Sunday, January 14, 2007

Tipping points for the online autodidact

I believe that everyone in the world deserves a fair shot at becoming a good autodidact in whatever subject they wish. (I also realize this is a broad, idealistic blue-sky dream, but we can talk about that later.)

The internet's been helping mightily in this during the past five years. When I started high school, MIT's Open Course Ware was just beginning, Wikipedia was still a gleam in Jimmy Wales' eye, and in terms of quality online educational resources past the K-12 level, that was mostly it. Now we have lovely things like the resources described in this Lifehacker post. There are widely available free educational materials, some of increasingly impressive quality. We have syllabi and textbooks reprinted online, occasionally lecture notes, and even homework assignments and lecture tapes themselves.

So far we've predominantly been discovering better ways of representing standard course materials on webpages. This corresponds to the first phase of a new form of media: that of a new way to do old things. "Cell phones are like landlines without cords." At some point a paradigm shift occurs, and the new form of media isn't "Old Media With Feature X" but a separate thing in its own right, and gets used in apps that weren't even on the radar before; smartphones, SMS, and location-based messaging, for example. The two phenomena snowball into each other, and soon enough the world is chang'd, at least in some small way.

We're seeing the beginnings of a transformation for education as seen through the internet corresponding to just this kind of shift, where we move beyond the "put the old class material on html" and into... what? I don't know, but here are three trends I've got my eyes on; ambient information, communities of apprenticeship, and public reflection. I'll cover each of these in a separate post later on, with the disclaimer (courtesy of my friend David) that it's tough to predict a horizon that's shrinking towards you; a few years from now we'll probably look at these posts and laugh.

In the meantime, take a peek at Carmun. It's a web 2.0 startup designed to help students track and share reference lists - for instance, if I'm taking a course in educational theory, I can put articles and books from class in Carmun and they'll be there for seamless referencing and bibliography creation later on when I'm writing my final paper. Better yet, if you take the same course next semester and ask me about good books to read on the subject, I can send you my reference list via Carmun (with links to the original papers and everything) instead of copy-pasting my pdf's endnotes into an email (where you'd have to laboriously re-search for each article in JSTOR anyway). You can write notes on papers and books, rate and tag them, and generally use it as an all-purpose reading list for whatever you're interested in learning.

Still a few rough spots to smooth out and some features I'd like to see (the first of which would be an API - I want a LaTeX plugin!) but overall pretty nice. Cool people, too. I'd like to learn more about how they're doing this.

The small cousin has woken with a wet diaper. Time to go.

1 comment:

A Weissman said...

Really insightful. I cross-posted this here (I am one of the founders of Carmun):

http://newspeedwayboogie.blogspot.com/2007/01/carmun-education.html