I read three posts over the course of today; had I encountered them individually, I probably would have passed over all of them. However, collectively, they do a decent job illustrating some of the themes and threads running through what passes for discourse about improving education.
The first post comes from Joshua Kim at Inside Higher Ed, who describes his growing disillusionment with Delicious.
From the post:
Nowadays I consume most content on my iPad or Touch, using apps such as the one from the NYTimes. The app may restrict where I go, meaning less variety but a higher quality consumption experience. I imagine that over time more of the magazines and journals I read will morph into apps, providing high quality multimedia reading and viewing experiences on portable devices. Reading the NYTimes on my Touch or iPad is better than through a browser because I'm in "lean back" consuming mode. If I'm on my browser it means that I'm on my computer, with all the attention pulls from e-mail and writing projects.
From a technical place, this is woefully inaccurate. With webkit-based browsers now available on most mobile platforms, designing web sites for the mobile web (which works cross platform) is a far more efficient way of reaching audiences regardless of how they access the web than building a separate app for each different device.
From the perspective of actually learning anything, reading the NY Times would have netted some great reporting by Judith Miller about the Iraq War; some beautiful stories by Jayson Blair, and the transformation of waterboarding into an enhanced interrogation technique.
Thank goodness we can just lean back and be in "consuming" mode, tucked away from those distracting tools on a computer that could allow us to search and question ideas which we encounter.
The point here is not to single out the Times for some of its more memorable assaults against reality; rather, we should never forget that a single perspective or source provides a limited view of what is actually occurring. Additionally, consumption without reflection leads to ignorance.
Next, over at FastCompany, Anya Kamenetz describes how TED is "creating a new Harvard -- the first new top-prestige education brand in more than 100 years."
There are a few problems with this formulation, but let's start with the basics. Some schools are also brands. Education is an experience that happens; for most of us, some form of education happens when we are affiliated with a brand. This reality, however, doesn't require that we have a brand driving education. This is a dated understanding of both education and brand; the fact that they have been hand in glove for a while doesn't mean that they actually need to continue in this way. The notion of an educational experience - or really, any experience - requiring a brand to give it identity is the kind of prattle that marketers tell themselves as they fall asleep at night. It makes for a good dream, and some people even believe it when they are awake, but it's not actually real.
But moving on to the new Harvard: Chris Anderson speaks of "radical openness" in connection with TED. But you can't claim to espouse "radical openness" when your signature event (and even your spinoff events) foster exclusivity and are beyond the reach of most people - or when you can't really take things that fall outside your opinion of what is worthy of being discussed in a radically open way.
In the FastCompany piece, Kamenetz notes that Anderson "has started licensing the TED name and video content to anyone who wants them -- for free."
This loose usage of the term "free" - combined with the equally loose usage of the word "open" - is not borne out by the restrictions placed on how people conduct any TED-branded events. For example, the conditions for running a TED branded event set up some requirements around what is actually programmed at the event. Moreover, you are required to video the entire presentation, but you are not allowed to replay that videotape after the event; that right remains with TED, who publishes (all? some?) the talks on the TED web site. So, while the license is granted at no cost, the conditions are time consuming, the event is essentially free advertising for TED, and TED retains rights to all the content. It resembles intellectual Amway.
Moreover, the TED experience for many people is limited to watching videos - or, as discussed above, going into "consuming" mode and digesting the thoughts and opinions of others. Watching videos - even great videos - is a feeble substitute for anything that resembles education. It can be a great starting point, as some videos provide a good foundation. But sometimes TED speakers are misinformed, or underinformed, or just plain wrong, and in the absence of a community of learners, you won't hear an opposing perspective. So if given a choice between TED, my dinner table, Harvard, a local community college, and/or the local pub, TED would probably fall somewhere in the middle, depending on the day.
For a change of pace, I would love to see writing about education in non-technical venues that discussed educational improvement through the lens of improving how people can demonstrate their skills, rather than streamlining how people can be fed content.
The final post is from Mashable, where we are treated to a piece about Why Online Education Needs to Get Social. The piece, of course, never really gets into any of the social aspects of learning. Instead, it talks about the internet as a "real time medium."
The web, as a real-time medium, is begging us to build innovative courses that can be used for the rapid delivery of education designed in a way that integrates current news, information, insights and research about topics like the oil spill and thousands of other current issues.
Just to emphasize, whenever anyone talks about "delivering" education, the implication is that learning is a passive activity that can be brought to people - in other words, getting us back into "consuming" mode.
This is a common conceit among many of the edupreneurial class; I understand their desire to have an educational system built around content delivery, as that aligns nicely with their business models, but unfortunately it's not that easy. The internet makes both content and delivery cheap, and brand, while a potent motivator, is not sufficient to deliver a lasting educational experience.
But, the real payoff on the Mashable piece comes in the comments. Over half of the comments at Mashable are spammers (or are they edupreneurs?) hawking their new "learning systems" - or maybe they are just extending the reach of their brand.