I thought I’d share two items from the Most Popular Educause articles of 2010. What attracted my attention was one article’s vision of the future of higher education dominated by networks and crowds, while the other article emphasized the role of the individual and a liberal arts education. Taken together, these two articles speak to how we educators might plan for the inevitable changes that are just around the corner.
In Innovating the 21st Century University: It’s Time, Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams argue that a new generation of students requires a very different model of higher education. The authors feel that the university needs to open up and embrace collaborative learning and collaborative knowledge production. For too long traditional higher education has focused on lecture-based “broadcast learning.” Instead they argue that professors should spend more time in discussion with students. Interactive computer-based courseware can free up professors from lecturing, and allow them time to collaborate with students. They anticipate a shift from mass production to mass customization of learning. An example of the kind of things they’re envisioning is Cornell University’s GoodQuestions Project.
The authors call for a Global Network of Higher Learning which has five stages or levels:
- course content exchange – colleges post their educational materials online, e.g. MIT’s OpenCourseWare Initiative
- course content collaboration – free, online course materials constructed as a platform for users to collaborate and share experiences with the materials
- course content co-innovation – professors co-create content, e.g. Wikiversity or Sakai
- knowledge co-creation – scholars move beyond course materials and collaborate to co-create all subject matter appropriate knowledge
- collaborative learning connection – a global academy where students mix and match courses from different universities to create a custom learning experience tailored to a student’s specific needs and interests
Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia, provides a counterpoint to Tapscott’s article. In the article Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age, Sanger reflects on how the Internet is changing education. He opens by critiquing three common strands of current thought about education and the Internet.
First is the idea that the instant availability of information online makes the memorization of facts unnecessary or less necessary. Second is the celebration of the virtues of collaborative learning as superior to outmoded individual learning. And third is the insistence that lengthy, complex books, which constitute a single, static, one-way conversation with an individual, are inferior to knowledge co-constructed by members of a group.
Sanger comes to the defense of the traditional liberal arts education, and takes issue not only with points made in the Tapscott and Williams article, but with so-called “educationists.”
With regard to the first strand (unnecessary memorization), Sanger says, “If you do not have copious essential facts at the ready, then you will not be able to make wise judgments that depend on your understanding of those facts, regardless of how fast you can look them up.” With regard to the second strand (outmoded individual learning), he says, “my notion of a good scholar is someone who is capable of thinking independently.” And he concludes this section: “reading, writing, critical thinking, and calculation should make up the vast bulk of a liberal education. Social learning could not replace these individual, “Cartesian” activities without jettisoning liberal education itself.”
He wraps up the piece with an impassioned plea:
The educational proposals and predictions of the Internet boosters described above point to a profoundly illiberal future. I fear that if we take their advice, in the place of a creative society with a reasonably deep well of liberally educated critical thinkers, we will have a society of drones, enculturated by hive minds, who are able to work together online but who are largely innocent of the texts and habits of study that encourage deep and independent thought. We will be bound by the prejudices of our ‘digital tribe,’ ripe for manipulation by whoever has the firmest grip on our dialogue.
Lots to think about from these writers. The implications are far ranging for not only the future of higher education, but for all of education. Not only in the U.S. but around the globe. Sanger’s arguments remind me of what Howard Gardner calls the “disciplined” mind. We’ll always need educators who are capable of thinking independently. But clearly much of what we’ve all been taught by master teachers could be “broadcast” and that would free up professional educators to collaborate with students and with other educators. These collaborations will tap networks that we’re only beginning to create, and it will require educators to re-envision how we teach.