Thursday, September 07, 2006


Student to Student Online Instruction

A lot of people are searching for the right model of a Web 2.0 play in online instruction. As usual, they're looking in the wrong place, at school, publisher, or university sites.

The right place to look is where the students are. Quizilla, for example, has a devoted fan base of over two million unique users a month, 55% of whom are between 12-24. It is a pure play Web 2.0 site, meaning that it deploys AJAX content modules created by its user base, with little to no editorial selection.

Quizilla isn't a learning enviornment, but that doesn't mean that students aren't teaching each other on the site. Most teachers would be excited to see students writing stories that other students read, which is one of the things that takes place on Quizilla. Or contributing to an online wikipedia style encyclopedia ("Welcome to the Zillapedia: the encyclopedia for you, by you. Join other Quizilla! members to define words and topics the way you want.") Students are reading and writing and sharing on this site. Consider for example, today's featured story from the website:

Sir Arthur Slays Count Dracula

Sometimes love is worth fight for, especially true for the brave knight, Sir Arthur, a man faced with an uncertain future. Sir Arthur is from Medieval Times and is trained in all types of sword and weapon combat. Living during the hostile and horrific Middle Ages, these skills are extremely valued. There are times when bravery is constantly tested, as bodies from the black plague would overwhelm the local graveyards spawning dark souls to come to life. Suffering from the constant dealings of death, Sir Arthur became accustomed to frequent visits to the local graveyard.

It was one Autumn night in the graveyard where Sir Arthur encountered the wrath of Dracula and the kidnapping of his true love, Princess Isabella. Sir Arthur is already accustomed to destroying red demons, zombies, flying bats, and live skeletons, but to see Dracula in full fury is a serious force to be reckoned with.

As Sir Arthur was romantically discussing Medieval politics with Princess Isabella, before his eyes a tombstone cracked in half, completely mislabeling the epitaph to read “Count Dracula”. At this spontaneous moment, Sir Arthur knew what lethal, dark force was in the grave yard. Then, before his eyes, Princess Isabella is lifted to the sky, while Dracula and the stolen Princess eclipse the full moon of the autumn night. Sir Arthur knew he had to act quick. With the bl-ink of an eye, Sir Arthur launched 6 daggers hitting Dracula’s eyes, heart, lungs, and mouth. Theses critical organs represented the epitome of Medieval mythology and almost instantly, Dracula disintegrated into a cloud of black smoke. While Dracula is disappearing, Princess Isabella was easily hundreds of feet in the air with Dracula, which could only mean a huge drop. Sir Arthur run as quick as lightning to catch the Princess from the deadly fall. With a gigantic leap, he perfectly swoops and catches the Princess from hitting hard cemetery ground.

As if it were the couple’s first kiss, Sir Arthur gently calms the shaken Princess and they two return to the towering Castle they call home. Finally, the two can sleep in peace knowing that Dracula is defeated... at least for the night.

The problem, of course, is that absent a teacher or editor, the stories on Quizilla come packed with poor grammar, mixed metaphor, and haphazard structure. And that, in fine, is the problem with Web 2.0 approaches to online instruction: students cannot teach each other what they do not know themselves. Worse, what they are teaching is that nonstandard expression IS standard. The passage above no doubt resonates more with students than a textbook exemplar. It is a recognizable situation (from video games--especially with the video game illustrations featured in the story), featuring archetypes and an authoritative-sounding author ("Theses critical organs represented the epitome of Medieval mythology"). Adults might struggle to get what the author is saying, but the kids know what it is--it is a STYLE of writing that seems entertaining and sounds smart. Which is good enough for them.

Quizilla in fact is a pretty good place to gain some insight into student interests as well as their general attitude toward education. It is sure to give teachers pause. Not only do the majority of students on Quizilla seem to loathe school, they are unable to express their loathing in any form even approaching reasoned argument ("...let's face it school sucks ok? I wanna meet new friends, yeah, but half the stuff we laern in school these days is pretty dang useless"). Both the style and substance of the content on the site expresses a profound dissatisfaction with, and irrelevance of, education. On the other hand Quizilla is a genuine Web 2.0 community of youth. Defined, deployed and policed by its members, who collectively represent the new paradigm of online learning. Their self-expression on the site is an stunning bricolage of their attitudes and preoccupations and therefore an invaluable sociology of an evolving community.

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan speculated that television was a "mosaic" form of expression that plugged directly into the unconscious, and undermined the linear rationality embedded in literacy. Had he lived to see the internet, he would no doubt judge it the nuclear equivalent of the conventional bomb of television. Both explode traditional western society and raze it to a post-literate position, where human affiliation is defined by "tribal" affect as opposed to educated reason.

What is happening on Quizilla is the devastation of the definition of education as I understood it growing up. Education is instead being replaced by a form of tribal expression where the tropes and stylistic flouishes of educated argument are deployed without any underlying grasp of cause and effect or traditional canons of reason. Which should be cause for alarm except I've yet to be convinced that a post-literate society is necessarily a barbarous society. Instead I think we're witnessing something akin to a resurgence of the social order that preceded the modern age, one where, for example, the conventions of English were unsettled, and regional and local variations were so distinct as to be nearly incomprehensible to each other. In that period there was always a educated mandarinate who managed to maintain social and economic cohesion.

That mandarianate is still with us. They just need to figure out the internet. Especially when it comes to education.

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