Re-imagining education

In this week's column I report on how a team of instructional technologists at the University of Mary Washington, in Fredericksburg VA, have partnered with a web hosting service to create what they call a sandbox for exploring open source software and experimenting with its learning and teaching possibilities. My visit to UMW earlier this month was the result of a virtual conversation between me and Gardner Campbell that went like so:

Since then, I've been thinking a lot about how ascendant uses of the Internet -- including blogging, podcasting, screencasting, and social software -- could transform education in the way that television was supposed to but of course never did.

What's changing? Call it Web 2.0, or the two-way web, or the read-write web, or whatever you will, we're approaching a dual inflection point: widespread access to existing knowledge, coupled with a widespread ability to publish new knowledge,

A compelling analysis of how these trends can improve education, and why that improved educational system will be the right one for the 21st century, comes from John Willinsky, whose podcast talk on these subjects I found by way of Brian Lamb.

Among his themes, Willinsky talks about how he, as a reading specialist, would never have predicted what has now become routine. Patients with no ability to read specialized medical literature are, nonetheless, doing so, and then arriving in their doctors' offices asking well-informed questions. Willinsky (only semi-jokingly) says the Canadian Medical Association decided this shouldn't be called "patient intimidation" but, rather, "shared decision-making."

How can level 8 readers absorb level 14 material? There are only two factors that govern reading success, Willinsky says: motivation, and context. When you're sick, or when a loved one is sick, your motivation is a given. As for context:

They don't have a context? They build a context. The first time they get a medical article, duh, I don't know what's going on here, I can't read the title. But what happened when I did that search? I got 20 other articles on the same topic. And of those 20, one of them, I got a start on. It was from the New York Times, or the Globe and Mail, and when I take that explanation back to the medical research, I've got a context. And then when I go into the doctor's office...and actually, one of the interesting that a study showed that 65% of the doctors who had had this experience of patient intimidation shared decision-making said the research was new to them, and they were kind of grateful, because they don't have time to check every new development.

Another version of this same story comes from my friend and former BYTE colleague, Ray Cote, who runs his own software and consulting business. Over dinner a couple of weeks ago, Ray told me that he's not looking for people who "know" one or another language or framework, but rather for those who can motivate themselves to rapidly acquire these and other contexts as needed.

Because both software and the collaboration that supports its development flow naturally through the network, learning in the software realm is arguably a preview of what learning will become more broadly. And thanks to open source, we're also seeing a glimpse of the future of teaching. In a panel discussion at the UMW's Faculty Academy I talked about the lost tradition of apprenticeship. One of the remarkable things about the open source process is its extreme transparency. Typically there is full access not only to the source code that constitutes a working product, but also to the discussions and deliberations surrounding its design, its specifications, its testing, and its use.

If you're motivated to write software, you can tap into a community of practice, learn how the experts work, and bootstrap yourself into their context. As a member of that community, you then enlarge that context in ways that help the next person bootstrap his or her way in.

Access to knowledge, access to publishing. Motivation and context. If an educational system embraced these principles, what would it look like? Willinsky challenges us to figure it out, and anyone with a stake in education -- which is to say, everyone -- should be asking and trying to answer that question.

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