E-Knowledge & I-Knowledge

June 7, 2006

When we hear the word knowledge, most of us think of explicit knowledge. That's the tidy stuff people can agree on. Schools teach it. There's a right way and a wrong way. It's in the book.

David Weinberger likens explicit knowledge to a tree. It's organized into branches. Some of the branches have been pruned. That's why you don't study Voltaire in physics class, or algebra in English; they're on separate trees. What's not there is as important as what is.

Explicit is beginning to take a back seat to its brother, implicit. If explicit knowledge is a tree, implicit knowledge is a pile of leaves. The bigger the pile, the more extensive the knowledge. The Voltaire leaves, the physics leaves, and the algebra leaves are all in there together. This is okay, because with computer assistance, I can pull whatever I want out of the pile. I might discover that Voltaire's father taught algebra.

Implicit knowledge is the vision you form from snips of this and snaps of that: gossip, magazines, observations, movies, friends, blogs, jokes, radio programs, games, and other items you pluck from the flow of information surging through your live. It's how you learned about making love or making scrambled eggs or making a speech to the board of directors. This sort of knowledge is never perfect; the issue is whether it's good enough for you.

Shorthand. To more easily describe these two different takes on knowledge, I'm going to call them E-knowledge (think Expert) and I-knowledge (think I because I make it myself).

The internet has encouraged the rise of I-knowledge in several ways. For one thing, services like Google and Wikipedia put boatloads of knowledge within easy reach. For another, email and the blogosphere give you access to a broad range of people you can talk with about things. And the net empowers us all to form our own opinions and create our own knowledge. As David Weinberger famously said, "hyperlinks subvert hierarchy." When we all share the same knowledge base, the elite have no foundation to stand on. The net is egalitarian.

There's a battle going on between those who favor the E and those who prefer the I. The Wall Street Journal reporter who wrote this paragraph clearly doesn't buy into the validity of I-knowledge:

It is an odd state of affairs when books or movies need defending, especially when the replacement proffered by certain Web-oriented companies and their apologists is so dismally inferior: chunks and links and other bits of evidence of epidemic ADD. Reading some stray person's comment on the text I happen to be reading is about as appealing as hearing what the people in the row behind me are saying about the movie I'm watching.

The opposing argument is that diversity trumps single-mindedness. I judge movies from neither the people in the row behind me nor by reading a single review in The Wall Street journal. I prefer to check Roger Ebert, ask friends who have seen it, see if it's palying at a convenient time and place, and scan the chatter on the net.

Dr. Weinberger makes this analogy. It's a hot day. I'm sweaty. I walk into a bar and order a beer. It's not perfect. What do I do?

  1. Put the beer back on the counter, complaining that it's not perfect and heading out to another bar, and another, and another. (Explicitly, the beer isn't tops.)
  2. Sip the beer, saying it's not perfect but it's pretty good. Icy cold. It will do. (Implicit in my current context, this is more than sufficient for my needs.)


Tags are labels for chunks of information on the web. If a clunk is not tagged, you have to open it up to see what's inside. If it's tagged, a computer can take a look for you. No one disputes the value of tagging any more than they would dispute the value of labels on tin cans at the supermarket.

The best way to come up with the tags is another matter. People who believe in the primacy of E-knowledge favor metadata (tags) drawn from a preconceived code book (a formal taxonomy). They fear that anything else leads to chaos. I-knowledge people favor folksonomies, tags they make up on the fly or choose from a dynamically generated list of tags chosen by others. Taxonomy is rigid; folksonomy is flexible. Guess which scheme works best in times of rapid change? I wish Uncle Sam would stop applying rigid, dead-end metadata on my dime.

As you certainly know if you got this far, I advocate correcting the balance between formal and informal learning. Formal learning is the only way you learn E-knowledge. That's why formal learning institutions, be they training departments or elementary schools are so into assessment and grades: if there's only one answer, it's simple to test whether or not you know it.

Informal learning is the pathway to I-knowledge. I-knowledge is what you decide upon after dumping odds and ends into your brain's blender. Demonstration of performance is the only viable test of I-knowledge.

Learning the I-way
I've been participating in an online discussion about informal learning with a group of teachers, facilitators, and community organizers on SCoPE. SCoPE brings together individuals who share an interest in education research and practice. SCoPE relies on support from the Learning and Instructional Development Centre at Simon Fraser University.

It has been an active discussion (that's still going on, carried by the enthusiasm of its participants, despite the fact that it officially ended three days ago.) When I read back though many threads this evening, I realized that we focused on the process of learning. We talked of attitudes, andragogy, sharing, the web, games, simulation, motivators, eLearning ecosystems, learning milieux, cognitive arousal, and fun. We didn't talk about changes in the nature of what was being learned, the shift from E to I.

The closest we came was when one participant wrote that "I'm beginning to suspect that formal/training occurs when you assume you're supplying answers and informal/learning is when you invite questions that generate partial, even incomplete, answers from diverse resources."

I replied, "I'm with you that formal/training supplies the answers. It assumes there is an answer and tells you to buy it. Informal learning provides sources, pointers, facts, etc., but leaves it to the learner to assemble his or her own 'right answer.' I recall boozy sessions at college many decades ago debating whether truth was absolute or relative. We may be grapping with a similar issue here."

The informal learning debate may boil down to "Form follows function." When the function is to share knowledge, remember the rule "I before E…."

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