I probably shouldn’t write
this blog post, because I’m talking about a book I actually haven’t read yet. However,
not being fully qualified to talk about a topic has never stopped me before . . . as co-workers, family, friends, and the occasional random stranger are likely to confirm. In fact, "not being qualified" is sort of the point of this post.

One of the debates making the rounds
on education blogs (and blogs in general) this week stems from Andrew
Keen
‘s recently released book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s
Internet is Killing our Culture
. The basic premise of Keen’s book seems
to be that Web 2.0, especially when
applied to media, is robbing us of our culture and replacing it with rampant
amateurism.


In Cult, Keen writes,

"By stealing away our eyeballs, the blogs
and wikis are decimating the publishing, music, and news-gathering industries
that created the original content those Web sites ‘aggregate.’ Our culture is
essentially cannibalizing its young, destroying the very sources of content
they crave." 

(Okay, so I’ve read the
part of the book that’s excerpted online.)

Keen bemoans the
"loss" of experts in the growing sea of amateur-created content. In a
recent Brittanica Blog post, he said
"In place of
expertise and authority, the Web 2.0 crowd offers us interactivity and ‘conversation.’"
And he’s not alone in this Web 2.0 backlash.

The pot is also being
stirred by Michael Gorman, former dean of library services at CSU-Fresno, in a
two-part blog post (part1, part2) also on the Brittanica Blog. (It’s no surprise that Brittanica is helping drive
this side of the debate, since the very Web 2.0-ish Wikipedia is probably the biggest challenge to Encyclopedia Brittanica’s
in decades.) Gorman says,

"Human beings learn,
essentially, in only two ways. They learn from experience–the oldest and
earliest type of learning–and they learn from people who know more than they
do. The second kind of learning comes from either personal contact with living
people–teachers, gurus, etc.–or through interaction with the human record,
that vast assemblage of texts, images, and symbolic representations that have
come to us from the past and is being added to in the present. It is this
latter way of learning that is under threat in the realm of digital
resources."

 

He argues that "authentic"
learning can only happen when the authors of such content "possess
verifiable credentials and demonstrable expertise," among other traits. In
short, you can’t learn from amateurs, only from experts.

Reading Keen and Gorman’s
blog posts, what I am reminded of most is David Noble’s 1998 essay, Digital Diploma Mills. In the essay and
his subsequent book of the same name, Noble sounds the warning klaxons over the
digitization of education.

"[University
administrators] are mounting an intensifying propaganda campaign to portray
faculty as incompetent, hide-bound, recalcitrant, inefficient, ineffective, and
expensive – in short, in need of improvement or replacement through
instructional technologies."

 

Noble concluded:

"Quality higher
education will not disappear entirely, but it will soon become the exclusive
preserve of the privileged, available only to children of the rich and the
powerful. For the rest of us a dismal new era of higher education has dawned.
In ten years, we will look upon the
wired remains of our once great democratic higher education system and wonder
how we let it happen." (emphasis mine)

 

I don’t think we’re a year
away from his 1998 prediction of educational collapse any more than we are ten
years (or fifty or a hundred) from Keen and Gorman’s dystopia. The primary
fallacy of techno-doomsayers like Noble, Keen, and Gorman is that they treat
the world as a zero-sum game where one
thing must cease to exist for another to grow. Instructional technologies replace
faculty. Bloggers replace mainstream media. Interactivity and conversation replace expertise and authority. I’m
sure it sells books, but it doesn’t make much sense, because the world isn’t a
zero-sum game.

What Noble failed to predict
is that the tools that evolved, like the Blackboard
Learning System
, are more frequently used to extend the traditional classroom than to replace it. I believe what
Keen and Gorman don’t take into account is that as access to tools for produce
cultural content, whether it’s YouTube or blogs or podcasts, get into the hands
of more and more people, the scope of what is possible expands. Traditional media – or formal classroom-based learning,
for that matter – ceases to be 100% of the landscape. But it doesn’t cease to be.

By all means, there are
problems. We need to rapidly evolve how we teach students to evaluate and use resources,
because the pre-vetted information in the campus library isn’t their only
source anymore. But this isn’t anything new; we go through the same cultural
growth anytime a new media emerges, whether it’s photographs, wax recordings,
motion pictures, radio, television, or user-generated digital content. Human
beings are pretty good at figuring out the value of new forms of expression.

If you’re aware that I’m the
product manager for Scholar, Blackboard’s foray into a central service for shared, user-generated content, you’re probably not surprised
I fall on the opposite side of the fence from critics like Keen and Gorman. One
of the driving ideas of Scholar is to unlock the personal knowledge of individual
Blackboard users by giving them a way to share the resources they have
discovered and to discover the resources others have shared. And when I say "Blackboard users" here, you can more or
less translate that into "amateurs," because student-to-teacher
ratios mandate the overwhelming majority of Blackboard users will always be those "non-experts" that we call students.

However, Scholar isn’t about
replacing the traditional concept of scholarship with bookmarked URLs, but
rather about expanding our capability to share and discover ideas, knowledge,
and resources in the academic context. Should the resources in Scholar (or the
pages in Wikipedia or the articles in Encyclopedia Brittanica) be consumed with
blind acceptance? Of course not. But we shouldn’t care if our students find
their way to a valuable resource through a card catalog or through a social
bookmarking system, as long as that resource is well-considered
in the appropriate context and understood for what it brings to the table, not just accepted
for where you found it or who wrote it. And they can do that, if we teach them well.

The card
catalog might be more structured and more highly vetted, but the world of
knowledge doesn’t end at the drawer marked "X through Z." 

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