I had the chance this afternoon to sit in on a MACE Spring Conference session by Dr. Michael Wesch, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University.

Dr. Wesch is responsible for A Vision of Students Today and The Machine is Us/ing Us. the two viral videos that have been swirling through the net recently that visually highlight how technology is changing the world and specifically the world of education.

This afternoon, he talked about a whole range of stuff that he calls “The Crisis of Significance and the Future of Education.”

The most significant problem in education today is the problem of significance itself. Our students, our most important critics, are struggling to find meaning and significance in their education.

During one of his classes, he gave an simple, two question survey to his students:

How many of you don’t like school?
– Over half raised their hands

How many you don’t like learning?
– No hands

An interesting result given what other students around the country are saying about school.

We say all the time that some kids are just not cut out for school but we never say that some kids are not cut out for learning. We need to make the learning activities in our school more relevant to our kids.

Wesch goes on and suggests that we often don’t think about how changes in media and structure change us because we are so immersed in it.

“It will not be a fish that discovers water.”

    But whenever new media enter a culture, the culture changes. He provided a partial list.

    • Role of experts are challenged
    • We struggle to revise social norms
    • Concepts of personal identity change
    • New forms of language develop

    He explained that the list is not new, it’s a list that described European culture after the printing press was introduced. But he went on to suggest that these same changes are happening now because of digital media. He also suggests very strongly that the changes are good for schools, whether we want them or not.

    The system needs to change.

    “The inventor of the system deserves to be ranked among the best contributors to learning and science, if not the greatest benefactors of mankind.”

    – Josiah F. Bumstead 1841 . . . on the benefits of the chalkboard

    Wensch says that teaching still hasn’t changed but learning has. He referenced his “A Vision of Students Today” and mentioned how kids are reading and writing just as much or more than they ever have. They are just doing it in different places.

    He asks his kids what current ed system has taught:

    • To learn is to acquire information
    • Information is scarce and hard to find (the teacher “owns” it)
    • You have to trust authority for good information
    • You should not discuss unauthorized information / discussion is not part of the learning strategy of the room
    • Obey the authority and follow along

    He also highlighted the kinds of questions and thinking that this type of traditional setting encourages:

    • How many points is this worth
    • How many pages does the paper have to be?
    • Will this be on the test?

    This is the crisis of significance that he is concerned about.

    But he began to discuss a significant change that occurred in his room recently – wireless access. It changed all of the things that kids were learning in a traditional classroom. He provided some very cool stats to support how the world has changed.

    • Youtube produced more information in the last six months than ABC has produced since 1948. 91% of Youtube’s stuff is new and original content.
    • There are 113 million blogs and 60 billion emails published every day. This equates to 40 exabytes of data per year which is the same as 265,000 Libraries of Congress.

    He contends that less than o.1% of all of this content is on paper and that digital info is different; it affects us differently than paper.

    He went to ask us to think about how digital information changes what students are learning in traditional schools:

    • To learn is to acquire think about information
    • Information is scarce everywhere and hard easy to find
    • You have to trust authority each other for good information
    • You should not discuss unauthorized information
    • Obey the Question authority and follow along

    A very interesting concept that most of us of thought about before but I like how Wesch has organized his thinking.

    He finished his presentation by quickly highlighting some of the ways that we can organize information differently:

    • Wikipedia (he’s on the board of Encycopedia Britannica and trusts Wikipedia) – Creating new info together
    • Tagging such as blogs and del.icio.us – sharing information with each other
    • RSS – info begins to find us

    So . . . can we argue that schools are actually bad for learning?