Sébastien Paquet on blogs and wikis

As pointed out by Nicolas, Sébastien Paquet was giving a talk on Friday. He talked about blogs and wikis for collaborative learning. As an interesting sidenote, the famous Gilles Brassard attended Sébastien’s talk since Gilles was Sébastien’s thesis supervisor. As reported by Nicolas, I think a number of professors do not like the bottom-up nature of these tools.

I think it is quite natural to get these reactions. Blogs and wikis are part of a larger trend where central control is being neutralized. I think the Web in general will eventually have a very deep effect on society: my son will live in world where individuals are in charge much more than companies or governments. Universities will be hit hard too: I see students taking progressively charge of their learning. Currently, we decide what my son eats, but he started to protest when he doesn’t like something, and soon, he will alone decide what he eats. I think technology will progressively put students more and more in charge. I don’t think this will diminish the need for university professors, but their role will change from spoon-feeding students to providing guidance.

I predict that in 5 years, students all over the world will learn Calculus with little input from from instructors (but a lot of input from other students!). They will use sophisticated on-line laboratories and on-line testing, and on-line support. The technology is already here, but we still don’t know how to use it properly.

Update: Jeff Erickson seems to predict that in 5 years, I’ll still be predicting that in 5 years learning will change. Well, he is right. Learning is changing all the time. The role of university professors has changed quite a bit with technology, whether we care to admit it or not. What I’m saying in this post is that the Web has reached sufficient maturity now that it will soon be able to do away (mostly) with instructors in some of the more spoon-feeding courses.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

6 thoughts on “Sébastien Paquet on blogs and wikis”

  1. I disagree. I think that radio and television did have a dramatic impact on learning and university professors. When do most people see or hear a university professor? In most cases, they do see university professors on television. In Canada, at least, I don’t think one day passes without a couple of interviews with university professors.

    However, the Web is even worse: the Web had a tremendous impact on academia. The Web has changed the way people teach in universities.

    As for spoon-feeding… no, I don’t do any of it… but teaching first year Calculus is mostly spoon-feeding. You give a little assignment, say, differentiate cos(2 x) and sin(2 x). Next week you had x sin(x) and so on. The student follows a linear pattern and at no point does he make a choice. It is absolutely rigid.

    I claim some smart people will find a way to use technology to make it better. Alright, I might be proven wrong… but there is hope.

  2. I predict that in five years, many people will be predicting that in five MORE years, most students will be learning things in a completely different way than they are now. But they’ll be wrong, just like they were wrong 5 years ago, 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago, and so on ad infinitum. Radio didn’t fundamentally revolutionize education; neither did television, VCRs, personal computers, email, or the web. Why should blogs and wikis be any different?

    Don’t worry, universities won’t be hard-hit. They’ll just figure out how to get money out of the fad, like they did with radio, television, VCRs, personal computers, email, and the web. Meanwhile, the vast majority of students will continue to come to traditional universities and take traditional classes. If they’re very lucky, some of this new technology will be used well in a few of them. But probably not.

    And my role as a university professor is already guidance, not spoon-feeding. Isn’t yours?

  3. I don’t know if education will be drastically different in 5 years … But in order to study and work better with collaborative tools like blogs and wikis, collaborative learning has to start sooner than at the university level. People already try a lot of things at the K12 and under level, so we should see more students that are aware of how these tools work in the future, and more importantly, on they’ll have a better idea of how collaboration works. Because we are mostly taught to learn by our own means, more often than not we consider other learners as competitors, not potential helpers … I think ICTs are tools that must be used in certain educational contexts, starting with schools believing in collective and collaborative learning. Are we there yet ?

  4. I don’t know anything about wikis and blogs, but for some reason I’m finding this topic irresistable.

    If you equate learning with time spent in school, then I tend to agree with Jeff. There is a lot of value in the traditional methods, and we would be foolish to replace them with untested modern contrivances (bordering here on the “computers in schools” debate).

    But if you view learning as a continuous experience that is not confined to attendance at institutionalized schools, then I wholeheartedly agree with Daniel. I left the research world for five years (1997-2002), and was astounded when I returned at how the process of dissemintation and discovery has been completely transformed by the Internet. Academic discourse these days is utterly dependent on electricity.

    And I see elements of the same transformation in schools at every level. I run a couple of historical Web sites, and I receive an endless stream of questions from students doing projects. But I think the more important observation is that students (of all ages) are applying the information discovery skills they learn in school (and on their own) to other activities. Here’s an example. Our 15 year old TV and two 15 year old VCRs all decided to die in October. So we’re now faced with the daunting task of choosing new technology. Buying a TV used to be easy: you chose your size, identified some trusted brands, then picked a cabinet to match your decor. These days, you have to choose between CRT vs LCD vs projection vs plasma, 19:6 vs 4:3, HD capable or not, progressive scan vs interlace, presence of RF/composite/s-video/component connectors, etc. And that’s just the TV. What about a replacement VCR? Really, you want a DVD recorder that plays about a dozen disk formats, and you also have to think about future requirements for networked content delivery throughout the house, and compatibility between all the components. The combinatorial explosion is overwhelming. I know that my father could no longer make a choice of television that was better than a random guess. So I asked the sales guy how much time they have to devote to educating customers these days regarding all the options, expecting to hear that people generally feel as overwhelmed as I do. But the answer was quite the opposite. The guy said that most customers (of all ages — I specifically asked about age) come to the store with a comprehensive understanding of the options. Not only do they understand the choices (often following guides from such places as Consumer Reports), but they come armed with reviews from epinions.com, advice from discussion forums, (wikis and blogs?), etc. The sales guy said that as often as not they learn something from the customer.

    If that isn’t a fundamental (and welcome) change in how people learn, I don’t know what is. It suggests to me a process of continuous and pervasive learning that I rarely saw emerge from traditional schools. Yet that’s the culture that today’s children are experiencing. I don’t know if calculus teachers will be obsolete in five years, but neither do I see the pace of change slowing any time soon. If anything, I expect it to accelerate as technologies for continuous social communication and global network access (cell/PDA/SMS/IM/etc) go mainstream.

  5. I think that economics and demographics will have more of an effect on higher education in the next five years than technolgy will. Technologies will accelerate change, but events such as a rapid decline in enrolment, or significant reductions in Federal or Provincial subsidies will really tip any systemic changes.

    Imagine what would happen if governments decided that everyone had access to education, but online only; and that F2F education costs would be borne completely by the student. It’s a bit radical, but if the “no significant difference” phenomenon is embraced by the funders of public education, why couldn’t it happen?

  6. Unfortunately, currently, the cost of online education is the same or more than the F2F cost… at least, that’s true in Quebec.

    The problems are numerous: it could be cheaper if you had very large crowds, but online courses tend to attract smaller crowds… so no scale economies… also, online courses tend to “require” all sorts of “eLearning” “experts”… so you have to pay more salaries in the end.

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