the most famous professor and his students

by Hugh

Michael Wesch of Kansas State University is probably the most famous university prof in the world, or at least he will be soon. Millions have read seen his articles videos in academic journals on Youtube, most famously, Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us, and more recently Information R/evolution.

The latest looks at students and their strange relationship with our academic institutions and models, which were designed before the telephone, not to mention the iPhone.

A Vision of Students Today:

[Link… to class blog; link to French translation]

How new is it, I wonder, that teachers can’t understand the world their students inhabit? It’s always been true to a certain extent, but the disconnect previously was mostly cultural … here it seems to me more environmental, and so fundamental. The mechanisms for communicating are changing, has changed (communicating the big ideas, facts, thoughts, as well as the minutia of of daily lives), and with pervasive computing and constant connection to the web, the way we think is changing too. For better or worse doesn’t really matter, it just will change.

Questions/comments (these have all been kicking around for a while, but still):
1. fact-learning: what is the value of memory when all the facts we might need to remember are available at our fingertips?

2. collateral damage: given the long success of fact-learning, what happens if that fades away as a prime method of educating? what else do we lose (eg, powers of focused concentration, the brain-training that memorizing things does)

3. plagiarism: copying is so easy now. instead of demanding that people not copy, maybe we should raise/change the standards of what we expect work to look like, assume it will be copied and pasted, and require that it be relevant in more important ways (see #1 above) … I see the parallel with with wikipedia/britannica question. if the info itself is free and available on wikipedia, then if britannica wants to be relevant, maybe it’s just going to have to think harder about what it can do better than wikipedia. ditto with schooling. maybe we need to move *beyond* “plagiarism is bad” to something more meaningful.

4. lecture halls: what are big classrooms for? i rarely went to many of my big lectures when I was in university – all that info was in the textbook, so why attend a dry lecture with a bad prof? it didn’t make sense to me then, and it seems crazier now. in the case of small classes I have a different opinion.

5. discipline: here I mean mental discipline. I notice this myself, with online distractions everywhere, I often find it hard to concentrate and apply the long-term discipline needed to Get Things Done. Part of how I have adapted is by trying to harness that lack of discipline, a prime example being LibriVox … which I once joked should have as a motto, “powered by procrastination.” This is the area that “worries” me most, because it’s the thing in my own life that concerns me. maybe we need to start thinking more about how to use unfocused, ambient mental energy for important things?

6. radical changes: while I think the changes in technology mean we need some radical rethinking of education, radical changes are always dangerous, you never know what other side-effects might overtake the initial effects. we need to be careful. if only someone would invent a way to have instantaneous feedback from multiple sources in an open intellectual system, it would make things easier!

7. The most important things an “education” can provide are:
a) critical thinking: ability to think critically about problems, this means ability to see a problem, to understand it’s context and history, and to be able to analyze various options and decide on the one that seems most likely to “work”. this is as true in science as in humanities and arts.

b) clarity: are we becoming less clear in our thinking and writing? losing the discipline of writing clearly, for instance, is bad news. the open web results a enormous amounts of unclear/undisciplined writing … so, are we really losing that skill, or is it just that there is far more writing and thinking being captured than ever before, and hence we see more of the unclear stuff – where before only the clear stuff got into writing? does clarity really matter? (yes). what’s to be done? or does that ask the wrong question?

Just some notes to ponder.

And also, more out of curiosity, I wonder how humans will adapt to these big changes that are only scratching the surface?