Saturday, March 7, 2009

Will Google replace me?

Meet your new teacher: Mr. Google.

If, in the digital age, you don't need a white shirt and notepad to be a journalist, do you need a diploma to be "educated?"

The same questions that are haunting the newspaper industry make me think about the education industry, especially communications and media programs like the one in which I teach.

CreComm is in no danger of folding: applications are up and increasing every year. The question is more - ahem - academic: do you still need a traditional classroom education if you've got Google? I hope not, because marking this big stack of proposals is really going to take me a long, long time.

But seriously:

It seems to me that I spend more and more time every year asking myself, "Should I teach this subject anymore?" or "How should I teach this subject, given that it will change before the end of next week?"

For instance, do you still need to know why some advertisers still want to buy space in a newspaper? Do you need to understand pre-press? Printing processes? Gravure or thermography anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

I'm a classroom junkie, which is why I love teaching so much. If I didn't get paid to be in a classroom, I'd pay the college to be there. Please don't tell the union.

The classroom is still the best place for dynamic discussion, debate, and disagreement, but with each year, I get one or two more students with their noses buried in laptops. Everything they need, I presume, they get from their other instructor: Google.

In Creative Communications, we let our students use laptops in the class to take notes and look up information that's related to what we're talking about; however, I'd be pretty naive if I thought that no student has ever sent a quick instant message when I wasn't looking.

Google or university?

Educator Jeff Jarvis explores the issue of education and new media at his BuzzMachine blog. He says:
Who needs a university when we have Google? All the world’s digital knowledge is available at a search. We can connect those who want to know with those who know. We can link students to the best teachers for them (who may be fellow students). We can find experts on any topic. Textbooks need no longer be petrified on pages but can link to information and discussion; they can be the products of collaboration, updated and corrected, answering questions and giving quizzes, even singing and dancing. There’s no reason my children should be limited to the courses at one school; even now, they can get coursework online from no less than MIT and Stanford. And there’s no reason that I, long out of college, shouldn’t take those courses, too.
Like Jarvis, there's something within me that likes the idea of disrupting widely held beliefs about, oh, pretty much anything. What can I say: I'm a contrarian.

When I first was hired as an instructor, one of the people who hired me said, "You can do whatever you want. If you don't want to give out grades, you don't have to."

The freedom! My first day on the job, I asked the program coordinator: "What's this about me not having to give out grades?"

"I don't know where you got that from," he said. "You have to give out grades." Oh, well, the idea was fun while it lasted.

A masters of my own domain

Last year I started looking into a master's degree, and was quickly reminded what I so dislike about "formal education:" that universities are more eager to tell you what you can't do than what you can: "You can't take classes at night. You can't transfer credits from Red River College. That class is full. We don't offer that class anymore. It says one-year program in the brochure, but really it'll take you two years to finish." You get the idea.

Universities have long been gatekeepers to accepting - and preventing - students from being members of their club, "anointing" the chosen few with the cash, connections, or both. But what about other people who are hungry to learn without these resources?

One of my best and smartest friends has never gone further than a high school diploma. But she's traveled a lot and reads more books than anyone I know. Should she be deprived of a good job just because she doesn't have a diploma?

Who's to say that there isn't something better than a formal education, anyway? Education is supposed to be a movable feast of discussion, laughs, debate, cooperation, instruction, games, communication, responsibility, freedom, achievement, mistakes, socialization, reflection, networking, community, fun, excitement, entertainment, information, exploration, maturation, and whatever.

Diplomas and degrees become dated very fast, but learning doesn't.

Says Jarvis:
Most of what I have done in my career has required me to learn new lessons—long past graduation—about technology, business, economics, sociology, science, education, law, and design. Lately I’ve learned many of these lessons in public, on my blog, with the help of my readers. That is why I urge other academics to blog and be challenged by their public. I believe that should count as publishing. Blog or perish, I say.
In Will Richardson's education blog, Weblogg-ed, he tells his own kids:
“Instead of the piece of paper on the wall that says you are an expert, you will have an array of products and experiences, reflections and conversations that show your expertise, show what you know, make it transparent. It will be comprised of a body of work and a network of learners that you will continually turn to over time, that will evolve as you evolve, and will capture your most important learning.”
Even with Google around, teachers will likely always be necessary:

Just because students have access to "all this knowledge" doesn't mean that they'll look for it without the necessary kick in the pants.

Just because Wikipedia has the collected wisdom of human knowledge doesn't mean that we know what to look for when we get to the site.

The Office may show us what it's like to work in a real office, but we still need practice time in school to make mistakes when no one is looking, and learn the skills and abilities necessary to succeed in the work environment once we graduate.

Probably the best movie I've ever seen about education is the documentary To Be and To Have. The film follows Georges Lopez in his last year of teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in France; its visual metaphor for education is a slowly moving turtle, which we see in the opening shot.

Its message: there's no substitution for a good old-fashioned lesson plan, a kind, caring teacher, and time.

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