Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Books in the Ditch of the New Media Landscape

I believe in maximizing my learning time so I listen to podcasts whenever I can.  Today I took the dog out for a long stroll and listened to Michael Wesch's keynote (New Media Environments) at the recent Educause conference in Chicago.  Michael Wesch is a professor of Anthropology at Kansas State University who has some very famous videos on YouTube here and here.  I had the good fortune to hear him speak last year in Boston at Allan November's Building Learning Communities conference.  I admire his innovative work with the students.  He might say that he  is only harnessing the collective intelligence in front of him (large lecture hall) and responding to John Dewey's question, "If students learn doing, then what are learning sitting there?".

In his keynote, he addresses several converging issues facing teachers who know that the old ways are simply not working.  He has such a gift for translating complex issues into simple and compelling bite-size morsels.  For example, "we need to prepare students to be knowledge-able instead of knowledgeable".  This is not just semantics but an existential shift.  In this media  landscape with the sum total of the world's knowledge available to us, why are schools focused on creating knowledgeable students when what will serve the student is a lived experience of being knowledge-able?  Education is not about the transfer of content (with new fancy technologies so we feel cool about the sparkle of the transfer process) but about how these young students will examine, question, create and re-create the world that they inherit from us.  Most teachers know that - I think.

He also spoke about the other face of this new media landscape;global connectivity brings both new opportunities for collaboration and surveillance, for deep connection to people (virtually anywhere) and for alienation and isolation, for participation in democracy as well as mindless distraction.  He tells us that technology is more than a neutral tool; it is also a mediator of human relationships.

As I thought about those contrasting possibilities, I came across an unusual sight - several boxes of hard-covered books.  When I looked closer, I saw that they were an encyclopedia set of Canadian History published in 1937.  Hidden in the corners were several smaller greenish books; one with the title of "How to Excel at Public Speaking" and another at using wit and humour.  I was struck at the loneliness I felt for those books.  The public library was directly in front of these discarded books.  Their heartless owner did not even take the time to donate them.  A part of me wanted to scoop them up and save these beautiful ruby history books from the ravages of weather and indifference, but I did not.  I walked away from those beauties of yesteryear leaving a spotted trail of uncertain guilt and melancholy.  I have books of my own that I have loved for years and years.  I would never put them out to the curb; not even in this heady new media landscape.   

The choices in front of teachers are not print versus digital, content versus process (in learning), knowledge acquisition verses skill building but more about a shift of the learning and teaching bodies on this new landscape that includes all these possibilities.  Michael Wesch collaborates with his students and teaches them.
 " I still maintain that I'm the most experienced in the bunch — the expert learner, the expert researcher. But the students also have skills to bring to the table, and it's important to recognize those." - A Sense of Purpose on Educause.
Educators must include the students in the design of these new learning environments or, like the sadly discarded books, risk curb-side irrelevance.

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