I was surprised by the point of view in Louise Williams’ article in Saturday’s SMH, The slow collapse of the ivory tower (16/4/11). She argues that recent developments in technology, such as the accessibility of information and the multitude of online lectures, are ‘challenging centuries old academic structures’, and that by default, universities are losing their primacy as the ‘ultimate arbiters and repositories of knowledge’.
I challenge this argument because at its centre is the idea that learning is the equivalent of reading or listening. This argument suggests that learning is merely ingesting content and that students are receptacles waiting to be filled with relevant content. Since Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, content/knowledge became available the world over, and the ‘repositories of knowledge’ were libraries where books were stored. Now, with the advent of the internet, content is ubiquitous. However, we have always known that accessing information is not equivalent to learning. If that were the case, then all we would have to do is read as many books as we can and we would have learnt everything the books had to tell us. The writer’s argument seems to rest on the concept that learning is just like her description of the 20th century model of education, ‘a largely one-way transmission of facts, theories and ideas’.
If only learning was that simple.
All educators know that learning occurs when the student changes. This change takes place in the student’s knowledge, in attitude, in skill, in perspective, in behaviour. All educators, from early childhood to post-graduate level, design thinking and learning activities so that the new content (knowledge, skills, values or processes) doesn’t just pass through the brain but is learnt. Educators provide opportunities for students to discover new knowledge themselves, to test it, to share it and then even to question it. Educators offer students opportunities to contextualise and personalise the new knowledge, to process it. Educators provide the means by which students activate their new knowledge, apply it to situations, consider how best to use their new knowledge, and consider its value, if any.
Educators open the dialogue which is learning. Education is not, nor has it really ever been, ‘a largely one-way transmission of facts, theories and ideas’, as Louise Williams describes. Learning is not just reading or listening to a lecture. Students are not receptacles waiting to be filled with knowledge. They are human beings who think and feel and engage with the world individually. Thus, students will always need educators, whether in schools or universities, to help them learn.