What Students Want: Learning Google Can’t Provide

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I’m designing two new classes that are headed to curriculum review.  If approved, I’ll teach them fall 11.  I’m a little nervous because mine don’t look like the syllabi I read of classes offered this spring in the same unit.  Those syllabi are analog.  Most of them require papers and maybe an oral presentation.  My classes are 75% online, 25% face-to-face: predominately digital, with some experiments in turning off our devices when we’re f2f to track how and where we spend our attention. (Yes!  Meditation & mindfulness. Namaste, Howard Rheingold.) We’re meeting synchronously, during class time, but we’re also working asynchronously via various social media platforms.  Lots of feedback loops, big and small, whenever and where ever students want them.  Then, when collectively we roam out into that great urban lab that is Los Angeles, we’re wired, of course, but also physical, proximate to each other:  walking, exploring, collecting digital objects we’ll assemble later into finished products. Tagging things as we go.  Open to serendipity and chance.  
As I envision it, we’re doing the opposite of what one does in, say, directed search: plunge in, hunt for the treasure, then swim back up again, like the Tahitian kids Rupert Brooke observed diving for oysters.  Directed search is the way most of us learn things today.  This isn’t any less true for students than it is for you and me; it’s just that students are too young to have acquired the larger, paradigmatic frameworks on which to hang those facts and examine them from multiple angles.  That is potentially worrisome, I grant you.  But is Google making us stupid?  Of course not.   

We’re sucking at the firehose of information.  We’re not yet teaching students how and when it might be appropriate to put the hose down.

During my sabbatical, I’ve watched for-profit online learning vendors breach the university gates.  This has left a bad taste in peoples’ mouths about online learning.  There’s some hand-wringing–appropriately so–about how online learning might suck the life out of university practices as we know it.

Online learning is not inherently bad; in fact, online resources are the best thing to happen to education since the pencil, another remarkable, lightweight tool that made student learning mobile but was pretty much abandoned as a tool for innovation.  Why did the pencil get deployed in ways almost identical to the fountain pen?  Because people saw it as a cheaper version of the old thing, and didn’t look beyond that.  Why is online learning perceived to be a poor man’s version of f2f?  Because people are treating it as a massively scalable (read: cheaper) version of the old thing.

And what is that old thing, exactly?  It’s not college as you and I experienced it, dear reader.  (You and I were in graduate school when cell phones went mainstream, weren’t we?  Didn’t I see you with that ungainly shoe-sized thing pressed to your ear as we loitered outside before the Milton seminar?)

Check out Mike Wesch’s first remix (released today) of early submissions to his new project “Voices of Students Today (2011).”

Disconnected.  Programmatic.  Will this be on the test?  If somebody sez in my class they might as well be at home on the couch, I’m not educating them.  I have to provide what Google can’t: judgment, wisdom, skepticism, compassion.  A unifying vision they’re at liberty to pull apart, rebuild.  Tell me a better story, a truer story.  Explain.  It’s not just the facts, ma’am.  Stay on the couch if you like.  We can chart new terrain from there.  But drop a pin to mark the start, because we’re not going to stay on your couch for long.

Stalwarts say students today want to be entertained, coddled, coaxed into learning.  If we’re approaching students with shoe-sized phones pressed to our ears, pretending things haven’t changed, how will we be able to hear them?

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2 Responses to What Students Want: Learning Google Can’t Provide

  1. Lee Skallerup Bessette, PhD says:

    I am completely inspired by this. I am currently teaching about the difference between philosophers and sophists in my writing class. I asked the students before we even started in on the discussion to write if it was better to be a philosopher or a sophist and why. Most answered philosopher. I let that go unexamined for a class or two before coming back to it while talking about why Socrates was convicted and how his method was different from the method of the sophists. And then I asked my students what their approach to education most resembled: Socrates or Gorgias? Most of them were confronted with the fact that although they claimed to aspire to be philosophers, they treat knowledge like a sophist; something to know in order to win (in this case, grades). I want to teach them to question and to investigate themselves. I love this idea, which I am going to share with them later in the semester when we talk about education and what education is for.

  2. Kathi Inman Berens says:

    Wow, Lee! You're the one who's inspiring. Your students are lucky to have a professor who's vivifying ancient paradigms with examples that hit them in the gut. Hard not to apply learning to one's life, to develop that self-criticism, when you make it so clear for them that these distinctions inhere, right now, today. Thank you for posting!

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