16 September 2008

And now for something completely different

Mark Bauerlein has a written another screed against using electronic media in the education sector. Although I prefer the concrete nature of books and spend hours examining traditional paper maps and cartography, it must be understood communications does not stand still. We (humanity) progressed from the oral tradition, through cuneiform to papyrus, then on to parchment and offset printing, finally arriving at today's magnetic and phosphor ink. The funny thing is that on each step, there was a exponential explosion, a massive increase of production from the previous state. When the printing press was introduced to Italy, the output was not just of words, drawings and maps were well represented. In the future we will see more works that appear solely in the electronic, magnetic and optical form.

Bauerlein laments that his students cannot find static material in the library, and indeed I agree, the ability to perform archival searches is an absolutely necessary skill. Nevertheless, if you graduate from a geography program and cannot use Google maps and/or Google earth then you will be handicapped - and fatally so. Demanding that students sacrifice learning the skills necessary to operate in the realm of electronic discourse to obtain those that are being superseded, and superseded at the speed of Moore's Law, is to me similar to requiring horsemanship in the days of automobiles. Yes, knowing how to ride a horse is a good skill to possess, but it will not serve you well in the commercial sector. I know many computer languages that are as dead as Latin is today, I would never ask a student to learn X.25, except to understand the primitives of communications between computers.

What I believe the good professor is missing is that we need to learn how to more effectively use the electronic format. It is true we approach a screen differently than the paper one. Nonetheless, how many times do you scan a book, ignoring the little boxes and footnotes? Art History survey and Geography texts are rife with little boxes that describe and explore tangential topics and I always must point these out students who invariably just plow through the text and ignore the colored box or graphic. Here and in my studies, I am constantly fiddling - poking - modifying my electronic text to provide a better interface to the reader. (Which is difficult when you consider I cannot control the browser - the screen size - or the environment that the material is presented!) Unlike the professor, I am willing - nay - obligated to learn how to use this form and to teach what I have learned to others, that's why I returned to school after 30 years. Unfortunately it appears the professor believes he has learned enough, and doesn't need to learn anything else. What's more unfortunate is that he has a soapbox from which to present his appeal to authority.

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