Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Why learning in on-places changed my life

I’m a mobile learner. In fact, I’d say that of all the learning experiences in my life, learning on the move has been the most productive. How so? Learning is a habit (see previous post)and I’ve habitually learnt on the move, largely in what Marc Auge calls ‘non-places’ – trains, planes, automobiles, buses, hotels, airports, stations. I’m never without a book, magazine or mobile device for learning. 
Young people not driving
Isn’t it interesting that, according to the University of Michigan, the number of US 17 year olds with a driving licence has fallen from 69% in 1983 to 50% in 2011? Among the several explanations for this, is the rise of the internet. The explosion of communication through texting, chat, Facebook and email, has lessened the need for physical contact. Indeed, driving prevents you from being in the flow, as you can’t be online (legally) when you drive. Young people also choose to spend their money on small, electronic shiny devices, like smartphones, rather than large, hugely expensive, shiny, mechanical cars, which they may see as environmentally unsound. On top of this costs have soared, especially for fuel and insurance.
This caught my attention as I’ve never driven a car in my life. Don’t get me wrong it’s been more happenstance than moral stance. I’ve lived in cities such as Edinburgh, London and now Brighton, where a car is just not that useful. I’ve never really been stuck, in terms of getting anywhere, with just two exceptions; when I was a student on a campus University in the US and when I worked in Los Angeles. Other than that, my familiarity with public transport, has got me to some pretty obscure places around the world.
Learning time
By luck this has literally given me years of time to read and learn in the isolated and comfortable surroundings of buses, trains, planes and hotels. I actually look forward to travel, as I know I’ll be able to read and think, even write in peace (writing this now on a 6.5 hr flight from Middle East). Being locked away, uninterrupted in a comfortable environment is exactly what I need in terms of attention and reflection. I calculate that over the last 30 years, of not driving, I’ve given myself about 20 days a year study time, totalling 600 days, so I’m heading towards a couple of years of continuous learning.
It was the French anthropologist Marc Auge in his book Non-Places, who pointed out that many of us, especially heavy users of public transport, spend considerable amounts of time in railway stations, airports, hotels and other neutral, non-spaces, in transit to somewhere else. The good news is that these places have become havens for learning. I stock up on books, read in the lounge, browse magazines, buy newspapers, and generally see these places as opportunities for reading and refection. Witness the rise of airport bookshops and the commonplace appearance of a Kindle or laptop on trains and aeroplanes.
If you redefine m-learning, as learning on the move and get away from the idea that it’s just content delivered via mobiles, it becomes an important part of the learning landscape. So buy a Kindle, notepad or load up your phone with content. Or stick to books. The important thing is to get into the habit of learning on the move and see non-places as learning spaces.


Kate Graham said...

I couldn't agree more. My m-learning also includes a variety of devices such as the Kindle and iPod, as well as print in the form of books and newspapers. It's the one element I miss about commuting as I always had time that was essentially ring-fenced for this activity. It would be great if people could see this sort of dead time in these non-places as an opportunity rather than a hassle.

Dave Ferguson said...

You've got a cluster of good points here, starting with the (sometimes less-than-)obvious one that learning is a habit.

I realize that everyone learns, because up to a certain level you can't help it. The difference, I think, is intentionally going beyond the stuff you can't avoid--as in seeking it out. Not everyone does that; not everyone nourishes the curiosity and self-awareness required.

I like the idea of non-places, which I hadn't heard before. It's clear that people have for ages learned in these non-places. One of the great advantages of the printed book, even in the 16th century, was its portability.

"Learning on the move" would be a good name for a blog.

Donald Clark said...

Dave - portability is an interesting dimension here. Scrolls were non-portable and difficult to handle. Books more portable and you had one hand free to take notes etc. It was when books escaped the confines of the library that the real revolution took place. Now we have true portability with anywhere, anytime devices. Having the entire corpus of literature in your device is the ultimate in portability.

James said...

While I have some sympathy for your general point, this study seems to have some pretty serious methodological flaws which I have written about here.

Always have to be on guard against confirmation bias.

Also as someone who grew up in a fundamentalist family your creationist analogy is spot on.