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.

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