Save the old or start new?

For the discussion about journalism education with the #collegejourn folks, I’d like to add a few thoughts to the fire.

First, the assumption is incorrect. There’s no way professors are going to be able to “catch up,” but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just another characteristic of the indicative paradigm shift that’s happening right now. We’ve got to move from a “one-to-many” style of top-down education to a “many-to-many” style of networked education. What we’re doing right now, having a lateral conversation that is independent of geography, is just one example of this transition happening organically. If anything, it’s going to be us (i.e. the students) getting professors caught up. In doing so, however, the question will be raised of what exactly the role of journalism professors is. I don’t necessarily have an answer.

Journalism schools, furthermore, need to become catalysts for innovation. “Innovation” is becoming a buzzword these days, but there has been less discussion on what is needed to inspire it. I’m of the opinion, though, that schools are excellent ground for experimentation. Students should be afforded the opportunity and encouraged to test new things out because the school can be an environment where it doesn’t hurt to fail, pick up the pieces, and try again.

It’s critical to drop multiple choice testing. Standardized tests and rote memorization are one of the worst excuses for learning, and do even less in an era of rapid technological transformation. One of my classes this fall was J204 Visual Communications. In my opinion, 90% of the tests we took were based on how well you could memorize the book. I did quite well but honestly couldn’t tell you what I learned four months later. Grading is subjective, and should instead be based on an interpretation of merit.

Furthermore, there need to be multiple tracks of learning. Classes now are held for the lowest common denominator, but the gradient of skill aptitude is increasing. There needs to be better rapid certification for “self-learners,” and the class needs to be better structured such that those who learn at a quicker pace are incentivized to teach their fellow students.

What if class was an unconference? What if, at the beginning of every semester, the students came together and collaborated on their syllabus for the next semester? Instead of the professor teaching what he or she thinks the students should learn, the educational process needs to be driven by what students want to learn and, more importantly, by the questions they want to answer. Education through creation instead of education through systemization.

I challenge any school to be this radical. It might even motivate me to re-enroll.

Parallels between journalism and education

I’ve got an email thread going with John Lowe of the Detroit Free Press, and it’s conversations like these that make me wish there was a better tool for having transparent, but directed conversations. The discussion topic is education, specifically the current university system, and I think there’s a pretty interesting parallel to the journalism industry.

John asks, “Is there still room for a professor to teach wisdom?”, to which I reply (emphasis added):

I think professors can teach wisdom, but so can students. The current model, to take a journalism analogy, is broadcast, whereas the technology is quickly allowing many to many communication (or education). There’s still room for professional news organizations (or traditional universities), but they are now facing the crunch to evolve in order to maintain their relevance. The one thing that the universities still hold as a competitive, monopolistic advantage is certification, in my opinion. A substantial alternative, a system for rapidly certifying you in certain areas if you already hold the knowledge or can pick it up at a greater rate, will be a huge disruptor.

I don’t think the “current college system” will remain relevant. Instead of thinking about textbooks and lectures, which in some arenas are becoming obsolete faster than they can be printed (i.e. journalism, where the “Web” was discussed in only one part of one chapter of my J201 textbook), I think universities need to be thinking a lot further forward.

This [many to many communications technology] presents a huge flaw in the “top-down” model, too. For universities to function as it stands, the professors must “learn” the material before the students do, hold a monopoly on that information, and then present that information. The problem is that the information they need to teach will be changing at an increasingly greater rate. That’s why the evolutionary, “network-based” model is appropriate.

I’d like to continue that evolutionary learning, where knowledge grows from the ground up, is likely the only way that universities (or any other education system) can “keep up with the times” and not teach 5 year old material. The real issue is that we’re amidst a fundamental paradigm shift on top of accelerating change, and that most institutions that have dealt information in the past aren’t adequately forward-thinking to survive the transition.

Education needs a reboot too

The internet makes the world a smaller place and a stronger community. For this, I am thankful.

I’ve started an interesting conversation with Max Marmer about higher education, ways in which it is currently unsatisfactory, and what can be done to fix it. Here’s his idea:

Force For the Future is an action oriented youth network that uses the tools of foresight to augment its impact. One of our main goals is to accelerate the impact of young people by connecting them with like-minded peers, and seasoned professionals interested in mentoring the next generation. And aims to provide a tangible, action-oriented form of learning that most high schools, as of yet, do not.

Many young people are struck by an unbridled enthusiasm to “change the world”. The problem is this momentary enthusiasm is rarely converted into any kind of action. Very few actually to get to a stage where they are making a difference. Force For the Future aims to lower the barrier to entry by creating a support network comprised of mentors and organizations.

He argues that there are three primary reasons he’s forwarding the project: too many students love learning and hate school, there is very little correlation between success in school and success in life, and that students need to be more entrepreneurial with their knowledge.

I think he’s preaching to the choir.

The tenets are pretty well established: open, networked, and transparent. Now it’s time to start experimenting. Shane, DJ, and I have an idea for a social tool to enhance networked learning. The goal is to connect knowledge seekers to connect with knowledge holders, and build an economy which measures the capital of knowledge transferred. We should start doing this in small trial runs, and then scale up. Roughly, the tool would use profiles so that the seekers could search out the holders. For instance, if I wanted to learn how to install WordPress, I could search and find a person who held that knowledge. It would allow me to find a time and location to meet with that person. To quantify the knowledge transfer, there would be a karma system to quantify the value of information transfer and allow both parties to exchange capital. Additionally, the tool would allow groups to coalesce for longer periods of project-based, experiential learning like the Sadhana Clean Water Project and ODA’s water project in San Pablo, Peru.

My favorite of all of this thus far? Max mentioned that he keeps his iPod regularly stocked with TEDTalks. Back when I was in high school, dialup at home forced me to download the two regular podcasts I could find, Adam Curry’s Daily Source Code and On The Media, at school. That was less than five years ago. Just think about what type of information transfer devices and bandwidth will allow five years from now. There’s huge potential, and others agree.

Disruption as opportunity

Quoting Clay Shirky (via Boing Boing):

The price of information has not only gone into free fall in the last few years, it is still in free fall now, it will continue to fall long before it hits bottom, and when it does whole categories of currently lucrative businesses will be either transfigured unrecognizably or completely wiped out, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

What other industries “sell” information by supply and demand? Where else are there going to be opportunities for the innovators to step in?

Collaborative education

Via Snarkmarket and Digidave, Michael Wesch talks about harnessing the collective intelligence of the classroom:

Huge, huge thoughts here. It’s worth watching the entire 10 minute interview. First, he flips conventional wisdom on its head, arguing that large class sizes actually allow him to teach better. More nodes to the network means greater capacity of the network to achieve specific objectives. Michael also hints as using the classroom as a platform for the students to do what they’re best at, instead of a one-way broadcast medium.

I think he misses one critical point, however: the collaborative environment doesn’t need to happen in geographical proximity. Michael’s assumption rests on the competitive advantage traditionally held by universities; that you need all of the students in one place to learn from each other, and that’s where the university can make their profit. On the contrary, I would argue that, due to the increasing capabilities of the ‘net to bridge physical distance, the community critical to collaborative education can exist digitally in the network.

In the news, ending 5 December 2008

Of interest in the past week:

Text service provides more than a Band-Aid for rural health service – CNN
Coverage of Josh Nesbit’s Mobiles in Malawi project to enable community health workers with FrontlineSMS.

Alligator lacks editor applicants – The Florida Alligator
The Independent Florida Alligator is having trouble finding Editor-In-Chief applicants. Sign of the times?

The Worst Is Yet To Come: Anonymous Banker Weighs In On The Coming Credit Card Debacle – Executive Suite Blog – The New York Times
This whole thing is a mess. Reading through this explanation doesn’t leave me very optimistic.

Cities and new wars: after Mumbai – openDemocracy
Interesting analysis tying the attacks in Mumbai to a growing number of examples of asymmetric warfare.

The (Tuna) Tragedy of the Commons – Dot Earth Blog – The New York Times
Argues that tuna stocks on both sides of the Atlantic suffer from mismanagement and overfishing.

Education 2.0: Never Memorize Again? – Read/Write Web
Speculative article about the future of education in a hyper-connected world. Ideas presented aren’t entirely new, but it’s interesting to see a growing storm of discussion about this topic.

My ‘Crisis’ Advice to Newspaper Company CEOs: 11 Points to Ponder – Steve Outing
Steve Outing identifies his 11 points of advice to newspaper CEOs, all sage. The most relevant now? Number 11: “consider retirement.”

Haiti’s ongoing disaster – Boston Globe
Op-ed piece on Haiti’s continuing crisis, and steps the US can take to make change.

via Publish2

Peripheral education

There are two points I’d like to argue about education as it stands today. For one, the traditional university system is fundamentally incompatible with the information transformation we’re now swimming in. This redesign will have to happen in the next decade, or else major pipes are going to break just like they’ve broke with the music industry and how they’re now breaking with newspapers. Number two, a type of non-traditional learning has arisen which I find particularly valuable: peripheral education. Many of these ideas around these two points have been floating in my mind for the last six months, but recent events have made me more inclined to write them down. The first was a darn astounding Twitter conversation last Saturday night about J school educations, captured nearly in full by @greglinch, and the second was a recent post from Jeff Jarvis about hacked, organic education. As he argues, we’re moving from an analog world to a networked, digital one. The analog industries who do not make a hasty, well-executed evolution will be unsuccessful in the digital realm.

Let me begin with my first point: the traditional university system, just like newspapers and General Motors, is obsolete, ineffective, and outdated. It is a monopolistic institution designed for the 19th and 20th centuries, eras when information was a scarcity. In the networked world, access to information is ubiquitous. Of the five classes my friend DJ has at USC this fall term, he only goes to two lectures. One because he doesn’t have the textbook, and the other because it’s the only class he values. My other friend Shane feels most classes are just regurgitated from the textbooks, which I tend to agree with. Another friend, an honors student, is kept so busy that he doesn’t have enough time to do his homework. In the end, he copies it from Personally, I have to take school one term at a time because the things I’m learning in class are so far removed from the education I hold valuable outside of the university. Case in point: this term I am taking Physics 201 for my Environmental Sciences major. Unfortunately, most of the information covered in the course I already learned in my junior year of high school IB Physics. More than any other course I’ve taken, this one is just for the grade.

To work with the key issues, one needs to understand what the core strengths of universities are and how these traditional strengths are eroding. The why is ubiquitous access to the network. According to Jarvis, universities serve four functions: teaching, testing, research, and socializing. Teaching is imparting knowledge upon students, generally a one-way flow. Testing is ensuring the students memorize the information well enough to pass the final exam. Academic research is still a monopoly universities can hold, but does little to add to their business model. A parallel could be journalism to newspapers. Journalism is crucial service newspapers have provided in the past, but hasn’t been what pays the salaries of the reporters. Socializing is synonymous to both networking and group learning. Three of these four roles, in my opinion, are almost lost to the network already. Testing, the fourth, will be lost to the network as soon as a suitable ISO-esque certification for education is established.

It is not as though education is becoming any less important, however. Part two of my argument is that one type of learning, what I call “peripheral education”, is becoming increasingly valuable. There are three types of education relevant now: technical, experiential, and peripheral.

Technical education is the knowledge you learn to fulfill a specific role or position. Let’s talk metaphors. If I wanted to be a mechanic, learning the different car parts, how they work together, and what to fix when they didn’t work together would be my technical education. If I were a developer, this education is technical knowledge to prove my skill in Python, databases, etc. For journalists, technical education is learning the tools of the trade. When Pat Thornton went through J school, the tool was Quark. In my case, the tool is InDesign. These tools don’t need to be imparted in class, however. Greg Linch taught himself InDesign in high school, and I’d like to say I’ve taught myself 99% of what I need to know based on previous experience with Photoshop (which I learned on my own in high school). With exponential change in the tools, it is more efficient to teach technical education via tools like Lynda than in the classroom environment. It is simple economics of scale.

Experiential education is learning through the hands-on application of knowledge. Whitman Direct Action, and our Sadhana Clean Water Project of last spring, is one approach. Students give themselves specific goals, and learn on their feet how to achieve those objectives. In our case, it was compiling a book on water development issues in India, hosting a conference in Mumbai, and researching the socio-political constraints to clean water access. This type of education serves two purposes: the students learn leadership, planning, and implementation skills through the process, and the project results in valuable contributions towards whatever issues it is trying to address. Institutions need to make the transition from squandering student creativity and brainpower, to applying those characteristics to solving some of the world’s most pressing issues. Taking this to journalism, many newspapers and news organizations are shutting down their bureaus as cost-cutting measures. If universities were innovative, they would launch foreign bureaus staffed by J school students to steal that market back. To date, I haven’t ever heard this happening.

Peripheral education is learning through continuous exposure to the increasing quantity of quality information. It is the hidden pearl of networked education, the process culling information you push yourself to absorb, letting it change the way you think, and then understanding the connections between the information. In an increasingly digital world, understanding how information works together is critical. One key part of this philosophy is that the information you absorb at any given point isn’t necessarily related to what you are working on at that given moment. Instead, peripheral education is about exposure to a wide variety of information types. Podcasts are one enabling tool of peripheral education. In Our TimeTED Talks, and Social Innovation Conversations are all information sources I consider as valuable, if not more, than classes in the traditional university system.

In addition to the types, the tools for education changing too. Blog posts are the new social essays. The traditional format, obviously, is to write an essay, submit it to the professor, have the teacher’s aide grade the work, and then recycle the paper. The essay served a single, cradle-to-grave purpose. Blogging, however, is the art of cultivating conversation. When I write a post, I can be quite certain to get organic feedback on both the content of what I write, and the format it takes, by more than one person. Twitter is the new class discussion. Saturday night’s conversation about the future of J schools was far more enriching than most any other class I’ve had this term. Twitter offers somewhat organized, niche conversation about a wide range of topics. In the “traditional” classroom setting this is almost unmanageable, but on Twitter it can happen organically. I think having this type of valuable, enriching, and constructive conversation via Twitter, and not in the classroom, only strengthens the argument that real education can easily happen outside of the university system. Furthermore, I completely disagree with Kevin on podcasts. Podcasts, audio and otherwise, are the new lectures. It’s about sourcing your information correctly, just like picking the right university or the right professor.

Schooling has traditionally been a top-down approach. We are quickly moving to a networked paradigm. For universities to survive the changes, they need to transition to an approach which fosters creative action. To take a newspaper parallel, this is early 2001. The internet has been around for several years, but doesn’t pose a serious threat to their core business. Yet. What happens to the paid teaching positions, though, when the students can educate one another?

Correction: I inappropriately attributed the Twitter conversation transcription to @gmarkham when it was really @greglinch. My sincere apologies for the error.