One of the most commonly touted features of a new, digitally-enhanced pedagogy, championed by many plugged-in education theorists, is that education in the digital age can and should be transformed into online conversation. This seems possible and relevant because of online tools like wikis and blogs.  There has been a whole cottage industry of papers and blogs touting such notions.  Frankly, I’m not interested in grappling with a lot of this stuff.  Actually, I wish I had time, because it’s kind of fun to expose nonsense to the harsh light of reason.  But for now, let’s just say that I’ve read and skimmed a fair bit of it, and I find it decidedly half-baked, like a lot of the older educational theories that hoped for various educational “reforms.”  Some reference points would include fuzzy buzzwords like connectivism, constructivism, conversation, the social view of learning, participatory learning, and many more.

I am interested in briefly discussing a very basic question that, I imagine, underlies a lot of this discussion: can online conversation serve as the focus of a new pedagogy?  I’ve already written a bit about this in “Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age,” but I wanted to return to the topic briefly.

A lot of educators are–not surprisingly–very much struck by the fact that we can learn a lot from each other online.  This is something I’ve been aware of since the mid-90s, when I ran some mailing lists and indeed did learn a lot from my fellow early adopters.  I continue to learn a lot from people online.  Quora is a great way to learn (albeit it’s mostly light intellectual entertainment); so are many blogs and forums.  And of course, wikis can be a useful source of learning both for writers and readers.  These all involve an element of online community, so it of course makes sense that educators might wonder how these new tools could be used as educational tools.  I’ve developed a few myself and actively participate in other online communities.

But when we, adults, use these tools and participate in these forums, we are building upon our school (and sometimes college) education.  We have learned to write.  We have (hopefully) read reasonably widely, and studied many subjects, giving us the background we absolutely require to understand and build upon common cultural references in our online lives.  But these are not attainments that school children share.  (My focus here will be K-12 education, not college-level education.)  You are making a very dubious assumption if you want to conclude that children can learn the basics of various subjects by online participation modeled after the way adults use online tools.  Namely, you are assuming that children can efficiently learn the basics of science, history, geography, and other academic subjects through online tools and communities that are built by and for educated people.

Of course they can’t, and the reason is plain: they usually have to be told new information in order to learn it, and taught and corrected to learn new skills.  These are not “participatory” features.  They require that a teacher or expert be set up to help, in a way that does not correspond to the more egalitarian modes of interaction online.  Moreover, except in some fields that are highly interpretive such as literature or philosophy, the relevant information cannot be arrived at via reflection on what they know–because most children are quite ignorant and much in need of education.  To be able to reflect, they need input.  They need content.  They need food for thought.  They need training and modeling.  They need correction.  We adults don’t experience these needs (at least, not so much) when we are surfing away.  We’re mostly done learning the concepts, vocabulary, and facts that we need to make sense of conversation in the forums that interest us.

So the reason online conversation cannot be the focus of a new pedagogy is that online conversation, as used by adults for learning, requires prior education.

I have nothing whatsoever against K-12 classes putting their essays or journals on blogs, or co-writing things using wikis, or in other ways using online tools to practice research, writing, and computer skills.  But we should not fool ourselves into thinking that when children do these things, they are doing what we adults do, or that they’re learning in the ways we do when we use blogs, wikis, etc.  They aren’t.  They’re using these as alternative media for getting basic knowledge and practicing skills.  We adults mainly use these media to expand our knowledge of current events and our special interests.  The way we use them is radically different from proper pedagogical uses precisely because our uses require a general education.

Are you skeptical?  Well, I expect that if you’re reading this sentence right now, you’re pretty well educated.  So consider, please.  What would it be like to read a science blog, or Quora answer on a scientific question, without having studied high school mathematics and science?  Pretty confusing.  What would it be like to read any of the bettter blogs out there–the ones in your own blogrolls or feeds–if you had not read a lot of literature and in other ways learned a lot of college-level vocabulary?  Difficult and boring.  What would it be like if you had to read the news, or political blogs or Wikipedia’s current affairs articles, having only minimal knowledge of geography and civics?  Puzzling at best.  Could you really hold your own in a blog discussion about politics if you had an elementary student’s grasp of history and politics?  Would you find it easy to write a forum post coherently, clearly, and with good mechanics and spelling, even just to ask a question, if you had not practiced and studied academic writing and grammar as much as you did?  I could go on, but you get the idea.  You can’t do these various things that make you an effective, articulate, plugged-in netizen without already having a reasonably good liberal arts education.

I imagine it’s sort of possible, but conversation online among your fellow students would be an incredibly inefficient way for you to learn these things in the first place.  Why spend your time trying to glean facts from the bizarre misunderstandings of your fellow 10-year-olds when you can get an entertaining, authoritative presentation of the information in a book or video?  And I’ll tell you one thing–someone in your online study community, the teacher or the class nerd, will have to have read such “authoritative” media, and reveal the secrets to everyone, or you’ll be “learning” in a very empty echo chamber.

At this point, someone is bound to point out that they don’t really oppose “mere facts” (which can just be looked up), declarative knowledge, or “elitist” academics, or books, or content, or all the other boo-hiss villains of this mindset.  They just want there to be less emphasis on content (memorization is so 20th century!), and more on conversation and hands-on projects.  Why is that so hard to understand?  But this is where they inevitably get vague.  If books and academic knowledge are part of the curriculum after all, then in what way is online conversation the “focus” of the curriculum?  How are academics, really, supposed to figure in education–in practice?

My guess is that when it comes down to implementation, the sadly misled teacher-in-the-trenches will sacrifice a few more of the preciously scarce books in the curriculum and use the time for still more stupid projects and silly groupwork assignments, now moved online using “cutting edge” tools because that’s what all the clever people say where “the future” lies.  As a result, the students will learn little more about computers and online communities than they would learn through their own use of things like Facebook, and they’ll get something that barely resembles a “reasonably good liberal arts education.”

EDIT: I greatly enjoyed this literature review/analysis article:

Kirschner, Paul A., John Sweller, and Richard E. Clark, “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching,” Educational Psychologist 41 (2), 75-86: http://www.cogtech.usc.edu/publications/kirschner_Sweller_Clark.pdf