Where is Your Knowledge?

From the NY Times:

These days, students who miss an important point the first time have a second chance. After class, they can pipe the lecture to their laptops or MP3 players and hear it again while looking at the slides that illustrate the talk.

At least two companies now sell software to universities and other institutions that captures the words of classroom lectures and syncs them with the digital images used during the talk — usually PowerPoint slides and animations. The illustrated lectures are stored on a server so that students can retrieve them and replay the content on the bus ride home, clicking along to the exact section they need to review.

When it’s time to cram, the replay services beat listening to a cassette recording of a class, said Nicole Engelbert, an analyst at Datamonitor, a marketing research company in New York.

“Students already have an iPod and they already use them all the time,” she said. “You don’t need to train them.”

How wonderful and convenient. Of course it runs the risk of putting all but a few professors in every discipline out of a job (why learn from me when you could learn from Noam Chomsky?), but should we keep our backasswards wealth and hellfare insurance system to avoid firing bean counters?

Many the time a student has requested my notes. And many the time a student has complained to me about some totally irrational professor other than myself who refuses to give out his notes. Of course I say no just like the others. And while I don't know those other professors' reasons, I can tell you my reasons for keeping my names, dates, graphs, and other notes to myself (even the ones I make into overheads for presentation): my notes are necessarily incomplete. What's missing? Thought.

Not that I don't put thought into my teaching notes. I most decidedly do -- in addition to time, effort, research, etc. But the 7 pages I produce to help me create a 50-minute "learning situation" is not the learning situation itself. It's more like a path through the learning situation. It's a roadmap. And looking at a map of Tokyo is not a trip to Japan.

“Students don’t have to review the whole lecture,” he said. “They can type in key words on their computer, do a Google-like search, and open the lecture at that point.”


Ronald Danielson, a vice provost at Santa Clara University, which has a site license from Tegrity, said that students use the review system efficiently. “They are very expert at clicking back and forward to the exact spot they want,” he said. “They don’t listen from start to finish.”

If we all only learn about what we expect to learn about, we will narrow the scope of learning. Things you are unexposed to you cannot search for. One of the most toxic syndromes I see in my students (especially at the freshman and sophomore level) is a stubborn and sullen expectation that the content of my class will be old f-ing news. When the content of my class is indeed totally new to them, some of them are really pleased, but a minority acts offended, as though I have done something out-of-bounds by not sticking to what they already know.

If my students could fast-forward me and google my lecture for key words, they would no doubt save time; but they would learn nothing new. Every story on my syllabus would be reduced to "women should have rights," and "alcoholism destroys families"; or worse: "the grass is always greener," and "the early bird gets the worm." Ugh.

By the time the students are juniors and seniors, the syndrome has passed: they've been in college for at least two years, and now they know that they do indeed learn new stuff that they couldn't have expected, every semester, that they are in fact completely different people, now, fundamentally different from how they came in as freshmen, and that the change came in large part from learning about things they never could have imagined before. Which is awesome. That is what college is all about, if you ask me. But can students have that experience on mp3?

The problem is that learning isn't about being exposed to a series of facts -- if it were, everyone could save a lot of money on streetclothes and gasoline and stay home to learn on the internet. Nor is learning about regurgitating the set of facts your local expert has deemed testworthy (which I suspect is the core of this matter). Learning is a conversation: a give and take of ideas, a push and pull. It's giving the wrong answer, having to amend that answer, feeling the need to counter-attack an idea that you feel has attacked you. Can you learn that from watching other people do it? Or do you have to do it yourself?

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