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The Modern Learning Tools: Acquisition of Knowledge Through Digital Technologies

When writing was developed three thousand years ago, it completely transformed communication and the transfer of knowledge from one generation to the next. No longer did people have to rely on the oral words of storytellers to hear about their history. The invention of the printing press also revolutionized the dissemination of knowledge, with individuals of all classes being able to read about worldwide information. Innovations such as the radio and television once again greatly expanded the spread of knowledge, and continue to do so to this day. Yet, the digital revolution, the creation of the computer and, most important, the Internet, has transformed the nature of knowledge. The recent Twittering about the Middle East uprisings clearly demonstrated this, as did the immediate spread of information on the assassination of Osama Ben Laden. Knowledge can be defined as solely the acquisition of information with a recognition that the mind is cognizant of a new concept. It can also be defined more specifically, as the acquisition of information that helps people make decisions, be more perceptive of their external environment or internal selves and take action. In either case, especially the latter, people have to become more aware of the knowledge they gain and learn how to manage and utilize that knowledge in a way that best benefits themselves and others.

When college students wake up, they automatically check their cell phones to see if anyone has called. Then they look on their computer for instant messages, emails and comments on social media, such as Facebook. They may then read and/or respond to some of their favorite blogs. Once they begin thinking about their courses for the day, they may go to their online calendar to see if there are any papers or quizzes, download material that needs to be read or reviewed, or search on Google for required information. Most recently, they do not even have to go to the library; they just download electronic books or articles from the computer. Information technology and the acquisition of knowledge is completely woven throughout these students' days, so much so that they are not even aware that it is technology. Instead, they see the immediate access of knowledge as a part of their entire lives.

Digital Study

In the latest statistics there are 1,966,514,816 Internet users worldwide, or 28.7% of the population. This number grew 449% over the decade 2000-2010. Furthermore, not even a decade ago, the cell phone was just a luxury for automobiles. In 2010, the International Telecommunications Union (Economist) estimated that 4.6 billion mobile phones were in use, one billion with cameras. As information technology has continued to expand, educational sources, especially libraries, have recognized its importance. Increasing numbers of teachers are using the Internet in their courses. Until recently, much of the available information has been found in books in physical buildings and often difficult if not nearly impossible to access. The emergence of open educational resources (OER) "aims to break down such barriers and to encourage and enable sharing content freely" (OECD).

The term OER first came into use at an UNESCO meeting in 2002, defined as "the open provision of educational resources, enabled by information and communication technologies for consultation, use and adaptation by a community of users for noncommercial purposes" (Johnstone). Now, OER is generally considered as digitized materials offered freely and openly for educators, students and self-learners to use and reuse for teaching, learning and research. As of 2007, for example, thousands of open access courses were available at hundreds of universities, including 1,700 courses in the U.S., 750 in China, 400 in Japan and 800 in France. According to Thomas Friedman, "Never before in the history of the planet have so many people-on their own-had the ability to find so much information about so many things and about so many other people."

Based on the degree of integrated digital communication into the everyday culture of young adults, a number of educators argue that these individuals represent a new generation of learners who need to have a very different form of education in order to accommodate their skills and interests: "Our students have changed radically. Today's students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach" (Prensky, 2001, p.1) Many scholars, for example, say that this generation of students learns differently. They are active experiential learners, who are proficient in multitasking and dependent on communications technologies for accessing information and for interacting with others. The fact that the today's college student generation is different in its educational needs just because of the increase in information disseminated is questionable. For example, "cutting and pasting" of information from the Internet or, in some cases, actual plagiarism is also becoming a cultural norm of this tech-savvy generation. Many college students are accepting the information they read and passing it along without any of their own analysis or input. There is no determination of whether or not this information is from a reliable source nor is there any learning taking place. Many students will say that this misuse of information is prevalent at schools nationwide and also becoming a part of the culture, especially in technical disciplines.

The amount of "knowledge" acquired or being cognizant of new information is definitely increasing. The question is how should this term "knowledge" be defined? Is knowledge just the acquisition of new information as noted by the denotation of the word? Webster Dictionary defines knowledge as to have cognizance or be aware of something. It does not necessarily mean that there is an understanding of this new information or that education takes place. Or, is it meant to be something more? As Carl Sagan stated: "Knowing a great deal is not the same as being smart; intelligence is not information alone but also judgment, the manner in which information is collected and used." If one interprets knowledge in those same terms as Sagan, knowing includes how to collect and use all this new information. Just as it is necessary to teach reading and writing in the schools, it is also necessary to educate today's students on how to acquire, evaluate and utilize these reams and reams of information that confronts them. For example, they need to become knowledgeable fluent or literate.

Information fluent individuals are able to know how to search for information, reformulate knowledge, express themselves creatively, and synthesize new information. They must continually use what they have learned to make decisions, adapt to change and acquire more knowledge. The University of Central Florida defined information fluency as "The ability to function effectively in an information-rich environment demands fluency in technology and information, mediated by critical thinking. Information fluency is the ability to know when information is needed and to be able to effectively locate and communicate that information-in other words, to gather, evaluate, and use information." UCF argued that an information fluent student needs to have the ability to:

1) Determine the characteristics and degree of the information required;

2) Acquire the necessary information effectively and efficiently;

3) Assess the data and information and the resources analytically and incorporate chosen information into a knowledge base and value system;

4) Utilize information to reach specific goals;

5) Understand a number of the economic, legal, ethical, and social issues in regards to the utilization of information.

The National Research Council study established three sets of skills that students need to learn: intellectual capabilities, information technology concepts, and information technology skills. Intellectual capabilities consist of having the ability to manage complexity, collaborate using information technology, and recognize the misuse of information. Information technology concepts include being able to understand the basics of computer technology, the organization of information systems, and algorithmic thinking and programming. Information technology skills include the capability of using the Internet to find necessary data and information, utilizing a database to obtain information, and implementing some electronic means to create a document.

Knowledge, in itself, is a very complex topic. Scholars look at the study of knowledge management and the acquisition of new information from four major perspectives. The first is the ontological view of knowledge, or the study of the nature of phenomena. Researchers have such ontological concerns as whether the ''reality'' to be studied is external or instead the product of internal consciousness; whether ''reality'' consists of an ''objective'' nature or is instead the output of personal cognition; whether the ''reality'' is extended ''out there'' in the world or the output of one's mental processes. Knowledge consists of the products of a person's mind and it is ontologically subjective in nature. The epistemological view of knowledge is scientifically and philosophically based, where knowledge requires human institutions such as language for its existence. It is possible, therefore, to make both objective and subjective comments about knowledge. Also, knowledge can simply be objective or subjective and tacit and explicit. There is a difference between ''knowing how'' and ''knowing that.'' The former means someone having the ability to do different tasks, organize and exploit existing knowledge and the latter means the factual knowledge that someone has retained in the mind. The former is tacit; the latter is explicit.

The commodity or managerial perspective of knowledge is when knowledge is seen as a static organizational resource. It is product- or content-centered and has a codified nature. It can also be used for the benefit of commerce and business, exported, imported and managed. The community or social view assumes that knowledge is not static, but rather a dynamic concept and that it is created in social interactions: It is a social construct. This approach is also referred to as the ''process-centered'' approach. The communal perspective of knowledge is interpretive and focuses on people in a social context. This community concept of knowledge believes that knowledge is shared and constructed within organizations through an ongoing process of dialog and interactions. Knowledge consists of processes, standards, and regular procedures. Here, there is a shift away from the above noted product or commodity knowledge where the company knows best, to a process approach where the collective or group of people determines the results to be expected. It is a joint effort in the community that is jointly understood and negotiated and renegotiated by the members. It functions through a mutual relationship that connects people together with a shared use of community resources developed over time.

The acquisition of knowledge, especially with such immediacy, breadth and width, complexity and regularly, is particularly notable in the digital age. This necessitates that people better understand what it means to be knowledgeable, gain from knowledge or take action from knowledge gained. People generally put together the acquisition of the acquisition of information with education and learning. They consider what types of information do people need to know, and how best to disseminate that information from one person to another, how to graphically display that information so it is better understood. It is also the case that people see a natural connection between computers and education and learning, since computers can collect the needed information, disseminate it and graphically display it. They fail to remember that just focusing on the acquisition of data and information is limited both for themselves and their educational ability. If they want to truly become knowledgeable, then they have to take advantage of the digital technologies and all that they have to offer. They have to understand that the equipment is only one part of the total equation: computing and educating are two separate things.

To be digitally fluent is the same as being fluent in a language. The person knows the words and their meaning and can use the language as a means for taking action: communicating with others, locating information, better understanding the environment and a host of other things. Being fluent with digital technology is similar. Once the information is available, then it needs to be put to good use for better understanding a complex concept, making well-considered decisions, developing plans and implementing processes. It is not only knowing how to use the technology but recognizing the significance of what can be done with these tools.

As more and more information is distributed throughout the world through digital technology, it will be incumbent on educators to help students learn how to use this technology for a lot more than just cutting and pasting information and sending text messages to friends. Digital fluency has much greater utility in daily life and a much greater impact on learning. When applying knowledge that is gained, people are in a much better position of leveraging this knowledge and continue their learning throughout their lifetime for their benefit and the gain of community.


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