October 2012 Archives

Reflecting on Wesch's Wonder and Big Questions

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Consultants at the Schreyer Institute have just returned from the annual conference of the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education (POD). One of the speakers at the event was Michael Wesch. He teaches cultural anthropology at Kansas State University where he studies social media and its effects on society. Dr. Wesch may be familiar...His class's YouTube video called A Vision of Students Today went viral several years ago.  His talk at this year's POD conference was one of the most inspiring and hopeful messages I've heard in a long while. He talked about our need to instill 'wonder' in the 'Age of Whatever.' The talk didn't begin with optimism, but it ended that way.

There were two parts of his message that I think have important implications for faculty in higher education (not to mention for teachers, parents, mentors, etc. everywhere). The first is that we must give students what Wesch called 'the gift of big questions.' It's true that students ask the small ones...Will this information be on the test? How long does the paper have to be? But our job is to get them thinking about the BIG questions, the ones that inspire a quest for knowledge, understanding, and application. The small questions don't change the world, but the big questions can.

The second big message for me was related to the first but focused more on technology. If we inspire wonder and big questions, then technology becomes an invaluable tool for communicating, information seeking, information sharing, and problem-solving. If we fail in this regard, then technology is essentially just distraction. (Interestingly, the other plenary speaker at the conference was Alex Soojung-Kim Pang who spoke about the Distraction Addiction. His book by this title is due out next year.) When wonder and big questions drive social media interaction then Facebook, for example, becomes a means of social change, not a distraction from learning.

This is not rocket science. It's not new information. But Wesch's was a poignant--and for those of us in the room, graphic--reminder of what's at stake and why it's important. It was also a hopeful message, if we can inspire in our students a sense of wonder by giving them the gift of big questions, then their thinking and their engagement with technology find purpose. 

Paper or...electronic? Which is best for student reading?

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Like a lot of folks who work at Penn State, I've spent much of this past week reading various articles and books. I always jot notes when I read, either on a separate piece of paper, or on a series of sticky notes. If I'm reading an article, I like to print it out and jot in the margins.

I was having lunch with the Liberal Arts teaching group at University Park campus, and the conversation turned briefly to how students don't seem to read much these days, but when they do, they seem to prefer paper copies of things to electronic versions. (In fact, many of us in the group had printed out paper copies of an article the group was discussing that day). I said I wondered if students prefer a format they can physically annotate.

We talked about NB, a software package developed at MIT that students can use to annotate electronic text. None of us have used it, but we are wondering if anyone at Penn State has.

I took a brief turn in the "sandbox" (NB's demo) and noticed the software has ways to annotate text and share with a group, or jot notes to oneself. Check it out:

http://nb.mit.edu/welcome

 

Reading text and marking it up with notes and questions seems to be an important part of how we learn, but it's not something students are able to do naturally or easily. See this article from this morning's Chronicle of Higher Education:

http://chronicle.com/article/Mark-It-Up/135166/

 

How much more would our students read if we modeled how to interact with a text through annotation? And what if we had an effective way of doing so electronically?

 

 

What is college for?

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How would you answer the question "what is college for?" I think most of us would agree that the goal of a college education is to provide individuals with a satisfying job at a reasonable salary. But is that all? According to Andrew Delbanco, director of American Studies at Columbia University, it isn't. In Delbanco's recent book, "College, What it Was, Is, and Should Be," published in March of 2012, he argues that college should do much more. In addition to providing economic success for individuals and, by extension, the nation, college should helps students learn how to contribute to our democracy, which depends on an "educated citizenry." Furthermore, college should provide students with experiences that enhance the joy of living.

In his introduction, Delbanco suggests that college should help students "develop certain qualities of mind and heart requisite for reflective citizenship" which include the following:

"a skeptical discontent with the present, informed by a sense of the past"
"the ability to make connections among seemingly disparate phenomena"
"appreciation for the natural world, enhanced by knowledge of arts and sciences"
"the ability to imagine experiences from experiences other than one's own" and
"a sense of ethical responsibility"

Delbanco suggests that these qualities cannot be developed by study within a single discipline. His compelling arguments follow from a fascinating analysis of the history of colleges and universities and a comparison of the past with the present.

What do you think of Delbanco's ideas? Do you think Penn State is successful at helping students develop these "qualities of mind and heart?" If not, how might we do a better job?

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