Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Dinosaurs are out there

In my role, I am often required to assess units and courses from other universities, either for our students to study abroad, or as part of an advanced-standing application from a student who is transferring to our course. As part of this process, I receive copies of unit and course outlines from universities all over the world, and the content often amazes me. Take the following three examples that crossed my desk this week, all from well-respected universities in the USA:

  • Turn off cell phones and other electronic devices during the class period. Any class disturbances caused by these devices will result in significantly reduced CAPP points.

  • CLASS ETIQUETTE: During the class time you will have my undivided attention... and I expect similar consideration and professionalism from you. Reading newspapers, using cell phones, using laptops for anything other than taking notes will not be accepted. I reserve the right to ask any members who exhibit such behaviour to leave the class.

  • The use of laptop computers for taking notes in class is permitted. Do not use your computer for email, instant messaging, work in other courses, personal projects, or surfing the internet. Doing so will be considered a violation of course etiquette, and serious CAPP points will be deducted.
What do these "rules" say about those who wrote them? Why is technology seen as an evil distraction to learning? These narrow-minded professors, who obviously feel threatened by today's ubiquitous technology, are creating a learning environment which is completely foreign and uninviting to their students, devoid of any interaction, information exchange and interest.

My advice to the "dinosaurs": Your students no longer want to just sit and listen to you. They want to interact, to contribute, to discuss, and to explore. And they want to do all of this using their tools and methods, not your archaic ones. You are no longer the sole source of information, no longer the only way that they can learn. Maybe change is a better alternative than extinction?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Wikipedia and information literacy

I am constantly hearing my colleagues criticise Wikipedia, expressing their disbelief that students would use such an "unreliable and innacurate source of information" when preparing an assignment or essay.

As teachers, we have a responsibility to ensure that our students are using all of the information sources available to them in an appropriate manner. Wikipedia can be, and should be, a very powerful tool to teach information literacy. Why? Because as an information repository, Wikipedia is:

  • huge, and growing;
  • the most complete single source of information on the planet;
  • and it's incredibly up-to-date.
Here's a partial screenshot of the Wikipedia entry for Qantas earlier today, a few hours after it was announced that they were in merger talks with British Airways:

Up to date? Yes. Relevant? Yes. Accurate? Maybe! But we shouldn't be the ones to tell our students that it's not accurate. If they are independent, information literate learners, then they will be quite capable to make that decision themselves after conducting further research on the topic. And if, after conducting that research, the student finds inaccuracies in Wikipedia, then they should be encouraged to correct the entry.

I am not suggesting that Wikipedia should be the primary reference within a written piece of academic work, but it is certainly an ideal starting point for a student when researching a topic.

Are you still not convinced? Spend some time investigating the "History" and "Discussion" tabs for any entry, or contribute (or correct an inaccuracy) in Wikipedia yourself. You'll soon begin to appreciate the value of a "crowd-sourced" publication, and how it can contribute to critical thinking and information literacy amongst our students.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Learning in virtual worlds

I am currently not permitted to access Second Life (SL) from the computer on the desk in my office. Similarly, my students are not able to access SL in our computer labs. Why? I have been given three different explanations:
  1. "SL is an IT security risk";
  2. "SL is full of sex and violence, and we don't want to be involved in that";
  3. "SL is only a game".
Unfortunately this narrow-mindedness is not uncommon, particularly in large educational institutions, where administrators are driven by factors unknown to those of us striving for an improved learning experience for our students.

But there are some who have the foresight to understand the benefits of learning in virtual worlds. Dr Alan Finkel, Monash University's Chancellor, spoke about SL in his plenary lecture at the recent Australian Universities International Alumni Convention in Singapore: "The biggest mistake of all would be to dismiss Second Life as a toy... these virtual worlds are an opportunity, not a distraction."

Despite the restrictions, I've spent a lot of time in Second Life at home, assisting with the development of Monash Island, providing support during an in-world conference, and collaborating with others as I learn about education in online virtual worlds. The experience has been eye-opening, and I have personally seen the benefits. My work in this area has resulted in my involvement with a new undergraduate unit in 2009 - Digital Selves.

So, virtual worlds are likely to be part of our future, and they will certainly play an increasingly important role in education. As Dr Finkel says, "Can you imagine the new ways of using technology that educators will develop over the next fifty years? It is a certainty that students will be privileged to enjoy an immersive educational experience that is far better than what you and I experienced and indeed, far better than what we can currently imagine."