Surface knowledge Vs. deep learning. Digital: a help or a hindrance?

We now know more than we have ever known and most of our knowledge is stored in bytes. But does easy access to everything aid us in our quest for knowledge?
The major gripe of educators everywhere is that students have become too dependent on quick-fix information: whipping out the mobile to ‘research’ something using only the top-ranking link in response to their (sometimes entirely random) search terms; lifting chunks of non-peer reviewed material straight from Wikipedia; using sound bites ‘sourced’ from Twitter, and exhibiting a general estrangement from antique novelty items like books. In academic settings everywhere, libraries are rebranded Learning Resource Centres: here, walls of books have become banks of monitors, and the whisk of a page being turned has been replaced with the hum of a hard drive. Educators despair at the referencing skills students struggle with because to many a citation is a retweet and a quotation something alighted upon on Indeed, the educational establishment’s preference for the word ‘learners’ over ‘students’ is indicative of the fact that there has been a shift away from active ‘studying’, which typically involves rigorous research and getting to the bottom of a problem or question, to the more passive ‘learning’, whereby information is seemingly absorbed by means of osmosis. There is a great deal of emphasis placed on the use of technology and digital in education, yet despite the burgeoning opportunities digital advancements have created to facilitate enquiry, are we any better equipped at getting value from the wealth of information that is now – quite literally – at our fingertips?

The ever-expanding circle of knowledge

Ancient Roman philosopher Plotinus observed that all knowledge is contained within what we collectively know – nothing outside of that knowledge can be known unless you are God. Stuart Firestein, Professor of Biology and Neurobiology at Columbia University, NY, expanded on this notion to describe how we live at a time when the circumference around our collective knowledge has never been greater, yet, paradoxically, as this circumference has expanded there is a wider realm of information that exists beyond it that we don’t yet know. This information falls into the category of ‘unknown’ unknowns – i.e. metaphysical knowledge that transcends our current level of human understanding and experience, but ‘out there’ also exists the ‘known’ unknowns. Each time we discover something we didn’t know before, new questions arise out of that discovery, signposting the existence of an as yet undiscovered universe. So where does this leave us on the subject of learning? With a handheld information device – or mobile – in the pocket of every high school age student, and almost infinite online resources at our disposal, surely we should be more equipped than ever to succeed in exams, produce outstanding coursework, get the top jobs and show off to our predecessors about the things we now know that they couldn’t possibly access?

Deep vs. surface learning

It’s easy to berate today’s digital natives for only superficially engaging with the information that previous generations might have only imagined existed, but is it fair to say that today we know less because the sheer volume of information necessarily obliges us to explore it lightly? Did it really benefit yesterday’s students to memorise a dozen poems by rote, or the lineage of the monarchs of England, or any of the other pieces of arbitrary knowledge that was the requirement of the day? Surely that is merely taking information (or data) wholesale and dumping it from one context to another (from book to brain). Without in-depth understanding of the significance of the verse, or insight into the complex political contexts and events surrounding our royal lineage, surely merely knowing the facts does not constitute genuine learning?

The desire for difficulty

One argument might be that without consciously interrogating information it’s just as easy to read a book on a surface level as it is reading a range of information online. In other words, if information is handed to us on a plate in – physical or digital – it is, conversely, less easy to engage with it. ‘Desirable difficulty’ is a term coined by Robert Bjork, Psychology Professor of UCL. This premise assumes that without sufficient ‘grappling’ with the information through consolidating the links in the longer-term memory, information is not sufficiently encoded so as to become useful. The argument is that without long term knowledge there is no possibility of developing out of it the understanding that results in intellectual creativity and problem solving.
Arguably, whatever the nature of how information is held, it is how an individual engages with that information that is important, rather than the mechanism by which that information is disseminated. Is it fair to make the assumption that accessing and storing information through digital means is transient and lacks value? The answer is in the semantics. We store information, we interpret knowledge. But today, it seems, we don’t have to interpret knowledge in order to get ahead in business.

Where are we now and where are we heading?

As a race we have steadily increased the circumference of our knowledge circle to encompass all the accumulated information currently known to man, any aspect of which can be accessed digitally at any time by anyone who is interested. In this sense our knowledge can be considered absolute. Over centuries we have migrated from an arable culture, to an industrial landscape, to a services culture, to a technical age, which has automated the services industry. Underpinning this brave new world is communication. In short, a person can run a specialist business – in a Law firm for example – about which one might have precisely no expertise. This is on account of the fact that this individual knows how to communicate the material value of that business to prospects. In essence, we are a culture that is willing to pay to have our knowledge organised and interpreted effectively for us. With most of us experiencing a sense of information saturation or ennui, the need to have our information arranged is perhaps most conspicuous in the nature of the media and the role the mainstream press has in allowing many to accept, wholesale, the ubiquitous messages that are sent out from the prevailing ideological forces, rather than entering the uncomfortably uncertain terrain of the unknown unknowns. This permits us to remain in a reassuring state of wilful ignorance. And where there exists wilful ignorance there is money to be made. Or is there?

What does depending on digital mean for your business

In business terms, the aforementioned legal firm owner might well be able to successfully communicate the value of that firm without needing to know more than the overarching sales messages. However as our recent articles show it is still crucial to employ and invest in expertly skilled people to execute the tasks, as the deeper learning and skills they have absorbed through a rigorous process of transforming information from surface knowledge into deep learning continues to underpin the success of any organisation or industry. While digital is a facilitator for accessing information, skilled individuals must engage organically with information and challenge the voracity of the information that can be accessed at surface level to ensure a business’ success. The risk of probing beyond surface reading can mean a threat to one’s ideological belief, as the number of sharings of a 2014 NPR April Fools joke claiming an alarmingly high number of Americans were illiterate evidenced.
Ultimately, transcending and interrogating what can be accessed merely at surface level is the only certain way to ensure the skills set businesses can offer remain robust and competitive. While digital offers surface understanding, it remains critical to fully interrogate especially that which is accessible, including one’s established beliefs, if your business is to flourish.