The internet has changed nothing -

The internet has changed nothing

Except that we have blogs now.


I really am trying to be less angry these days, but articles like this interview with technology expert Don Tapscott doesn’t make a Zen calm very easy.

Perhaps this interview didn’t do him justice, but from what I can tell, Tapscott is part of the tradition of experts on university education who ignore what actually goes on in universities. Put another way, I have been in and around universities my entire life, and the place that Tapscott describes as the modern university is utterly unrecognizable to me.

Here, for example, is Tapscott describing a typical university classroom:

The formula goes like this: “I’m a professor and I have knowledge. You’re a student you’re an empty vessel and you don’t. Get ready, here it comes. Your goal is to take this data into your short-term memory and through practice and repetition build deeper cognitive structures so you can recall it to me when I test you.”

This is straw-man anti-intellectualism at its very worst and, sadly, one hears it all the time. Except from actual professors that is. I don’t know any professor who thinks that the only or, indeed, primary purpose of teaching is to fill empty heads with temporary knowledge. Every professor I know thinks that knowledge is important, of course, and that students need to learn some basics of the discipline in order to make sense of it, but there is wide agreement among academics that the real purpose of education is to enable higher order thinking about literature, or ethics, or physics, or whatever the discipline may be.

But for Tapscott, unless you are teaching graduate courses, you have no “genuine and meaningful interaction” with students. Whose undergraduate courses precisely is he referring to? Not the courses at my august institution where upper-year classes routinely have a dozen students or fewer and where undergraduates commonly work as research assistants. He is certainly not describing my department where the Theatre Arts Certificate requires a one-on-one practicum and where a 4-year major requires a directed study or honours thesis (both done as one-on-one projects). What does he make of the office hours that all professors are required to hold? What does he make of the conversations before class, and after class, and by email? Is all this interaction not genuine because it is not on YouTube?

Tapscott insists that while undergraduate profs pretend to have “all the knowledge that is worth knowing,” young people are magical young thinking devices, geared up by information technology:

Growing up digital has changed the way their minds work in a manner that helps them cope with the challenges of the digital age. They’re used to multi-tasking, and have learned to handle the information overload. They expect a two-way conversation.

A two-way conversation? Really? At the risk of being boastful, I will say that I am a very engaging teacher. I am confident, and funny, and I know my stuff, and I can tell you that the typical first year student would rather cut his or her dick off than speak in class. A two-way conversation is the last thing they want. Professors spend sleepless nights thinking of new ways to get students to participate in a two-way conversation. Students don’t want to, not in the first year, because they rightly sense that no one has prepared them for how to do it. Not in an intellectually meaningful way.

It’s nice to think that the internet has opened up a vast new world of independent thinking, but do people really seem more open-minded to you, these days?  Indeed, research has shown that rather than letting it challenge their views, people tend to use the internet to confirm ideas they already have.

After a year or two, students start to loosen up, and in senior seminars there tends to be plenty of  stimulating interaction. But students get to the point where they can do that,  because we taught them how to think about complex ideas and how to express those thoughts. That was us, the dusty old professors. Not Google and Wikipedia.

I suspect Tapscott (one of the world’s leading authorities on business strategy according to his own web site) likes to describe a brave new world  because he can’t sell the idea that the more things change the more they stay the same. Professors were not created by an “industrial model” of education in the 19th century — universities were venerable institutions already by then. Unless the Tapscotts of the world get their way, universities will continue to be what they have long been: places where learned people come together to share what they know and to learn more. Where those of us who want to live an examined life try to gain a modicum of wisdom by examining life.

It’s easy to sound like one is on the cutting edge by taking the newest technology — the internet, the television, the radio, the train, the book and so on — and tacking on “this changes everything.” This is not to say that everything stays the same, but the fundamentals of a sound education have remained constants since ancient times. That’s why I still cite Aristotle with my students and insist that an educated mind is one that can consider contrary positions at the same time. That’s why my email signature is a quote from Euripides (“With slight efforts how should we achieve great results?”), and that’s why I practice the ancient technique called the Socratic method, a real-time, interactive educational experience that predates the internet by over two thousand years.


The internet has changed nothing

  1. Bravo. Multitasking? Proven impossible for us, & the students to try it find this out, eventually. Dialogue? While I might not be so explicit, I agree in general, & I’m told the No Child generation has even less practice in engaged, critical discussion.

    One word I’d offer: that we must reclaim the importance of paying attention. We must pay it out.

  2. “the typical first year student would rather cut his or her dick off than speak in class”?

    Gender neutral language fail. :)

    • Scott, surely you mean “gender neutral language win“! That was the first line I wrote for this thing: I had to get up out of bed in the middle of the night to write it down.

  3. Get up from sleep to write that line … hmmmm. What were you dreaming? Yes, do write it down, but perhaps the morning’s light would ….

    • Who said I was asleep? I was literally lying awake at night thinking about the nature and future of higher education. I wish I was kidding.

  4. “A two-way conversation? Really? At the risk of being boastful, I will say that I am a very engaging teacher. I am confident, and funny, and I know my stuff, and I can tell you that the typical first year student would rather cut his or her d*** off than speak in class.”

    Um, wow… Not what I was expecting…
    But perhaps the reason for that is because students have not been engaged enough! The old factory model of teaching is still in use. Regardless of how effective, engaging, charismatic, etc., a teacher you are, you need to involve your students as much as possible, and take an interest in them! They will develop better. With all due respect, sir, it’s evident that you’re missing something. Why aren’t students interested in learning? It hasn’t been encouraged. Oh, we’ve taught them to suck up information. We just haven’t given them a “why”. They learn, not of thirst for knowledge, but out of striving for higher grades and little else.
    You must instill in your students a love of learning, lifelong curiosity, a set of inquiring minds. Otherwise, expect to see little interest in participation.
    And please, take advantage of the Web 2.0 and related technologies! You’ll be pleasantly surprised.
    With all due respect, Mr. Pettigrew, I think you have a lot to learn.

    • Jourdan, I do have a lot to learn. I think I am a better educator now than I was ten years ago and I hope that I will be better still ten years from now.

      But there does seem to be a false dichotomy in the minds of readers of these posts. It seems that people think the only models available to us are the so-called factory model that we have always had or the supposed digital utopia that we can have if old fogeys like me would just get out of the way.

      But I’ve seen some factories and I’ve seen some classrooms, and I don’t see the resemblance. Professors don’t think they know everything and they don’t think the only purpose of education is to fill students’ minds with rote knowledge (if you are a tenured professor who actually thinks that, please, email me: if I get ten such emails, I will moderate my position). Just because I don’t think students today are entirely different from students a generation ago does not mean that I don’t want to engage my students. I do, and so do most professors I know, and so did my professors when I was a student. Engagement and interaction did not begin in the digital era.

      Moreover, the fact that I don’t want students playing World of Warcraft during class doesn’t mean I hate new technologies. I use a variety of digital technologies in my teaching including the web, and this year I am moving entirely to paperless essays submitted and returned electronically. But, as anyone who has been put to sleep by a PowerPoint presentation knows, simply using a new technology does not mean better teaching.

  5. Todd, you villify Tapscott for his abstracted interpretations of what the contemporary higher education system looks like. But you follow this by claiming first year undergrad students all think and behave alike, regardless of subject domain, geographical or cultural context, etc;

    “I can tell you that the typical first year student would rather cut his or her dick off than speak in class. A two-way conversation is the last thing they want.”

    Indeed, Tapscotts views have a tendency to put the ‘hype’ in web 2.0 and the future of communication, education, etc. But what troubles me the most about your take on contemporary education, pedagogy and epistemology is your belief that “the fundamentals of a sound education have remained constants since ancient times.” I very much disagree with this. Perhaps you could provide some clarification as to what the “fundamentals” of education are, and what qualifies as “sound education”. Sharing greek philosophy with your students and quoting athenian tragedy is one thing, but it hardly qualifies your methods/practices/etc as fundamental to ancient teaching. I agree, a view that considers students seeking education and knowledge as empty vessels is shallow, but stating that the internet, or perhaps developments in information technology/systems, have done nothing to change the ways through which education is delivered, and how knowledge is transferred, created, evolved, is quite insular. For someone as practiced in the socratic method as yourself, I’m not quite sure I see much critical discourse here, especially in light of a title as heavy handed as “The internet has changed nothing”.

    • Stephen, my problem with Tapscott is not so much his abstractions, but rather that I think he is wrong.

      As for the ancient ideas, I may have painted too broadly, but I was thinking of traditions such as rationalism and skepticism in general and of the Socratic penchant for questioning supposedly well-known truths (even to the point of seeming like a jerk) in particular. Perhaps interested classicists can comment further, but I do think these things remain fundamental to education today.

      As for the title, it was meant as ironic overstatement. I was going to title it “The internet has not changed everything” but that seemed bland, so I went for hyperbole.

  6. I am no expert on education, but as the leader of a consulting firm employing a number of recent graduates each year, and as the father of 2 university students, I have many occasions to discuss the state of the post secondary education system today. While Professor Pettigrew may well be exposing his students to the kind enlightened system that is needed and indeed yearned for by the students, from my conversations with many students, this appears to be the exception rather than the rule. We need more people like Tapscott challenging convention and forcing institutional leaders to rethink the status quo in all areas. This is not an insult to the fine, dedicated teachers in the system today, it is simply a natural outcome of new ideas and new thinking in how education systems can be improved. We should be excited by this.

  7. The emphasis on technology in classrooms has always been a bit confusing to me.

    The idea, for example, that a modern student would leave school not knowing how to use a computer if it wasn’t taught to them is hard for me to swallow.

    What seems more important is that students learn skills that they can use in conjunction with technology (which they will always have a better grasp on than their teachers) more effectively. This doesn’t have anything to do with the motor skills required to operate the computer, but with being able to decipher valid/accurate from invalid/inaccurate information, and to assess what constitutes a productive use of technology from a poor one.

    I am tired of seeing younger people (I am 33) whizzing around on a computer screen with impressive tact, only to take the first link that comes up in Google as gospel without giving it much thought or evaluation. This is not “research”.

    In other words, the students need the skills that were better-held by the older generation that they seem to have lost in order to use the technology (with which they are expertly familiar) to its full potential.

    Removing most technology from the classroom sounds like a good idea to me. It is not only expensive but also of questionable educational value.

    The teachers don’t have a good handle on it and come across as somewhat incompetent to students when they try, and they have far more valuable skills that they need to pass down to students, and from which students would genuinely benefit when they use modern technology.

  8. Thank you for keeping us updated. I really appreciate it Thank you.