Higher Education

hacking education

I was turned on to this post by venture capitalist Fred Wilson on hacking education. It’s interesting to me to hear the views of smart people who are largely outside the education bubble. Wilson’s role as a venture capitalist has me thinking of my recent post on David Puttnam’s talk. Puttnam emphasized the importance of working with technology companies in working out how to address the challenges of networked media for education. I agree. This is not the kind of challenge that can be addressed by individual teachers in individual classrooms. That’s not to say that individuals can’t come up with great ideas and put them to work. Instead, it is a recognition that the scale of this problem requires the application of resources that go beyond individual teachers. Just like we don’t ask faculty to write all the texts they use in their classes, we can’t expect them to develop their own technological solutions.

I can agree with a lot of what Wilson says, but I do think he is seeing only part of the issue. He makes three main points as I can see. First is that we ought to be using social media "to start participating and engaging in educating each other." I fully support that idea. But when you are talking about your average college student, I think we need to recognize that we can’t expect those students to put together their own curriculum. If you don’t know what you need to know then it is hard to figure out how to educate yourself. Clearly there is a fair amount of disagreement over what should constitute a higher education. These disagreements occur between higher education and the general culture, across campuses, within disciplines, and so on. Indeed the disagreements are part of what students probably need to learn about. Arguably our task as educators at the undergraduate level is to help students get in a position where they have enough cultural-disciplinary-professional context and critical-analytic skills to be able to participate in the kind of open source education Wilson is describing. It will be necessary for them as they face the demands of ongoing education throughout their careers.

Wilson does recognize this to some degree. He notes that "You can commoditize curriculum but you cannot do that to teachers." Wilson reflects on some of the great teachers he’s had. Those are common stories. However his idea is to get these star teachers out to a larger number of students through video lectures. Some students, like Wilson, do respond well to lectures, but I don’t think that’s the pedagogic direction we need to follow. In a sense, doing this would contradict his own position by making lectures into a kind of commodity. A video lecture is functionally much like a textbook, so I think you could certainly make use of such material. Obviously many of us already do.

On the other hand, teaching is a very different business. It is primarily about interaction with students. And this really goes along with Wilson’s final point, where he turns toward Ken Robinson and the discussion of creativity. In doing so, he touches on the idea of gaming as a way of teaching and testing. In my view, part of the challenge of supporting creativity through education is to be able to get out of the way of the students. However, the other part is knowing how to create contexts that stimulate creativity and focus creativity so that it leads toward learning experiences. There is a lot of talk these days about creativity (some of it from me), but I think that to make creativity truly work for education we need to teach a critical approach that helps students think past typical notions of the creative.

The advantages of social media lie in the potential for students and faculty to produce and share knowledge and media, to collaborate, to form groups to achieve common purposes that address the needs of real communities. I think we are starting to get the bits and pieces we need for educational reform in this area.

  • easy sharing of a variety of media
  • easy group formation and collaboration
  • individual customization (personal pages, feeds, etc.)
  • granular privacy

In technical terms the thing that is most difficult for me is the evaluation aspect, tracking all the things my students are doing. This would be easy if I were inside a CMS, but I’m not. My students are out there in a bunch of different places. Right now I just don’t have an easy way to do that.

The other challenge is far larger. It’s adapting our educational habits, as both students and teachers, to learning in this new way. It requires greater flexibility from teachers and more initiative/engagement from students.