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Education Unplugged: Learning Through Conversation

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Sherry Turkle's essay in Sunday's New York Times, "The Flight From Conversation," raised several critical questions about how our desire to be connected via technology can also be a powerful mechanism for avoiding significant human contact. Turkle, a psychologist and professor at MIT, is no technophobe. She argues, though, that the tiny "sips" of contact through social networking "no matter how valuable ... do not substitute for conversation."

As I finished Turkle's essay, I thought about the implications of her argument for education. Many of our students today are convinced that their ability to connect to several things at once, to deal with feeds coming from blogs, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube while they sit with classmates and professors, is a sign of their increased capacity for learning. They are, it seems, "processing" more data all the time. And many faculty have celebrated this polymorphous plugging-in. They argue for either the wisdom of crowds, or the importance of "flipping" (a favorite word) the classroom so that clickers can inform the professor about how much learning is going on. Clickers are oh so much more efficient than talk, so much easier to track than the effects of a professor modeling inquiry and communication.

It is clear enough that the multiplicity of overlapping digital networks brings students and teachers new ways to conduct research, to establish communities of interest, and to facilitate learning. Partisans of the power of networks love to tell anecdotes of how a mathematician's complex problem was solved through a blog's crowd sourcing, or how an intractable issue in the life sciences was substantially clarified by marshaling the intellectual power of thousands of thoughtful experimenters. These accounts are not careful considerations of new processes of discovery -- that would require some analysis of how network methods compare to other methods over a large number of cases. Instead we get curiously old-fashioned success stories. Look, the mathematician's blog worked! Math should now be done with blogs!!

It seems like every day we can read another story about how substantial learning can take place online, especially when we use the tools of social networking. To be clear: I have no doubt that many skills can be developed online, just like (in the old days) many skills could be learned by watching television, or listening to tapes. These technologies have always been able to facilitate progress on specific tasks with right or wrong answers, or develop skills enhanced through repetition.

I do want to call our attention, though, to what one learns in classes small enough for conversations guided by teachers who have dedicated a substantial part of their working lives to understanding more about the subject at hand. One of the first things students learn is to expect ambiguity, to anticipate that there will be differences of opinion among thoughtful people. Then, they learn to navigate in that ambiguity. To get the most out of a discussion of a difficult text or of a complex event, students develop a mode of attentiveness combined with patience so that they can see things from a variety of points of view. This takes time, because in a conversation-based class there will be a layering of perspectives, hypotheses, and interpretations. It's not only bad manners to sneak a peek at your twitter feed during the seminar; it's also a failure of learning, a sign of an inability to participate in an inquiry that requires face-to-face acknowledgment and receptivity.

Sherry Turkle writes that she "learned that the little devices most of us carry around are so powerful that they change not only what we do, but also who we are." One of the wonderful things about teaching through conversation is that we get to help our students unplug from the inputs they have customized to reinforce their own tastes, expectations and identities. We get to introduce them to stories and poems, historical events and paintings, scientific experiments and political debates that they might not have attended to, even googled, on their own. And then we get to learn with them about how these complex cultural artifacts can be understood in relation to our present. In this way, we develop a richer sense than our little devices can give us of who we are. More important, we develop a deeper sense of who we might become.