Posted by: pkab | 11 March 2008

More Thoughts on the Long Tail of Learning


By: Bill Brantley

Spent the weekend considering Karrer’s Big Question for March. I (Bill) initially wrote a short comment but that was before I read the article that started all this: Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0. If you haven’t read it, please do before continuing on with this post.

There are some deep issues here and I am still considering them. But, I sketched out an outline to help focus my thinking on this topic.

The Challenge

  1. Need for knowledge is greater than ever – There is a lot of evidence for this and I would suggest starting with Homer-Dixon’s The Ingenuity Gap.
  2. Knowledge goes stale faster – Maybe it’s just my perception from the IT industry but knowledge does seem to have a shelf life. In academia, there seems to be departments such as philosophy that appear to possess timeless knowledge but even there, issues such as stem-cell research and cloning challenge the conventional wisdom.
  3. Knowledge bottleneck – We have greatly increased our ability to collect and sort data but our ability to convert data and information into knowledge is much slower. If you are familiar with the Four Cs of knowledge conversion (Comparison, Consequences, Connections, and Conversation), you can see why the bottleneck exists. You just can’t automate the Four Cs (at this present level of IT).
  4. Knowledge Fragmentation – And there is the challenge of the Long Tail of Knowledge Niches. It takes some effort to span these niches and one has to calculate the benefit in doing so. It’s paradoxical but the wide reach of the Internet actually encourages people to gather in niches. It is quite possible to construct a mediated reality in which you only speak to like-minded people and shop only like-minded vendors.

In building the new Learning 2.0, I believe these five ideas may help.

  1. Embrace the model of Social Learning in the article – Brown and Adler make a great argument for this new model. I only add another example as support for the power of social learning.
  2. Reflective Learning – My contribution to this. As I often state in my presentations on Personal Knowledge Management, “knowledge comes from within people and between people.” A person needs time to reflect on the information they have acquired so that they can successfully incorporate it into their personal knowledge base in their mind. When I was introduced to journaling and mindmapping, I became a much better learner and was able to contribute more to learning with my peers. Personally, I believe that reflective learning is not receiving enough attention in the Learning 2.0 model.
  3. Learner-Centered Skills – I take these from Van Weigel’s article on curricular capabilities for course management systems. They are especially relevant in the Long Tail / Learning 2.0 model: “critical thinking, self confidence, peer learning, and knowledge management.” The critical thinking corresponds to the reflective learning while the peer learning is social learning. Self confidence is important in helping the learner bridge from reflective learning to social learning. And the knowledge management skill is vital in traversing the Long Tail.
  4. Deep Smarts – Excellent book which details how to help someone along the curve of experience to become deeply smart in their field. Leonard and Swap show how to drastically shorten the time it takes to make a person an expert. Given that we don’t have time for the normal ten years it takes, any time saved means that person is more productive and the knowledge more relevant.
  5. Neurolearning – Spurred by Zull’s The Art of Changing the Brain, I have been studying the field of neuroscience. With the discovery of mirror neurons and the data collected from fMRI, the conventional theories on how people reason are rapidly being replaced with new insights. I am still exploring the implications but I am convinced that discoveries in neuroeconomics and further research on attention will revitalize the field of learning.

I’m sure I will have more on this. Fascinating question!


Bill Brantley is the President of Knowledge Design and Engineering. He has been a trainer for over ten years and a college professor for six years. Mr. Brantley has taught both online courses and traditional college courses at three different universities. He has an MBA, MA in Political Management, and is a certified Project Management Professional.Bill is also a consultant in project management, change management, knowledge management, and business process management with a special emphasis in public administration and nonprofit organizations. Currently, Mr. Brantley is finishing a PhD in Public Administration with an emphasis on non-profit management and knowledge management

Source: Design of Knowledge


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