Friday, January 13, 2012

Why Learning Is the Next Big Thing.

If it wasn't evident before, it will soon be very apparent: learning is the center of our economy.

Why? Capitalism is about change. Karl Marx said it. Capitalism requires:
constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society....Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish [Marx's] epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air....
Very poetic. Now we call it "innovation," and we have a love affair with it.

Change has been the norm since we were "modern." Call it The Enlightenment. Call it the Age of Revolutions. But for a rather long time, we have been innovating: making things new. Brighter minds than mine have written about this.

And these changes drive the economy. This is very clear in the case of personal computers, the internet and mobile computing.

In the past, it was claimed that computers drove the economy by making us "more efficient." In fact, it always seemed to me more likely that people were simply forced to buy computers, to buy more computers, to buy new computers, to buy computers more often.

And to buy routers and IT personnel and web site builders.

The effect seems to be intensifying. Jobs are outsourced. Economic cycles of boom and bust, once thought "tamed" by a Great Moderation, are still with us. The recent downturn is one of the sharpest of the last 100 years.

Companies change. They come and go. Now it seems that an American company cannot make money selling photographic film, paper and equipment.

We all know very well of the impact of all this change on our lives: the suffering, those sidelined, the destruction of goods, the disappearance of whole careers and ways of living.

But we need also to recognize that change demands learning.

Hardware changes. Software changes. Business methods change. Product lineups change. So change demands training and re-training: training on the new tools, the new software, the new methods, to sell the new products, to give new services.

In business, change is now the norm, not the exception.

Normal Change means that every single person who wants to work must be constantly learning. We can never be "done" with learning. It is not enough to know our times tables and that "i" goes before "e" except after "c" (etcetera). If you cannot change, you can no longer work. Many of us have seen this up close & personal.

  • Has anyone reading this not changed jobs in the last ten years?  
  • Even if you have the same job, do you perform the same tasks? 
  • Don't you know at least one person who changed careers
  • Businesses that are gone
  • Or did not exist before but do now?

We are not only outsourced and downsized: we are old-sourced and new-sized.

All this suggests that the single most important industry of the future is learning.

Everyone will be constantly learning new skills. Some of this learning will take place in the workplace--where it used to be called "training."

Some will be done by universities. But universities are already seeing their role under fire. Businesses, employers and managers realize that learning cannot stop at college, and work cannot magically pause to wait for people to earn advanced degrees. It's not hard to see what will happen.

  • Universities and colleges will be downsized. 
  • Learning will replace training. 
  • Learning will take place everywhere. Learning will be in strip malls and in community centers and in the workplace and on websites and on e-readers and on smart phones and tablets.
Whoever finds a way to make learning quick, effective, efficient, enjoyable and cheap will dominate the future.  Because our future is learning.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Should You Become Textbook-Agnostic?

College courses often have a textbookNot a reader or a compilation of articles but a textbook proper: 

  • a single book, 
  • published expressly for the purpose, 
  • which gathers together key concepts and information, 
  • summarized and organized for easy digestion.

I will confess: I have never liked most textbooks. To my mind, if you're not willing to stand behind what you say, if you pass the buck and pose yourself as merely repeating another's ideas, I'm unlikely to find what you say very valuable. To me, the way the person writing shapes what is said is one of the most important elements of writing. Without that, everything's a repair manual.

Sometimes a textbook is needed--but not as often as people think. There are a couple of strong reasons for not choosing a textbook on your students' behalf.

Textbooks are expensive. Textbooks aren't just casually expensive: they're expensive on purpose. Textbook publishing is not a small enterprise. 

With 18 million college students currently enrolled spending $900 per student on textbooks, that's a $16 billion market. New editions come out frequently, because publishers don't get enough money from the used textbook market. (Some think electronic textbooks would be better--others not: in terms of what I'm saying here, they have the same issues.)

In theory, a textbook should facilitate learning. But learning is not one-size-fits-all. There are many learning goals. What you do for a textbook should fit your learning goals.

Textbooks can make students passive. A single authorized source deprives students of the opportunity to learn important skills: 
  • finding relevant information,
  • determining which sources are more credible,
  • comparing information from multiple sources.
These skills make sense in both introductory and upper-level courses. If your is a course where these skills are important, you would be better off without a textbook. Or, more precisely, you might be better off being textbook-agnostic or crowd-sourcing your textbook.

Textbook-agonisticism derives its meaning from device-agonisticism
  • We are device-agnostic when we let people use whatever computer hardware they like. 
    • Netflix is becoming increasingly device-agnostic: you can watch it on your Playstation, your computer, your iPad, your Amazon Kindle Fire, etc.
  • Similarly, we are textbook-agnostic when we do not concern ourselves what resources the students use. 
    • Instead we concern ourselves with the skills the students practice and the goals they reach.
Textbook-agnosticism could take many forms.
  • Give students a range of choices. 
    • Be clear that you will not be providing page numbers, only pointing them to topics, and they must find the information themselves. 
    • Help structure self-forming groups so students can support each other. 
    • Consider giving points or credit to encourage selfless peer-supporting behavior.
    • Explain to students the goal and invite them to choose their own resources. 
    • Make discussing, sharing, evaluating and finding useful resources a core part of the course.
      • I am currently doing this for an online screenwriting course.
      • Students must examine three books on the topic and share relevant findings.
      • The college bookstore has three books students can use--but they can also choose their own.
      • No limits are placed on what counts and does not. But the topics and goals form bright lines. 
      • Students are rewarded for sharing information with each other. Often students can 'hear' what a peer says in a way they cannot 'hear' what an instructor says--whether for generational reasons, because of status, or for some other reasons.
  • Crowd-source the textbook.
    • Based on the syllabus, reward students for gathering information that can serve as resources for each part of the course.
    • Make a core part of the course discussions about what makes some resources more authoritative or valuable than others.
    • Give multiple criteria and help students practice evaluating resources.
    • This is especially useful if students will do research projects where they will need to use these skills.
In short, there are many ways of flying without a single, approved textbook.

But when ought you to use a textbook?
  • If your subject has competing frameworks, each textbook is imbued with one framework or method, and you only want the students to know one framework, then yes, use a single textbook.
  • When definitions of key terms vary enough from scholar to scholar that it would impede communication to have each student use the vocabulary differently.
  • If you think one book, for instance, treats irregular verbs in a far superior way to the others. (Your students' experience should reflect this, too. It may be your opinion, but it may not be accurate.)
  • When the field changes rapidly and outdated knowledge would significantly hinder student progress without giving them any particular advantage. E.g., it may be no use for students to know about a discredited theory.
But if none of these apply to you, and you want your students to practice these rich skills of evaluating and discussing resources together, textbook-agonisticism could be your new best friend.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

26 Ways of Using Twitter for Teaching & Learning - #meta

At 10:00 am PST on 1/5/12, I will be giving a presentation entitled "26 Ways of Using Twitter for Teaching & Learning."

The catch is, I will be 'giving' it entirely on Twitter.

The presentation consists entirely of 52 tweets.

Please consider joining me.

--Edward R. O'Neill