Memory replaced by a mouse

11th September 2009 at 01:00

One of my learners was permanently online. In classes he attended, there was never any need to search your memory for that elusive date or name, because James would find it for you just as you hesitated. Pause for breath, even, and he was there with a prompt. It was great. It was like having an extra little brain you could access, especially on a Monday morning when you can use all the brains you can borrow.

But sometimes you wished James would stop because you liked using your long-term memory; not only did it give you the chance to impress the students with your random knowledge, but it was reassuring to know it was all still there, even if the files weren't that well-organised.

Trouble is, soon I won't need my long-term memory. Why remember when I can find information with a few key strokes? Soon I won't need to organise or store information I want to keep. Cloud computing will service my every need. Like a giant James in the sky, the Cloud, that big communal brain, will suffice.

Where, though, does that leave our puny little brains down here on the ground? My education pretty much consisted of remembering things for a long time, right through to Finals. Now recent research argues that working memory, that is short-term memory and the ability to manage and process information as and when it's needed, is a much better predictor of academic success, and more accurate than IQ tests. We don't need to remember, it seems; we just need to access information when we need it.

But hold on here. The reason working memory is a good predictor of academic success is because most teaching and assessment is unitised and relies on working memory. In further education, for example, units are broken down into outcomes and these are taught and assessed on an inputoutput pattern. With one unit done and dusted, it's on to the next one.

There are clear advantages to this system. It starts everyone off on a level playing field. Students who may have had a poor experience with learning in a particular area quickly find that they have a fresh start and that success is possible. Get the students on the right course and you have a recipe for success.

So what's not to like about unitised learning? Well, learning is treated as just another disposable item. And if you don't have to remember anything long term, you can't make the connections between units. When you teach several units in a single programme you can encourage learners to see the connections, to explore, to question and to engage actively with their learning. They carry forward what they've learnt and build solid foundations. The graded unit at Higher National level encourages and supports this kind of teaching, but more needs to be done to avoid courses being perceived as chunks of learning that can be jettisoned as soon as the boxes are ticked.

I missed James when he left. He was so useful. But I was glad he went, too. You can become overly-reliant. And my long-term memory needs the exercise so that it's in good shape for when a James is not around.

Carol Gow is a former further education lecturer in creative media.

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