Sabbatical Proposal

Alexandria Online: establishing the voice of authority in the age of wikis, blogs and Google
 
For hundreds of years the book has been the primary tool for storing information, first the hand-written book or manuscript, and then the printed book. Prior to the development of the book, or codex, papyrus scrolls were used for centuries to store text. And prior to that, information was transmitted orally. In the broad view, that means that there have been four main epochs in the way information has been stored and transmitted in the historical period: the oral, the papyrus, the manuscript, and the printing press. We stand on the threshold of the fifth: the digital period. 
 
How and when will the age of the printing press cede to the digital period? What will that look like? How do schools prepare for the next big paradigm shift? Should we anticipate the change, or will culture easily sweep us along in the current? When will digital educational resources surpass print resources in authority, affordability, practicality and access? How does an online resource like Wikipedia become authoritative?
 
I propose a half-year sabbatical to study these questions as they pertain specifically to K-12 education. I will research the history and methods of Wikipedia as a primary example, looking to see where it succeeds and where it falls short in establishing itself as a reliable, accurate source and compare it to the history of the adoption of the printed book. I will examine widely read educational blogs to determine why the educational community accepts those blogs and not others and how they compare with print media. I will also study Google books, fast becoming the largest free library in the world, to gauge its potential for use in schools.
 
Trained as a classicist, I have ten years of full-time classroom teaching experience. My current title, "Associate Director of Technology," belies my academic roots. I have evolved into a software engineer and an educational technologist, but the imprint of classical literature and the questions it has raised and the habits of mind it fosters will never leave me. The question of authority, which is so pressing in the study of antiquity, is becoming equally important in the world of Web 2.0. The very ancient and the very modern converge at this crucial problem.
 
Wikipedia and Google have changed the way that the world understands informational authority, and the educational world is finding a way to react. Students encounter reactions that range from "never use Wikipedia" to "start with Wikipedia and follow the sources" to "Wikipedia is more accurate than Britannica anyway, so what the heck." A teacher may use Google to brainstorm a topic or connect with an interesting source and then evaluate, edit the information, glean what is useful, and present what she has found and processed in print; she may lead the students directly to her sources with links; or she may stand by the facts and their presentation in her printed textbook.
 
Over two thousand years ago the library at Alexandria established itself as the voice of informational authority in the West. The great works of classical Greece were collected, copied, edited, emended and studied. The Old Testament was translated into Greek. The collection drew scholars from all over the Mediterranean and its influence spread East far enough to catch the attention of Asoka, the Buddhist emperor of India. Not only did these scholars have access to the largest collection of literature in the Western world, they had each other. They shared ideas and sustained an evolving, adapting information network.
 
One example of a product of this kind of information network is geometry. At Alexandria, mathematical scholars put together scraps of geometrical ideas into a coherent work of geometry: "The Elements." They either invented an author or ascribed the unity of the work to one of its many authors: Euclid. It was as if they read through all of the geometry bloggers available to them and created a body of knowledge from isolated insights.

During the European Renaissance another major networking of information produced a similar authoritative body of knowledge as scholars collected, discovered, compared, edited and emended the surviving works of classical literature and the Bible. A new science, textual criticism, arose to determine the accuracy of texts. Manuscripts and papyri were compared and textual family trees were drawn to explain their different heritages. Generations of scholars dedicated their lives to determining which letters were meant to be on the page and which were spurious. The modern university was born out of these efforts and continues to be the paradigm for education and knowledge creation today along with its signature tool: the printed book.

 
How long will academia and books continue to be the reigning educational paradigm? Google has scanned over seven million volumes from the libraries of major research universities and has made them available to everyone, forcing the publishing industry to examine the whole concept of copyright in the same way that the music industry has had to reexamine media rights. "Indian Math Online" is a subscription internet service that allows expatriate Indians all over the world to drill their children in the kind of rigorous math curriculum they experienced as kids in India. Phoenix University offers a very different and controversial educational experience for online learners. School libraries subscribe to online encyclopedias which are evolving to look less and less like paper encyclopedias and more like Wikipedia, while Wikipedia provides revision history, assessment tools and discussion areas to challenge the authoritative position of reference works in print.
 
 
When will Episcopal students be carrying computing devices instead of books in their backpacks? This is a very practical and present question for the institution in the next few years as the ratio of computers to students at EA approaches one-to-one. The simple fact is that kids can't carry both a computer and all their heavy books. And the expense of buying both will not make parents happy. The Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader employ screen technology that is a quantum leap ahead of current LCD screens in terms of readability but they only display black and white. While many titles are available for e-books, textbook publishing houses do not offer their information electronically for fear that they will lose control of content in the same way that the music industry did. If they did lose that control, what shape would the new digital media take? A song on a CD offers the same experience as a song on an ipod, but a digital curriculum will probably look different from one based on textbooks. Or will it?
 
To address these questions I intend to visit schools that are aggressively addressing these issues, beginning with Dalton School in New York City. I will also read printed materials, beginning with Will Richardson's book, Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms and Solomon and Schrum's Web 2.0: New Tools, New Schools. And I want to explore the blogs, wikis, podcasts and Google resources, beginning with what Richardson and other educational futurists like Alan November have to offer.
 
The shift from print to some sort of digital display technology will happen soon. I predict that the information students will be looking at will be fundamentally different in structure from what they look at when they read books. I hope that my research will uncover some clues as to what that structure will be. In addition to the traditional printed report that I will submit at the end of my research, I will keep a daily blog of my experience. I have had success getting my writing published in Independent School Magazine and I would like to shape some of my discoveries and reflections into an article for publication in an educational journal.
 
I will report to the Strategic Planning Committe on my research during the sabbatical; when I return, I will work with teachers and administrators to integrate my findings and recommended practices into our curriculum, especially as they pertain to the evolution of reading.

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