A bit ruffled about education

Recently, prominent Youtuber Dan Brown (much cooler than the author), posted a video about education and the effect the Internet has and needs to have on our system of education. Here’s that video, so you can know what I’m talking about:

Now, he’s been tweeting about having ruffled a few feathers, and I think we all agree that’s a good thing. And Dan, if you’re reading this, I suppose I’m a bit ruffled.

Now, I’m an advocate of alternative education. I was homeschooled for most of my primary education, and the Internet was a HUGE part of my curriculum throughout high school. Hell, I even believe there’s some merit to the concept of “unschooling”–that is, learning through life and natural inclination, rather than a rigid curriculum and schedule.

And I agree, the Internet has had a profound effect on the way we find information. I mean, that’s a fact, so it’s not really something I need to agree with, but I agree.

But here’s the problem: Dan’s emphasis is on his own experience, and I think that’s where the thesis fails. Yes, the experience he describes sounds to me like higher education at its worst.

But it’s far from the universal state of higher education.

Last year–my senior year of college–I had the pleasure of taking a course which involved students directly in the research of the inimitable Cathy Gutierrez, a quite accomplished professor in the Religion Department, who has a blog of her own here.

Now, the fact that the professor herself has a blog might already give you an inclination of the sort of environment we were dealing with. This class integrated the most cutting edge research technology available.

Several times during the semester, we met with librarians from the college. We learned how to move beyond the rather limited world of J-STOR. Among others, we learned how to use Credo, a database which not only utilizes standard search methods, but will also generate interactive concept maps that, besides being really cool, also allow users to explore the information non-linearly.

Through the library’s subscription services, we had access to decades and centuries of primary documents, including newspaper back issues–Harper’s Weekly, the New York Times, you name it. (It wasn’t related to our project, but we even had access to documents that only exist in the BRITISH MUSEUM, for goodness’ sake!) These are huge, incredibly helpful databases that take a great deal of effort and manpower to create and maintain–it seems fair to me to require a subscription to use them, and so the access to those databases alone is a HUGE advantage of being in enrolled in an institution.

And the BEST thing about the class is that the information sharing went both ways. I personally was able to introduce both my professor and my librarian to Google Documents, Google Reader, and basically the whole concept of RSS feeds. They were excited and interested and eager to learn about these new tools. In fact, my professor actually used Google Docs to access our coursework.

In fact, Google Docs was at the center of a group project I was involved with, which involved scanning many pages of microfilm newspapers, indexing, optimizing, and tagging them, and then making them available–for free!–on the Internet.

Do you realize the full significance of that? A bunch of undergraduate students–not all of them even seniors!–created a legitimately useful source of information that would otherwise be buried on a microfilm in a tiny library in upstate New York. Dan Brown, isn’t this EXACTLY the sort of change you would like to see in higher education?

Now, I realize that not everyone has the blessing of attending a small, private women’s college. Not everyone gets this kind of opportunity. But isn’t it a step in the right direction for higher education? Dan Brown, as long as things like this are going on, I do not think it is fair to accuse higher education of failing to change with the Internet.

I’m Emma Meador, and I am out.

EDITED TO ADD: Another piece of evidence that change IS occurring: students and alumnae from my college can now text their librarians with research questions, etc. I can’t think of clearer proof that the school is trying very had to make information as accessible as possible.

6 thoughts on “A bit ruffled about education

  1. Hey Emma!
    Thank you for the comment on my blog, I greatly appreciated reading your thoughts on what I had to say about this subject.

    You made a great case, and one I hadn’t really taken the time to consider. I completely agree with the points that you made, and I’m glad you brought them to my attention.

    I do agree that people should take all sorts of different classes, but I think forcing students to take a very advanced history class in order to graduate is a little ineffective.

    I am a writer, specifically, I’m a Creative Writing major. I loved that you brought up the fact that writers have to include other things in their writing, which is great incentive for taking different topics throughout my college career. I completely agree with you, though I do think that if I am going to include something I could do the research online. Right now, for instance, I’m writing a screenplay about poker. I know nothing about poker, except from things I’ve been reading online, movies I’ve been watching, and things people have told me.

    At my college we’re required to take 24 hours of random classes, and for the most part, I’ve chosen to fill those hours with Women’s Studies, Philosophy and Film classes. I fell in love with Philosophy, and had it not been for my college making me take those extra hours, I would have never discovered it. So I’m glad for that diversity.

    At the same time, my college also makes me take two semesters of science, plus a lab to go along with them. I realize that’s not that much science, but for me it is. I’m extremely bad at science and it takes a lot of time for me to understand that subject. That time I spend studying takes a lot of time out of my writing and reading for my three english classes that I have to take in one semester. For me, I think two college level science classes is a bit much but I do see what you’re saying.

    To discuss your blog, which I especially liked, you bring up a really good point that there are utilities that are only available to college students. That’s something I hadn’t even thought of, and it definitely helped me form a conclusion about where I stand on this whole subject. Students at my school can also text librarians, along with IMing them, which is a great example of Universities changing with the times.

    Thanks for taking the time to read my blog post and especially commenting on it, I loved hearing someone else’s perspective.


    • I think it’s true that gen ed requirements are tricky ground to navigate–and I might talk a big talk, but if my college had required me to take a math course, my final GPA would have been SIGNIFICANTLY lower. (I might advocate liberal arts, but I was pretty thrilled to get away with taking Logic for math.)

      Anyway, thanks for stopping by! I subscribed to your blog’s RSS feed, ’cause it looks like we have very similar interests, so I’ll be following you! Only, in a totally non-creepy way, I swear.

      • No problem, I’ve subscribed to your blog’s RSS feed too, as well as followed you on twitter. So I’m following you in a non-creepy way as well!

  2. I feel like the fact that our school is so small makes it even more impressive that we had the technological capabilities we had. You’ve got an excellent point with the databases – not only did we have them while at school, but we *still* have access. I’m not sure how long that’ll last, but I’ve used them a few times since graduation.

    i’d say a lot of schools are moving to incorporate technology and new internet stuff as quickly as they can – it’s a major selling point for them to new perspective students. And not only does Cathy have a blog – she’s got a facebook and a twitter! Actually, several of our professors have facebooks and a growing number have twitters. And they use youtube and other such things in class.

    And this movement in colleges is very important because stuff like Google Docs is becoming increasingly important in the workplace. My little non-profit uses google docs and google spreadsheets all the time!

  3. Emma and friends,

    I know I tried commenting on this on Twitter last night at midnight but this seems like a better forum for oh so many reasons. I think you have really laid out the issues very well. To recap what I was saying last night, first it’s not just about the distribution of facts. He is right, you can find facts for free in a number of places. But what to do about them and how to think with them is not something one can get from a list. That’s a starting place, not an ending one.
    Second, there is the problem that there’s no gate keeping on the internet. There is a lot of excellent information here but there is very little in the way of vetting it for accuracy. I think teaching students how to assess the quality of the material available to them is the next evolution of education. I hear Mr. Brown that some educators would prefer that technology had never happened and that it would just go away. And I love old books as much as the next guy and more than most next guys but we have a responsibility to keep step with the students and be realistic about where they get their information.
    But you said it best–it’s a two-way street. A good education can contribute to the distribution of free and accurate knowledge for all. Thanks Emma!

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