Anyways, I am drafting the first parts of a critique of formal vs informal, mediated vs unmediated education through social networking. No doubt this draft will change as the E-Primer takes final shape, but I thought to share it. I'd really appreciate any thoughts that occur to you as you read it, preferably in comments below.
During his junior year, my son started making videos with a digital video camera... he was not merely taking video with his camera and then editing sequence. He was mixing in audio from the Internet, CDs and DVDs, video clips collected from his friends, still images he had taken and downloaded from the net, and even staged video from online video games, where players followed direction and acted out scenes on a virtual stage from their homes across the globe. I did not teach him how to do this... his high school teachers... did not teach him how to do this. He taught himself, with the help of his social network of people, with whom he IMs, text messages, shares MySpace pages, plays in the metaverse of video games, and through venues I am sure I do not even understand yet. He knows how to use this new read/write web to learn what he needs to know, in order to do what he needs to do, now! It's how this generation learns. It's how they use information. (Warlick, 2007, pp. 12-13)
Warlick's account reveals that social networks can be exploited for the purposes of learning. However this does not discount the value of a formal education nor, necessarily, its mechanisms. The link between 'know and do', explicit in Warlick's example, is not always useful when discussing education; in fact, the link may even be irrelevant. The issue is not 'just in time' vs 'just in case' learning; rather the issue is between what is useful immediately and what is useful conceptually. Consider Plato's cave, Marx's critique of capitalism, studying the history of Western Europe, analysing the themes from One flew over the cuckoo's nest. Clearly not all worthwhile educational activities can fit into the model of 'what we need to do, now'. There are activities and ideas that do not directly influence our behaviour, but instead broaden our understanding of reality and which transform our thinking (Mezirow, 1990; 2000). Such transformation is exceptionally valuable. Implicit to an education is not just subject familiarity, but a new way of considering the world and one's place within it. One of the key rationales of formal higher education is exposing people to ideas and perspectives that result in them seeing the world differently, sharing ideas that they may never have opportunity to encounter through everyday experience. As a colleague at my own College recently remarked, you cannot think about (or be transformed by) ideas that have never occurred to you. Laurillard (2002) makes the following observations:
There are differences between everyday knowledge and academic knowledge.
Everyday knowledge is based on experience; academic knowledge is based on our experience of experience.
Everyday knowledge tends to be highly situational however academic knowledge is more objective, transferable and generalisable.
Everyday knowledge can be gained through everyday experience, whereas academic knowledge is necessarily mediated by experts with academic knowledge.
Further, higher education is concerned with far more than transferring information to students. Very seldom, if at all, will memorisation, regurgitation of facts and a search for 'the answer' earn an undergraduate degree. Instead, graduates have learned to appraise, compare, contrast, critique, evaluate, and come to their own informed conclusions with reference to others' ideas1. In Laurillard's (2002, p.12) words, “learning is not just about acquiring high-level knowledge. The way students handle that knowledge is what really concerns academics”. The outcome of formal education is not necessarily in-head information, but rather new ways of being able to use information as a tool.
Instead of being enamored with the success of Warlick's son's success at movie-making, we should be careful to contextualise it such that we see the issue he raises as an epistemological one rather than a methodological one. In other words, Warlick's example is more relevant to a discussion on what we understand knowledge to be, than one to do with how we should educate in formal contexts. The purpose of education is not to inform, but rather to transform; not to fill minds, but rather to broaden them. Social networking can certainly be used in the pursuit of broadening minds however its usefulness in formal education contexts is determined by its potential contribution toward the pursuit of academic knowledge.
1In the same way, postgraduates are expected to become comfortable with reconciling complex and conflicting points of view, and to determine and defend their own position within these points of view.