Forms of Presentation and the Future of Comprehension

User limitations: limits to learning

Anthony Judge

1. Specialized user

The previous section noted the widespread condition of user specialization. This is characteristic of a programme-oriented usage context associated with the adaptive processes of maintenance learning. In such a context the user cannot really be said to have limitations because whenever any limitations are encountered it is simply accepted that greater specialisation is necessary. Through specialising, limitations in the user are circumvented (in effect by imposing limitations on the user). Specialization is here taken to include avoidance of any subject matter which is too complex. In other words the user focuses on that material which he believes meets his needs and abilities (whether as a schoolchild or a postgraduate).(Any relative operational "incompetence" of a user-learner can be considered as a limitation society effectively imposes on him; the educational level of documentation he is capable of absorbing define a form of specialisation).

2. Limits to learning

The Club of Rome report optimistically concludes that: "Human potential is being artificially constrained and vastly under-utilized -- so much so that for all practical purposes there appear to be virtually no limits to learning" (5, p. 9 - the added emphasis being the actual title of the report). The subtitle of the report, "bridging the human gap", arises from a recognition that "the human gap is the distance between growing complexity and our capacity to cope with it". (5, p. 6)

This "gap", in the case of the individual user, appears in the form of one or more limits. Only by considering the nature of these limits (listed below) is it possible to determine the form of learning which is "unlimited". (The report itself is necessarily vague, if not ambiguous, in the way in which these limits are neglected in its more general focus on unlimited learning possibilities).

    a. Quantitative limit: As noted previously, no user is expected to master the quantity of information in every domain of knowledge. A user is limited in that he can only process a fraction of that amount in any given period (even a lifetime). It may be argued that a total access system gives him unlimited "finger-tip mastery" through the ability to access any item of information. But it is important to distinguish between his unlimited power of access and the limited number of accesses he can usefully make in any given period of time. In this respect his learning capacity is limited.

    b. Limit to perception of connectedness: Learning is not simply the commitment of isolated elements of information to memory. These elements must be interlinked in a web of comprehended relationships. Such relevance networks extend around every item of information. There are clearly limits to the extent of any such network which an individual can "bear in mind", or tolerate as relevant, particularly as a user of an information system. Even if the task of remembering them is delegated to the system (and there are budgetary limitations), there are limits to the density of connectedness which the user can comprehend as a pattern. Abandoning such comprehension in favour of a linear sequence of accesses imposes a different limit. This is analogous to the case of a traveller on an unmapped subway system who has only lists of stations as a guide -- there is no limitation to his travels but, as in a maze, there is a limit to the complexity of the pattern he could finally comprehend.

    c. Limit to comprehension span:. A standard response to the two previous limits is to encode information into some category scheme which provides a better grasp for learning purposes. A user-learner can only tolerate a relatively limited range of categories. This may be as low as 3, or it may extend into the hundreds if only a low degree of overall comprehension is demanded (10). This need for categorisation is a user limitation which arbitrarily distorts his comprehension of the continuum of knowledge.

    d. Limit to comprehension depth:. The previous limit necessitates the use of nested sub-categories in order that at each level the number of categories should not exceed an acceptable span. But the number of levels of any such nesting is limited by problems of comprehension if it becomes too "deep". Hierarchical nestings seldom have more than about 7 levels for the same reasons as above (10). The need to restrict the number of levels actively borne in mind by the user is another user limitation which affects his learning capacity in the face of complexity.

    e. Pre-logical limitations:. Learning is strongly influenced by pre-logical (possibly culturally determined) biases governing which kinds of information are preferred. A user will unconsciously select information which is in sympathy with his position on each of the following axes, for example: order/disorder, static/dynamic, continuity/discreteness, spontaneity/process, etc. (II). Such preferences impose a limit on the learning capacity of the user, concealing blindspots and giving rise to irrational antipathies for certain forms of information which are significant to others. The situation is further limited because the biases may also determine the media (e.g. text, image, speech) through which information is preferred and via which learning is facilitated. Some information may only be communicable via certain media (e.g. music, space-structures).

    f. Attention span limit: As noted above a user is normally only prepared to devote a limited amount of time to any learning process through an information system. The amount is frequently less than the time required to access information from the system. But even if a document is distributed to the user automatically, his available attention time for absorbing the contents (through whatever medium) is often such that the information is effectively rejected. A third aspect is that even if he allocates the necessary time to the learning process, there are limits to his power of concentration in the presence of whatever distractions he accepts in his environment. Given that some phenomena require a significant amount of attention before they can be comprehended (at least by a given user), it is clear that users are limited in their ability to comprehend those requiring more attention than they are prepared to give.

    g. Memory limit: A number of the above limits could be circumvented if user-learners were unlimited in their effective memory capacity. This is clearly not the case. Poor or "patchy" memory is a widespread phenomenon. In an information society this situation is complicated as Toffler notes:

    "On a personal level, we are all besieged and blitzed by fragments of imagery, contradictory or unrelated, that shake up our old ideas and come shooting at us in the form of broken or disembodied "blips". We live, in fact, in a "blip culture"... Instead of receiving long, related "strings" of ideas, organised or synthesised for us, we are increasingly exposed to short, modular blips of information -- ads, commands, theories, shreds of news, truncated bits and blobs that refuse to fit neatly into our pre-existing mental files". (6, pp. 181-182)

    Toffler argues that the "computer is one antidote to the blip culture" (p. 191):

    "It can sift vast masses of data to find subtle patterns. It can help assemble "blips" into larger, more meaningful wholes". (p. 190)

    Whilst this may be a future possibility, most users are attempting more or less unsuccessfully to navigate through a whirl of blips rapidly forced into oblivion by the emergence of others. Computers have done little to assist memory to organise them, even in sophisticated computer conferencing data base-linked environments (7). And even if assistance was effective, the computer dependence it created for the user could be construed as a major limitation -- a handicap accentuated by the effectiveness of the crutch. Such dependence, without critical renewal of categorisation, could well lead to a computerized version of the "railway hammer civilisation".

    This is illustrated by an anecdote cited in the Club of Rome report (p. 22): "An old British story tells of an elderly railway man who, at his retirement after thirty years of irreproachable service, asks his colleagues gathered for the celebration, why it was that he had to hit the wheels with a hammer each time the train was stationed. No one knew the answer. Current sociology is now concerned with the possible emergence of a "railway hammer civilisation" in which people are repeating patterns and forms of behavior without any hint of the reasons, laws, and purposes behind them".

 3. Integrative comprehension

It is possible that in arguing that there were "no limits to learning", the Club of Rome report was really implying the lack of limitations on a mass of people each pursuing overlapping or complementary concerns. The question of the limits to societal learning will therefore be considered in the next section.

Given the above constraints, however, it is important to recognise the challenge to the individual user and to the information system serving him. The report notes:

    "While some societies have gingerly experimented with inter-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary studies, the modern trend toward fragmentation continues... Nowhere is the impact of over-specialization so keenly felt as in the context of global issues. It is simply not possible to analyse and formulate policies for global issues from any exclusive disciplinary perspective. The economic approach, the legal approach, the social or political approach are each, by themselves, insufficient for dealing with problems that require an integrated and holistic understanding. Such specialisation virtually guarantees irrelevance". (5. p. 70)
International information systems have been significantly weak in facilitating interdisciplinary approaches. For example, an overview and extensive bibliography of such approaches appears under the title "Integrative, Unitary and Transdisciplinary Concepts" (Section K of ref. 2). The library of the intergovernmental agency with ongoing programmes on interdisciplinarity, failed to register this in its computerised system although it possessed the volume. (Possibly because it only uses "interdisciplinarity" as a category for the few items it processes on this approach). Little is known about how an individual user-learner can build up an integrative understanding, as recommended by the Club of Rome report (5, p. 98). Some suggestions concerning this are made in separate papers (12,13).

It is within this integrative perspective that the problem of innovative learning (discussed earlier) must be raised again. How are international information systems with heavy financial, intellectual and personal commitments to fixed category thesauri to respond to the integrative needs of future users? :

    "Innovative learning is problem formulating and clustering. Its main attributes are integration, synthesis, and the broadening of horizons. It operates in open situations or open systems. Its meaning derives from dissonance among contexts [On this point see ref. 14]. It leads to critical questioning of conventional assumptions behind traditional thoughts and actions, focusing on necessary changes. Its values are not constant, but rather shifting. Innovative learning advances our thinking by reconstructing wholes, not by fragmenting reality".
Is the international documentation system relevant to the challenge of innovative learning? Or is its progressive computerisation the object of criticism such as the following:
    "It is lamentable that innovative technologies introduced into maintenance learning structures have been diverted to performing maintenance tasks, such as rapid presentation of fixed facts that was characteristic of early attempts at programmed instruction". (5, p. 32)
The question is how to help the user-learner reformulate the category scheme he is using into one which is more innovatively relevant.
    "But even if all items in the total body of literature were identifiable and available at low cost (which is the aim of those who favour this approach), there still remains the problem of how to improve the relevance of the questions asked to the problem complex faced by the policy-making process. Retrieval is not the problem, it is merely aggravated by this more fundamental problem. Retrieval systems focus queries in the light of the user's existing knowledge and biases. They do not orient the policy-oriented user to knowledge and issues with which he should also be concerned in relation to his current preoccupations (in the light of qualified or alternative opinions). They do not bring to his attention where his preoccupation may fit in relation to other preoccupations. He is given no sense of scale, proportion or orientation -- he merely gets what he asked for however much difficulty he has in formulating his question in appropriate words". (15)
The quotation above was made in a report to the Commonwealth Secretariat on the possibility of using mapping techniques to provide users with a better sense of context than is provided by the arbitrary category divisions of thesauri insensitive to the functional relationships between the phenomena categorised. (Nature and society are no more subdivided on the basis of such categories than they are on the basis of university faculties).
    "We submit that many of the difficulties of learning today stem from the neglect of contexts... Innovative learning cannot be the mere digestion of an input, resulting in an output; nor can it be a simple additive process of connecting values to things. In order to enhance the human capacity to act in new situations and to deal with unfamiliar events, innovative learning requires the absorption of vast collections of contexts. When contexts are restricted, the probability of shock learning increases, for shock may be conceived as a sudden event that occurs outside the known contexts. Hence one task of innovative learning is to enhance the individual's ability to find, absorb, and create new contexts - in short, to enrich the supply of contexts. If the existing supply cannot offer the required analogy to deal with new or unexpected events, then we must develop the capacity to construct suitable alternative mental frameworks". (5, pp. 23-24)
This brings the argument back to a point made by the Rector-select of the UN University. Ambassador Soedjatmoko:
    "Part of our incapacity to comprehend fully what is happening to us in the changing conditions of the world, despite the plethora of available information, lies in the operational inadequacies of present conceptual frameworks. We almost need a new language and we certainly need new concepts which will enable us to select, synthesise and conceptualise the full implications and the human significance of the challenges we face, of the changes we are going through, and of the means we will choose to meet these problems". (3)

Hence his concern with the learning capacity of nations.