Friday, October 07, 2011

Excerpt: Beyond the Blogosphere

Here is a short excerpt from Beyond the Blogosphere: Information and Its Children by Robert Leston and me.  We have just finished going over the page proofs--the book should appear in December:
There is still a need for teachers, for leaders, for exemplars. And, if their space is not filled by people who are themselves well trained and prepared, their roles will be taken on by demagogues and opportunists. David Barton, who founded WallBuilders, for example, bills himself as one whose “exhaustive research has rendered him an expert in historical and constitutional issues.”  He claims his books are on “subjects being drawn largely from his massive library of tens of thousands of original writings from the Founding Era.”  However, he shows no training at all in research or in effective utilization of a library. . . itself not a barrier to effective scholarship or writing, but something that should lead one to take a closer look at his methodology and purpose. 
 For reasons both good and bad, this sort of look at a researcher’s background has become suspicious over the last few years, with many feeling leery of exclusionary, elitist results. Though Barton is untrained, one cannot conclude that he is unskilled or that his conclusions are incorrect. This very fact, however, creates a conundrum: If training can lead to establishment of hierarchy through its resulting bona fides, then training itself might be part of the problem that the internet is, in some minds, rectifying. But, without training, the likelihood is that misinformation will too often trump information, leading to chaos rather than knowledge.
 An important concern for educators today, then, lies in how to train and certify without making the training and certification exclusive or exclusionary. It also lies in how to lead people to learn effective uses of the new tools without seeing them simply as tools for ratifying prior belief. The question, in a time when a huge proportion of the people who use the web come to it from a foundationalist mindset (or for some other reason come looking to the internet for confirmation of what they already know), is how does one lead people to a better mindset and methodology—and how does one justify the arrogance in claiming to know better? Because the internet exists outside of established hierarchical or educational structures, it would be extremely difficult to impose order on it from outside. Users want (and should have, quite frankly) the freedom to approach and use the web as they see fit. 
How, then, do we solve the problem of the lack of gatekeepers on the internet? How do we stop abuses while still promoting freedom? 
By doing what has always been necessary for successful democracy. By providing early and universal education designed to meet the needs of a people faced with an uncertain technological future. Once people have the knowledge and experience necessary for making considered and accurate judgments on what they find on the web, they will be a lot less vulnerable to fraud, self-deception (seeing only those sites we want to see), and error. Though much else may have changed in the digital age, the need and reason for education has not. 
There are many ways education for the digital age could be built, but most are going to include as a basis something like the concepts Wagner lists as his survival skills. All of them, if they are going to be effective, will concentrate on the student as doer—but doer in situations created, observed, and led by an expert teacher. All of them will focus on collaboration skills and on communication. All of them will stress flexibility and will be so in their design and in the variety of their approaches. None of them will expect one teaching tool or method to be sufficient but will use curricula designed around a variety of activities with plenty of room for invention and spur-of-the-moment change.

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