Dial up internet as a model for learning

A must watch for the weekend; Doug Belshaw’s recent presentation at TEDxWarwick on Digital Literacies. Doug’s work has always fascinated me, not only for the content but because of his knack for using structures and models to explain complex concepts in easily digestible ways. The medium in which he presents ideas is almost as interesting as the message itself.

One such model struck me from this talk, presented as a way of thinking about the acquisition of digital literacies but I think very applicable to learning in an even wider sense. In the days of dial up internet (for those without clear memories of this) images took some time to load, giving rise to a noticeable difference in how they were encoded as they downloaded.

Some images were encoded sequentially, and thus downloaded bit by bit, taking some time before the whole picture could be seen as elements were slowly revealed. As Doug describes, although every chunk you see is in full quality, the overall experience can be ‘really frustrating’.

The alternative was to encode the images progressively so that you start of with a whole image, albeit blurry, which becomes ‘progressively richer in detail’ as the rest of the information downloads. The entire picture is visible from the start, it just takes some time to come into sharp focus.

How often do we as educators end up replicating that ‘frustrating’ sequential approach to learning, insisting that each element must be mastered before moving on to the next, holding the bigger picture in our heads as teachers but keeping the learners from seeing it themselves for fear their vision might be blurry?

The big picture is important, it’s what gives you context and goals, what gives you intrinsic motivation when the learning isn’t fun but frustrating hard work. Without it learners have no choice but to depend on someone else spoon feeding. With it there is a chance for them to navigate… dealing with the blurriness is all part of the process.


Watch the rest of Doug’s fascinating talk here, and anyone with more than a passing interest in Digital Literacies should read Doug’s thesis here.



Main Image: (cc) Oliver Quinlan

Illustrative images: Doug Belshaw on Slideshare

3 thoughts on “Dial up internet as a model for learning”

  1. Hi Oliver, I’m really glad that analogy struck a chord – it took me ages to come up with it!

    Thanks for the kind words about my presentation (and the feedback you gave elsewhere) 🙂

  2. That analogy stood out for me too. I felt compelled to message Doug and tell him it was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me!

  3. Pingback: Learning highlights for 2012 | Oliver Quinlan

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