|Access: the student can access an array of information|
Digital learning is neither uniquely non-linear nor always non-linear. In fact, I maintain that digital learning is no different in linearity from other learning activities. Which is to say: it is generally linear.
Hyperlinking and 1-device access to a multiplicity of information resources (tweets, blogs, nings, feeds, media, pinboards, etc.) provide many options for non-linear information collection, but does the fact that a student can stumble upon and collect multiple information points create a non-linear learning experience?
|Collection: similar information in the array is linked by category|
If you believe the answer is yes, you believe a myth.
|Result: information is "in the head" but no new learning is created|
Information that is collected is the result of a linear process (see illustration above). Like a coin or Thomas the Train collection, an information collection serves the purpose of expanding a student's content knowledge by providing multiple instances of like information. Does this expand deep knowledge, or learning?
Learning, especially deep learning, requires not just collection and ordering (or arraying), but the creation of new connections between unlike and even disparate information points.
This is non-linear learning.
A digital device can not creatively "connect the dots" for the student, but it does provide excellent support for ordering. The act of collecting a digital array of information about medieval weapons, for example, does not result in learning about medieval weaponry, but it may result in a life-time encyclopedic content knowledge of it.
A box of 3 x 5 cards does the same thing.
The Digital Kit, provided by teachers and described in this post by Bill Ferriter, uses digital tools to provide a path to information collection. Unfortunately, it does not require that students take part in the gathering of resources.
Information gathering is essentially non-linear.
Deep learning requires curiosity but also the persistent pursuit of a goal. This goal is often an amorphous, moving target that gains shape as the learner pursues a topic, makes connections, and draws conclusions. Serendipity plays a significant role.
The fit between the digital environment and this moving target is a good one, but the likelihood that a young learner - or an impatient learner of any age - will not persist in the task is high. In fact, the reality of the classroom is that most students will fix upon a linear path to information - and call this learning. After all, the most common search strategy is to Google a specific question. What is more linear than that?
The nature of the learning experience depends entirely upon the inclination of the learner and the guidance he receives. Left to their own devices, so the speak, students will be as linear as they have always been. And, sadly, few teachers are skilled in developing curriculum and learning activities that support and spur students to learn otherwise. Few schools have adopted educational models that support and encourage non-linear learning.
There has been little significant change in this over the last 15 years.
I am concerned about the long-term effects of Myth #2. Teachers who have little experience with non-linear learning believe that a digital device by itself provides something new, exciting and important. They believe that apps proclaiming to be "non-linear" are new, exciting and important. They are not trained to critically evaluate digital learning or its apps.
At the same time, they develop the same linear learning activities and lessons for this "new" learning experience that were developed on paper a teaching generation ago - linear expectations, linear lessons.
Moreover, they believe that creating a multi-media digital product is a demonstration of non-linear learning and they embed these products as assessments.
Alas, the digital tools available in most classrooms generally serve to present a collection of linear learning bits, rather than a creative product of deep learning - a true gathering of learning. Peruse student digital products with a critical, rather than an "aha," frame of mind and you will find that they are generally shallow and imitative collections - linear responses to linear expectations masquarading as creative mashups. The good news is that the best of these can provide other students with non-linear paths to understanding. The bad news is that few teachers use student products for this purpose.
Educators need to work harder and differently in the digital world if non-linear is the goal. Instead of looking to iPads and other digital devices as the change-maker in the learning experience, we should look to teachers and school environments/structures as the change-makers.