I attended the MERLOT 2009 International Conference in San Jose, CA (August 13-16) as a presenter. MERLOT is the acronym for Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching (www.merlot.org). Title of my Poster Session was “Acing K-14 Algebra: An Online Case Study.”
Education is going through a radical transformation, given the vast array of Web-based tools available to teachers and educators. Yet in his electrifying keynote speech (Uncommon Knowledge and Open Innovation), John Wilbanks, Vice President of Science at Creative Commons (http://creativecommons.org/), made the point that the Web has transformed our culture and commerce but its impact on education has been relatively small. Arcane copyright laws, artificial controls and obsolete business models have thwarted the emergence of value creation that is the hallmark of the Web. We have to take down all barriers to scholarly communication so that as more people are able to engage, possibilities of intellectual breakthroughs that we sorely need in our times dramatically go up. Innovation is an emergent property of networks. Many smart people around the world cannot make scholarly breakthroughs because they lack access to integrated information. A sustainable and scalable digital commons increases the flow of scholarly knowledge.
Educators are fond of forming “Standards Bodies,” said WilBanks, but these do not lead to breakthroughs. “Solving real problems do.” “If we can make the things we know more useful in the evaluation of hypotheses and models, we are simply increasing the mathematical odds of discovery. This is the transformational potential. It is treating the literature and data online as elements in a vast periodic table of knowledge, a common reference point against which we can test how things fit together.”
This was probably the most intellectually challenging and provocative keynote address I have ever heard. It may take a while to realize the vision that Wilbanks articulated but now we can at least hope that the Web’s radically disruptive (as opposed to traditionally incremental) effect on education will become a reality, at par with its effect on culture and commerce.
Several presentations and workshops ran in parallel during the conference’s 4 days, an abundance of riches that made me dizzy. What amazed me were the number of teachers committed to helping students get ahead in life by introducing them to innovative tools and practices. Online teaching and Web 2.0 tools are now a fact of educational life and we will see more and more of these with time. The challenge is to ensure that we are not using the Web merely as a wrapper to digitize face-to-face classrooms but to use its transformational power to bring about real and lasting changes in the ways we think, teach, learn and innovate.