We at Garbrook now look at knowledge resources from the viewpoint of the user rather than as the developer. We have always been interested in the other side of the equation: what happens to the many facts, discoveries, and reviews of accepted knowledge that scientists put into specialized literature and which make their way into online knowledge resources? How much of it reaches the awareness of other scientists or indeed the general public? In this age of overabundant information, how can we avoid a feeling of inadequacy in our learning? We all foster an unconscious illusion that we understand the everyday world we live in, and we have crafted personalized world views to give meaning to the lives we lead. Too much new knowledge, indeed whole new fields of knowledge, can be unsettling to anyone. If the new fields of science seem daunting, impenetrable, or even threatening, there is a danger that we will tune them out or even reject them. Human discoveries that should be sources of enlightenment might instead cause alienation.
We hear that students at Harvard are expected to learn a little about everything and a lot about something. For those of us who are several decades past our college years, especially those who didn’t have the opportunity to go to Harvard, it becomes hard to keep up with even the names of the new fields. How are we to build a world view that has a place for synthetic biology and personal genomics? How are we to wrap our minds around climate change? How are we to understand new discoveries about human origins from fossil DNA if we haven’t kept up with molecular biology or if we have been taught to reject evolution? What in the world are we to do with the new discoveries of dark matter and dark energy? There is little chance that a modern education will incorporate a little of everything, and even less chance that we can keep up with everything in our adult lives, when the world changes at the pace it does today. Yet paradoxically, the new fields of learning that seem so daunting and impenetrable are also freely accessible to us all. Furthermore, the new technology makes the richness of traditional fields, including the humanities, our culture, our history, and our arts available to us more than ever before. This is the first decade in which the bandwidth of the Internet makes near-universal knowledge available to us at virtually no cost. Unfortunately, we haven’t yet been taught now to navigate the new online world of knowledge and how to hang onto the treasures we might find there.
Our philosophy of online learning is based on our own experiences as adults several decades past our years of formal education. We have been thinking about the Web itself as an educational resource and the tools that are required to properly take advantage of it. We believe that self-directed exploration of online knowledge resources and creation of personal knowledge collections could be a new way of learning for adults, building on our formal educations, and complementing our current uses of the Web. If we merely scan lists of courses we could take, or ponder the range of questions we could ask of our search engine, we will be discouraged in the hope of ever acquiring broad coherent knowledge. But if we are empowered to follow our curiosities, on a daily basis, in online journeys of exploration that are deeper than mere search and quicker than course-based instruction, we can each feel brave enough to stick our nose into almost any field. If we have the tools that empower us to enter any field at the appropriate level of depth and to navigate among trusted resources, then we can revisit familiar landmarks in our knowledge while filling the gaps and generating new questions. If our tools empower us to be collectors of personal knowledge, then we will build personal knowledge collections filled with treasures that we can review, reflect upon, and share with our friends and colleagues. As our personal knowledge collections grow faster than we ever dreamed possible, we become mindful of what we know and what we don’t yet know. While we may not be the first scholar or scientist to express a new concept or discovery, when we encounter something that fits into our personal knowledge or alters our world view, it feels like discovery just the same. We won’t be daunted by how much there is still to learn when we are building personal knowledge collections from the inside out.
Tools for personal learning are being developed at Garbrook to assist in navigation, retention, review, and sharing of collected knowledge from online exploration. The tools themselves must learn from the user, interfacing the user’s mind with a web-based Personal Knowledge Collection that sits between the user and the vastness of the Internet. A Personal Knowledge Collection must be maintained safe and secure in the cloud for access by only the intended user, and access must be guaranteed for decades, even as software vendors and operating systems might change. We hope to stimulate awareness of the emerging possibilities for personal self-directed online learning and to play our part in this emerging field. Further announcements, news, and reflections from our experience will appear on this website.