Howard Rheingold wrote a fascinating article in the Feature yesterday where he discusses professor Bryan Alexander's use of m-learning, where his students are "creative, communicative participants rather than as passive, reception-only consumers." He is quoted:
"Perhaps we are beginning to see the emergence of learning swarms," Alexander ventures: "We already know the precursors, in the form of interested learners who appear at campus libraries and museums, driven by an experience that excited them, such as a film, a book, or a conversation. Now the socializing powers of mobility and wirelessness could expand this drive into collaboration. An interested learner could ping a network or site for learning engagement: digital objects, digitally tagged materials, learning objects, instructors, other learners and instigators. We’ve seen a part of this in the global, collaborative use of MIT’s OpenCourseWare. Are instructors ready to join in learning swarms on their specialties or to facilitate the ad hoc growth and flourishing of such learning swarms? … How should our institutions approach thinking about this possibility? Are we ready to sense which of our students arrive at our campuses with such experiences already under their belts? How do nomadic swarms work with our anthropologically sedentary campuses?"
Now, I am a passionate believer in the idea that teaching has to evolve to encompass the new tools that now exist, and am happy to see professors such as Alexander embrace them. I think he really groks the impact of mobile tools:
"...mobile machines are by their nature intimate media -- they are not just untethered from the desktop, they are carried in the pocket, held in the hand, rested on the lap. Because of this intimacy, 'emotional investments increase,' Alexander claims, citing research to that effect..."
I am disappointed, however, that Rheingold or Alexander did not take their thinking about cyborg students to its ultimate conclusions -- that the old brick and mortar college/universities need to break down the walls, admitting learners from elsewhere via cyberspace. I think that the college/university system -- the hideously expensive, hidebound system of stamping students out by the bushel -- must change. [I suspect that both Rheingold and Alexander would agree -- but didn't want to go there in the article for space constraints or other reasons.]
I love learning, and take courses when I can. But for various time and geographical reasons, I have problems pursuing the courses I want. I can find lots of basic intro/undergrad courses online, but I cannot at this time design a grad-level program for myself, maybe leading to a degree, that pulls relevant classes from different locations, that enables me to take an online course from an academic I admire, that gives me the freedom to pursue the knowledge I seek, without having to jump through idiotic and archaic loops such as applications, admissions, GREs, boring make-work courses, etc. etc.
Perhaps my ideal wouldn't work for the undergrad, but for someone pursuing graduate studies like myself, I think it would be perfect. I want to pick my advisers from among the best minds out there. I want to follow the trail of learning where it leads -- and that often is outside of one particular university. I want to link up with a community of other students who are interested in the same topics I am for discussion.
I don't want to disappear into a university system for 2 or more years to learn something, because I am afraid I will be too far behind the curve when I exit. Technology, knowledge moves too fast in my fields of interest. I have to have one foot in academia and one in business at the same time. The business side is easy. I am terribly frustrated at how difficult the academic side is.