Snake Oil, Black Pearls, and 21st Learning to Learn

The snake oil salesman never disappeared. If, like me, your mother shoved a spoonful of castor oil down you at the briefest glimpse of a hot flush, there’s the evidence. Pharmaceuticals have industrialised the sell now.

At the end of the 19th century however, the Gentlemen peddling his snake oil cure all from — whooping cough, wealth in abundance, to dodgy knees — was on borrowed time. He (and they were mainly all men) had got the better of the human mind. We, sentients, want things easily, quickly, with often little effort on our side. Why not at a cost?

There’s a broader metaphor of the Snake man on the web, social and academia at large and while that immediate remedy may have merit in the short term, in the medium to long term you’re doing yourself no favours. Take the next conference you’re likely to attend, or tweet you’ll click. A listicle of 10 points will be presented to you espousing how these will be the cure-all to your communications problem.

Not enough traffic? Try these SEOs, plus $9.99 trial. Want to create compelling video? This one day course will provide you with everything you need to know. All you need to do is to walk your uncritical brain to the session. That’ll be $90. Thanks.

We’re at a new thresh hold of supplementing the art of problem solving for the andrenalin-induced quick fix approach. Aligned with the web and search engine’s dominance, the potential for losing a critical skill should be worrying, particularly in academia, and learning institutions.

Psychologists call it desirable difficulty, which describes a trait that if you gained access to information, with little difficulty, it’s likely it won’t become part of your long term memory. The term was coined by Robert Bjork. Listen to a succinct explanation for about 2 minutes on a BBC Radio 4 programme (link below), from 9 minutes in and then watch the video from Veronica Wan.

An approach I adopt as part of my teaching on my Masters programme and training is heuristics and hermaneutics. Broadly, the former means quick assessments, often framed by an assumption, and the latter references testing the hypothesis vigorously. While we inadvertently assume these stances, one thing I learned from my PhD is how rigorously it can be executed, so the reasons behind our study actions are deeply explained from our own discoveries.

The reasons behind the ‘why we’re learning’ are critical, because the conditions behind our knowledge, particularly within the illusionary collapsed societies of the web, do change. This is broadly illustrative when you have students from the Western and East cultures mix.

The process should usually involve a degree of inertia and difficulty within the learning cycle I propose. I call this the black pearl. It’s there to be discovered against the Sea anemones and coral but requires rigour and a degree of despondency, until finally it’s found. Such knowledge rarely decomposes.

I’m speaking at the i-Docs conference in March, where I hope to elucidate on this; the idea that approaches in media, documentary or a model for interactivity exists. If anything it needs to be empirically tested. My speciality involves the psychology of the moving image, for instance cinema and information on the mind via cognitvism and semiotics.

I hope to see you there.

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