Paul’s blog

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October 21st, 2007 · No Comments

Last week Michael Gettes pointed out a recent blog entry by Kevin Morooney of Penn State. The blog refers to a video created by Michael Wesch and his anthropology class at Kansas state University.

The video has been receiving a lot of publicity recently. I had heard it mentioned on a TV news segment and have seen some of the statistics in the video quoted in other contexts.

Many of the comments and feedback in various forums about the video have been pessimistic or outright negative. The message that the video presents is somewhat ambiguous. By that I mean that the message that it delivers to the viewer is largely a result of the preconceptions that the viewer brings to the material.

In one interpretation, it can be viewed as a comment about the state of education in  America and failure of our education system. When approached from that bias it brings to mind a quote from Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash, first published in 1992.

“There’s only four things that we [America] do better than anyone else

  • music
  • movies
  • microcode (software)
  • high-speed pizza delivery”

(Of course one could say that the attention that the video has garnered reinforces the reference to America’s ability to create movies. )

However, when approached with a different set of biases the video can have a very positive message that should inspire everyone working with information technologies in higher-ed today.

(And don’t forget to notice that “200 Students made 367 edits to this document, and surveyed themselves, to bring you the following message”)

Early in the video the viewer is presented with a quotation from Marshall McLuhan that dates back to 1967:

“Today’s child is bewildered when he enters the 19th century environment that still characterizes the educational establishment where information is scarce but ordered and structured  by fragmented, classified by patterns, subjects, and schedules.”

while later in the video the viewer sees a quotation from Josiah F. Bumstead on the benefits of the chalkboard written in 1841:

“The inventor of the system deserves to be ranked among the best contributors to learning and science, if not the greatest benefactors of mankind.”

In between these quotations the audience is provided with insights about current university students spend their time and the technologies that they use.

What’s unstated in the video is how these relate. That’s left as an exercise for the viewer.

Why did Bumstead consider the blackboard such an important tool for education? I don’t have all of the context but I can speculate on the reasoning.

Paper was relatively expensive during the 1800s and it couldn’t be easily reused. Although the pencil was invented in 1564, the first patent issued for attaching an eraser to a pencil was issued in 1858.

A blackboard’s content can easily be edited and modified – unlike paper it can be repeatedly erased without damaging the medium.

Although wax tablets can be erased and reused, doing so takes a lot more time than when using a blackboard and some skill is required for a person to do this task well.

A blackboard is in one sense more scalable than paper or wax tablets. They can be made small for individual use or large enough to cover a classroom’s wall.

Compare the features of the lowly blackboard to the tools available to our students today.

- The Internet and search tools put a wealth of information within the reach of computer users and smartphone users.

- Wikis, blogs, and other collaboration tools enable students to interact not only within the classroom but with others around the world.

- The tools off the immediacy and the reusability of a chalkboard but also offer the ability to be indexed, searched, archived and referenced. Capabilities far beyond that of the simple blackboard.

Michael Wesch articulates the power of the web very well in another video titled “The machine is Us/ing Us.” Everyone working with collaboration tools is well aware of the concepts highlighted in this video but Wesch’s ability to articulate the issues is compelling and inspiring.

Some of the comments about the video left by YouTube users have focused on the tasks that occupy the students and the time that they spend on tasks “unrelated” to their education. These statistics don’t depress me or surprise me. But I do think they warrant examination.

I particularly like the statistic that says, “I will write 42 pages for class this semester And over 500 pages of email.” which seems to be a lightning rod for some of the critics. It wasn’t all that long ago that American educators were complaining about how “today’s” students abysmal writing skills. Shouldn’t we now be pleased by the fact that our students are writing so often? And isn’t there hope that educators can channel that an improve their ability to effectively communicate using this medium?

Of course that statistic also makes no mention about how email is being used. We know that it is often used for “trivial” purposes, but we are offered no insight into how often it is used to enhance the learning experience.

One student in the video indicates that they “will read 8 books this year, 2300 web pages, and 1281 facebook profiles”. Instead of worrying about this, shouldn’t we be figuring out how to embrace this? This appears to indicate that our students are sick of paying for expensive textbooks and that they would rather obtain their content online. Also, doesn’t this indicate that those of building systems need to have a well grounded understanding in how students are using facebook and similar systems?

For those wondering how people use facebook take a look at my earlier blog posting. Who in higher-ed will create a facebook application that will be in the top 45?

As I said at the Spring 2006 CSG meeting, collaboration tools and building a sense of community is critical to the mission of a university as we move into the future.

I did notice that Joel Smith posted on Kevin’s blog CMU’s Open Learning Initiative and his concerns regarding the “not invented here syndrome”. I think it’s important to note that OLI, OCW, PhET and similar initiatives are happening. And PhET was a winner of the recent NSF Science and Engineering Challenge.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that our top research institutions don’t adopt each others solutions. One of the important functions of our research universities is to continue to innovate. If we all accepted the same solution to a common problem we would tend to stagnate. OCW, OLI, PhET and other initiatives might not be widely adopted by our peer institutions for their own teaching, but they will be embraced by other educational institutions that don’t have the resources to create this type of material and make widely available at no cost.

To borrow a quote embedded in yet another ksudigg video, The Internet has a Face, “it’s amazing to me how powerful this medium is …we’re all learning…”

Tags: metrics

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