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A Vision of Students Today – Some Additional Thoughts from Michael Wesch

It has been almost 11 months since our first post on Michael Wesch of Kansas State University. The cultural anthropologist, dubbed ‘the explainer’ by Wired magazine, provoked the entire educational blogosphere with his amazing viral video, A Vision of Students Today.

Michael Wesch, KSUHis video added a great deal of depth to our discussion on the great digital divide, the term used to describe the existing chasm regarding technology and its use as an educational tool. Adding to the luster of Wesch’s video for us was his choice to use the words of Marshall McLuhan, he of ‘the medium is the message’ fame, at the very beginning of his Vision video. We noted at the time that McLuhan always insisted he learned “in spite of his professors” but that he one day also became a professor of English “in spite of himself.”

McLuhan’s words, constructed back in 1967:

Today’s child is bewildered
when he enters
the 19th century environment
that still characterizes
the educational establishment
where information is scarce
but ordered and structured
by fragmented, classified patterns
subjects and schedules.

While Wesch’s video was definitively provocative, some folks were not sure they completely understood the overarching point. In our interview with Mark Bullen, he of the blog NetGenNonsense, the Dean offered this view of the Wesch video:

“I’m not entirely sure what the point of A Vision of Students Today is. The relevance of education has been source of debate for as long as I have been in education. I remember, as a student, participating in a ‘walk-out’ from my high school in 1970 over the perceived irrelevance of our education. So this is not new.”

And as for the technology issues raised in A Vision Bullen stated:

“The technological theme is even murkier. What is the relevance of the fact that students spend more time online than reading books? The same comparison used to be made with television.

“And that they buy textbooks that they never read? I remember doing that in my undergraduate education in 1970s and 1980s. What is the relevance of comparing reading books with reading e-mails and Facebook profiles?”

Wesch Weighs in Anew
Wesch added a great deal to the discussion when he recently posted an update on his successful vision video. A Vision of Students Today (& What Teachers Must Do) may be found at Britannica.com but unlike the original vision which appeared as an extremely provocative video, the update follows a more traditional format, the written essay.

Britannica

His ongoing assessment of his original work has recently led him “to view the video with a sense of uneasiness and even incredulity.” Wesch notes:

“Surely it (higher education) can’t be as bad as the video seems to suggest, I thought. By the end of the summer I had become convinced that the video was over the top, that things were really not so bad, that the system is not as broken as I thought, and we should all just stop worrying and get on with our teaching.”

Yet when he returned to teaching in the fall, he was again struck by the classroom environment. It speaks directly to those who propose the move from a ‘sage on the stage’ teacher style to that of ‘guide on the side.’

The popular teacher is assigned a room, make that an auditorium, that has 493 seats. On day one, those seats are not only full, there is standing room only in the back and along the sides of the room. Wesch begins and the room falls silent, but only because the sage at the front of the room is at work.

“I started talking and an almost deafening silence greeted my first words. I have always been amazed and intimidated by this silence. It seems to so tenuously await my next words. The silence is immediately filled with the more subtle yet powerful messages sent by 500 sets of eyes which I continuously scan, ‘listening’ to what they have to say as I talk. In an instant those eyes can turn from wonder and excitement to the disheartening glaze of universal and irreversible disengagement.

Mediated Cultures
“Perpetually dreading this glaze I nervously pace as I talk and use grandiose gestures. At times I feel desperate for their attention. I rush to amuse them with jokes and stories as I swing, twist, and swirl that gyromouse, directing the 786,432 pixels dancing points of light behind me, hoping to dazzle them with a multi-media extravaganza.

“Somehow I seem to hold their attention for the full hour.”

Clearly Wesch is an honest man and an enlightened presenter. And we are not talking about the technology he is utilizing, we are talking the old-fashioned skills of addressing an audience. All too often the person in the front of the room fails to listen to what those many faces are saying. In fact, we dare say that many times he or she is unaware that those faces have anything to say. But not Wesch.

Assistants Set Him Straight

Shortly thereafter, the honest man reveals a bit more in his essay. It seems he wasn’t as observant of those eyes and faces as he thought he had been. He goes on to explain the ‘getting by’ game.

“Reports from my teaching assistants sitting in the back of the room tell a different story. Apparently, several students standing in the back cranked up their iPods as I started to lecture and never turned them off, sometimes even breaking out into dance. My lecture could barely be heard nearby as the sound-absorbing panels and state of the art speakers were apparently no match for those blaring iPods.

“Scanning the room my assistants also saw students cruising Facebook, instant messaging, and texting their friends. The students were undoubtedly engaged, just not with me.

“My teaching assistants consoled me by noting that students have learned that they can ‘get by’ without paying attention in their classes.”

A Consistent Theme

In his poignant and honest (at the risk of over-using the word) look at what higher education has wrought he reminds us so much of what David Wiley has had to say about the current state of education at the post-secondary level. It also clarifies immensely the ambiguity that A Vision wrought upon us.

Wesch has a classical anthropological background having studied “the impacts of writing on a remote indigenous culture in the rainforest of Papua New Guinea.” However, his current role as the ‘explainer’ has caused him to turn “his attention to the effects of social media and digital technology on global society.”

Wesch, KSU

Though he is immensely popular on the internet, it is more important to note that Wesch also has won numerous awards for his media work as well for his teaching. In sum total, when professor Wesch speaks, particularly about teaching and learning as it relates to students today, people listen with a careful ear.

And he has much to say:

“Last spring I asked my students how many of them did not like school. Over half of them rose their hands. When I asked how many of them did not like learning, no hands were raised. And there’s the rub. We love learning. We hate school. What’s worse is that many of us hate school because we love learning.”

He even dares to offer a solution, one that raises the same specter that appears in A Vision. It is those longstanding classroom walls that would have so much to say if they could only talk.

“Some time ago we started taking our walls too seriously – not just the walls of our classrooms, but also the metaphorical walls that we have constructed around our ‘subjects,’ ‘disciplines,’ and ‘courses.’ McLuhan’s statement about the bewildered child ….. still holds true in most classrooms today. The walls have become so prominent that they are even reflected in our language, so that today there is something called ‘the real world’ which is foreign and set apart from our schools.

“Fortunately, the solution is simple,” states Wesch. “We don’t have to tear the walls down. We just have to stop pretending that the walls separate us from the world, and begin working with students in the pursuit of answers to real and relevant questions.”

Knowing What Needs to Be Done
Alas, by way of David Wiley, Clayton M. Christensen and Michael B. Horn, Marcia L. Conner, and now the ‘explainer,’ it appears we do know what needs to be done.

However, the greater challenge remains, because knowing what needs to be done is not the same as doing it.

2 comments

1 Mark Riffey { 10.30.08 at 7:30 pm }

That last sentence says a mouthful. Entrenched parties are tough to move and they are the ones that position themselves between knowing what needs to be done and doing it.

More reading on a related topic from Popular Mechanics:
http://www.popularmechanics.com/blogs/science_news/4289466.html/

Finally, the blog link above references one of the challenges that Wesch addresses in his video and ongoing work. While my blog comments about the problem come from a business perspective, the educational issues are very similar.

Mark

2 Heidi Worcester { 04.26.11 at 10:33 pm }

I attended a business conference recently and Michael Wesch was the keynote speaker. He stirred much thought, debate and emotion with his presentation, illustrations and videos. Michael definitely left us all thinking a lot more about the digital world today and how it’s affected organizations, business, politics and families. Excellent, excellent speaker and LOVE his videos.

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