Tuesday, July 19, 2005

We don't need no education

I don't know why, but I'm thinking about the Pink Floyd song when I think about the way social software--especially blogging--threatens education as we know it. Things move so slowly in higher ed that I don't think anything radical is going to happen in the next 5 years or even 10 years, but it might. Just this weekend, the NY Times reported that high school students are dissatisfied with their educations, that they weren't being challenged.

I am not an education expert, but I play one at work. I think that in many high schools and colleges, courses are still being taught in the "sage-on-the-stage" method. A teacher stands at the front of the room, imparts some information interspersed with pauses for discussion. Students are required to read and write papers, maybe take essay exams. All of these are very linear enterprises and very passive. Students do not learn well this way. Study after study shows this (although there's always a few who do learn well and others learn to adapt to this method).

Books like Everything Bad is Good for You and What Video Games have to teach us about learning and literacy point to a different kind of learning, learning that is more active and hyperlinked and most importantly, controlled by the learner. Which brings me to blogging (or pretty much any technology where one must relinquish control to the students). Blogging allows students to have more control over their own learning. They get to decide (within parameters) what to read, what to write about, what to comment on. They get to grapple with material in a way they can't in a controlled classroom or even in a paper.

Teachers are also often afraid of the public nature of blogs. What if their writing or thinking looks unformed and I've sent this link to lots of people? Won't that reflect badly on me? And what if students decide to start personal blogs and they write stuff that isn't very flattering to the school?

And then there's the issue of creating more work. "How do I grade this stuff? And I have to learn about blogging before I use it? I don't have time for that."

Here's an example of the kind of activity I'm planning with my students in the fall. Some faculty I've mentioned this to are freaked out by it. And it's pretty tame and it's really a re-hash of stuff librarians and writing teachers have been doing for years.

One of the concerns I hear from faculty all the time is that students don't know how to do research. They resort to Google (a quick google search shows millions of articles on this topic). In a recent survey, faculty stated that they expect their students to learn research skills, but often do not want to take class time to teach them. I'm stepping back to a more general view of research, of simply learning how to evaluate information, a skill that I think comes primarily not just from being told that a library database is a better source of information (because it's not always), but from comparing lots of different sources and through analysis of those sources making some judgements about what's better, based on the information presented.

So, the activity I have in mind is to have students search using the same keywords in about 5 different places. The keywords need to be unique enough not to generate millions of results, but general enough to have some results to choose from. I envision that they would search a library database that they think (based on the information given on the library web site) is most appropriate, a search engine, google scholar, technorati, and perhaps a social bookmarking site like CiteULike or furl. They will blog this whole process. It's a big assignment. It could lead anywhere from talking about evaluating sources to the technology of search tools to the future of libraries. I want them to blog their whole experience--how easy was it, what kinds of frustrations did you have, what was the best experience, what was the most interesting resource you found and why. Anything.

I can envision setting students loose like this, blogging their experience of reading a book, attending a lecture, participating in an online discussion, reporting it on their blog. I know I have readers who've actually used blogs, so they probably have more to say. I'll be experiencing this whole phenomena in the fall.

Setting kids (even college kids) loose to construct their own knowledge freaks some people out. I still think we need teachers and college professors, but not as sages who fill their students with information. They show students how to find information. They help them figure out how to present information, how to incorporate their own ideas into that information.

Increasingly, students will expect to incorporate social software type things into their classes. They'll do it on their own or with the assistance and guidance of teachers.