Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Millions of sages on millions of stages

One frequently expressed view of higher education's future is that the availability of content on the web will usher in an age when faculty have less incentive to be sages on stages and more to be guides on the sides of student learning.  It seems equally likely, though, that technology will actually increase the influence of sages on stages.  Here is why:

1. Many online venues for content are "sage-focused."  Consider YouTube, where anyone who wants to can make themselves a sage, presenting their wisdom for free to as many as will take it.  Even "open content" sites are likely to contribute to sage-ness.  Consider MIT's OpenCourseware site.  Seen one way it is an opportunity for students all over the world to direct their learning by getting content from the world's best professors.  Seen another way, it is home to content that is appealing precisely because of the  perceived sagacity of the faculty whose courses are posted there.

2. The current cultural climate, enhanced by social networking and other web trends, is that users seek out those opinions that agree with their own.  Friends on Facebook, followers on Twitter, fans of Obama or Palin; Fox or MSNBC, are more likely now than ever to listen only to those with whom they agree.  This tendency enhances the influence of sages, whose power and presence expand with the number of their loyal followers.  Glenn Beck University anyone?

The future of learning, then, may not be about sages becoming guides, but instead about a competition among sages, in the classroom and on the web, for acolytes to follow their every pronouncement.  Not a bright future to be sure, either for learning or for democracy.

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