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Autodidacts and Web 2.0 – Are Universities Still Needed?

June 14, 2008

“Autodidact” was, at one point, a mocking term. Someone who had taught themselves was someone who didn’t really know because they hadn’t learned in the authority-approved, academy-approved, institutional manner. They were “undisciplined” because they were outside of the academic disciplines. Yet the connotations around this word are shifting. As the web, with the immediacy of its access to information, becomes more and more a part of our lives, more people are learning outside of the traditional institutions. Being an autodidact now has more caché, and more real value.

Most people who are web 2.0 savvy are autodidacts because they have taught, and are continuously teaching, themselves about what is available and what can be done with it. All kinds of people are learning outside our educational institutions. Some are now skillful learners despite having struggled to learn inside the institutions. And inside our educational institutions, the most exciting and dramatic changes in human communication EVER are often being ignored and avoided by many who should be leaders in learning. In my opinion, universities and colleges are just not keeping up.

Don’t get me wrong; there are amazing people out there doing amazing things in their classes. I loved Virginia Yonkers’ description of a course she developed; it blew me away. It’s a course that everyone should take, IMHO. We all need to know about “communication (mobile communication technologies such as cell phones, pda’s, video conferencing), information sharing (pod and vodcasting, visual information software, blogs, pageflakes), collaboration (wikis, groupware), and networking (facebook, LinkedIn, Ning)”. I admire the hands-on action research approach she uses with her students, but what I admire most deeply is the framework she has created so her students are learning the complexities of the impact of the new communication tools – (read her post!)

Yonkers demonstrates something very important with her design of this course, something that educational institutions should be paying close attention to because it is the value-added aspect of the expensive education they are meant to provide. It is easy, now, to find information on the web, and tutorials, both free and with a price. All kinds of people offer books and videos for sale on all kinds of topics on the web. But what Yonkers offers, and what universities should/ could be offering, is a rich learning context lead by a fellow learner who is skilled in shaping learning for herself and her students. Her students are learning applications, and the communications implications of these new tools, in a rich social learning environment. (A comment of hers on her post reveals that the technical environment wasn’t that rich.)

I have taught myself at least basic use of most of the applications she has her students use. I am an autodidact where web 2.0 is involved. I chose what blogs to follow, I harvest links from Twitter and my Bloglines account, and I use del.icio.us (and diigo) to be able to re-find links I value. But when I read this –

I know that I need deeper, richer, more contextual learning than I can get from being alone f2f with my computer screen. I need a learning community to bounce ideas off and learn new possibilities from. I envy Yonkers and her students. I’ll leave you with Yonkers list of what current and future workers need to know, and a question: How widespread, do you think, is the teaching and learning of these work literacies?

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