Hard Work

New School New Technology

The Skinny Professor sent me a great video “A vision of students today”  about the experience of today’s undergraduate.  It’s extremely thought provoking. Their experience is so different from my own. Co-incidentally, my RSS feeder pumped out a Fast Company blog posting called “Hacking Harvard“.  It suggests that there is going to be a major discontinuity in the way higher education is delivered, through technology, such as Facebook, Twitter, You Tube and other Web 2.0 applications.

That may be true. But we need to be very careful how we use technology in learning. Don’t get me wrong. I’m no fan of the traditional lecture. If it bores me giving it, how bored are my students? I believe that we learn from each other through interaction, through application as well as through reading and hearing. I learn something new in the classroom virtually everyday.

1) I’m not sure that new technologies are a replacement for the classroom environment, for a few reasons.  First, I’m not sure that most of us have the discipline that self directed learning takes. All of the psychology literature shows that true learning, where we actually understand, remember and are able to apply the learning, takes hard work, focus and concentration.

2)  I’m not sure that most of us have the knowledge and ability to teach ourselves — to understand what we don’t know in a particular area of knowledge and learn it. We just don’t know what we don’t know. That’s why we need a Sensei, a teacher or guide.

3) While information is inexpensive and easy to access on the web, we don’t really know what information is credible, and what information is not credible. In order to create knowledge, which is valuable, we need information that is credible. The process of knowledge creation in the academic setting is relatively rigourous. Published research requires peer review. There is some assurance of the validity and reliability of the information that you are learning.

4) The online world is not suited to lots of words. Our eyes can’t read a lot of text at once online. Some ideas are complicated enough that we need a lot of words to explain them. That’s why we have textbooks.

5) As a professor, I prefer face-to-face interaction. It helps me learn about my students. What’s important to them. I can tell when they don’t understand a concept just by their body language. I can use verbal, paraverbal and body language to see if they are learning. You just can’t do that with a 140 character tweet.

I wonder sometimes whether our need for instantaneous results, for constant entertainment, for a “quick” answer, for external validation, rather than internal motivation is sending us in the wrong direction. As Malcom Gladwell says in his new book Outliers, it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in anything. I’m not sure you can be come an expert on anything on Facebook, Twitter and surfing through blogs. (Even good blogs like this).

This is not a negative rant about technology.  I use You Tube in my class.  I have students do online, real time research in class. I’m planning to use blogs and wikis in future classes. I think that technology supplements what I do in the classroom in wonderful ways. It can make dry content more interesting. But it can also be distracting, misleading or wrong. We may be facing a “discontinuity” in education. But we should be careful what we wish for.  Learning is hard work. If it isn’t hard work, we don’t learn.

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