New models of learning? A response to Richardson

As a new teacher, I frequently reflect on what my role in the classroom should be – especially at a time when human civilization is changing at a more rapid pace than at any time in history. Consequently, I feel that Richardson’s vision of education’s future deserves a thorough examination.
Richardson makes several assumptions about how the Internet is changing the need for and goal of education. He says that it is connecting us to 1/7 of the world’s population, meaning that “experts are at our fingertips…if we know how to find and connect to them.” In other words, we have vast opportunities to find information. The Internet has also had an effect on the creation and dissemination of knowledge: “Paper is not the best way to share our work, facts and truths are constantly changing, and working together is becoming the norm, not the exception.” Our purpose is now “about solving problems together and sharing the knowledge we’ve gained with wide audiences.”
These assertions are backed with conviction but few examples. “Facts and truths are constantly changing?” As a history teacher, I must evaluate these claims within the context of my academic discipline, and I find that for Ancient and Modern World History, at least, “facts” and “truths” are not changing at all. Are there more interpretations of history? Perhaps – our textbook takes pains to discuss the role of women in each civilization, however perfunctory its treatment of the subject might be. But the divergence and profileration of competing interpretations is as much a function of changing social attitudes as it is of evolving technology. The facts themselves remain static – 305,000 soldiers died at the Battle of the Somme, whether we are learning about it in 1964 or 2004. It would be more accurate to say that for today’s history teachers, the Internet has made the facts more vivid – we can explore topics in much greater depth because sites like the Modern History Sourcebook and Google Images’ Life Magazine archive expose us to so much more than textbooks can.

Richardson further claims that “working together is becoming the norm, not the exception.” For a niche of motivated and wordly individuals, this is certainly the case. Wikipedia is the perfect example of asynchronous, anonymous collaboration – tens of thousands of volunteers working together to synthesize and evaluate what “facts and truths” are. Look at the discussion tab of any Wikipedia entry and you can see the spirited, sometimes-combative-sometimes-collaborative exchanges that underly each entry. Yet “working together” is hardly something that has been an EXCEPTION throughout history. Most significant achievements and advancements have been the product of group efforts: the space program, the Manhattan Project, the assembly line, the union, representative government… the list goes on. Working together is being made easier by the Internet and technology – and therefore more common – but I’m not convinced by the suggestion that collaboration is somehow a new phenomenon.

The assertion that collaboration is becoming the “norm” also implies some equality of contribution between all parties involved. Extant paradigms of both real-world interactions and the anonymous, distributed Internet do not support such an implication. On the Internet, the number of commenters is but a fraction of the readers of a given blog post. The number of “seeders” of a torrent is about a quarter of the number of “leechers.” And the number of students in a mixed-ability group who contribute actively and meaningfully to a group project is rarely 100%.

I don’t write this critically to suggest that the impact of the Internet is inconsequential. It is indisputably changing how humans produce, consume, and interact with information. It is responsible for the downfall of governments (in Egypt), the obsolescence of business models (in the case of record labels), and the demise of retail/brick-and-mortar stores (in the case of Blockbuster, Borders, local music stores, and Best Buy). However, we teachers should not subscribe to some soft-focus vision of a utopian, communitarian vision of learning without examining the skills that students and teachers need to successfully leverage the technology. We must also be conscious of the fact that these predictions about collaboration and information-sharing are predicated on an active, critical population.
Richardson does address some of these concerns. He sees the new role of teachers as “connectors first and content experts second.” This is presumably because the Internet has replaced the teacher as the best source of content. Richardson anticipates the objections of librarians everywhere who argue that the Internet has enabled as many crackpots as it has experts by exhorting us to model “editorial skills” that will help our students to “think critically about the deluge of information now being produced by millions of amateur authors.” My recognition of this need has led me to orient my 9th- and 10th- grade classes more around information literacy and research – and, of course, influenced me to enroll in this program. My students’ dogged trust in sources like “OMGFacts.com” and the veracity of numerous sites detailing the insidious influence of the Illuminati convinced me of the need for editorial skills long before I read Richardson’s work. But I feel that “editorial skills” are merely skepticism and criticism applied to a new medium. After all, the world was hardly short of charlatans (Hitler, Mao, Stalin, the Confederacy, Manifest Destiny, any number of religious leaders who aren’t recognized by your own religion) before the Internet. The web has merely given them a bigger megaphone through which to speak.
If you’ve read this far, then I congratulate you for two reasons. One, because contemporary research has raised the concern many times that the advent of instant gratificaiton has shortened peoples’ attention spans – this is something I certainly worry about with my students. Two, I have neglected to adhere to the rubric’s stipulation that my blog post include multimedia enhancement, which might in this case have taken the form of citations to research backing up my claims. I’m going to blame my iPad for this shortcoming – it’s great for reading books, listening to music, and watching movies, but woefully inadequate for any real productivity. But this, I suspect, is a conversation topic for a future date.