Back to the Year 800

Effective learning requires more than simple access to knowledge.  It also requires reflection and application.  Technology has been changing how this process works.  In the year 800 access was through lectures.  Since there were no printed textbooks, reflection occurred through note-taking and, most crucially, comparing notes with other students.  The invention of the printing press changed things by providing access to knowledge through textbooks without the necessity of taking and comparing notes.  Our response to this technological change was to do nothing and the process suffered.  In Physics, for example, it has been shown that lectures are about 10% effective at reducing wrong answers on conceptual tests.  The textbooks could be very helpful if we could get our students to actually read them but they often just use them to look up answers for homework assignments.

We need to put back the reflection and application pieces of the process.  Most of us are already using classroom response systems to encourage discussion in class.  Online discussion forums also help, but it is difficult to get students to take them seriously.   The most powerful way to encourage reflection and application is to get student to create and share content that they care about.  At the graduate level, we have them write theses.  Most undergraduate programs have senior capstone courses that are very project-oriented.   Some universities extend the project-model to the undergraduate curriculum with Qualifying Projects replacing courses at all levels.

The technology of the internet offers some additional ways to encourage students to construct their understanding in ways that are easier to manage than full thesis-like projects.   Students can construct content, based on their course materials and on their own interests.  Sharing this content on the open internet will encourage them to take ownership of it and make it a valid reflection and application of what they have learned.

In essence, the proposal is that we return to the year 800 and have students write and share their own textbooks.

4 thoughts on “Back to the Year 800”

  1. Hey Rgowdy-

    I am a bit fan of history, but I think if we had gone back to the year 800 we would all be living in a period that some historians of western civ would call “the great chain of being.” This great chain was built on deductive reasoning of what the mind of God would want. Thus all things in life were linked and there was a hierarchy of status and function. We were all chained together in this web of deductive assumptions based, fundamentally, on the deductive certainty of God’s existence. Yet the chain also meant that we were limited in our potential. The chain did more than tie us together and structure our social world, it also limited our mobility and experiences. It also served to empower some and disempower others- all within a stable social system. Stable social systems were safe, and protected because if one broke the chain, one violated the will of God, as deduced by the privileged and powerful. I am not sure if going back to 800 is the way to go with this.

    It raises, to me, the issues of underlying assumptions and power. But I am also pondering how we utilize these tools to improve our class education and what value added we can deliver though technology.

    There is a hurdle in all of this- and that is this- our kids give us only a limited amount of their time and energy. We are here to provide an education which, for many, should lead to a better life in the future. But expecting them to do more with the time they have- when many are unwilling to read their assignments or do their homework or will imagine ways to game an exam- might be asking much.

    Our use of technology should, I suspect, be promoted with values of efficiency and practicality- efficient and practical to the student and teacher so that students get what they want- better grades and thus better career prospects, and what we want- to educate and enlighten.

    Thanks for your thoughts on this. Cheers!

  2. I love this!

    Note: This is exactly the kind of “comment” that I discourage my students from making, but there’s really nothing more I can add that would sum up my initial response any better. 🙂

  3. This is a great post and one that has me thinking about what counts a knowledge and/ or learning. In the Middle Ages, there was not much paper available for note taking, so students copied down sections of important texts, which was read aloud to them by the instructor (“lecture” comes from “lectio,” meaning a reading), and which they copied down on wooden tablets coated with wax (or similar devices). After the lecture they memorized the text AND the instructor’s interpretation of the text, and erased their note board in preparation for the next day’s lecture.
    Students today have the opposite problem: too much information at their disposal and no need to memorize much of anything. What they need are skills aimed at organizing and evaluating knowledge, deciding what’s relevant and what isn’t, what is bogus and what is useful. Perhaps writing one’s own textbook, as an excercise in seeing how a field fits together, and tailored to one’s own interests, is a way to do this.

  4. Education comes full circle. I had not really thought about it, but we in someways returning to where we started. Just the medium of communication is different. I have a blog that I read each day. It is my newspaper/magazine of interest. It is my Sunday paper on my phone.

    The piece you address that I struggle with is the reflection piece. How do we incorporate it into any piece of the educational process? Even the internet?

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