I’ve been thinking lately about the difference between teaching knowledge and teaching skills. As the internet changes how we find and use knowledge, it becomes increasingly clear that what we should be teaching are the skills: research, critical analysis, writing, reading a variety of texts, speaking and presenting, etc.

When I hear teachers bemoan the use of the internet to “cheat,” I wonder what kinds of assignments they’re giving that are causing the problem. I firmly believe that if a student can “cheat” on an assignment, then it’s probably not a very good assignment. (This is not to say that all my assignments are good. But I am working on it …)

If cheating means finding information and collaborating on a product, then I encourage my students to cheat and often show them how by helping them find the resources they would normally use to “cheat” with. I show them how to use IMs, wikis, and social networks to “cheat” through collaboration. Then I push them further, sending them links to academic articles in their RSS feeds related to the work they’re doing. In other words, I encourage them and help them to collaborate and find the information they need.

Why should I try to restrict their access to information? I don’t see myself as a censor, and I don’t believe in the restricting of knowledge. Why should I work to hinder their collaboration when the online and business worlds are moving towards more and more collaboration? When what we need more of in politics and international relations is exactly collaboration? And why fight a battle that I know I will lose anyway … particularly when I believe it’s the wrong battle to be fighting?

Some things to consider (courtesy of Karl Fisch):

  • Current estimates suggest that a week’s worth of The New York Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across in a lifetime in the 18th century.
  • Current estimates suggest that 1.5 exabytes (1.5 X 10 to thefactor of 18) of unique information will be generated worldwide this year. (That’s more than the amount estimated for the last 5,000 years combined.)
  • The amount of technical information is doubling every 2 years. For a student starting in a four-year college, half of what they learnin their first year will be outdated by their third year of study.
  • More than 3,000 books are published … daily.

So … who’s going to memorize all of this, anyway? How many bitsof information does a student need to swallow before we deem them “educated”? And how often will we have to revise that number given the exponential growth of information?

What I want my students to do is learn how to work with the information and with others, to think through the information and interactions, to assess, to analyze, to read critically … and then to speak about or write about what they find and the conclusions they draw, to openly acknowledge the help and inspiration they received from others, and then to attempt to synthesize the information or extend the ideas.

We need to shift our understanding of what it means to be educated. We need to stop trying to restrict information and limit collaboration. An education should consist of much more than an accumulation of facts gained in isolation.

If I’m helping students collaboarate and find the information, then they’re not competing against me; instead, we’re working together towards a common goal. I want to be a guide and facilitator. My challenge to the students comes not as a guardian of knowledge or opponent to their collaboration. Instead, I challenge their thinking, their conclusions, their methods. I facilitate, mediate, guide. I focus on their “why” and their “how” … not their “what.”

(These ideas connect to my concern with the filters in place in schools that block access to huge chunks of the internet and nearly all the onlines tools that allow for collaboration … but that’s for another post.)

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  • Vicki Davis says:

    I would liken these comments from teachers to what happened when calculators arrived — teachers accused students of using calculators to “cheat.” Now, they are required because they help students work faster and accomplish more in their 12 years of schooling than ever before.

    It will take time and educators like you to promote the usefulness of this emerging Read/Write/Searchable Web! Great insight!

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