The Web: The Great Equalizer?

photo taken from TED Book: Why School? by Will Richardson

I just finished reading Will Richardson’s book entitled: Why School? The book talks about the issue of abundance in education. As the caption above says: “In this moment of abundance, teachers are everywhere.” 

This led me to a trip down memory lane. About seven years ago, one of my college professors read Horace Mann’s quote in class:

“Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance wheel of the social machinery.”

-Horace Mann

Then she posed the question: Is education the great equalizer? There are several ways in which one can answer this question but the general response from our class was a resounding no. Why? One word – access.

Knowledge is Power?

photo taken from TED Book: Why School? by Will Richardson

As we know it, the invention of the printing press gave way to the mass production of books and other printed paraphernalia. In a way, this helped in democratizing access to knowledge and information. The rate in which books could be mass produced significantly helped in creating a more literate and educated society.

Fast forward to the 21st century – information is accessed within the click of a fingertip because of the World Wide Web. The speed in which the Web allows us to access, create and spread knowledge is light years ahead from the traditional printing presses. Hence, the abundance in information.

This surplus in terms of information is changing every kind of institution that exists in our current society. Traditional schooling operates under the idea that there is a scarcity when it comes to information. But as Richardson argues, “…the problem is no longer one of scarcity, the problem, and the opportunity, is now abundance.” Why, then, do schools stay the way they are? Clay Shirky, a teacher and a writer, says, “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” Though this kind of traditional schooling remains as the status quo, I think that there are enough options and alternative forms of education that are slowly making their way into our society’s consciousness.

People say that education as an institution is archaic and lagging behind in terms of reinventing itself. This is because we insist on teaching and stressing the importance of simply knowing content – the problem with this is that knowing is only half the battle. How to use the knowledge we have – that will make or break your chances in making it in today’s world.

Cognitive Surplus and Civic Value

The Web has also created a shift in terms of behavior. From a society that devoured and absorbed information, we shifted from merely being consumers to creators. In the same way that the Web allows us to quickly access information, it has also sped up the creation process.

Clay Shirky believes that having this cognitive surplus can make positive changes in the world’s social and economic landscape. In his talk, he clearly shows an example of how we go through the process of consuming – creating – sharing. But this kind of “virtuous” cycle could only exist if we learn to prioritize and create things that have civic value.

This is why it’s an exciting time to become an educator – the opportunities for making the Web a platform for creating things that have civic value are endless. I decided to take an MAEd in Information Technology Integration because of this. I believe that we have the opportunity to create ways in which education will become more accessible to everyone. I believe that we can offer a more liberating kind of education. As Stephen Downes says, “We have to stop thinking of an education as something that is delivered to us and instead see it as something we create for ourselves.”

Redefining Learning and Teaching

In 2006, Richardson wrote an open letter to his children in his blog and it was entitled Dear Kids, You Don’t Have to Go to College. Below is an excerpt:

“Instead of the piece of paper on the wall that says you are an expert, you will have an array of products and experiences, reflections and conversations that show your expertise, show what you know, make it transparent. It will be comprised of a body of work and a network of learners that you will continually turn to over time, that will evolve as you evolve, and will capture your most important learning.”

His letter is not simply undermining the importance of a college education. He is just offering his kids the option of going beyond what a traditional college degree may offer. The Web remains an untapped resource for most of us when it comes to learning and teaching. It’s about time we got our share of it.

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