Follow-up on “Sébastien Paquet on blogs and wikis”

In one my previous post commenting on the fact that technology had changed dramatically learning, I predicted that in 5 years, it would be an accepted fact that some university courses are better taught using mostly technology and very little live input from an instructor…

I had one reply from an anonymous Scott (but I know who you are!) which is worth citing in full here:

If you equate learning with time spent in school, then I tend to agree (…) 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 (…). 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, 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.