facts in a classroom—for Google does that better and is improving its advantages—and we must become curators of the contexts of those facts.

    So my point to Dave Cormier is that knowledge is far more complex than too often treated, even by those in higher education. Any nugget of information is lifted above the trivial to attain meaning, significance, and relevance to an individual when that individual can place that nugget in a rich, dynamic ecosystem. When they can dance with the data.

    I also believe that any nugget of information itself is far more complex a cognitive construction than we usually acknowledge, but I’ve already written too much in your space, so I’ll stop here. I do hope, though, that I have transferred more knowledge and transferred it better than I did in my first post, and I thank you again for helping me clarify my thinking.

  • Knowledge July 6, 2011, 4:55 am

    The point may not be the particular distinctions by which you describe knowledge or learning (and anyway ‘knowledge transfer’ is only a metaphor)

    I think the important thing is what you do with those distinctions.

    I’ve seen equally effective and ineffective teaching and learning from those who call themselves constructivists ’empowering’ their learners as those who think they are ‘transferring knowledge’.