The web-citizen’s new role

In class last week, we discussed some of the implications of the ever-growing abundance of information made available by the internet. In many ways my thoughts echo those of StatGuy and probably countless others who have been asked to memorize pages of information that is a click away.

When information is scarce, it has value, and this is the basis of hundreds of professions throughout history.  Electricians, for example, have been able to charge for their services because they know a great deal more than the average person about how appliances should be wired, what gauge wires are necessary, and which types of switches are appropriate for a given job.  Many educators have taught and continue to teach as if this knowledge is the end goal.  I find this view to be especially prominent in the sciences, where so many lectures are structured like this: “Here is how the circulatory system works; memorize the names of these arteries.”  This is useful information (especially, of course, if you happen to be a medical professional), but, in itself, it’s useful in a very limited way.  If I become an electrician, or a store manager, or an economist, or most any citizen who doesn’t have regular direct contact with the circulatory system, I can forget everything about this lesson, so long as I remember that the information exists, and I can recall enough detail to Google the rest.  With this kind of instant access to information, mere awareness of a concept is almost always enough to “get by”.

Real value in this environment is not derived from the information itself.  The value is derived from the connectivity between concepts.  It’s emergent.  If everyone has instant access to wiring diagrams, online tutorials, and DIY kits from online stores, the electrician stays relevant by staying aware of all of the options available and instantly making the connection between the job at hand and the best and fastest solution.  Likewise, educators can no longer hope to remain relevant by distributing information in tidy packets.  They must be able to efficiently integrate an understanding of the content with pedagogical knowledge.   Furthermore, the content needs to change to reflect this shift in order to prepare students for this new type of role. It’s not enough for them to “know things,” as current testing might have them believe.  They must have the ability to synthesize connections between concepts in order to understand, interpret, and create.

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2 responses to “The web-citizen’s new role

  1. I completely agree that the electrician’s greatest asset is efficiency. I might be able to wire something more complicated than the set back thermostat or simple outlet but it would take way more time than I care to commit. Thus when I have the money I pay the electrician to fix something and fix it right. I pay for efficiency and “job done right” expertise and I don’t regret it :) But doesn’t the value of the electricians memorized expertise say that there is still value in knowing a specific skill, not just memorizing. Otherwise everybody is always running around wasting time re-discovering the wheel and how to use the wheel. Specialization serves a purpose in a broader society, it is a net time saver.

  2. that should read “just memorizing” instead of “not just memorizing”

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