Monday, November 15, 2004

Random thoughts about The Digital Revolution

I'm going out on a limb and using this blog to post some thoughts about a book I'm reading (posted about here). These are just thoughts that I'm hoping to coalesce into first, something for my professional blog that the faculty read and second, into a presentation. Feel free to comment and argue.

The basic premise of the Digital Revolution (so far, 5 chapters in) is that the internet allows for unmediated learning to take place. In the current model of traditional learning at higher education institutions, learning is mostly mediated. An Instructor/Professor serves as the authority through which all knowledge passes to the student. Online learning threatens to disrupt this control(?).

In traditional learning, content is the most important "commodity" with the professor serving as the expert in the content and disseminating it to the students. This is in opposition to an instructional artisan who may understand both the content and the best way for the students to learn it.

Raschke posits a new epistemology of learning based loosely on some of Dewey's principles. He outlines three propositions that can be useful in thinking about online learning: 1) learning is task-defined and goal-oriented; 2) find ways to maximize the student's ability to achieve the those tasks and reach goals; and 3) there needs to be a feeback loop. Though Raschke discusses student-centered and active learning, he is careful to say that students should not be considered clients who always get what they want. Teachers are there to provide guidance and advice all along the way. Just as a teacher doesn't usually send a student to the library without guidance, a teacher wouldn't send a student to the internet without guidance.

Raschke says we might think of teaching/learning as "collaborative inquiry," which is really a blurring of the line between teaching and research.

Here are some thoughts. I think he posits the "traditional model" very well, but I think he fails to recognize that not everyone follows that model completely. Most faculty I know use class discussion as a way to place the impetus on the students to "learn for themselves" or to tackle the problem/question for themselves. A lot of the things he says I think he says as a way of validating online education; however, I think there can be a happy medium where students still get lots of face-to-face time in the classroom, but perhaps there are tools available to facilitate the students' own learning beyond the classroom.

And here's what I've been thinking. My job tends to be more about technical support (though, in theory, it shouldn't be). I've been thinking that I need a new way to think about what I "should"/"could" be doing. If, as Raschke (among others) says, we should shift to providing ways for students to learn "on their own" with guidance from teachers, then my job should be to provide the tools to make that happen. Perhaps I should be supporting the students, not the instructors? Or perhaps I should be in a more consultative role? I also think that my environment--a small liberal arts college--already does some things very well that he's suggesting can be done better online. For instance, professors here regularly blur the line between teaching and research. There is always a lot of back and forth.

I'm not in favor of abandoning brick and mortar education just yet, but I do think there could be some radical changes coming. I like the way Raschke frames his argument because it's not--use technology because it's there but use technology because it might provide a better way for students to learn. I also have this thing--because I'm at a women's college--that it is important for women to be exposed to technology everywhere. Still, we're seeing women who come here without much knowledge of technology and even after they're here, they avoid it whenever possible. If they have to confront it in some way in nearly every class, then they might be more likely to explore it later on.

Also, I think it's important to teach students to be critical of what's out there in terms of technology. We need to teach them how to navigate and analyze web resources, online journal resources, arguments in discussion, and more. Given how bad the mainstream media often is, I think it's good to send students out into the world with the skills to find information and verify it. Maybe you teach them that through your specific field--biology or history--but they can apply it to anything.

Just some thoughts so far--and maybe later, a post about my class on blogs.