Online Educa 08- Michael Wesch

Dr Michael Wesch, Asst Prof  of Cultural Anthropology, Kansas State University, USA

The Crisis of Significance and the Future of Education

Clearly the fact that the hall was packed with people sitting on the floor means that many were here to hear Michael Wesch – an outstanding speaker – engaging, interesting and relevant. Ok maybe what he was saying wasn’t new if you have followed any of his work but few can hold a candle to his style and substance.

In brief here is the substance of his presentation – The approach to information will need to change as we move towards ubiquitous computing and we need to move students to being knowledge-able rather than knowledgeable.

Wesch described the process of preparing his video ‘The Machine is Using Us’ and how he tracked the way in which it rose through the ranks to become top of the YouTube ‘chart’ on the day of the US Superbowl. Before Superbowl started he was thrilled with 254 views but on early Saturday morning he had over 1000. He noticed how the video had been Dug (Dig It) and so was being circulated and tagged. Once something can be tagged  it can be RSS fed around and appear on anyone’s front page. With 133m blogs in existence, blogosphere circulation has a  high impact. With Technorati etc the video become ranked and on Saturday morning was in top 5 and by later that day had hit the top slot. Even after the million dollar Superbowl adverts came into play, his video stayed at the top – a user generated video with community push beating the super-produced commercials. The mediascape is  permanently changing and at the centre of new mediascape is the individual.

Wesch started his interest in media through his anthropology work in Papua New Guinea, one of the worlds last unconnected places. The cultural gap was so large that there was no way that he could explain who he was, what he did etc and he realised that his personal identity based on the information he presented through a range of media. In New Guinea before the census that started to decide how to fund building villages, the individual referred to themselves as ‘brother’, ‘father’ etc everyone knew each other and their role in the community. Following the census thay had immediately to chose names, develop identities for themselves and their communities in order to get benefits out of census-lead funding. So his biew was that media mediates relationships and that media then shapes identities and lives – as Marshall McLuhan said “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us”

In his university class he asked how many people know what was the No 1 on the Billboard 100 (decided by radio play) – no-one knew the answer suggesting that this sort of question is no longer a mass media issue, the students get their information and knowledge though other non mass media outlets like iTunes, Youtube etc. He proceeded to ask his student loads more questions and can the results be seen on the now classic video. His conclusion here was that teaching hasn’t changed but the process of learning has – they like learning but they don’t like school.Wesch believes that the old premises for education are now fatally undermined:

  • Learning is about acquiring info
  • Information is scarce and hard to find
  • Need to trust authority
  • Authorised information is beyond discussion
  • Obey the authority
  • Follow along

When students are put in this sort of environment they respond by asking questions how many points does this piece of work gain, how long do I need to spend etc – and consequently are defining limits to their learningThe solution for Wesch is ‘in the air’ with all  the web 2.0 types technologies available. Many of these negate the earlier statements  and especially  that learning is about acquiring information – it is now about discussing, critiquing information, making connections and creating a significance.

The question should now always be “how do we create students who can create meaningful connections” and for Wesch  the questions is also the solution and that  to stop asking this question is the real problem.

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