One of the most important messages I’ve taken away from this semester’s class is the critical role that higher education has to play in helping students learn how to more effectively use the internet. One of the phases that I’ve used over and over has been “left to their own devices”, as in:
- Left to their own devices most students won’t do the hard intellectual work that will be required to use blogs as one effective tool for their own intellectual development.
- Left to their own devices most students won’t have the skills to contribute effectively to a collaborative writing project –such as a wiki– that requires them to critically and comfortably edit their classmates work in accomplishing a common goal.
- Left to their own devices most of our students won’t question the authority of either the Britannica or the WikiPedia.
The good news is that students don’t come to our universities to be left to their own devices. We can help them learn through meaningful class assignments under the mentorship of faculty members who themselves understand the potential and the dangers of our networks and infrastructure. Through those assignments students can move beyond seeing the internet as Google, IM and P2P and see the larger implications for themselves and the society. Our students (and faculty) need to be explosed to the important issues raised here by Nicholas Carr, both as part their general education and in the specialized work of their majors.
Research shows that very small biases, when magnified through thousands or millions or billions of choices, can turn into profound schisms. There’s reason to believe, or at least to fear, that this effect, inherent in large networks, may end up turning the internet into a polarizing force rather than a unifying on.
Overall, I’m a little more optimistic than Nicholas Carr on this point. It’s unrealistic to assume that our students are not going to use their internet connections to interact with others who share their tastes in music, politics and culture. It’s realistic, however, to expect that colleges and universities can be an effective force to counteract some of the balkanization that can well result from billions of thoughtless clicks; we have the opportunity to help make them at least a little more thoughtful.