intro

AUDE SAPERE

-Kant

I am writing this in the midst of a giant crisis in higher education. There are newspaper articles talking about the Education Bubble which is about to explode. People -like the founder of Paypal- who set up an inverse scholarship: He pays you if you do not go to College (and open up a startup instead). But the crisis in not only in Education, and is not only in the US. I am writing in NYC, and I live in America (in Puerto Rico, to be exact), and I read of a world in turmoil. Even in my protected, safe environment, things are not easy. It is difficult to meet ends and month’s end, even for me. So, I won’t be writing something in reference only to the US or one country in particular.

Still, in the safety of one of the best, richest Universities in the world –NYU– I feel inspired and with a rich agenda: I want to write about this Education thing! I feel inspired by the fact that students, faculty, scholars, books, computers, media surround me everywhere here. Each with a particular mission; all with a great pursuit. I am a Scholar-in-residence at NYU thanks to its Faculty Resource Network program. For the full month of June 2011 I will be researching, editing and fine tuning the ideas that I have been thinking and sometimes putting down in my blog Skate of the Web over a few years: the Myths of teaching and Learning, Technology and Media. I am surrounded by other fellow researchers like me who think about science, Persian poetry, acting, and many other wonderful pursuits of the mind. I say to myself: This is the last place where one may do so. The University, I mean. A privileged space, sacred, protected from the perils of politics and capitalism. Sort of. If somebody is questioning the role of The University, this is the place to reflect, to respond.

Yet, this sacred space is under tremendous pressure. Research funds, when not coming from the government, pretend scientists, historians, artists et al. to pursue matters “pertinent” to foreign interests, often corporate interests. Teaching is constantly put under the microscope, criticized, only to come out in a very bad shape. Costs, here in the US are prohibitive for students: now student debt has surpassed credit card debt! Still, any soul good enough can enter Harvard free! In Europe, Universities are mostly public or heavily subsidized, so they have not the same problem. In Asia, Universities are producing scientists of the highest world-class caliber, thus challenging even more the status quo of US Institutions.

In this turmoil, I set to write this pamphlet. It is not an essay, nor an academic publication, even though all I write has been seriously researched. I don’t want many footnotes or the typical dry seriousness of a scientific paper. I want to discuss the mythology of teaching and learning and technology. And connect those myths with practices that have emerged. And provide readers with ideas to discuss, with models to improve upon and experiment with. Interestingly enough, only the idea of this book is mine -together with the idea of putting together the myths with the practices-. The rest is actually a mix of great ideas that are circulating more or less freely on the Web these days. Yes, the Web. The Web is my major source of knowledge for this enterprise, and the privileged output of this work. The Web is allowing me to thread my connections to put together a personal learning network (a PLN, the most-in acronym of the times) which is amplifying a beautiful dialogue. This dialogue started between myself and myself, then started opening up through my blog. Then, I decided to incorporate into my research some interviews with people I consider essential in their mindset. I wanted to know how they think on the subject. I wanted to ask them what it means to teach and learn with and within this new tech. I also wanted to ask them what is it about science? Is it fundamentally different to teach than other subjects? I mean, different beyond the obvious idiosyncratic features, language and methods proper of each human discipline. Does science need a special pedagogy?

So I set up a number of interviews here in NYC with people knowledgeable in the field. Here, you will find their thought distilled and remixed within my context. Their input and participation has been, of course, fundamental, and it reinforces the idea that dialogue is essential, more essential actually than “content”.

The Web, and this is one persistent myth, gives access to bounties of information. It is certainly true. But the Web does and has been doing since its start, is to connect and empower. At first, we just connected hyperlinked documents, and were so able to share scientific literature at ease. But later we began to use those connections to produce content of whatever kind we loved. Now, we are the Web. We are the producers-consumers (the prosumers) of the gigantic Alexandrian mass of information that circulates more or less freely on the Web. Now we produce, distribute and share media, not only text, and our relationship with the academic, scientific and artistic world has changed. Facebook, Twitter, blogging & RSS have deeply changed the way we behave. These days, I’m not reading any newspapers. I’m getting the news through Twitter or Facebook or the blog aggregation I read. And sometimes I do participate actively by commenting on other people’s ideas, or I post something that comes straight out of my mind. It is not necessarily work-related. It may be a post on some movie I loved or on politics, or on this very project. Thus, the Web is not only the channel, the infrastructure of sharing, the medium of communication, but is also the essence of communication itself, the content itself.

The Web, it took everybody by surprise. No one had thought it out. Perhaps Ted Nelson or Doug Engelbart had envisioned some of its essential traits, but it took one Tim Berners-Lee to make it. It took one complete visionary to think out a machine that, like the fax, was worthless in just one instance. But Tim had the vision of thousand using it from the very beginning. And it took everybody by surprise. I always find deeply funny that nobody had seen it coming. No computer scientist, no marketing guru, no media specialist. As I said, a few engineers made the impossible a reality: an invention that is parallel only to the printing press, but which put the printing press in the hands of everybody. So it is funny to see that the deepest change for marketing came actually from two geeks of the computing arena; quite laughable that the Web itself came from the mind of a scientist. All the gurus that are speaking now on the secrets of the Web did not create it, for all their knowledge. And what about education? None of the pedagogy gurus had the faintest glimpse at what was coming. And so be it. Now, the same gurus say the Web is responsible for our diminishing span of attention, for our continuous distraction, for our severed sense of deep thinking, perhaps forever gone [1]. They still talk about the culture of the “Great Books” which is being lost -according to them-, without thinking that when the book came out, some Cassandra was actually and surely saying the same about… the book itself! Including the Church, who did not like at all the spawn of Protestantism out of the printing press’ Bible printing. The Book was to be responsible of the demise of the oral traditions… would give people too much dangerous knowledge, and so on.

So, now these sort of people pretend no to see that the very Web is triggering a transformation of our education system that is long overdue. They don’t need to see it, since the status quo is very reassuring to a lot of people. But the “indignados” in the Door to the Sun, the Puerta del Sol of Madrid, who camped for days just to pretend changes in the way our world is governed (“Yes We Camp!”), and who feel indignant for the unjust system that tells the young they will have no social security left -as if it were their fault-, they do feel the change provoked by the Web, they do understand the Web is a revolution in itself. Why shouldn’t this revolution apply to education as well? The Revolution will Be Tweeted -to Malcolm Gladwell’s chagrin [2]– some say: and look at Egypt, Tunisia, Spain, and now Greece; the people there are showing it is true. There is some change in the air. Not all is rotten in Denmark, after all. And this is a short, fun trip along the path of education.
In this pamphlet I will:

  • Discuss the situation in higher education, and conclude that something must be done about it.
  • Discuss the big changes introduced by the World Wide Web & the Internet everywhere.
  • Ask: Why shouldn’t we face same-magnitude changes in education as well?
  • Ask: If education today is so anchored to the concept of The Book, and if The Book is changing, then what? Expecting that nothing will change in the education box (and everywhere else) is like self denial.
  • Ask: What about distraction? New Media? New social media? Have you seen a schoolboy do his homework? Is he not looking for information of the Internet, just to paste it and reshuffle it a bit in his paper? Where is depth in his study?
  • Ask: What about studying? I will show a graph depicting what I call the Deadly Learning Circle. In a few words: We are in big denial about learning and that is the most powerful myth of them all.

I will first talk a bit about the current state of education and I will try to examine the reasons why we may want and need some changes in Higher Education. Then, we shall see each myth, checking why it is a myth and what are the consequences of it being a myth. Often we will find assonance with language use. After that, we will see what new ideas have emerged, what new practices are being pursued and, generally speaking, what our Institutions may expect. In order to complement my views and have better understanding of all the phenomena surrounding Higher Education and the myths I’ll be talking about, I interviewed a number of key people who are contributors, with their thinking, writings and work, to the new world of education that is slowly emerging. Continue reading, my friend.

[1] Nicholas Carr: Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains. The Atlantic, July 2008; http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/6868/.

[2] See his New Yorker article “Small Change. Why the revolution will not be tweeted. October 4, 2010. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/04/101004fa_fact_gladwell

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Myths of Teaching, Learning & Technology