In Weller’s second chapter he attempts to take the rhetoric of how technology might be changing education head on with real data. Too often the hyperbolic proclamations of higher education’s impending upheaval as a result of X, Y, and Z are made by people with a dog (or startup) in the fight. It’s extremely important to recognize areas where technology absolutely is changing the way people learn, but within the context of how things have changed. I love the Weller rightly points out that the broader distribution of information and resources is actually an opportunity for higher ed, not a dystopian precursor to its fall from grace.
The Net Generation
If we’re talking about how technology has possibly changed attitudes and approaches to learning it’s important to tackle the notion of the “digital native” described as “The Net Generation” here. I’m reminded of a video that people love to show to boost the claim that the sky is perhaps falling around us (complete with Matrix-style intense soundtrack):
There’s no denying that things have changed. But it’s important to keep in mind the context of these changes. A student who is looking on Facebook and texting while writing a paper isn’t actually that much different than one 15 years ago that was studying for an exam while watching TV and talking on the home phone. Despite the proliferation of information on the web, studies show that student’s ability to find that information is actually quite poor (which for me was a reminder of how vital a role the library remains to the institution today). It’s not clear that these shifts are generational, rather societal shifts in an age of information abundance. But as Weller points out, the distinction matters little because a shift of any kind requires a response.
Meeting unmet needs of learners
I was just talking to my coworker, Martha Burtis, a few days ago about her washing machine. A part had become worn that was causing the whole machine to vibrate as if a plane was going to take off in their utility room. Traditionally this was a place where an “expert” would be called in, likely a person who had gone to a trade school specifically for appliance repair and maybe passed several certifications, and be paid to do the job. Yet this time Martha felt empowered to search out the answer on her own using YouTube, purchase the parts, and repair the machine herself (successfully I might add). A year ago I did the same thing to diagnose an issue with my 14 year old Saturn coupe using YouTube and replacing a $14 coolant temperature sensor to fix the issue.
These stories are not unique or coincidental. What’s clear is that information is not only abundant, but that whole communities exist online to help people learn things that the institution can’t provide in the structured programmatic form it currently operates in. This gap is not new of course, but Weller rightly points out that the communities that have emerged online to meet those needs is. If you want to learn how to run you won’t ask an educator, you’ll join Runner’s World. If you have a passion for knitting you’ll likely find more resources and help at Ravelry than any school within driving distance.
Perhaps most relevant to higher education (and certainly not to be the last time it will be brought up in this book I’m sure) is the idea of open education and open educational resources. If information is in abundance thanks to the world wide web, it makes sense for universities to play a key role in putting their resources out there as a source for others. This is perhaps a scary notion for an institution that feels they have a right to monetize on that information. Yet we’ve already shown that knowledge is not a commodity and if people don’t find it from you they’ll be able to find it elsewhere. In fact Weller remarks that Open University’s OpenLearn project did not hurt their core business, rather there was evidence that it attracted more people to their traditional courses.
Weller closes out this chapter by positing that while the hyperbolic “revolution” in education may not be based in factual data, change is happening and the availability of this information and these tools should be seen as an opportunity and not a risk.
So while the absolute necessity for radical change is overstated, there are unprecedented opportunities for the use of technology in education. And as educators we shouldn’t need to wait until the case has been proven for each one to try it because, as the saying goes, it doesn’t take a whole day to recognize sunshine.
This marries nicely with the ideas of experimentation and low risk from Chapter 1. We have a responsibility to explore these tools and every reason to do so. I can’t think of a better time to be in a position than I am today to help guide faculty as they explore these tools and how they can engage students through them in new and interesting ways.