Reading is a solitary experience. Learning isn’t.

7 10 2011

For all the nasty things I’ve written about Kindles recently, at least the old version of the device allowed for reading the way it was intended to be: start at the beginning, end at the end. But as Nick Carr explains in a post entitled “Whose book is it, anyway?”, Amazon is trying to take readers to a point where reading itself will change:

In one sense, X-Ray expands a feature that has been common in early ebook readers: the ability to call up a dictionary definition of a word. But X-Ray goes much further, both in augmenting the author’s original text and in integrating the additions into the reading experience. Some may see the additions as enhancements, others as irritants, but whether good or bad they represent an editorial intrusion into the contents of a book by a third party – a retailer, in this case. As such, they exist, I think it’s fair to say, in an ethical and perhaps legal gray area. That seems particularly true of novels, where the addition of descriptions of characters and other fictional elements would seem to intrude very much into the author’s realm. (I have to think X-Ray will make a lot of novelists nervous.) The fact that the supplementary text is sold along with the actual text makes the intrusion all the starker.

I’m not a novelist, but I sympathize. Luckily, my publisher has given me the option of putting the links in the e-text of my next book at the end of the chapters so that they can be more supplemental than distracting. However, if I wasn’t adverse to assigning my own text for class, I’d definitely mandate the paper edition because I want students to learn the context of a book from the discussion rather than from Amazon’s hijacked version of Wikipedia because explaining it is my job, not their’s.

Not coincidentally, I think this same dynamic applies to the issue of online education. That Bill Keller column has led to a whole bunch of good comments about this subject, but this point from Kevin Drum is the one that I’ve seen that’s most useful:

Professors lecturing in front of whiteboards may not seem very whiz bang in the era of Facebook, but the medium is definitely not the message here. Aside from the social virtues of a physical college campus, its real virtue is that it sets up a commitment structure: you feel obligated to go to class, and once you’re in class you feel obligated to do the homework, etc. Even at that lots of students don’t go to class and don’t do the homework, but lots do. But if you’re studying online, you have to self-motivate at a much higher level. And it’s a level that, frankly, most of us just aren’t capable of.

In other words, the professor is the one who stands behind you (in the metaphorical sense) who can make sure you do the reading. He or she is also the one who stands behind you who can make sure that you understand the book. Multiple-choice content reading tests can tell you some things if the questions are well-designed. Yet I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard students complain after reading tests that they’ve read the book but couldn’t answer my questions. Discussing the book, on the other hand, can offer a very accurate picture of what students know. Assigning a paper on the book will pretty much guarantee it.

Reading is a solitary experience. Analyzing books (if you don’t have an advanced degree and oftentimes even if you do) is a group experience, hence the existence of book clubs. While this piece from IHE by a guy who John Fea approves of covers online education, I think it applies to books too:

Learning, like religion, is a social experience. Context matters. No matter how much we might learn about God and our obligations from the Web, it is by going to church and being surrounded by other congregants engaged in similar questions, under the guidance of a thoughtful, caring pastor, that we really change. Conversion is social, and so is learning.

If these kinds of conversations are going to work, everyone has to be on the same page at the same time. They won’t work in a situation where people are going to school in their pajamas at different times. They won’t work either in a situation where everyone is surfing the web when they’re supposed to be reading along with the professor.


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