Personal Learning Networks – a Nietzschean Critique

An existentialist personal learning networkWe are grateful to Nik Peachey for sharing an interesting video providing a lucid description of what a personal learning network is. Even if you are not one of those who still suspect that the PLN might be some CIA-backed terrorist organisation, it is an interesting video to watch.

We watched the video, felt there was something distinctly odd about the sort of learning going on in that particular personal learning network, but then had to go outside and take a brisk walk on a bracing autumnal hillside to compose our thoughts offline (appended below).

Anything strike you as weird?

What struck us was that here are Americans trying to learn about American psychology, which must have something to do with the American psyche (mustn’t it?), and in that detailed diagram of how the learning is achieved the American psyche never appears. There is a lot of searching for other people’s ideas about the psyche, and doubtless a heck of a lot of copying and pasting and rephrasing to make all the borrowed bits run together fairly well, but there is never any real engagement with the psyche itself.

There is knowledge (apparently) without there being an object of knowledge, and as a consequence the subject of knowledge appears to suffer – to etiolate and atrophy.

Now the criticism might seem a little unfair because the makers of the video wanted to show the personal learning network in particular, not the broader phenomenon of knowledge, but we suspect that behind what may be an accidental omission on this video there could be a very real tendency towards an even shallower personal engagement with things, as people rely excessively on recycling received ideas, especially if teachers are patting them on their back for their digital ingenuity.

It is at this point that we start to get nostalgic for the old days of existentialism, recalling, for instance, Kierkegaard’s insistence that knowledge at its best is subjective, or better, perhaps, some of the remarks Nietzsche made about the highest men of knowledge. Large parts of what Nietzsche wrote are, admittedly, unacceptable now, but that shouldn’t stop us seeing the gems that still shine through. One of those concerns an essential characteristic of the people Nietzsche wanted to include in his personal learning network. He calls them “free spirits” and says that they are people “of the most comprehensive responsibility who have the conscience for the collective evolution of mankind.” (Beyond Good and Evil, 61)

Interestingly, the video tries to give greater gravitas to the personal learning network by predicting that the learner at its centre will go on to “creatively solve the world’s problems.” Now, isn’t there something that needs explaining there? Why would people who have been happy shuffling around other people’s ideas to answer questions asked by their teacher want to take on a mammoth task like creatively solving the world’s problems (if it weren’t part of their job description)?

Surely Nietzsche is right and this minority of learners (because we wouldn’t expect everyone to be equally troubled by the way of the world) must feel that they carry within them the conscience of the age. Now could the digital personal learning network contribute anything at all to the development of that conscience? Surely it requires, more than anything else a deep personal engagement with what is actually going on in the world.

Of course it helps massively to connect with other people who are also interested in your line of study, but in our enthusiasm about the creative use of new tech perhaps we have to be a little careful not to forget the importance of encouraging young people to develop the deepest possible personal engagement with the reality that confronts them offline.

written by Torn Halves on October 20, 2012 in digital revolution and education with one Comment