Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Jonathan Zittrain's Inaugural Lecture

Yestersday evening I attended Jonathan Zittrain's terrific inaugural lecture at Oxford University, (where my year long fellowship at the wonderful Harris Manchester College sadly comes to an end next month).

Both entertaining and informative on the power and the dangers of the network, in concluding he got to the heart of our responsibility as a society to exploit ICT for positive ends especially through education. The Egyptian pyramids, he said, were the symbols of the toil and suffering of generations of slave labour, merely created to act as monuments to a single despotic rulers. Then he invoked the metaphor of an inverted pyramid of knowledge and information which we now have the potential to build through collaboration in the use of networked communications technologies, founded on our existing cultural and scientific heritage.

Building on the shoulders of our historical giants and working together to continually advance science, culture and society, wouldn't that be a legacy worth leaving to our descendents.

Interestingly enough he sees Wikipedia as an obvious place to gather students to offer the fruits of their learning to the world. We've experimented with wikis at the Open University mostly within individual courses and there is a lot to be said for them but they do have their drawbacks too. The difficulty with narrowly focussed, time critical, specific course related tasks, in a distance context is that the socio pychological aspects of the task often trump the mechanics of the task itself. One classic example is where sometimes students spend longer trying to work out who is going to which part of the task than they do engaging in the activity itself. Another fairly simple problem is that to get students to do these tasks they need to be part of the assessment of the course and often students don't like feeling like they are dependent on other students for their grade. That said there are a huge number of ways of engaging students in this kind of collaborative mutual learning (and teaching) process, which afterall is the at foundation of the academy and scientific development.

Update: Suw Charman has a full report on the lecture at the ORG blog. Ethan Zuckerman at Worldchanging also has a comprehensive report on the lecture.

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