On Campus

The internet has changed nothing

Except that we have blogs now.

I really am trying to be less angry these days, but articles like this interview with technology expert Don Tapscott doesn’t make a Zen calm very easy.

Perhaps this interview didn’t do him justice, but from what I can tell, Tapscott is part of the tradition of experts on university education who ignore what actually goes on in universities. Put another way, I have been in and around universities my entire life, and the place that Tapscott describes as the modern university is utterly unrecognizable to me.

Here, for example, is Tapscott describing a typical university classroom:

The formula goes like this: “I’m a professor and I have knowledge. You’re a student you’re an empty vessel and you don’t. Get ready, here it comes. Your goal is to take this data into your short-term memory and through practice and repetition build deeper cognitive structures so you can recall it to me when I test you.”

This is straw-man anti-intellectualism at its very worst and, sadly, one hears it all the time. Except from actual professors that is. I don’t know any professor who thinks that the only or, indeed, primary purpose of teaching is to fill empty heads with temporary knowledge. Every professor I know thinks that knowledge is important, of course, and that students need to learn some basics of the discipline in order to make sense of it, but there is wide agreement among academics that the real purpose of education is to enable higher order thinking about literature, or ethics, or physics, or whatever the discipline may be.

But for Tapscott, unless you are teaching graduate courses, you have no “genuine and meaningful interaction” with students. Whose undergraduate courses precisely is he referring to? Not the courses at my august institution where upper-year classes routinely have a dozen students or fewer and where undergraduates commonly work as research assistants. He is certainly not describing my department where the Theatre Arts Certificate requires a one-on-one practicum and where a 4-year major requires a directed study or honours thesis (both done as one-on-one projects). What does he make of the office hours that all professors are required to hold? What does he make of the conversations before class, and after class, and by email? Is all this interaction not genuine because it is not on YouTube?

Tapscott insists that while undergraduate profs pretend to have “all the knowledge that is worth knowing,” young people are magical young thinking devices, geared up by information technology:

Growing up digital has changed the way their minds work in a manner that helps them cope with the challenges of the digital age. They’re used to multi-tasking, and have learned to handle the information overload. They expect a two-way conversation.

A two-way conversation? Really? At the risk of being boastful, I will say that I am a very engaging teacher. I am confident, and funny, and I know my stuff, and I can tell you that the typical first year student would rather cut his or her dick off than speak in class. A two-way conversation is the last thing they want. Professors spend sleepless nights thinking of new ways to get students to participate in a two-way conversation. Students don’t want to, not in the first year, because they rightly sense that no one has prepared them for how to do it. Not in an intellectually meaningful way.

It’s nice to think that the internet has opened up a vast new world of independent thinking, but do people really seem more open-minded to you, these days?  Indeed, research has shown that rather than letting it challenge their views, people tend to use the internet to confirm ideas they already have.

After a year or two, students start to loosen up, and in senior seminars there tends to be plenty of  stimulating interaction. But students get to the point where they can do that,  because we taught them how to think about complex ideas and how to express those thoughts. That was us, the dusty old professors. Not Google and Wikipedia.

I suspect Tapscott (one of the world’s leading authorities on business strategy according to his own web site) likes to describe a brave new world  because he can’t sell the idea that the more things change the more they stay the same. Professors were not created by an “industrial model” of education in the 19th century — universities were venerable institutions already by then. Unless the Tapscotts of the world get their way, universities will continue to be what they have long been: places where learned people come together to share what they know and to learn more. Where those of us who want to live an examined life try to gain a modicum of wisdom by examining life.

It’s easy to sound like one is on the cutting edge by taking the newest technology — the internet, the television, the radio, the train, the book and so on — and tacking on “this changes everything.” This is not to say that everything stays the same, but the fundamentals of a sound education have remained constants since ancient times. That’s why I still cite Aristotle with my students and insist that an educated mind is one that can consider contrary positions at the same time. That’s why my email signature is a quote from Euripides (“With slight efforts how should we achieve great results?”), and that’s why I practice the ancient technique called the Socratic method, a real-time, interactive educational experience that predates the internet by over two thousand years.

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