2003 February 11 – Post-session thoughts

(entry last updated: 2003-02-11 23:04:26)

Found myself ruminating a bit on some of the thoughts raised at the Winer/Berkman Center weblogs discussion. In particular, I think that Dave’s going to have an interesting time learning about the dynamics of the academic environment. He comes to the weblog experiment with the clear hope that widespread dissemination of weblogs will better college education – that’s a strong assumption and it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out – and what it might take to bring it to fruition.

A particular angle of that experiment is going to be how well the current education model will accommodate a transition from an essentially competition-based process to a cooperative process. Consider that, particularly at the undergraduate level, competition for grades is a key motivator that structures much of the way in which classes are conducted, material is presented and learning is motivated. (Yes, I know there are exceptions to this model, but it’s not the norm at Harvard, or MIT). Once you get to graduate school, the process frequently changes – when students are taking classes they love, for reasons that they understand, the whole motivation for learning turns into something amazing, and I can readily see how the construction of an open, collaborative framework for sharing learning can work. Heck, when I was a graduate student, I learned an incredible amount from my graduate student colleagues – while at the same time realizing that I was going to reduce my course load by at least a third (compared to my undergraduate days) because there suddenly wasn’t enough time to really dig into the topics being presented.

But, at the undergraduate level, there are a lot more hoops to be jumped through, and the content of many courses is governed by factors outside the university – certification programs and the traditions of the disciplines themselves. (For example, is there a single differential equations course that *doesn’t* include the snowplow problem? And can you really say you have an engineering education if you haven’t had to solve it – at least once?) It may be very difficult to accommodate cooperative learning in such classes without the kind of wholesale revision of curricula that many universities are loath to revisit – until they’re forced to do so. So, there will probably be the need for a certain momentum to develop first – and after seeing Dave in person, I can easily believe that he’s the guy who can make a good stab at it.

But, I think that the real opportunity at the undergraduate level – the place where it has natural traction – is not necessarily in the classroom, as a part of a course. Rather, it is the way that the weblog can help to foster the digital equivalent of the late-night dorm bullsh*t sessions where much of the true benefit of the college experience comes – campus-wide! Testing your notions of good and bad, right and wrong, fair and unfair – all those things that made college the exciting experience that helped you to realize that you could make choices, challenge beliefs and test assumptions without too much fear of the consequences – and making some surprisingly strong friendships along the way. I certainly see how weblogs can further that process, and lead to a host of new learning – whether or not it ever migrates back into the undergraduate curriculum.

As I said, it’s going to be interesting to see how the experiment goes….