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The Weekly Blab 4.16

The Weekly Blab

Volume 4, Issue 16—May 3, 2010


Happy May to all, and a happy end of the semester as we enter the final exam period.  It’s also my mother’s birthday—she turns 75 today.  It doesn’t seem possible that either of us are that old.


Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age

The ever-interesting Bob Harbort forwarded an article to me about “Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age” that appeared in Educause Review, written by Larry Sanger, one of the co-founders of Wikipedia.  It’s a darned interesting article in which Sanger comes to some conclusions that might surprise you, given who he is and what he has done.


Sanger puts forward three inter-related arguments that are common threads of thought about education and the internet:

(1)  The increasing availability of information online means that students need to memorize less than in the past.

(2)  Collaborative learning (which is enhanced by the internet as a tool) is superior to individual learning.

(3)  Knowledge co-constructed by a group is superior to knowledge conveyed by books, which is unidirectional.


Despite being one the first individuals to promote using the internet to create knowledge, he rejects all three arguments.  His paper is well worth reading.


I’ve always been interested in arguments that say “the world has changed in some fundamental way, and we need to change what we’re doing to meet the change.”  The argument is sometimes true—the advent of the automobile certainly meant that the proverbial Acme Buggy-Whip Company needed to diversify its product line.  However, it’s been my experience that it’s only true about 10% of the time.  The other 90% of the time, the world looks at the change, says “ho-hum”, and proceeds in a manner largely the same as before.  When it comes to educational issues, the ratio is probably more like 1:100—and the big innovation turns out to be the flavor-of-the-month.


I’ve seen a lot of bells and whistles on the internet, and some are pretty darned impressive.  Ultimately though, the real question is: “Do the bells and whistles improve student learning?” and in many cases, the answer seems to be “no”.  The problem is, real learning requires one to memorize lots of facts, but also much more than that.  The facts have to be integrated and contextualized with other facts in order to draw conclusions, which must then be tested with yet other facts.  The example Sanger mentions about the Battle of Hastings is a good one—memorizing the date for the battle (1066) is necessary, but nowhere near sufficient to impart any meaning.  What else happened on and around 1066 that made this battle so decisive?  Why didn’t the battles that took place shortly before or shortly after have this level of importance?  What tipped the balance to the Normans?  What was the significance to English history of a Norman victory?  All of these things can be looked up on the web, talked about collaboratively, and assembled into conclusions by a group.  They can be wrapped up into a wonderful multimedia presentation.  But—until students actually have wrestled with the material as individuals, turning it over until it has penetrated into their minds, and until they have tested the material against other material that they understand, real learning has not taken place.  Real learning is individualistic, and takes time, context, and experience.  Real learning is also fluid, subject to change when new information becomes available and gets incorporated into the whole.  The internet and social interactions aren’t significant shortcuts to these attributes. 


And Another Thing…

Keith Hopper sent me a description of a Frontline TV program that will air this week on the subject of “College Inc.”, which is about For-Profit Universities (like Phoenix University), Wall Street, and the accrediting bodies (like SACS).  According to Frontline, the University of Phoenix had a profit of $2 billion on an enrollment of a half-million students, and it’s growing quickly.   Michael Clifford, identified as an education entrepreneur (who never went to college), states: “The big opportunity is the inefficiencies of some of the state systems, and the ability to transform schools and academic programs to better meet the needs of the people that need jobs.” 


So—why do so many people choose places like Phoenix?  Part of it is the convenience of online instruction.  Part of it is that Phoenix is very efficient in some good ways—they award credit for prior experience (or transfer credit) quickly, they clearly describe what you have to do to get a degree, their degrees are relatively streamlined (not requiring a lot of extras), and they offer courses in formats that students like.  People are willing to pay money for these things—multiples of what we charge in the USG, in fact.  Other parts of why people choose Phoenix and the like are not so good—there’s a perception (For-Profit Universities say a false perception) that one can get a passing grade more easily than at a “real” university, and you can get a degree by taking courses that are almost entirely in your major (fewer of those pesky distribution requirements).


According to Frontline, while about 10% of students in the US attend a For-Profit University, a full 44% of those who default on federal student loans within three years of graduation are from that sector.  This raises the question of whether their degrees are actually worthwhile and lead to good jobs.  Accrediting bodies are beginning to ask these questions too.  Before we get too smug, the same question is frequently asked by legislators about degrees in the humanities and social sciences.


The bottom line is that we have competition from the for-profit sector.  We need to be aware of that competition’s strengths and weaknesses, because their business plan is built on an awareness of ours.


Last Week’s Trivia Contest

Last week’s contest was on the subject of Australia, and the winner was Bow Van Riper, with a fabulous four correct.  Here are the answers:


1.  What is the state in Australia that is an island?  Tasmania

2.  In the song “Waltzing Matilda”, what does “Matilda” refer to, and what does “waltzing” her mean?  The song is about a swagman (a hobo or tramp) going through the outback.  “Matilda” is the name of the hobo’s bag or bedroll, usually carried by tying a rope to each end and hanging it across the chest, hence “waltzing” with it.

3.  What movie was on the subject of taking aboriginal children away from their parents in order to “civilize” them?  Rabbit-Proof Fence.  Watch for this in next year’s Foreign Film Festival—it’s a great movie.

4.  In what single battle in WWI did Australia lose the most troops?  Gallipoli

5.  What is the best selling comic-book in Australia?  The Phantom.  Why do I know that?  Where do you think I get my issues of the Phantom from?


This Week’s Trivia Contest

There isn’t one.  This is the last issue for this academic year.  Have a great summer!  Thanks for all you all did this year!