Education is about interaction, not content

The scarcity of content through much of human history (remember when they used to chain books to shelves in libraries?) has allowed us to collectively confuse education with the delivery of content. It was about the lecture, in which rare and wondrous knowledge was imparted to eager young minds, not about the experience of discussing, wrestling with ideas, and building artifacts (be they papers or dance or sculpture or lab apparatus) that changed both us and our world.

The overwhelming flood of content that we are now drowning in clearly puts paid to those assumptions. The content is out there, free, waiting for us to find it and stuff it in our heads, with more on the way. “Free on-line class shakes up photo education” from Wired is a nice example of how the content space is changing dramatically, as well as implying that traditional face-to-face education is perhaps a doomed beast:

“I think we’re heading towards a place where we’ll no longer be able to charge for content,” says Worth. “And that scares the shit out of academic institutions.”

This does indeed scare academics and administrators, and excites lots of entrepreneurs who (often rightly) feel that they compete with traditional institutions in the content space. Those, both in and out of the academy, who worry are ultimately missing the point. Content was never what we should have been charging for, and if that’s all we were doing we were frankly doing it wrong. Our real value is in the life changing experiences. When I talk to our alumni, they rarely reminisce about specific courses, and even less often about particular content. What they remember are the things they built and the experiences they shared. They remember the love Margaret Edson talks about so eloquently in this 2008 graduation speech at Smith College:

2008 Smith College Commencement Margaret Edson from Smith College on Vimeo.

So those of us in the Academy need to get over our fascination with content and focus on the business of trying to make a difference in the lives of our students. And students and parents need to become smarter shoppers and look for schools that will give them the experiences that will make a difference in their lives. Any school can give you names and dates, facts and figures, drills and exercises. And so can the Internet. A good school challenges you to discuss, write, build, experience, and understand, which is something that people are a hell of a lot better at than books or web pages.

P.S. The Academy isn’t the only place where we’re struggling to figure out The Point. This excellent post by Vaguery on what coworking is and isn’t is extremely relevant and comes to many of the same conclusions: Experience and community matter. Hop on and stoke the engines, peeps; we’ve got places to go and things to do.

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Incentives and cognitive surplus

Via TechDirt I found this very cool video on how our “standard” notions of incentives don’t always work very well, especially when it comes to cognitive work. There’s a ton of cool ideas in the video (and more in the TechDirt piece, including some cool links).

The incentives in the talk are typically money, but I suspect that there are interesting things to be said about grades as an incentive in the academy. Does anyone know of work along those lines?

One really interesting story is about Atlassian, an Australian software company. (Their stuff is cool, and we’ve used some of it here at UMM in the past, but it’s gotten pricey and we’ve moved to other tools.) Apparently Atlassian gives their employees a 24 period every quarter to work on whatever they want, and then they have a party where people share what they’ve done. This apparently leads to a ton of cool ideas, bug fixes, and development. So, so cool.

How could we apply that here in the academy? What if we gave everyone in our Computer Science discipline a 24 hour period to work on whatever they wanted to and then had a big party where people shared what they did? Could we do it? Would it make sense if we did? What would it mean? We’d probably have to cancel at least our CSci classes that day, and probably make sure that no one was giving an exam the next day, etc., etc.

Because we would only control our discipline’s behavior, though, we wouldn’t give many of the students the freedom they’d need to really take advantage of the opportunity. It would presumably work a lot better if we did this across the entire campus – no classes, no exams, no papers due, and then some sort of event (or set of events distributed across campus) at the end for people to share their results.


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