I have posted previously about the ethic, which exists and will grow in strength, for the free / open sharing of academic ideas via Internet and web 2.0 technologies (“Following the Free”). In order to be relevant in the 21st century, ideas increasingly need to be available in free digital forms. MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative is one example of this. OpenCourseWare is:

a free and open educational resource for faculty, students, and self-learners around the world. OCW supports MIT’s mission to advance knowledge and education, and serve the world in the 21st century. It is true to MIT’s values of excellence, innovation, and leadership.

This type of free idea sharing is nothing less than revolutionary for the traditional “academy” environment of the university. The idea of professors blogging is similarly revolutionary. As Jay Rosen said at the end (1:07:18) of the podcast session on Academia at BloggerCon3 in November 2004:

We explored how disruptive this technology, this medium [blogging], can be to an institution that has built its entire “self” on the control of knowledge. That’s what a university is. It’s a way of controlling, producing, maintaining knowledge. Universities have NEVER been great in the “distribution biz.” That’s not what they are good at. They are good at holding knowledge, refining it, controlling it. And blogging in that sense is an attack on the DNA of the university. I think we’ll see great resistance to blogging, and then I also think we’ll see some people really absorbing it, and transforming themselves with it, and we’ll see attempts to just graft blogging onto the academic institution, thinking it won’t really change much at all.

Free idea sharing via blogs or other Internet website technologies go against the existing grain in academia. Other people are recognizing the importance of “idea sharing” instead of “idea controlling” in the context of the university, however. The Science Commons is another example of this “free ideas” ethic, described as:

a branch of the nonprofit Creative Commons, devoted to easing unnecessary barriers to the flow of scientific knowledge and technical information. We work to encourage scientific innovation by making it easier for scientists, universities, and enterprises to share scientific literature, data, and materials. Our goal is to encourage stakeholders to create – through standardized licenses and other means – areas of free access and inquiry; a ‘science commons’ built out of private agreements, not imposed from above.

The Open Content Alliance and the Internet Archive are other groups supporting the ethic of free idea distribution. Of course the web itself, it could be argued, tends to be about free idea sharing, but the commercialization of the Internet (an important development to be sure) may draw attention away from the non-profit-advancing ethic of free idea sharing. The Internet started as a way for researchers to exchange information and research findings, but of course now the audience of web 2.0 content has broadened to include basically anyone who would like to join the conversation.

As Jim McNelis commented on my December blog post, “The Death of Print,” everyone should remember “that searching and amassing don’t equate to knowledge.” Jim also uses the term “shallow-content-dipper” in this context, and I think this is a problem teachers at all levels need to be aware of.

If teachers are giving the same sorts of assignments they have always given to students for years, but those students now have a mindblowingly diverse universe of information at their fingertips thanks to the Internet– there is a major disconnect here that needs to be addressed. I have addressed these needs previously under the umbrella topic of “digital dishonesty,” but I think the conversation extends far beyond plagiarism.

This discussion should be all about getting students to engage in authentic learning tasks and assessing them through activities they cannot fake or complete as a “shallow-content-dippers.” While there certainly is resistance in the traditional “academy” to the idea of professors blogging and the overall ideal of “knowledge sharing” versus “knowledge controlling,” the future will increasingly be one of freer information exchange, I think. The solution to the problem of outdated assignments for students in a web 2.0 world has everything to do with instructional methods and questions (pedagogy) and relatively little to do with technology. Are the majority of teachers in our schools aware of these issues, and acting to address them?

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3 Responses to Free ideas & Pedagogy

  1. JimMc says:

    Thanks for the shout-out Wes! That’s interesting what Jay Rosen said about universities because the Internet spent it’s formative years as an information-sharing network for learning insitutions. Maybe they just share amongst themselves.

  2. Wesley Fryer says:

    Yes, I don’t think everyone would agree with Jay’s ideas on that one. I think when it comes to individual professors not sharing their ideas informally, but having a mindset to share primarily through journal articles and to students who are paying fees– this idea of universities not being accustomed to sharing information has validity. When you talk to faculty about distance learning or blogging, for instance, the bias most have toward traditional face to face instruction as the best way to share ideas and content can show clearly.

    I think you are right that as an information sharing network, the initial thought for the Internet was that it would help researchers better share ideas with each other. The idea that Joe-worker out in the world somewhere might want to read their ideas and comment/interact with them was not part of that initial vision, I don’t think.

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