Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

NaBloPoMo Q&A 7: Academia

Donna B. asked:

We were thrilled by your presentation at NCHC today, and appreciated your challenge to academia to make its medium (of liberation and empowerment) match its message (of sit down, shut up, and believe what we tell you). I’d love to hear your reflections from your drop-in visit to the world of Honors education, with all its promise and contradictions.

Thanks, Donna! I had a great time.

Backstory: I was a plenary speaker at the NCHC conference a few weeks ago. NCHC is the National Collegiate Honors Council, a group of educators, administrators, and honors students, and I spoke to them about the power and the promise of using virtual collaboration tools to connect real people and empower them to make authentic media. You know, the usual.

It’s been a few years since I was in college, and I think it’s safe to say that a lot has changed. When I started school, I didn’t even own a computer. I had an email account, but went into a computer lab with text-only unix boxes to read it. There was no web yet. No Wikipedia or MySpace or Facebook.

Since then, I’ve lived so completely in the web, it’s easy to think that everyone has, too. I go to web conferences where the success and utility of sites like Wikipedia, Facebook, and Google is so obvious, it’s not even questioned.

So what a shock it was to see the speaker before me have to caveat mentioning Facebook with a “don’t boo me for this, but …” and then see that some members of the audience actually did.

A shock is a good thing. It’s too easy for someone in my line of work to fall into a comfortable bubble. Personally, I love it when conventional wisdom is challenged – even if it’s mine.

Here’s what I know about educators.

  1. They are people who enjoy discussion, challenge, and the exchange of ideas. So they should love the internet. There’s never been a bigger repository of first-person information in the history of the human race.
  2. They value the truth above all else. It’s a educator’s job to correct, to teach, to clear fact from fiction. And this is where we have a problem. Because, to them, the fact that some information on the web is incorrect means that all of it is suspect. One wrong Wikipedia entry is so distasteful, it poisons the entire well.
  3. They’re elitists. Sorry, but it’s true. Academia is built around prestige and limiting access. This is not a bad thing, necessarily. After all, a history book that recorded all of history would take a lifetime to read, right? The teacher’s job is to winnow down all the stuff to just the most important stuff.

In my experience, educators like the internet for number 1, but numbers 2 and 3 drive them away. So let’s look at them in turn.

Yes, the web has lots of stuff on it that’s just plain wrong. That’s what happens when you have a medium that anyone can participate in. But top-down systems of hierarchical control are just as likely to contain errors. Look at all the times the NY Times has been wrong – chains of editors are often wrong, too. Does that mean we shouldn’t believe anything in the newspaper?

The Wisdom of Crowds proves that more brains, properly organized, is always better than fewer. So the more people participate online, the better the information should be. The real trick is in organizing it. And, often, when I show educators examples of great crowdsourcing like Wikipedia and Threadless, they begin to see the potential.

That just leaves one problem: the elitism thing. Academics live in a world where a lot of people say a lot of things, and someone has to sort the true stuff from the rest. And who better to do that than themselves?

The reason the internet scares elitists is because it’s so damn democratic. If anyone can say anything, and crowds can be sourced to create great works, won’t the gatekeepers be out of a job?

This was the first question asked of the speaker before me. A woman said, and I’m paraphrasing here, I know brilliant people who’s lives have been spent learning about a topic. Shouldn’t people learn from them, not some page on the web?

My answer is another question: Why does one preclude the other? In a world overflowing with information, people who filter become more important, not less. Those brilliant thinkers should not live apart from the web, they should participate in it. If you think Wikipedia is wrong about something, fix it! That is, in fact, the reason it’s such a good resource. People are doing this already.

In a world where everyone can be a published writer with the click of a button, good editors will be even more important. Educators, in teaching people how to think, will be more needed, not less.

At the same time, the consumers of collaborative media need to learn how to consume it. There’s some reassurance in reading the newspaper and knowing that the information has flowed through a few editors who have, hopefully, checked to make sure it’s right. On a web page, there’s no such guarantee.

But this is a generational problem. Those of us who were raised on traditionally gatekept media have come to expect fact-checked truthfulness. Therefore, we approach new media with the same expectations.

But our kids do not. They know that MySpace is not a newspaper. They know that what they read on Facebook is discussion, not fact. And it’s my hope that the media savviness they develop will spread to their parents. I think educators would be a lot less threatened of new media if they saw it less like a textbook on a computer, and more like a conversation in the hallway.

More, I hope that the reduced expectations the web generation has for MySpace spreads to their interpretation of all media. We shouldn’t believe what just one source tells us, no matter how much clout that source has.

I studied journalism in college, and one of the things that taught me was to treat everything like it was a bullshit. If a source says the sky is blue, find another one to confirm it before you believe it. (If we had more journalists that did this, we might have fewer wars based on lies and arrogance, but I digress.)

I don’t think blogging is necessarily journalism, but I do think that having so many information streams is creating a generation of people who are very adept at sorting, editing, and investigating to find the truth for themselves. And that is the process of journalism, and academia. All those bloggers are doing more than just filling space with words – they’re learning how to think out loud.

It won’t always be pretty or factual or true, but thinking is messy. You have to go through a lot of bad ideas to get to a good one. The first draft always sucks, and the web is almost all first drafts. But this new generation is learning how to think openly, in public, without fear. They’re creating a global brain, one smarter than the sum of its parts, one that is already changing the world for the better.

If I were a teacher, I’d think that was pretty cool.

Thanks for the question, Donna! Who else has one?

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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.