Continuing my rant about change in education, I found this article (Education Needs a Digital-Age Upgrade – NYTimes.com) fascinating. It reviews a book that’s coming up by Cathy N. Davidson, “Now You See It”, which questions a few beliefs in the academic world, such as the “academic paper” as a form of assessment in university.
Education does need an upgrade to match the digital age and it needs it fast. Methods of teaching and assessment inherited from the 19th century (and even the 20th) are not relevant any more. There are a couple of issues here that impressed me the most and made me think that wanting change and pushing it forward isn’t such a bad thing (makes me feel less guilty about doing it) :)
One of the issues is related to using the “academic paper” as a form of assessment. The author of the book says that she noticed her students failing to write good academic papers at the end of their university courses, but at the same time were producing excellent blogs and Wikis which were perfectly well written and attracted a huge audience of interested readers. She noticed that her students were capable of researching a topic, relating the information to their own experience and writing about it in their blogs and Wikis in a clear, interesting, and engaging way. However, when it came to doing the same in an academic paper, they all struggled to express themselves and most of their assignments were hardly at a publishable or even acceptable level. So what was wrong? The author came to the conclusion that her students’ writing skills may not be the problem. The “academic paper” as a form may be the problem. It’s a form we inherited from the 19th century when people had to learn certain rules and sequence of writing in order to be easily assessed by their professors.
The contemporary American classroom, with its grades and deference to the clock, is an inheritance from the late 19th century. During that period of titanic change, machines suddenly needed to run on time. Individual workers needed to willingly perform discrete operations as opposed to whole jobs. The industrial-era classroom, as a training ground for future factory workers, was retooled to teach tasks, obedience, hierarchy and schedules.
In this day and age, however, this form becomes irrelevant because less and less people will search for an academic paper (unless you work in academia) in order to get information or learn something. Usually, people would look to the Internet to find what they need and that would be sufficient. Another change from the 19th century is that professors nowadays do everything they can to limit their work with students. Yes, I said it… it’s true. How many professors have lost their jobs because they can’t teach? None. How many professors have jeopardized their jobs because they don’t publish enough research academic papers or don’t bring enough funding for their departments? The number is quite large. Professors have limited their direct work with students so much, that they don’t even grade student assignments any more. They delegate the work to external “professional graders” who have never met the students and provide a “fair” grade that they think is appropriate. Another option professors choose is computers… the matrix for grading is entered into a computer program and the program grades the assignment.
So if that’s the case, why do we have to continue writing academic papers which we don’t know how to write in the first place? Why do we have to learn how to write them if nobody will ever be interested in reading them? (not even our professors) Something has to change.
The second issue that the author of this book brings up is the question of whether multimedia and multitasking is as distractive to students as educators and parents think it is. The author says that what seems as a distraction is actually the way students learn today. I always mention this in my courses as well. The fast that we can’t “multitask”, meaning watching TV while creating a video on the computer, while chatting with a couple of friends, browsing the Internet, and texting on our phones, does not mean that students of the new digital age can’t do it and do it efficiently. Learning is not done during “me time” any more. Students do not need quiet and piece behind a closed door with the TV and computer turned off in order to learn.
A classroom suited to today’s students should deemphasize solitary piecework. It should facilitate the kind of collaboration that helps individuals compensate for their blindnesses, instead of cultivating them. That classroom needs new ways of measuring progress, tailored to digital times — rather than to the industrial age or to some artsy utopia where everyone gets an Awesome for effort.
The new classroom should teach the huge array of complex skills that come under the heading of digital literacy. And it should make students accountable on the Web, where they should regularly be aiming, from grade-school on, to contribute to a wide range of wiki projects.
This type of opinion and initiative gives me a lot of hope that things will soon start to turn around. Education should enter a phase of transition not only in terms of allowing computers in the classroom… we are pass that stage… but in terms of teacher preparation, assessment, collaboration, methodology, even psychology. I am hopeful that this will become reality sooner than later.
Read more on the topic at the Classroom as Microcosm blog.