Revisiting “A Vision of Students Today”

(originally published on Britannica Blog)

In spring 2007 I invited the 200 students enrolled in the “small” version of my “Introduction to Cultural Anthropology” class to tell the world what they think of their education by helping me write a script for a video to be posted on YouTube. The result was the disheartening portrayal of disengagement you see below. The video was viewed over one million times in its first month and was the most blogged about video in the blogosphere for several weeks, eliciting thousands of comments. With rare exception, educators around the world expressed the sad sense of profound identification with the scene, sparking a wide-ranging debate about the roles and responsibilities of teachers, students, and technology in the classroom.


Despite my role in the production of the video, and the thousands of comments supporting it, I recently came to view the video with a sense of uneasiness and even incredulity. Surely it can’t be as bad as the video seems to suggest, I thought. I started wrestling with these doubts over the summer as I fondly recalled the powerful learning experiences I had shared with my students the previous year. By the end of the summer I had become convinced that the video was over the top, that things were really not so bad, that the system is not as broken as I thought, and we should all just stop worrying and get on with our teaching.But when I walked into my classroom for the first day of school two weeks ago I was immediately reminded of the real problem now facing education. The problem is not just “written on the walls.” It’s built into them.

I arrived early, finding 493 empty numbered chairs sitting mindlessly fixated on the front of the room. A 600 square foot screen stared back at them. Hundreds of students would soon fill the chairs, but the carefully designed sound-absorbing walls and ceiling, along with state of the art embedded speakers, ensured that there would only be one person in this room to be heard. That person would be me, pacing around somewhere near stage-left, ducking intermittently behind a small podium housing a computer with a wireless gyromouse that will grant me control of some 786,432 points of light on that massive screen.

The room is nothing less than a state of the art information dump, a physical manifestation of the all too pervasive yet narrow and naïve assumption that to learn is simply to acquire information, built for teachers to effectively carry out the relatively simple task of conveying information. Its sheer size, layout, and technology are testaments to the efficiency and expediency with which we can now provide students with their required credit hours.

My class is popular. We only enroll 400 so there should have been plenty of seats but on the first day all seats were filled and it was standing room only in the back. The room was buzzing with energy as friends reconnected after the long summer.

I started talking and an almost deafening silence greeted my first words. I have always been amazed and intimidated by this silence. It seems to so tenuously await my next words. The silence is immediately filled with the more subtle yet powerful messages sent by 500 sets of eyes which I continuously scan, “listening” to what they have to say as I talk. In an instant those eyes can turn from wonder and excitement to the disheartening glaze of universal and irreversible disengagement. Perpetually dreading this glaze I nervously pace as I talk and use grandiose gestures. At times I feel desperate for their attention. I rush to amuse them with jokes and stories as I swing, twist, and swirl that gyromouse, directing the 786,432 pixels dancing points of light behind me, hoping to dazzle them with a multi-media extravaganza.

Somehow I seem to hold their attention for the full hour. I marvel at what a remarkable achievement it is to bring hundreds of otherwise expressive, exuberant, and often rebellious youths into a single room and have them sit quietly in straight rows while they listen to the authority with the microphone. Such an achievement could not be won by an eager teacher armed with technology alone. It has taken years of acclimatizing our youth to stale artificial environments, piles of propaganda convincing them that what goes on inside these environments is of immense importance, and a steady hand of discipline should they ever start to question it. Alfred North Whitehead called it “soul murder.”

The “getting by” game.

Reports from my teaching assistants sitting in the back of the room tell a different story. Apparently, several students standing in the back cranked up their iPods as I started to lecture and never turned them off, sometimes even breaking out into dance. My lecture could barely be heard nearby as the sound-absorbing panels and state of the art speakers were apparently no match for those blaring iPods. Scanning the room my assistants also saw students cruising Facebook, instant messaging, and texting their friends. The students were undoubtedly engaged, just not with me.

My teaching assistants consoled me by noting that students have learned that they can “get by” without paying attention in their classes. Perhaps feeling a bit encouraged by my look of incredulity, my TA’s continued with a long list of other activities students have learned that they can “get by” without doing. Studying, taking notes, reading the textbook, and coming to class topped the list. It wasn’t the list that impressed me. It was the unquestioned assumption that “getting by” is the name of the game. Our students are so alienated by education that they are trying to sneak right past it.

If you think this little game is unfair to those students who have been duped into playing, consider those who have somehow managed to maintain their inherent desire to learn. One of the most thoughtful and engaged students I have ever met recently confronted a professor about the nuances of some questions on a multiple choice exam. The professor politely explained to the student that he was “overthinking” the questions. What kind of environment is this in which “overthinking” is a problem? Apparently he would have been better off just playing along with the “getting by” game.

Last spring I asked my students how many of them did not like school. Over half of them rose their hands. When I asked how many of them did not like learning, no hands were raised. I have tried this with faculty and get similar results. Last year’s U.S. Professor of the Year, Chris Sorensen, began his acceptance speech by announcing, “I hate school.” The crowd, made up largely of other outstanding faculty, overwhelmingly agreed. And yet he went on to speak with passionate conviction about his love of learning and the desire to spread that love. And there’s the rub. We love learning. We hate school. What’s worse is that many of us hate school because we love learning.

What went wrong?

How did institutions designed for learning become so widely hated by people who love learning?

The video seemed to represent what so many were already feeling, and it became the focal point for many theories. While some simply blamed the problems on the students themselves, others recognized a broader pattern. Most blamed technology, though for very different reasons. Some simply suggested that new technologies are too distracting and superficial and that they should be banned from the classroom. Others suggested that students are now “wired” differently. Created in the image of these technologies, luddites imagine students to be distracted and superficial while techno-optimists see a new generation of hyper-thinkers bored with old school ways.

But the problems are not new. They are the same as those identified by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner nearly 40 years ago when they described the plight of “totally alienated students” involved in a cheating scandal (a true art form in the “getting by” game) and asked, “What kind of vicious game is being played here, and who are the sinners and who the sinned against?” (1969:51).

Texting, web-surfing, and iPods are just new versions of passing notes in class, reading novels under the desk, and surreptitiously listening to Walkmans. They are not the problem. They are just the new forms in which we see it. Fortunately, they allow us to see the problem in a new way, and more clearly than ever, if we are willing to pay attention to what they are really saying.

They tell us, first of all, that despite appearances, our classrooms have been fundamentally changed. There is literally something in the air, and it is nothing less than the digital artifacts of over one billion people and computers networked together collectively producing over 2,000 gigabytes of new information per second. While most of our classrooms were built under the assumption that information is scarce and hard to find, nearly the entire body of human knowledge now flows through and around these rooms in one form or another, ready to be accessed by laptops, cellphones, and iPods. Classrooms built to re-enforce the top-down authoritative knowledge of the teacher are now enveloped by a cloud of ubiquitous digital information where knowledge is made, not found, and authority is continuously negotiated through discussion and participation. In short, they tell us that our walls no longer mark the boundaries of our classrooms.

And that’s what has been wrong all along. Some time ago we started taking our walls too seriously – not just the walls of our classrooms, but also the metaphorical walls that we have constructed around our “subjects,” “disciplines,” and “courses.” McLuhan’s statement about the bewildered child confronting “the education establishment where information is scarce but ordered and structured by fragmented, classified patterns, subjects, and schedules” still holds true in most classrooms today. The walls have become so prominent that they are even reflected in our language, so that today there is something called “the real world” which is foreign and set apart from our schools. When somebody asks a question that seems irrelevant to this real world, we say that it is “merely academic.”

Not surprisingly, our students struggle to find meaning and significance inside these walls. They tune out of class, and log on to Facebook.

The solution.

Fortunately, the solution is simple. We don’t have to tear the walls down. We just have to stop pretending that the walls separate us from the world, and begin working with students in the pursuit of answers to real and relevant questions.

When we do that we can stop denying the fact that we are enveloped in a cloud of ubiquitous digital information where the nature and dynamics of knowledge have shifted. We can acknowledge that most of our students have powerful devices on them that give them instant and constant access to this cloud (including almost any answer to almost any multiple choice question you can imagine). We can welcome laptops, cell phones, and iPods into our classrooms, not as distractions, but as powerful learning technologies. We can use them in ways that empower and engage students in real world problems and activities, leveraging the enormous potentials of the digital media environment that now surrounds us. In the process, we allow students to develop much-needed skills in navigating and harnessing this new media environment, including the wisdom to know when to turn it off. When students are engaged in projects that are meaningful and important to them, and that make them feel meaningful and important, they will enthusiastically turn off their cellphones and laptops to grapple with the most difficult texts and take on the most rigorous tasks.

There are many faculty around the world who have enthusiastically embraced the challenge to bring meaning and significance back into the classroom. I hope that they will comment here and enrich us all with their ideas. If you are interested in the specifics of how I attempt to solve the significance problem in the large class featured in the video and discussed in this post, check out the World Simulation, a project in which students explore the dynamics of how the world works in order to create a simulation recreating the past 500 years of history and exploring 100 years into the future. I discuss the project and my use of technology in detail in A Portal to Media Literacy, available on YouTube, and in the essay, “Anti-Teaching: Confronting the Crisis of Significance.”

Wesch

Associate professor of cultural anthropology. Ed Traceur. Hacker. Car-free.

You may also like...

62 Responses

  1. Filomena Barbosa says:

    Professor Wesch,

    The new generations have grown up and they have been surrounded by the new technologies. The arrival and the rapid dissemination of digital technologies demand a new learning system process, through which the youth are able to find information and create a new more in a more critical and creative way, as technologies are integrated parts of their lives.
    Thinking patterns have changed and it´s high time teachers and educators stopped the old methods and techniques of teaching. They should enable students with a more significant and challenging learning. In spite of encouraging students to use technology, schools don´t allow them to use it as a natural process of learning. Instead of seizing the huge potential of the new technologies towards more meaningful experiences for the students, teachers still avoid using them in their classes. What are they waiting for?

    Filomena Barbosa, Hugo Domingos and Sérgio Lagoa.
    Students of a Master degree in E-Learning Pedagogy, in Universidade Aberta

  2. Dear Professor Wesch,

    If students learn by doing then what are they learning sitting here? The first sentence in this video, writing on the desk, shows not only the wisdom of the students but also their wish for the change. To change to a learning environment in which knowledge isn’t passed downwards in a hierarchy where the teacher stands on the top of the pyramid rather than to a model in which the knowledge is being built based on the available information, using technological means and the nets that those means make available.

    Technology, the Internet, the social networks are part of our daily modern society and we cannot go back. To deny, not to mention or even not to take advantage of this fact the quickest way possible, it is to deny the evolution of society itself.

    In this video it is curious to see how the students while presenting their own view about their future (taking into consideration their present reality in the classroom) become aware of the problems that the world is going through – unemployment, poverty and wars.

    Kisses and hugs

    Carla Cardoso and Rui Páscoa, master’s degree students in E-Learning Pedagogy, Universidade Aberta, Portugal

  3. Nathalie Ferret says:

    Dear Professor Wesch,

    This video is upstanding. Thank you.

    Many teachers and education institutions, still grasp to inadequate pedagogical models and learning designs. We/they continue to attach to our/ their status quo and to a teaching comfort zone, forgetting the essential: technology has changed the context of learning, among other things, and the learning center is the learner not the teacher (it has always been but…).

    The learners-persona expectations, goals, needs, language, connections, skills or difficulties have changed, regardless the obstinate maintenance of rigid, depersonalized and hierarchic structures of a lot of educational institutions (especially of the university/high level). Listening to (knowing how and what to listen) what students have to say is, again, crucial to understand witch pedagogical paths can be created or recreated, integrating positively the huge influence of technology in our lives, interactions and ways of thinking and learning.

    Nevertheless, questions remain, mainly for economical and political reasons: What will the future of educational institutions be? What will happen to teachers that cannot follow or adapt to the changes? Meanwhile, “educators” are practicing within hybrid pedagogical models and coexisting teaching-learning designs.

    Best regards, of a group of students taking an online Master Course on E-Learning Pedagogy at Universidade Aberta, in Portugal,

    Manuel Lousa
    Nathalie Ferret
    Pedro Vargas

  4. Laura Ramos says:

    Professor Wesch,
    I remember watching this video a few years ago, not sure how many. I know I wasn’t a graduate student anymore, but your video reassured me that I wasn’t wrong about my contradictory feelings about the school system. I don’t repent my years as a student, but the truth is that if I hadn’t broken down the walls, I would be a less knowledgeable (and knowledge-able) person today.

    The Internet first and mobile connectivity after have aggravated the gap, as now students don’t even bother to conceal their disinterest in a school system and educational culture created in the standardizing Industrial Era, based on the possibilities created by the Gutenberg Revolution, as information had been made available in a multitude of written media accessible by various manners.

    Education as an institution has become too rigid, strict and complex as to flexibly adjust to society’s needs. The syllabuses remain the same year after year and professors aren’t given the liberty to go off the rails (would some of them go off track even if they could?), in a redundant cycle that today’s youth is exposing just by living accordingly to their era.

    Apart from the technological references, wouldn’t these be the same feelings of students’ decades ago? As Norbert Weiner wrote in The Human Use of Human Beings, “we have modified our environment so radically that we must now modify ourselves in order to exist in this new environment”. Students have modified themselves. What have educational institutions been waiting for?

    There are positive and negative aspects about technology today, but one of the positive is that through a generic ever-growing negative impact on the Student-School relationship, it will force a long-time acclaimed change to happen (hopefully the consequences of that change will be positive as well).

    Laura Ramos
    Master’s student on E-learning Pedagogy, Universidade Aberta – Portugal

  5. Adelaide Dias says:

    This video aims to alert for the new generation of students and the absolute need to change the educational paradigms, especially in higher education, starting from their own expression of their needs, desires and expectations. We emphasize that, the use of technology by students, allows us to easily be aware of their “thinking” when showing their concern in terms of their future.
    There are some relevant phrases that students show in particular: “when I graduate I’ll have a job probably that does not exist today.” This reality has been seen since several years now and it is indicative of the influence that technology has on the evolution of society, in which in a space of just over a decade, the professions for which students are being preparred, cease to exist, emerging new ones.
    The idea of multitasking student is also very well portrayed here through a very interesting accounting of hours, clearly demonstrating the new abilities and ways of functioning that students have at their disposal and (almost always) so nicely take advantage of. But does multitasking have advantages? On the one hand yes, it allows managing time, getting MORE results. On the other hand, no. There is a huge dispersion of attention, which in some cases can mean LITTLE quality. We must be selective so we can decide whether we can / should be multitasking (woman / wife / mother is the perfect representation) or we should not be multitasking (indiscriminate use of mobile phones by students in the classroom without permission).
    Moreover, as today’s youngsters have already been born in the age of technology and are so familiar with it, it allows them to contribute with capital gains and improvements in education.

    Adelaide Dias
    Master’s student on E-learning Pedagogy, Universidade Aberta – Portugal

  6. Adelaide Dias, Alberto Cardos, Cristina Neto says:

    Dear professor Wesch,
    We’re a group of Students of a master Degree on Elearning Pedagogy, from Open University, Portugal.
    In one of our courses, we were asked to make some statements about some of your videos. Therefore, here are our comments:
    This video aims to alert for the new generation of students and the absolute need to change the educational paradigms, especially in higher education, starting from their own expression of their needs, desires and expectations. We emphasize that, the use of technology by students, allows us to easily be aware of their “thinking” when showing their concern in terms of their future.
    There are some relevant phrases that students show in particular: “when I graduate I’ll have a job probably that does not exist today.” This reality has been seen since several years now and it is indicative of the influence that technology has on the evolution of society, in which in a space of just over a decade, the professions for which students are being preparred, cease to exist, emerging new ones.
    The idea of multitasking student is also very well portrayed here through a very interesting accounting of hours, clearly demonstrating the new abilities and ways of functioning that students have at their disposal and (almost always) so nicely take advantage of. But does multitasking have advantages? On the one hand yes, it allows managing time, getting MORE results. On the other hand, no. There is a huge dispersion of attention, which in some cases can mean LITTLE quality. We must be selective so we can decide whether we can / should be multitasking (woman / wife / mother is the perfect representation) or we should not be multitasking (indiscriminate use of mobile phones by students in the classroom without permission).
    Moreover, as today’s youngsters have already been born in the age of technology and are so familiar with it, it allows them to contribute with capital gains and improvements in education.

    Best regards from Teta team, Adelaide Dias, Alberto Cardoso e Cristina Neto

  7. Adelaide Dias, Alberto Cardoso, Cristina Neto says:

    Can you please disregard first comment?
    Our names were missing, sorry
    Thank you

  8. Mara Lúcia Cristian, João Pedro Bourbon, João Henriques says:

    Professor Wesch,

    Based on the study presented in the video “A vision of students today” we can, easily, conclude that something is not right in the present educational system. It is a system that consumes many financial resources and students do not find it minimally attractive. In conventional educational system, the relation between invested money, time spent and acquired learning, is not satisfactory. Is Urgent to give a greater emphasis to the Information and communications technology and how they are used in education and training. The technology put at our disposal equipment and structures with great potential for the development of the educational system. I think that there is, however, a certain resistance imposed by the decision makers, who still does not take full advantage of this technology.

    Best regards

    Mara Lúcia Cristian
    João Pedro Bourbon
    João Henriques

    Master’s students on E-learning Pedagogy, Universidade Aberta – Portugal

  9. The world has changed, but educations mostly seems to have forgotten that, living a life of its own. The same materials, methods, the same paradigm of earlier centuries is still the one used in most of the classrooms everywhere, with such fiercely stubbornness that it is driving schools further away from the direction of society than ever. Young people who were born immersed in the new networked model of society, of information everywhere, mediated by technological tools, are truly amazed how different life is inside and outside schools and classrooms, and how anacronic they are. Young people don’t see teachers and schools as masters of knowledge, since they are familiar with lots of places where that same knowledge can be accessed, and don’t feel comfortable not being able to use their own knowledge of every day life in school, because those realities are getting so far apart one from another. They (and their parents) don’t understand why do they have to buy expensive textbooks if the same information is available for free on the internet, and are increasingly unhappy with a system they deem boring and uninteresting. What is the role of schools in an era where they are not the sole possessors of knowledge and information? Are they going to continue ignoring the challenges of the new society and drift to become ivory towers or, instead, adapt and become part of the global network of knowledge?

    João Henriques
    João Pedro Bourbon
    Mara Lúcia Cristan

  10. In his approach in Digital Ethnography, Professor Michael Wesch researched communities on YouTube, one of his videos – The Machine Us / Ing Us, which was released in January 2007, is rated as one of the most watched ever. Analyzing the selected videos from communities, Welch concluded that people seek to share their videos on authenticity and originality, that is exactly what contemporary society denies them in everyday life.
    What the anthropologist puts in evidence is that the digital revolution that is spreading around the world, brings with it new ways of being and interacting with the world, with objects, with people, with institutions, in effect creating new forms of sociability , feelings of sharing, solidarity and void, in part, cultural and geographic barriers.
    Recognizing that technologies take the old maxim of McLuhan, that the medium is the message, makes clear a change of customs, habits, the way of being of the people, steeped in the social interaction motivated by values ??contrary to what society behaves, whether: isolation and a collective identity and metamorphosed by the passivity.

    Assuming that the networks almost assume that the format of neural synapses, the Internet allows a symbiosis between its participants, the usefulness of hypertext causes the machine to be permanently powered, constituting a “collective consciousness” where the reader becomes also producer of knowledge, the active role of producing knowledge and generating new interactions. Behold, then, the key point: the message is no longer monolithic, passivity disappears, which, in short, allows feeds and exponential growth of information and knowledge.

    Mara Lucia cristan, João Pedro Bourbon, João Henriques/Equipa Lamgda

  11. The natural resistance of the traditional school as an institution to change, since this is slow in following the trends of contemporary society. The school is regarded by students anachronistic today as a space that has little to do with your reality. The lesson today is not much different than it was hundreds of years ago, the knowledge is transmitted in an organized, compartmentalized, masterful, the student remains in most cases, the passive recipient of information, an approach far from reality outside the walls classroom, where information and knowledge are available to those who actively seek. Formal education is (as always, by the way) in crisis, but it was never as pronounced as now. The difficulty in accepting and adapting new forms of knowledge, information and communication technologies effectively and bring the contemporary experience of the student who is expected to lead to some discredit and even contempt. It does not offer an effective response, becoming increasingly irrelevant, consuming financial and human resources and poor results. How the school can not change society, society will have to change the school, forcing her to a necessary adaptation.

  12. Please Teacher Wesch, consider the last comment, as prepared by members of the Lambda Team: Mara Lucia Cristan, João Pedro Bourbon and John Henriques.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>