getting my socrates on

“Until you know what a thing is, you can’t answer any other questions about it.”

Socrates

Do we need need to know what a thing is to understand it? Socrates thought so. I think so. However, I get the impression that many of colleagues in educational research & instructional design do not share this view. Note the comments in a recent piece in The Chronicle, “What’s in a Name? Researchers Struggle With Terms for New Learning Methods.” In the article, written by Ben Wieder, researchers at the University of Missouri at Columbia found no consensus among academics about the definitions of “e-learning,” “online learning,” and “distance learning.” The research team asserts, and I agree, that our inability to name a thing makes it difficulty to know what it is. As researchers this also makes it difficult to assess its potential strengths & weaknesses for teaching & learning.

It’s been my experience that this is not an isolated sentiment in our field. Whether we’re talking newer entries into the educational ecosystem such as cloud based applications, social applications, and devices that are portable as well as mobile or some long standing things such as learning management systems & electronic portfolios we can’t seem to agree on what a thing is. What I find disturbing is that we’re not having a healthy dialogue as to what a given thing is. It’s not about agreeing on a definition of a given term (ePortfolio, LMS, eLearning) but coming to an understand as to the things essence. What is the essence of an ePortfolio? What is the nature of an LMS? Social media? Digital scholarship? eLearning?

What troubles me is this. As educators aren’t these the very questions with which we should be concerning ourselves? If we do not understand the nature of a thing how can we then apply it to any given situation, such as a course? How do we know whether what we’re doing is good, bad, or indifferent in it’s impact?

I’m not arguing for an absolute understanding going in however, isn’t it incumbent upon us to to know something well enough to have a game plan going in? If not, how do we understand the outcomes & make sense of it all? Do we not have an obligation  How can we know if an ePortfolio is an effective teaching & learning tool if we can’t agree on what it is?

Maybe that’s why we so often get insignificant results. Perhaps that’s why we don’t know if we’re truly making a difference

 

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