The educational web

Very interesting debate going on, on the topic of generation Y and their relationship with the internet. Matt Richtel wrote a long piece in the New York Times last week which attracted over 400 comments, where he declared in the headline that kids are ‘wired to distraction’. Yesterday, Don Tapscott wrote a rebuttal in the Huffington Post. Excessive dependence on the web isn’t something people should encourage – but depending on the way in which it is used, it can greatly enhance the educational experience. Surely there is something to be said for the thousands of parents who equip their kids with an iPad loaded with educational apps these days (I see at least a handful of them whenever I’m in an airport), with the kids themselves gaining a degree of technological fluency I never even dreamt of at their age.

Overall, I’m on Tapscott’s side. Call me old but I’m familiar with the ‘broadcast’ method of education he speaks of below, and I know that it probably did more harm than good. The web has altered the balance of the relationship between teacher and student, and we need to leverage that in the right way for the benefit of everyone involved.

I also like the analogy to TV-watching. The web has altered the power balance there too, as it has with newspapers. It’s a force that can’t be reversed, and people need to get to grips with it.

In the old model, the teacher is the broadcaster, sending information from transmitter to receiver in a one-way, linear fashion. It goes like this: I’m a teacher (or professor) and I have knowledge. You’re a student 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. As I often tell educational audiences, the definition of a lecture is the process in which the notes of the teacher go to the notes of the student without going through the brains of either.

So is it any surprise that teacher-broadcasters and TV broadcasters are both losing their audience? Kids who have grown up digital are abandoning one-way TV for the higher stimulus of interactive communication they find on the Internet. Sitting mutely in front of a TV — or a teacher — doesn’t appeal to this generation. But unlike the entertainment world, the educational establishment doesn’t offer enough alternatives to the one-way broadcast.

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