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Learning Ability

Superpowers for Engineers of the Future

When we choose engineering as a career, we are making a decision to become lifelong students. The crazy pace of technological change means that we must be constantly learning and re-learning our art. The day we stand still and stop checking our assumptions against the latest developments is the day we begin to become irrelevant as engineering professionals. 

During the past two decades, however, an amazing shift has occurred. Because of the information revolution, learning itself has changed. In addition to learning new stuff about engineering and technology, we actually have to re-learn how to learn.

If learning about a new technology is like developing a new software application, re-forming our learning process is like developing a new operating system. Fundamental assumptions about how we obtain, evaluate, and retain information have to be thrown out and re-formed.

When I was “learning to learn” (my formal education years), there was a high threshold for obtaining answers. When a question popped into my head, my options for finding the answer involved things like “look it up in the encyclopedia” and “go to the library”. Both of those actions required a fair amount of effort on my part. As a result, only the most important questions warranted heading out in search of an answer. Most questions that popped into my head therefore remained unanswered – the fabric of a large and mysterious unexplored area of my knowledge network.

Fast forward to the next generation, where students have always had access to the Internet. For them, the barrier to obtaining answers is much lower. They develop different habits than I did. If a question pops into their head, they look it up. As a result, their knowledge network has far fewer unresolved nodes than mine. Even if their cognitive abilities are no stronger than mine, they may well be “smarter” because their accumulated wealth of answers and correlations between those answers is much larger than what I developed.

Move another generation to the students who, for their entire lives (and particularly the formative years) have had supercomputers in their pockets connected to the global information infrastructure. For those people, the notion of an unanswered question might virtually disappear. They will grow up swimming in a sea of knowledge where my generation was carefully carrying it up the hill from the creek in buckets.

For the current generation, many have not adjusted to the idea of ubiquitous information access. I have had many cases where adults ask questions in casual situations, and I offer an answer. They look at me puzzled. 

“How did you know that?”

“I Googled it.”

“Oh, I never thought of that.”

It simply does not occur to them that an answer to just about any question in the world is only a few keystrokes or finger-pokes away. That is not the world they grew up in, and they have not adapted to the current one. When it comes to information, they are living in a foreign country and they have not learned the language. They are very comfortable leaving questions unanswered – posing and re-posing them almost as a recreational activity – reveling in the mystery of the unknown and presumably unknowable.

My generation, (and I’d guess most working professional engineers) are in a slightly different group. We too are living in a foreign land, but we have learned the language (some with more fluency than others). Because our careers require us to constantly find answers, we have embraced the concepts of the information age. We know how to use search engines. We pull out our smartphones at the slightest provocation and find the answer to the technical question, remind ourselves who starred in that movie, or check to see what that song is that’s playing. We have somewhat adapted to the change.

There is a dark side to this ubiquitous information access, however. In the dumb-old-days, most of the sources we’d consult when we went on a quest for answers were in printed books. There was a fairly high standard for what could end up in print. Usually, some form of editorial review was part of the process. Once we old-timers found an answer in a book, our degree of confidence in the credibility of the information was fairly high.

For the older generation I just described, the level trust in printed information was very high. That generation developed expressions like “they say.” For example: “They say that eating too much sugar causes diabetes.” For these people, “They” meant people whose words had managed to make it into print. “They” were the experts – the chosen few with knowledge. We believed “them.” While it was OK to sometimes be skeptical of “them,” the default behavior was trust. 

Today, with ubiquitous access to information, that trust no longer exists. When I Google “moon landing,” there are over 82,700,000 results. I have to assume that the majority of those 82 million results contain information that is not trustworthy. The first two Google results – both from Wikipedia – are for the “moon landing” page and the “moon landing conspiracy theories” page. OK, we’re off to an interesting start here – 82,699,998 results to go.

Today, we are forced to develop an unprecedented level of skepticism about the information we consume. We have to develop an ability to root out the sources of information, assess the reliability and often-hidden motivations of those sources, and cross-reference and evaluate that information until we are convinced that the answer we have is the right one. The information age has brought us the blessing of ubiquitous access to information and, right along with it, the curse of mountains of data that is inaccurate, incomplete, or misleading.

For today’s engineers, we have to work hard to adjust our way of learning. We must embrace the idea of looking for answers rather than being content with mysteries. We must dramatically increase our level of skepticism, while at the same time honing our ability to find and recognize the truth. We must learn the language of this new, foreign land that is the information age.

The next generation will have the new learning ability. Unlike us, they will not be learning a new language and a new way of thinking. They will have been born and raised in this world of instant access to unreliable information, and they will be able to swim through those waters with a comfort and fluency that we cannot imagine. 

3 thoughts on “Learning Ability”

  1. Remember when you had a big ‘ol IC Master book on your desk? You probably use different methods today to gather information – both for your engineering work and for your life in general. Do you think the information age has changed the very nature of learning?

  2. You make a very insightful point about the dramatic change in availability of information.
    But your article seems to assume that this is static, and does not go on to look at what further changes may occur. Or perhaps you meant to infer a snapshot of the immediate situation.

    For example there is google glasses. What social changes would this bring about–a wearer would never forget anyone’s name as the glasses would display the name and the persons stastics when the person is viewed. And everyone would be photographed everywhere. This next generation may have the same challenges in getting use to a lack of privacy.

    Or just as likely there or other things that will bring up more changes just as dramatic.

  3. You open an important debate with the issue of reliability of information. Even published papers from reviewed journals can still have errors in them. One has to seek out two, three or more sources to be sure. Lets hope those brought up Google have gained the ability to assess data and turn it into information. The great thing about engineering is that is usually possible to check the consistency of data -derive the formula yourself, compare different approaches. Again, lets hope the new generation do not fall onto the easy path of taking things as read but that they seek to *understand* the underlying basis of what they find on the internet – not just parrot it.

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