Fluid Learning

I: Out of Control

Our greatest fear, in bringing computers into the classroom, is that we teachers and instructors and lecturers will lose control of the classroom, lose touch with the students, lose the ability to make a difference. The computer is ultimately disruptive. It offers greater authority than any instructor, greater resources than any lecturer, and greater reach than any teacher. The computer is not perfect, but it is indefatigable. The computer is not omniscient, but it is comprehensive. The computer is not instantaneous, but it is faster than any other tool we’ve ever used.

All of this puts the human being at a disadvantage; in a classroom full of machines, the human factor in education is bound to be overlooked. Even though we know that everyone learns more effectively when there’s a teacher or mentor present, we want to believe that everything can be done with the computer. We want the machines to distract, and we hope that in that distraction some education might happen. But distraction is not enough. There must be a point to the exercise, some reason that makes all the technology worthwhile. That search for a point – a search we are still mostly engaged in – will determine whether these computers are meaningful to the educational process, or if they are an impediment to learning.

It’s all about control.

What’s most interesting about the computer is how it puts paid to all of our cherished fantasies of control. The computer – or, most specifically, the global Internet connected to it – is ultimately disruptive, not just to the classroom learning experience, but to the entire rationale of the classroom, the school, the institution of learning. And if you believe this to be hyperbolic, this story will help to convince you.

In May of 1999, Silicon Valley software engineer John Swapceinski started a website called “Teacher Ratings.” Individuals could visit the site and fill in a brief form with details about their school, and their teacher. That done, they could rate the teacher’s capabilities as an instructor. The site started slowly, but, as is always the case with these sorts of “crowdsourced” ventures, as more ratings were added to the site, it became more useful to people, which meant more visitors, which meant more ratings, which meant it became even more useful, which meant more visitors, which meant more ratings, etc. Somewhere in the middle of this virtuous cycle the site changed its name to “Rate My Professors.com” and changed hands twice. For the last two years, RateMyProfessors.com has been owned by MTV, which knows a thing or two about youth markets, and can see one in a site that has nine million reviews of one million teachers, professors and instructors in the US, Canada and the UK.

Although the individual action of sharing some information about an instructor seems innocuous enough, in aggregate the effect is entirely revolutionary. A student about to attend university in the United States can check out all of her potential instructors before she signs up for a single class. She can choose to take classes only with those instructors who have received the best ratings – or, rather more perversely, only with those instructors known to be easy graders. The student is now wholly in control of her educational opportunities, going in eyes wide open, fully cognizant of what to expect before the first day of class.

Although RateMyProfessors.com has enlightened students, it has made the work of educational administrators exponentially more difficult. Students now talk, up and down the years, via the recorded ratings on the site. It isn’t possible for an institution of higher education to disguise an individual who happens to be a world-class researcher but a rather ordinary lecturer. In earlier times, schools could foist these instructors on students, who’d be stuck for a semester. This no longer happens, because RateMyProfessors.com effectively warns students away from the poor-quality teachers.

This one site has undone all of the neat work of tenure boards and department chairs throughout the entire world of academia. A bad lecturer is no longer a department’s private little secret, but publicly available information. And a great lecturer is no longer a carefully hoarded treasure, but a hot commodity on a very public market. The instructors with the highest ratings on RateMyProfessors.com find themselves in demand, receiving outstanding offers (with tenure) from other universities. All of this plotting, which used to be hidden from view, is now fully revealed. The battle for control over who stands in front of the classroom has now been decisively lost by the administration in favor of the students.

This is not something that anyone expected; it certainly wasn’t what John Swapceinski had in mind when founded Teacher Ratings. He wasn’t trying to overturn the prerogatives of heads of school around the world. He was simply offering up a place for people to pool their knowledge. That knowledge, once pooled, takes on a life of its own, and finds itself in places where it has uses that its makers never intended.

This rating system serves as an archetype for what it is about to happen to education in general. If we are smart enough, we can learn a lesson here and now that we will eventually learn – rather more expensively – if we wait. The lesson is simple: control is over. This is not about control anymore. This is about finding a way to survive and thrive in chaos.

The chaos is not something we should be afraid of. Like King Canute, we can’t roll back the tide of chaos that’s rolling over us. We can’t roll back the clock to an earlier age without computers, without Internet, without the subtle but profound distraction of text messaging. The school is of its time, not out it. Which means we must play the hand we’ve been dealt. That’s actually a good thing, because we hold a lot of powerful cards, or can, if we choose to face the chaos head on.

II: Do It Ourselves

If we take the example of RateMyProfessors.com and push it out a little bit, we can see the shape of things to come. But there are some other trends which are also becoming visible. The first and most significant of these is the trend toward sharing lecture material online, so that it reaches a very large audience. Spearheaded by Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, both of which have placed their entire set of lectures online through iTunes University, these educational institutions assert that the lectures themselves aren’t the real reason students spend $50,000 a year to attend these schools; the lectures only have full value in context. This is true, in some sense, but it discounts the possibility that some individuals or group of individuals might create their own context around the lectures. And this is where the future seems to be pointing.

When broken down to its atomic components, the classroom is an agreement between an instructor and a set of students. The instructor agrees to offer expertise and mentorship, while the students offer their attention and dedication. The question now becomes what role, if any, the educational institution plays in coordinating any of these components. Students can share their ratings online – why wouldn’t they also share their educational goals? Once they’ve pooled their goals, what keeps them from recruiting their own instructor, booking their own classroom, indeed, just doing it all themselves?

At the moment the educational institution has an advantage over the singular student, in that it exists to coordinate the various functions of education. The student doesn’t have access to the same facilities or coordination tools. But we already see that this is changing; RateMyProfessors.com points the way. Why not create a new kind of “Open University”, a website that offers nothing but the kinds of scheduling and coordination tools students might need to organize their own courses? I’m sure that if this hasn’t been invented already someone is currently working on it – it’s the natural outgrowth of all the efforts toward student empowerment we’ve seen over the last several years.

In this near future world, students are the administrators. All of the administrative functions have been “pushed down” into a substrate of software. Education has evolved into something like a marketplace, where instructors “bid” to work with students. Now since most education is funded by the government, there will obviously be other forces at play; it may be that “administration”, such as it is, represents the government oversight function which ensures standards are being met. In any case, this does not look much like the educational institution of the 20th century – though it does look quite a bit like the university of the 13th century, where students would find and hire instructors to teach them subjects.

The role of the instructor has changed as well; as recently as a few years ago the lecturer was the font of wisdom and source of all knowledge – perhaps with a companion textbook. In an age of Wikipedia, YouTube and Twitter this no longer the case. The lecturer now helps the students find the material available online, and helps them to make sense of it, contextualizing and informing their understanding. even as the students continue to work their way through the ever-growing set of information. The instructor can not know everything available online on any subject, but will be aware of the best (or at least, favorite) resources, and will pass along these resources as a key outcome of the educational process. The instructor facilitates and mentors, as they have always done, but they are no longer the gatekeepers, because there are no gatekeepers, anywhere.

The administration has gone, the instructor’s role has evolved, now what happens to the classroom itself? In the context of a larger school facility, it may or may not be relevant. A classroom is clearly relevant if someone is learning engine repair, but perhaps not if learning calculus. The classroom in this fungible future of student administrators and evolved lecturers is any place where learning happens. If it can happen entirely online, that will be the classroom. If it requires substantial darshan with the instructor, it will have a physical local, which may or may not be a building dedicated to education. (It could, in many cases, simply be a field outdoors, again harkening back to 13th-century university practices.) At one end of the scale, students will be able work online with each other and with an lecturer to master material; at the other end, students will work closely with a mentor in a specialist classroom. This entire range of possibilities can be accommodated without much of the infrastructure we presently associate with educational institutions. The classroom will both implode – vanishing online – and explode – the world will become the classroom.

This, then, can already be predicted from current trends; once RateMyProfessors.com succeeded in destabilizing the institutional hierarchies in education, everything else became inevitable. Because this transformation lies mostly in the future, it is possible to shape these trends with actions taken in the present. In the worst case scenario, our educational institutions to not adjust to the pressures placed upon them by this new generation of students, and are simply swept aside by these students as they rise into self-empowerment. But the worst case need not be the only case. There are concrete steps which institutions can take to ease the transition from our highly formal present into our wildly informal future. In order to roll with the punches delivered by these newly-empowered students, educational institutions must become more fluid, more open, more atomic, and less interested the hallowed traditions of education than in outcomes.

III: All and Everything

Flexibility and fluidity are the hallmark qualities of the 21st century educational institution. An analysis of the atomic features of the educational process shows that the course is a series of readings, assignments and lectures that happen in a given room on a given schedule over a specific duration. In our drive to flexibility how can we reduce the class into to essential, indivisible elements? How can we capture those elements? Once captured, how can we get these elements to the students? And how can the students share elements which they’ve found in their own studies?

Recommendation #1: Capture Everything

I am constantly amazed that we simply do not record almost everything that occurs in public forums as a matter of course. This talk is being recorded for a later podcast – and so it should be. Not because my words are particularly worthy of preservation, but rather because this should now be standard operating procedure for education at all levels, for all subject areas. It simply makes no sense to waste my words – literally, pouring them away – when with very little infrastructure an audio recording can be made, and, with just a bit more infrastructure, a video recording can be made.

This is the basic idea that’s guiding Stanford and MIT: recording is cheap, lecturers are expensive, and students are forgetful. Somewhere in the middle these three trends meet around recorded media. Yes, a student at Stanford who misses a lecture can download and watch it later, and that’s a good thing. But it also means that any student, anywhere, can download the same lecture.

Yes, recording everything means you end up with a wealth of media that must be tracked, stored, archived, referenced and so forth. But that’s all to the good. Every one of these recordings has value, and the more recordings you have, the larger the horde you’re sitting upon. If you think of it like that – banking your work – the logic of capturing everything becomes immediately clear.

Recommendation #2: Share Everything

While education definitely has value – teachers are paid for the work – that does not mean that resources, once captured, should be tightly restricted to authorized users only. In fact, the opposite is the case: the resources you capture should be shared as broadly as can possibly be managed. More than just posting them onto a website (or YouTube or iTunes), you should trumpet their existence from the highest tower. These resources are your calling card, these resources are your recruiting tool. If someone comes across one of your lectures (or other resources) and is favorably impressed by it, how much more likely will they be to attend a class?

The center of this argument is simple, though subtle: the more something is shared, the more valuable it becomes. You extend your brand with every resource you share. You extend the knowledge of your institution throughout the Internet. Whatever you have – if it’s good enough – will bring people to your front door, first virtually, then physically.

If universities as illustrious (and expensive) as Stanford and MIT could both share their full courseware online, without worrying that it would dilute the value of the education they offer, how can any other institution hope to refute their example? Both voted with their feet, and both show a different way to value education – as experience. You can’t download experience. You can’t bottle it. Experience has to be lived, and that requires a teacher.

Recommendation #3: Open Everything

You will be approached by many vendors promising all sorts of wonderful things that will make the educational processes seamless and nearly magical for both educators and students. Don’t believe a word of it. (If I had a dollar for every gripe I’ve heard about Blackboard and WebCT, I’d be a very wealthy man.) There is no off-the-shelf tool that is perfectly equipped for every situation. Each tool tries to shoehorn an infinity of possibilities into a rather limited palette.

Rather than going for a commercial solution, I would advise you to look at the open-source solutions. Rather than buying a solution, use Moodle, the open-source, Australian answer to digital courseware. Going open means that as your needs change, the software can change to meet those needs. Given the extraordinary pressures education will be under over the next few years, openness is a necessary component of flexibility.

Openness is also about achieving a certain level of device-independence. Education happens everywhere, not just with your nose down in a book, or stuck into a computer screen. There are many screens today, and while the laptop screen may be the most familiar to educators, the mobile handset has a screen which is, in many ways, more vital. Many students will never be very computer literate, but every single one of them has a mobile handset, and every single one of them sends text messages. It’s the big of computer technology we nearly always overlook – because it is so commonplace. Consider every screen when you capture, and when you share; dealing with them all as equals will help you work find audiences you never suspected you’d have.

There is a third aspect of openness: open networks. Educators of every stripe throughout Australia are under enormous pressure to “clean” the network feeds available to students. This is as true for adult students as it is for educators who have a duty-of-care relationship with their students. Age makes no difference, apparently. The Web is big, bad, evil and must be tamed.

Yet net filtering throws the baby out with the bathwater. Services like Twitter get filtered out because they could potentially be disruptive, cutting students off from the amazing learning potential of social messaging. Facebook and MySpace are seen as time-wasters, rather than tools for organizing busy schedules. The list goes on: media sites are blocked because the schools don’t have enough bandwidth to support them; Wikipedia is blocked because teachers don’t want students cheating.

All of this has got to stop. The classroom does not exist in isolation, nor can it continue to exist in opposition to the Internet. Filtering, while providing a stopgap, only leaves students painfully aware of how disconnected the classroom is from the real world. Filtering makes the classroom less flexible and less responsive. Filtering is lazy.

Recommendation #4: Only Connect

Mind the maxim of the 21st century: connection is king. Students must be free to connect with instructors, almost at whim. This becomes difficult for instructors to manage, but it is vital. Mentorship has exploded out of the classroom and, through connectivity, entered everyday life. Students should also be able to freely connect with educational administration; a fruitful relationship will keep students actively engaged in the mechanics of their education.

Finally, students must be free to (and encouraged to) connect with their peers. Part of the reason we worry about lecturers being overburdened by all this connectivity is because we have yet to realize that this is a multi-lateral, multi-way affair. It’s not as though all questions and issues immediately rise to the instructor’s attention. This should happen if and only if another student can’t be found to address the issue. Students can instruct one another, can mentor one another, can teach one another. All of this happens already in every classroom; it’s long past time to provide the tools to accelerate this natural and effective form of education. Again, look to RateMyProfessors.com – it shows the value of “crowdsourced” learning.

Connection is expensive, not in dollars, but in time. But for all its drawbacks, connection enriches us enormously. It allows us to multiply our reach, and learn from the best. The challenge of connectivity is nowhere near as daunting as the capabilities it delivers. Yet we know already that everyone will be looking to maintain control and stability, even as everything everywhere becomes progressively reshaped by all this connectivity. We need to let go, we need to trust ourselves enough to recognize that what we have now, though it worked for a while, is no longer fit for the times. If we can do that, we can make this transition seamless and pleasant. So we must embrace sharing and openness and connectivity; in these there’s the fluidity we need for the future.

57 thoughts on “Fluid Learning

  1. [ This comment turned out longer than I expected, so will post it on my blog at http://ramblingonthisandthat.blogspot.com/ as well ]

    While I agree with the general message, Capture/Share/Open, I disagree with the examples in the article.

    RateMyProfessors is a good start, and anecdotes about how people use it is interesting, but it has a long long way to go before it comes close to being reliable let alone authoritative.

    Looking at a a couple of Universities:

    MIT — 13 CS professors rated, a total of 49 comments for CS professors. The most commented professors in all of MIT has only 36 comments. This is too low to be statistically accurate.

    Stanford — 33 CS professors rated, a total of 167 comments for CS professors. The most commented professors in all of Stanford has only 34 comments. Assuming each professor teaches a class of 30 every semester, these comments spread over the years is once again too small to be statistically relevant.

    University of South Alabama — This is currently the top rated university. The most commented professors in all of University of South Alabama has only 90 comments. It would be safe to assume that first year classes at University of South Alabama will have hundreds of students. The number of ratings is just too low to be meaningful.

    Randy Bott from Brigham Young University is the “Top Rated Professor”, but even he has only 197 ratings. Not sure how many students he teaches each semester, but this number is unlikely to be an accurate representation of the students’ assessment.

    While recording lectures has its uses, it does not change the basic process of learning. We have had books for a long time. What are books but compiled set of lectures, with pictures, comments, edited and improved over time. Lectures on the other hand vary immensely in quality as professors are prized for their research abilities and not necessarily for their oration. Lectures do not get practiced. Professors do not typically receive feedback on each of their performances. On top of all that, learning by listening is proved to be much harder than learning by reading. If you really want to learn something, you better stick to reading about it. Libraries have been sharing books long before youtube started video sharing.

    Connections are not just important, but they are essential. For connections to be valuable, we must have something to contribute to the group. Connections alone are not sufficient if everybody in the group is relying on each other to “know stuff”. Software industry has already discovered that you cannot replace 1 good programmer with 10 mediocre programmers. We are past the factory workers model. Connections are only meaningful when each individual has something to contribute.

  2. Fantastic post! I’ve been teaching at a university now for 2.5 years after 20 years in the “Corporate World”. The more I learn about academia, the more I see the challenges — and possibilities — for the future. This post is the perfect framework for trying to drive change. Your recommendations are heretical but absolutely correct. Thank you for helping me to crystallize my thoughts.

  3. Nice post. I agree with what you’re saying here. The changes will be many and they will be quite disruptive to traditional educational institutions, especially the ones that resist and try to insulate themselves from what’s coming.
    You might want to watch Clay Shirky’s TED talk, his PopTech talk, and read his book, if you haven’t already.
    I’m seriously thinking of hanging out my shingle and becoming an independent educational contractor with a virtual class instead of working in a traditional school. Still thinking of what the challenges might be.

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  5. C’mon Mark, the offer was made for YOU to start an aussie RMT, I really do believe you’d make friends if you did. (It IS still a joke)

    Many of your sentiments converge happily with last months ANZ Horizon report, SICTAS and Futurelabs learning report.
    I’ll mash them together and share, open, capture, connect what I believe into my future futures post.

    Love the chaos of our future, love your work.

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  7. The #1 rated teacher on the site lets students grade themselves. This does not surprise me. I think we have gone off the deep end empowering students.
    Nobody wants school to look like a Pink Floyd video with kids marching in lockstep out of fear, but websites like this do way more harm than good.
    Opening education up to market forces is a good thing when the market is a collection of people who want their children to get a great education (parents/guardians).
    Market forces are not a good thing when the market is a collection of people who want shorter, easier classes and more time to hang out (students).
    Kids need direction, they need authority and they need us to be adults.
    Sites like this put us in the same position as a corporation- at the complete mercy of the wants of the market. We are supposed to be guided by what students “need” (long term) not what they “want” (instant gratification).

    Sure these sites might help expose some people who don’t deserve to teach our kids, but we have a convenient way of ignoring the negatives that come through the door with the positives.

    This site creates an incentive for teachers to be popular. It creates an incentive for teachers to try to be friends with the students. That is wrong and we need more voices railing against the tide of pandering.

    Students need teachers, not suck-ups.

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  12. Really very interesting and thought provoking article that touches on many of the key points I try to make in my course. I have found that many of my students are so conditioned to the ‘old’, closed processes that I have to justify why I post class presentations on SlideShare, rather than on the ‘behind the firewall’ course management system. But things are changing, I am conversing with students on Facebook, Twitter, my blog much more than before, and in time I expect almost all electronic communications will happen that way.

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  14. If it can be rated, graded, or judged it will be. If that information can be archived it will be. If it can be accessed it will be. If it can be shared it will be. That is, as you point out, disruptive.

    All of those “if” are amplified through technology. Teachers that fail to see how to use and integrate technology do so at their own peril. Students will naturally be attracted to those teacher who do understand and integrate technology. Those students will be the ones who rate, grade, archive, access, and share.

    Teachers who are more able to connect through technology and integrate technology will naturally be viewed as better.

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  18. I read George’s comment with sadness. It does kids an injustice. Most kids don’t like a “soft” teacher. They want a fair deal. Think of your own school days- who were the teachers who inspired you – it wasn’t the guy who wanted to be your friend – it was the the guy who taught you with enthusiasm, knowledge and above all could communicate his ideas to you. Over 30 odd years ago I had my fair share of George’s type of teacher who stood at the front, expected you to copy and regurgitate his notes and try to beat the independence out of you if you dared to challenge his view of “his” subject. In effect they wanted “suck-ups” who passively sat there and respected them solely because they were adults. I also had knowledgeable, witty intelligent teachers who taught me to enjoy discovering new ideas, learning and discovery. They were not soft on discipline nor did they seek popularity – they were popular because they were good at their job- creating learners!

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  20. Creativity, connection, communication is 21st century technology at it’s best. If only I believed that the powers that be believed in this path.

    Control and fear of change are mighty hard things to overcome. Here’s hoping that the more this is discussed and out there, the easier the transition…

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  24. WOW!! Inspiring and full of depth, meaning, and truth. You so clearly write what was, what is, and what will be. Will our public education system of K-12 take note or fall to wayside reverting back to our 13th century ways of the “have” and “have nots”?

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  27. Bill, great post. I think there can be a significant difference between a highly qualified and highly effective teacher – but only because of how we measure. Too much of being “highly qualified” is paperwork rather than performance-based. Not that putting together a portfolio or demonstrating critical thinking and professional competencies are not relevant in written form – they are. But it must be so much more than that. Even attitude is perhaps more critical than any other attribute. A teacher with a strong desire to improve and connect with students is perhaps much more effective than one who is “highly qualified” yet fails to exhibit professional qualities, passion, drive, and a desire to make learning meaningful and relevant in the lives of their students.
    Measurement is tough and can be highly subjective, so we tend to measure what is easy and what can be objectively measured. There are so many problematic issues to deal with all the way from pre-service teacher admission to teacher’s college to performance evaluation toward tenure with in-service teachers. I think part of the problem is that we have become too large and “institutional” that we have lost the qualitative and personal attributes so important in teacher performance evaluation. “Quick & dirty” evaluation is perhaps efficient, but largely imperfect.

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  30. I came across this post via academhack (http://academhack.outsidethetext.com/home/), and I’m so glad I did!

    I’m a graduate student in an English department, and teach argumentative writing to first-year students. I am really interested in technology and the digital humanities in general, but I have found that actually integrating technology into the classroom has felt like an uphill battle. Writing instructors, all graduate students at my institution, get very little pedagogical instruction regarding technology – and I think many grad student instructors feel the “disruptions” caused by the computer much more strongly than they see its potential to share information and connect.

    Part of this anxiety about technology is because of the graduate student’s rather tenuous claim to “authority” in the first place; in my experience, graduate students, especially those new to teaching, don’t really feel qualified to be the authority in the room, yet the institutional message is clear that we ought to be. As the newest members of our respective disciplines, graduate students are in a strange position of trying to fit in with institutional standards and norms (to succeed as future faculty members) while also responding to the potential of technology and the fluid learning we – and our students – already participate in.

    Once again, I am thankful for blogs like this one that offer alternative spaces for both students and instructors to articulate ideas about evolving education, and learn more about the technological tools that will get us there.

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  35. Great article. I’ve found the principles here very valuable. Those looking for online content for tech/strategy courses (e.g. topics covered in this blog) are welcome to leverage the chapters / cases / podcasts / slides up at http://www.gallaugher.com/chapters. All open and free for non-commercial use. Comments welcome. Site provides a working example of many of the ideas listed above. Thanks & enjoy!

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  37. MTV and others? Sounds like the multinationals could potentially rate out any non-conformists who takes an independent stance against the university. If a university were to qualify a decision to renew a professors contract based off a for profit database, then what’s to stop the database principles from joining with multinational principles to cypher out unwanted outlooks. Sounds like a corruption scandal hovering in the background.

    How can ratemyprofessors.com become an evaluation criteria for an able and qualified professor to keep a classroom rapport?

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  39. Control is over? I don’t think so. Our ‘use of control’ has shifted to a bigger picture – that’s all. It’s no more about learning Math, English, take a computer class and go get a job. It’s about what teacher can navigate a student through and to the future of our world using the New Control we now have – THE COMPUTER.

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  46. This is a revolution!
    Our class has been speaking about this concept in our own university. We are slowly realizing that the strict authoritative control that our school tries to pull on is no longer as strong as once was. Even though we in this generation have been exposed to computers and networking our whole lives we still find this transition difficult. We are the generation with one foot in each door: hierarchy & autonomy and we find comfort in hierarchy but are also enthralled at the idea of running the show. That’s why we use tools such as ratemyprofessor so we can decide what teachers we want to teach us, i mean we are paying for it!! We’re paying loads for it so we deserve make the choice. We are slowly realizing the value that autonomy has to offer us and we are going full speed ahead toward the mulitiple freedoms that networking offers us. A good example is the social networking tool facebook. Everyone in our class has and uses a facebook. With this tool, we are able to share and connect ideas and information very quickly and efficiently. Not to mention anywhere we have a computer with internet access. This concept of Fluid Learning hits home for not only our class but our university and universities all over the world. It becomes more apparent everyday that we are moving towards autonomy in the classroom. Down with control!

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