Getting smarter, faster, as a species – by Anya Kamenetz

Ed. note:  We’re thrilled to provide a guest post by Anya Kamenetz, author of DIY U. Anya Kamenetz, author of DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education.

One of the biggest blocks to understanding how education might look in the future is an invisible assumption that learning has to be boring and hard. Have you ever been on a sports team, or played with a band, or just geeked out about one of your favorite movies? If so, you know how fun it can really be to explore a shared interest with friends, even if there’s plenty of practice (drills) or research (IMDB, Wikipedia) along the way. Could technology help more of our learning feel like this by making it something we do with friends?

Although I titled my DIY U, the future of education I’m envisioning is not really about the mythical lone autodidact. It’s more about the potential for people to take advantage of the explosion of free and open educational resources on the web to learn together in communities, both outside of, and alongside, traditional institutions.

There are lots of good reasons to pay attention to the importance of people teaching each other.  John Seely Brown and Richard P. Adler, in their 2008 article “Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Web, and Learning 2.0,” cite research by Richard J. Light at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who found that students’ ability to form and participate in small study groups influenced their success in college more than multiple other factors.

“Light discovered that one of the strongest determinants of students’ success in higher education—more important than the details of their instructors’ teaching styles—was their ability to form or participate in small study groups. Students who studied in groups, even only once a week, were more engaged in their studies, were better
prepared for class, and learned significantly more than students who worked on their own.”

Second is that emphasizing peer study is one way to address the most stubborn part of the cost spiral in higher ed. For example, many of the course redesigns done through the National Center for Academic Transformation use Undergraduate Learning Assistants–peer teachers–and increased use of group project work combined with software tools to take some of the pressure off instructors’ time.

But the most exciting reason to explore the role of communities in learning is that it may actually help us get smarter, faster, as a species. Think about times when you’ve gotten stuck on a fine point of some subject but haven’t known exactly who to call, or your teacher or parent’s explanation just wasn’t clearing things up for you? These days, when I need a stubborn question answered, I’ve gotten used to posting a status update to Facebook or Twitter and getting back amazingly good responses. I even used Twitter as my virtual writing group when I was working on DIY U. “Sitting down to write 500 words by 2pm” I’d post as a public commitment and people would cheer me on. I also got  help & feedback on building my website, finding good books and articles to read, and formatting my book.

The more access we have to others’ relevant knowledge and expertise, the more quickly and thoroughly we can learn. That’s why a whole group of educational innovators are excited about the possiblity of distributed learning–taking place across large networks over the Internet.

In 2008 and 2009 George Siemens and Stephen Downes taught the course Connectivism and Collective Knowledge, on this very topic, as a “Massively Open Online Course.”  They had thousands of students all around the world following along through blogs, wikis, Elluminate, Moodle, PageFlakesSecond Life, UStream,  and probably more.

“We took the role of a teacher and tried to fragment it so students would play teachers to each other,” Siemens told me. “The best person to teach you is someone who’s just mastered it–that’s fairly well established. This is one way the cost of the educator can be dispersed. Given the abundance of information and given the connective and social opportunities around technology, perhaps the teacher’s role is one of multiple nodes amid an overall network.”

In other words, instead of thinking of social networking as the ultimate distraction from classes, maybe it’s time to think of it as your best learning resource.

As an added bonus to our readers, we’d like to bring as many of you into the conversation as possible, and Anya has graciously offered to provide a signed copy of her book to folks who engage in the conversation here by posting their comments about her essay.  We’ll be giving away up to five signed copies of her book!

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4 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Sarah,

    What a great post! Although I teach at a traditional brick-and-mortar university, I take advantage of online learning communities to boost my own scholarship. Not only do I use Facebook and Twitter in the ways that you mention, I also keep in touch with former graduate student colleagues and exchange drafts of essays and book proposals with them.

    As a researcher, I am thrilled at the number of archives that are going digital. It is possible to find primary source documents online (in some cases for free), so I can actually so scholarly research, collaborate on projects, and participate as a reviewer in someone else’s work all online.

    I have a question for you: Have you noticed resistance to the idea of online learning communities from academia at large? It seems that as our students get more and more tech savvy, universities would be more willing to combine traditional modes of teaching and learning with online learning. In my experience, though, the opposite is true, as brick-and-mortar universities draw a firm line in the sand between themselves and online schools and collaborative online learning becomes “second best” to classroom interaction.

  2. cwall,

    This is a great post Anya, with some great ideas. Riffing off what you said:

    In most classes, most of the time, students are in listen only mode, and the feedback loop has a diameter of eight weeks.

    For eight weeks, the teacher lectures and the student takes notes, and it’s only after the exams are graded that the student and teacher discover how well they’ve done their respective jobs.

    If students are going to get smarter, faster, the diameter of the feedback loop will have to shrink dramatically. I think this is what you’re hinting at in your observations about being on a team, playing with a band, or discussing a movie. In those activities, the feedback starts immediately. You don’t have to wait eight weeks to know whether you hit the shot, or played the right note, or sussed out the plot twists in the movie.

    The beauty of social networking is that it shrinks the feedback loop so dramatically. This can’t help but accelerate the pace of learning.

  3. Jamison,

    But Anya isn’t the real promise of digital education not the fact that we can force yet another education learning style down on people, but instead that we can finally abandon the one size fits all nature of the education system? I’m a INTJ, I don’t work well in groups at all. An education system built around the notion of a group dynamic being the most critical element will do damage to all the children that think and act like me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done those silly group prioritizing games and the results always are that my answers are better than the group ones. Because I won’t give into group think, because it’s just not in my personality type. Rather than trading one unfair system for another, digital education allows us instead to provide all the possible learning styles to every student until they can find the one that teaches themselves in the most efficient ways possible. It’s the ultimate chance for the individualization of education. Trust me if I taught my classes the way I learn, most extroverts would be in the fetal position on the floor sucking their thumbs. They just don’t have the mental constitution for it. Ultimately it’s time to abandon the notion that the way we teach today is the right answer, it’s time to abandon the centralized authoritarian approach and put education into the hands of the children who need it.

  4. Carol B,

    These posts are great feedback, I regret finding this thread so late.

    I agree with Jamison that we first have to identify what Learning Style each student will respond to best (I like Dawna Markova for her insightful approach). For those that thrive in group situations, create a group-based learning system that also offers fair grading (how many times did I feel I did the bulk of the work of a group, for a collective grade?).

    Digital education does also offer great opportunities for independent learning, no doubt.

    I don’t want to forget, however, that even introvert children could use some group face to face time, to learn some social skills. A group of introverts who understand how they think can also be a powerful force (Odyssey of the Mind, other science programs come to mind.)

    My friend who teaches Biology 101 loves his digital clickers his students use in class. He does instant quizes to see if his students are understanding the concepts, without having to wait for even weekly tests.

    Thanks for linking to Anya’s blog, I look forward to reading more.

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