education's digital future

Feb 12: expanding rights to know and learn — in and out of school

What happened in class: 

Class today began with a continuation of the accreditation forum from last week and the follow-up discussion online. The class wrestled with different metaphors for credentials - like money, they can be costly to obtain and then used to access resources, but they are never permanently "spent". Ultimately, credentials are a mechanism for establishing trust and cooperation between people. Viewed in this way, a badge is in the same category as a college degree, social signal, technical certification, or recommendation letter. They are all mechanisms for signaling qualification to different people in different settings. Mitchell drew on anthropologist Edwin Hutchins' concept of "distributed cognition" to note that, in aggregate, these credentials function as part of a system that "decides" who gets better jobs and resources. But individual players, like employers, frequently have specialized needs that aren't totally satisfied by current credentials. Janice Jackson noted the importance of name-recognition and easy scan-ability in a resume or job application. Alternative credentials could create a mess of unintelligible micro-credentials, but they could also provide a more granular, clear, and normatively "accurate" signal about a candidate's qualifications.

Class continued with presentations and discussion led by SGSE Professor John Willinsky and recent SGSE PhD Rob Lucas. They began with a request for the audience to search for "Carnegie public libraries" on Google, as a means of appreciating the distributed and open access to knowledge enabled by the Carnegie Foundation in the early 20th century. John drew on 20th century education pironeers John Dewey and Ralph Tyler to outline a vision of "learning beyond credentials" - of learning as a lifelong process that can embody the democratic and interdependent character of our lives. Dewey's experimental schools in Chicago attempted to develop student connection and contribution to their communities through hands-on projects. Rob offered a modern example of an open-access, public-contribution project that has been enabled by the digital revolution. For about a decade, high school history students in Marion, Indiana have contributed to a growing interactive history of their town, found at wikimarion.org. They have conducted interviews, carried out detailed research into historical sites and events, and populated a virtual map with their findings. Their writing is available to anyone in the world who would like to learn more about the history of their town.

After giving us a digital tour of Marion, Rob opened up the group for discussion of the public benefits of such a project. Why might Wiki Marion be useful for students, their community, and/or the broader public? The students and guests offered a range of responses. Students might be developing historical knowledge, practicing the thinking and writing skills of a historian, and developing an emotional connection to their town that might have impact on their ethical decisions. Chris Proctor noted the importance of having students write with the aim of actually communicating to a global audience, rather than generating a page of text that satisfies the teacher. Rob also pointed out that the students of Marion will never lack discussion topics, as they have current events to discuss and previous work to extend and critique. Matt Williams asked whether there was any concern about the privacy of the students' writing as permanent searchable text on the Web. Rob responded that privacy concerns in the Wiki Marion project have been extremely rare, and in fact most students are enthusiastic about sharing their work, but that the option to remain anonymous or complete an alternate assignment was always available. John closed the class session by broadening in scope, metaphorically and literally. He asked us to navigate our web browsers to Galaxy Zoo, a project that allows everyday people to serve as amateur astronomers with small pieces of massive telescope datasets. Individual observations and "citizen science" can actually contribute to major scientific discoveries and publications - dramatic evidence of the public good that can be offered by learning activities that use digital technology to serve a global community.