Saturday, December 06, 2008

Michael Wesch's Students' Incomplete Vision

Michael Wesch and his students have produced a very provocative video depicting the degree to which today's college students are disconnected from the teachers, classrooms and learning experiences. In large part, the students explain to us that their classroom experiences are outdated or limited compared to their real world and attribute much of this to the pervasive explosion of information via the Web.

This seems like an incomplete explanation. College for many American students has become a commonplace experience. Yes, there are still many first-time students, but for many students this is just another level of an ordinary process of growing up. One doesn't have to go back many years to find a different experience of going to college. It would likely have been the first-time that a young person lived away from his or her family (perhaps even among the very few times they had even traveled more than a few miles from home. Most young people went to work following high school (assuming they competed high school). College was a very special, privileged place.

Yes, the web has opened up new sources of information, but radio and television even opened wider vistas. In the past a new college students would have been exposed to many ideas and experiences that they would have never encountered in their hometowns, now many of these ideas and experiences have been witnessed through television which continues to be the most dominant form of "information technology" used by young people. In short, the college experience is just more ordinary for many students. Most colleges have made many adaptations to this changing landscape, there are more out of class opportunities than ever before for students-- service-learning projects, internships, study abroad, clubs, lectures, programs of every sort. Most undergraduates have opportunities to be engaged in independent research and/or specialized learning projects. The sum total of what a young person learns at college has never been just what happens in the classroom. Perhaps today that is even more the case.

But this does not mean that all is still well in the college experience. Undoubtedly, we can make the classroom experience for interesting and engaging. Web-based technology can give us many more tools to develop effective learning processes. The large lecture hall experience as a dominant form of instruction is certainly in question. Few college instructors will mourn its passing. But despite all the hype about learning via the web, most of the current web-based instructional forms at-best copy the large lecture format-- only now they are on video or voiced-over slides. If a live lecture is boring, watch a few of us for an hour on video and you will long for the live version!

I am optimistic about our ability to transform learning in new and engaging ways with technology and Michael Wesch is one of the pioneers with his development of his World Simulation course which is transforming the instructional process. But it isn't just using technology to replicate what we have done in classrooms in the past, it is adding new ways to engage and interact with ideas and with each other. That is both the challenge and opportunity for educators.

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