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The Fourth Great Information Revolution

Cathy N. Davidson: The fourth great information revolution by Sally Hicks, Faith and Leadership



We’re good at learning from authority, but how do we learn to question authority? That’s an invaluable skill in this collaborative, Internet age, says a professor of interdisciplinary studies.

February 16, 2010 | Educational institutions should make major changes in response to a communications revolution brought on by the Internet age, said Cathy N. Davidson, the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Ruth F. Devarney Professor of English at Duke University. She suggested that the way we prescribe to students what they should know might not be what they need to know or what they want to know.

Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory and of the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke. She earned her doctorate in American literature from the State University of New York at Binghamton.

Davidson is on the Board of Advisors to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative.  In 2009, Davidson collaborated with David Theo Goldberg on the book “The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age.”

For videos of Davidson talking about this issue, go to Duke on Demand.

Q: Why is it important that institutions of higher learning adapt to the digital age?

In the last 10 years, social media have significantly changed the way we live. If somebody had predicted the future in 1995 they might have predicted the technology but they never would have predicted that human interactions on the most simple -- and complex -- levels would change as much as they have. If I have a sore throat, before I call my doctor I Google or go to Wikipedia to find out about sore throats. People might even go to a site where Joe Schmo is talking about his sore throat.

Now, instead of going to authorities, I am willing to trust the opinions of non-experts I don’t even know. That’s a different experience of human nature than we had before the Internet, before social networking. This is the world that we’re living in, and as educators we need to take that seriously.

Q: In “The Future of Thinking,” you say that collaborative network learning alters how we think about learning institutions. What do you mean by that?

Let’s start with the one that educators were banning from the classrooms: Wikipedia. [What] if you had asked educators 15 years ago to imagine that anybody in the world could contribute to knowledge online for free…anyone could read it for free? It could be in every language in the world. People would edit each other’s work and the best librarians would say it was pretty darn accurate and far more globally inclusive than any of our most refereed sources.

People would have said that’s the most implausible science fiction fantasy ever.

A half-billion people a month use Wikipedia. The goal is to make all the world’s knowledge free to all the world’s people. It is not there yet, but it is a lot closer than anything else we’ve produced. That is collaborative learning at its most global. The fact that something like Wikipedia exists means I have to look at human nature differently.

Social scientists and humanists love to define what makes us human. I think it is learning. Not only learning but also our desire to contribute what we know. If I know about tiddlywinks or tap dancing or some other specialized subject, my desire to communicate that knowledge is one of the definitional features about being human.

Old ideas of evolution were based on a crude notion of survival of the fittest and the conviction that competition is what makes us great. The Internet makes us rethink that. It makes us think collaboration and not competition, and it’s interesting to see the spate of new books on cooperation and empathy and community. What if natural selection is based on cooperation, not competition? That’s a major paradigm shift for educators.

Q: Yet the premise that you have an authority imparting knowledge to less-learned students is at the core of most educational institutions. How do you change that?

Starting from the mid-19th century, we began to focus on educational specialization. Over the 20th century, we developed majors and minors, tracks and professional education in schools. We’ve developed that form of education pretty well.

[However,] in the Internet age there is a world of other skills at which we don’t do a good job. How do we teach 11-year-olds what on Google is worth considering and what is nonsense? We’re good at learning from authority, but how do we learn to question authority? That’s a huge skill in a collaborative, Internet age.

I don’t know any course, K through 20, that teaches you how to evaluate what counts as learning when you lack the specialized learning to make that evaluation. In other words, what is the process by which you think through credibility? On the Internet we know mobs are not always smart. Crowds are not always wise. How do you learn that? How do you teach kids that sense of “I’m skeptical here,” or “I want to get another point of view?” And how do you teach it not so they discount the ideas of others but so they know what is trustworthy so they can collaborate with others?

We have great methods for testing. Have you memorized? How well have you learned? Have you learned this methodology? Can you replicate it? We do that just fine. It is mostly standardized testing, often multiple-choice testing. These [methods] don’t serve you at all on the Internet.



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