Michel: How to Learn More
By John Michel, Guest Columnist
Published on Tuesday, September 11, 2012
Albert Einstein once mocked, “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.”
One might think that education, above all else, would embrace and benefit from new methodologies and technologies. But this has not been my experience. Why is everything else changing so rapidly and often for the better while teaching methods are still waiting for the right tool?
Consider technology. Think of what has transpired in our generation alone. It is impossible for me to fathom that, just 20 years ago, no one used the Internet. We have become so dependent on this new advance that life would now be impossible without it. Video conferencing was relegated to boardrooms and six-figure installations just 20 years ago. Now we carry more powerful technology in our pockets. Satellites now tell us where we are and where to go.
Think, too, of how technology has changed relationships. Facebook is the obvious example: Nothing is official anymore until it is “Facebook official.” Twitter catalyzed the collective revolution of an entire region during the Arab Spring.
In each of those respects, society as we know it today has made leaps and bounds. Yet over that same period, classroom education has seen little progress. Courses in colleges and universities are structured largely the same way today as when Einstein put forth his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905. Even at schools like Dartmouth that house some of the brightest and most intellectually curious minds in the world, learning is too often left at the classroom door.
It seems, then, to be time for change. E-books are one technology Dartmouth should consider more carefully. In addition to saving students the trouble of lugging several gargantuan textbooks with them at all times, e-books cost less and are far more environmentally friendly than their paper counterparts. The argument for students’ preferences is certainly valid. Many argue that reading a physical book is a far better experience than reading something from a screen. But technologies that make reading e-books more comparable to reading physical books are constantly improving. And a careful analysis reveals that the benefits may in fact outweigh the costs, especially as an increasing number of textbooks become available in e-book form every day.
Others have attempted to bring education into the 21st century, too. Companies like Blackboard are trying, but I am not impressed. The focus should be different. Education is founded on the notion that the professor-to-student and student-to-student relationships are among the most vital aspects of any classroom. How can we allow students and professors to foster these relationships more fluidly, at a lower cost and in ways that incentivize them to take home and engage with ideas that would not normally make it out of Rocky 003?
Easy: social networking. Students need something more like Facebook, except it should be a place where it is all right to be nerdy. Facebook-like profiles for both students and professors would work well, except they would feature intellectual rather than social curiosities: You could “follow” the professors and other students who pique your interest. My academic experiences have taught me that sometimes, the greatest teacher is a fellow student. We should find a way to maximize student-to-student learning by enabling students to communicate easily about interesting ideas. A network like this has the potential to reinvent the way people audit courses, too, allowing students to join and watch a course without actually participating. An unlimited number of people could join the course by auditing it. That would be not only powerful, but transformational.
Our classrooms have some catching up to do. And, thanks to Apple and other innovative companies, most of us already have the hardware needed for education to take a giant leap forward.
So what is the hold-up? Why stay stuck in the past? Dartmouth’s students, faculty and resources are better than this. We need only embrace the technology and pedagogic strategies at our disposal to allow our school to embrace its potential — to produce true intellectual leaders who can and will make the world a better place.