In a previous blog entry, I wrote about the future of education as depicted in Science Fiction, realizing even that genre does not often share a vision of the learning enterprise. And when it does, the teaching and learning endeavor is protrayed most often as rather unchanged from the present day approach. Yes, there are exceptions such as the direct-to-brain information downloading technique utilized for skills training in The Matrix, but that’s rare. (Hogwarts from the fantasy world of the Harry Potter stories is an absolute disaster as an education model.)
If we’re going to imagine the future, it is the direct-to-brain (d2b) downloading process that seems to be most interesting as a truly new education paradigm. Not only would it effectively address learning outcomes achievement, it would dramatically reduce the time required to acquire knowledge and master skills (at least as the fictional process is defined). To be sure, there are obvious technology hurdles to be overcome: creating the brain-machine interface and determining how to encode information so that it can be accessed through the standard memory recollection process are two of the more obvious challenges. But let’s say we crack the technology. Could people actually learn that way and ultimately retain what they learned?
To run through this thought experiment, it would be helpful to use a fictional model that defines the process and provides a framework for our assumptions. While the concept of digital compression of information fed into the brain has been used several times in Science Fiction (Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, Whedon’s Dollhouse, the Wachowskis’ Matrix trilogy), it is the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Inner Light” that is based on the central theme of the digital information transfer and what actually takes place in the “learner’s” mind during the process.
Written by Morgan Gendel, “The Inner Light” is about remembering the experiences of a lifetime without having to live through that life in real time. Briefly, the technical scenario within the plot is this: an alien probe finds Captain Picard and creates a wireless link to his brain. Through the link, the probe downloads an entire lifetime’s worth of experiences into Picard’s brain. From his perspective, it is all completely real, and he thinks he is living that life: having children, learning to play the flute, suffering the death of his best friend, having grandchildren, and watching his wife grow old and eventually die). In real-time, however, only 25 minutes has elapsed. When the download is complete and the link is broken, Picard discovers the entire life he lived was just an interactive simulation of experiences placed in his memory… and that he now knows how to play the flute as he learned it in his simulated life.
What interests me about this particular concept of d2b downloading is that it addresses the context of experience in memory. Whatever a person learns, whether it is the alphabet, discrete facts such as names or dates, complex lines of reasoning, or sequenced physical skills like playing the flute, the act of learning is wrapped in a broader experience of what the person was doing during the learning activity. How important is this, especially when it comes to having the learning “stick”?
In 1890, Williams James noted that human consciousness appeared to be continuous. John Dewey observed much the same thing, and in 1932 wrote:
As an individual passes from one situation to another, his world, his environment, expands or contracts. He does not find himself living in another world but in a different part or aspect of one in the same world. What he has learned in the way of knowlege and skill in one situation becomes an instrument of understanding and dealing effectively with the situations which follow. The process goes on as long as life and learning continue.
Dewey is telling us that learning is a continuum, and lessons learned (formal or not) become the foundation for lessons yet to be learned. Certainly this makes sense to us intuitively, and there is research indicating pre-established schema expedites more rapid memory consolidation in the brain. Which is a way of saying that we learn things more quickly if we already have a context for understanding what we’re learning.
But what are the implications for d2b learning as Picard experienced? What Picard experienced, while not logically flowing from his past life (he was, after all, just “dropped” into a new life story), was a narrative built upon the concepts which he already understood: marriage, friendship, birth, death, and so on. And when he learned a particular skill–playing the flute–it made sense to him in that he already knew what a flute was, what playing a flute involved, and so on. There was not anything going on so “alien” that it would not fit into the pre-existing schema he had been constructing since his own birth.
Perhaps more significant is that the skills that Picard learned had a subjective real-time element even though the simulation was digitally compressed. In Picard’s mind, he learned to play the flute because he actually practiced playing the flute, over years in subjective time. Therefore, when he picked up the flute in the real world, he was drawing on the memories of his experience of practice. It wasn’t that he just woke up with a new skill that came out of nowhere.
Interestingly, there is evidence that mental practice can improve real-world performance at some activities such as sports or music. One study had participants mentally practice a sequence on an imaginary piano for some time daily, and the participants displayed the same neurological changes as those who practiced physically instead. It’s possible that mental practice and physical practice both activate the same brain regions involved in skills learning.
Experience, though, is multifaceted, and it is not simply a dispassionate sequence of events, recorded and played back in some documentary style. In learning, there is the idea of how engaged the learner is with the subject matter at hand, and again it doesn’t matter if the topic is the Pythagorean Theorem or Lord Byron’s poem “She Walks in Beauty.” Jennifer Fredricks talks about three types of engagement that may influence learning: cognitive engagement: what we are thinking about our learning; behavioral engagement: what we are doing while we’re learning; and emotional engagement: what our feelings are about our learning. It seems difficult to imagine that a simple d2b data dump would involve all three of those categories, unless the d2b transfer allowed a person to live what was being learned.
Admittedly, this is all conjecture over a Science Fiction idea, and for now, there is no way to run any actual tests. The potential for d2b learning is intriguing in that it may provide a solution for many of today’s education challenges, provided the technology is even possible. At the same time, it presents many questions regarding the true nature of the learning process. We are analog beings that make use of our senses in real-time to learn from the world around us. If we somehow could bypass our senses and compress years of experience into minutes of transfer time, how would we interpret the experience? How would we remember what we learned, and what would those memories feel like to us? Based on what we know today, I’d say that learning is not possible without experience. Whether it is real or virtual may not matter, but without an experiential framework, transfered information is just noise without meaning.