A Modest Proposal

In earlier postings, I noted that I’ve been reading a very fine book: Educating the Net Generation, published by the Educause Learning Initiative early last year. I recently finished Chapter 8: ”The Real Versus the Possible: Closing the Gaps in Engagement and Learning” by Judith Ramaley & Lee Zia.

I found this to be a very powerful essay. I don’t, however, envision this as the authors do, as necessarily focusing on cyber-education. To me it is just education (real school?). Every generation of educators teaches with a technology, and every generation thinks about transforming education to make it more real. This is just the latest installment, albeit a thought-provoking one.

Ramaley & Zia begin by posing the problem:

Although we know a lot about learning and continue to learn more, there is a gap between what the education research community and the learning sciences have discovered about learning and what most of our faculty know or practice.

How much of your graduate education focused on pedagogy? How many of your colleagues have read any of the literature over the past decade on teaching and learning? Of those, how many have made any substantive changes to their teaching approach?

Next the authors dispose of a straw man, clarifying what is the same and what is different with the latest technology.

[N]ewer forms of interactive technologies… are not meant to replace traditional forms of learning. Rather, they enrich traditional forms of learning and serve as links between active and passive, individual and group, and transmission and generation of knowledge. The criteria we apply when assessing the quality of the material we offer will, at one level, resemble the standards that the academy has set for any intellectual work: originality and importance, thorough grounding in the field, clarity of goals and expression, effective use of materials, and ethical handling of material and ethical approach to the user [emphasis added]. However, the standards for presentation in these new media and formats will be different.

The essay then moves on to the main event: What it will take to succeed in this transformation of education? The answer: Educators must change their practice from teaching students to assimilate knowledge (e.g. what are the principles of economics?) to teaching students to perform as disciplinary practitioners do (e.g. doing economics).

Now it’s probably true that at present our very best students achieve this, if only by accident since this isn’t generally what is taught. But Ramaley and Zia are arguing that this should be the goal for all students (and for all faculty).

How do we get there?

The very thought process that leads to discovery and understanding in a particular field can be exposed and modeled for students, who can then have an authentic experience within the discipline.

In electronic exchanges, faculty members are free to be experts (for example, a physicist, a biologist, or an historian) and to draw their students into the ways of thinking, examinations of ideas, and forms of proof that are the intellectual basis of a field. In addition, original documents and fresh research data are readily accessible on the Web.

Students can find material that challenges the faculty member’s worldview and expertise; they can uncover stories and research results that the faculty member has never heard about. It can be uncomfortable when the instructor no longer controls the subject matter the students will use.

The instructor can model intellectual work, exposing through electronic means thought processes and realities—the blind alleys and sudden bursts of clarity—that we all experience in our search for understanding. For many, this is unnerving; control is lost over both the interaction and the material. For others, it is a true liberation. For everyone, however, it can provide a much more immediate and authentic experience of inquiry than most classroom interactions can offer.

The important insight that will guide our exploration of the value of interactive technologies is that a user of digital information is certainly being asked to be active, but is probably not being asked to be reflective.

And to truly educate we need to change this.

The most powerful effect of cyberexperience may not manifest in the things people do on the Web or with broadband communication, but rather in how they think and in what they expect from education. People who innovate and create in cyberspace likely will not sit still for a lecture.

Is anyone out there listening, though? I worry about the lack of substantive conversation on my campus by the majority of faculty about what we are about, and whether it’s what we should be about. From my perspective, most of those that even consider this question assume that their teaching is at least adequate to the task of educating this generation of learners. For the rest, it’s not even an issue. To paraphrase one professor, “we mustn’t forget that the paramount goal is to ‘cover the material.’” Perhaps the reality is that we’re going to have to wait for the next generation of teachers—those that were net generation learners.

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