Monday, August 16, 2010

Censorship Not Part of the Future of Thinking in the Information Age

Professor Cathy N. Davidson (Duke University) is speaking on "The Future of Thinking in an Information Age" at the Australian National University in Canberra. She started by quoting web originator Tim Berners-Lee as saying that the web is not done yet (there is more design to be done) and that it is a web of human knowledge and social phenomenon. Also she emphasised the importance of mobile devices in the future of the web. She drew a distinction between the Internet and the Web, which many fail to understand. She argues that the web should not be centrally controlled by government.

The professor argued that the Information age has a new Epistemology. Perhaps proving the point, as I was looking up the word "Epistemology" in the Wikipedia, she used the Wikipedia as an example. However, it was not clear to me how the Wikipedia is different to what came before, as it is simply the translation of an encyclopedia to the online environment. While the Wikipedia allows for many people to compose entries, it still assumes there is only one definition for each term: it assumes the old fashioned notion of one view of the "truth".

Also as I was typing the above there was an SMS message telling me there is a 6pm Public Lecture "Beyond the Spin: Leaders, parties and politics, Beyond the Spin: ANU / ABC Federal Election Discussion Series". This was taking place a few hundred metres away on the campus. The political process also seems mired in the idea that society needs to have a competition where one view wins and the rest loose.

The professor argued that many current ideas of knowledge and education are from the previous machine age and not the new "webby" age. The professor seemed to assume that the normal way education was done at a university was with very large classes of students doing rote learning, followed by multiple choice tests. Perhaps Duke University is behind when it comes to education, compared to places like ANU. As an example I have attended today a seminar at ANU on Blended Delivery, answered some queries from my online students, met with someone from Iceland who wants to research how to use the Internet for international relations. That is a normal day: no large classes, no multiple choice tests.

The professor gave examples of new pedagogies where the students are consulted on what is in the course. However, I assume this is normal part of any course at a genuine educational institution. As an example, today one of my Green ICT students argued that the government carbon emission standard I asked them to use was not appropriate, so I replied they could meet an alternative standard, provided they could justify it.

While I agree with Professor Davidson there is scope for more student input on assessment, I do not agree that external standards can be abandoned. Where universities are training to do a job, such as engineering, the community is entitled to expect external standards to be met, otherwise lives will be lost as a result.

Professor Davidson asked (rhetorically) how we train people to be good online citizens. This seems a very easy question, with an obvious answer: we teach the students how to read and write online as part of courses. In my Green ICT course there are weekly online forums. In the first few weeks, I spend most of my time helping the students learn to communicate professional in this environment.

Unfortunately Professor Davidson used the example of coordinating orders for pizza as an example of a collaborative application online. The ordering of pizza has been an example used since the dawn of the Internet and it is about decade past where this is a useful example.

It may be that I am being a little to harsh on Professor Davidson as the ANU is a relatively well equipped university and hosts institutions which helped develop Internet technology. As a result I can tend to take access and knowledge of the technology, particularly for education, for granted. But it seemed a little odd for the Professor to be standing in a fully Internet connected teaching room, with several of the audience reporting live online using the university WFi system and telling us how universities are not using the Internet.

Much of what Professor Davidson had to say seemed to reflect a very narrow US-centric view of education and the use of technology. The Professor was assuming that Australia had an education system like the USA using techniques such as multiple choice tests for testing. It is unfortunate that the Professor did not look at how education is done in Australia and other parts of the world, to see what lessons could be learned from it.

Professor Davidson argued that most current education systems were invented in the last 100 years to support the industrial age. On the face of it, this sounds like nonsense. Perhaps after I look at what evidence the Professor has collected I will change my mind, but I suspect not. I have walked the ancient way at Delphi, used Cybercafes in Mapusa Markets in India and seen a gold auction in the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul what struck me was that much has not changed in thousands of years. New technology has been added to ancient ways of working.

As you can perhaps tell, I was not very impressed with Professor Davidson's prepared presentation. However, question time was much better. One point which came out was that Professor Davidson is opposed to the US system for assessing each k-12 student with a standardised test. This is essentially the system adopted by the current Australian Prime Minister with "MySchool".

Professor Davidson pointed out that email tends not to be productive, as there is a mass of undifferentiated material. However the Professor was incorrect in saying that systems to fix this have not been built. There are systems routinely used, such as for Learning Management Systems, which provide ways to handle messages.

1 comment:

Gye Greene said...


Good stuff! Here's two comments.

Wikipedia differing from before: With the Encyclopedia Brittanica, etc., it's one person's (or a small committee) defining "truth"; with Wikipedia, it's by rolling consensus.

Consulting students on the content: As a part-time lecturer, I'm uneasy with this, as the person with the Ph.D. and several years of personal experience in the field (presumably!) has a better sense of (1) the necessary content, and (2) what "the industry" needs of its incoming trainees. (This presumes, of course, that course/program designers actually consult with "industry" over what is needed.)

I'm happy to incorporate **feedback** (as per your example on carbon emissions) -- so perhaps I'm just understanding the word "consult" differently that how you intended. But I shudder to think that medical doctor, civil engineering, or social worker (for example) students would have more than an very minor amount of shaping what needed to go into individual classes, or degree programs.

The whole point is that the students **don't yet know this stuff**! That's why they're taking the classes. ;)

But, perhaps completely contradicting what I just said: I sometimes schedule in a "student interest" week near the end of the term, where the students can vote on a "special topic" related to the class, and I lecture on it.