March 29th, 2010
GigaOM had a good overview of the newspaper industry over the weekend, and it reminded me of current conversation in the education world around transformation. After running through the litany of problems and declining revenues facing this traditional media segment, the article pointed to the industry’s general response.
So what are newspapers doing about it? Well, the main thing they seem to be doing is putting up walls. The Times of London said it will soon charge users for access to its web sites at the rate of 1 pound ($1.49) for a day and 2 pounds for a week under the mistaken impression that the way to determine the value of something is to put a price on it (the only way, of course, is to find someone willing to buy it). Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal is turning to new technologies such as the Apple iPad — but is taking a distinctly old-school approach to the new device, saying it’s planning to charge $17.99 a month for the newspaper on the iPad (this interesting fact appeared at the very bottom of a story in the Journal itself, quoting someone described as “a person familiar with the matter”).
The newspaper industry has seen the media revolution happening in front of its eyes, yet has not been able to react or adapt quickly enough to take advantage. Why? My personal sense is that, because the revolution did not speak the same language as the traditional media industry, newspapers just didn’t take it seriously. I’m not saying that newspapers couldn’t understand the language of the media revolution, but rather that they did understand but chose to ignore it because the language seemed too radical or different from the familiar. It didn’t make sense in terms of their own language and world view, so they rejected its relevance.
As a person who has spent a significant portion of his professional career focused on language learning and inter-cultural communication, I have witnessed and experienced this phenomenon many times. I have watched as the words of outsiders or non-native speakers were viewed with mistrust or disbelief because they were not spoken by an insider or native speaker. Such encounters normally resolve themselves with one of the following outcomes:
- The native culture group rejects the foreign culture group outright and does not allow any relationship to occur, be it linguistic, cultural, or ideological.
- The native speakers develop close relationships with the non-native speakers and develop enough interpersonal trust to overcome linguistic and cultural differences. This does not guarantee the acceptance of foreign ideas but it certainly leads to having those ideas listened to and taken seriously. In this outcome, a lack of linguistic and cultural affinity is counterbalanced by interpersonal relationships.
- A significant number of native speakers take the time to learn the language and culture of the outsiders and then translate the new ideas to others within the native culture group. The acceptance of the new ideas in this scenario is dependent on the status or acceptance of the native speakers who are representing the ideas within their group.
This acceptance based on culture and language strikes me as particularly relevant as I watch reactions to Anya Kamenetz’s ideas from her upcoming book, Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. She lists some of her basic ideas in this Inside Higher Ed article, pointing to the broad decline of the university system and its inevitable transformation through open courseware, technology, and personal learning networks. While I definitely think Ms. Kamenetz has some valid ideas that are worth reading and considering, what I think is most important is how those within education react to her ideas. She is an outsider after all, and it is worth examining the effort made by those in the native culture she discusses to understand her and the revolution she describes (see early examples from Tony Bates and Michael Feldstein).
What also strikes me as important in any discussion about revolutionary change is the basic human tendency to argue with the inevitable. I’m not suggesting that the revolution Ms. Kamenetz describes is our unavoidable destiny, but other, more tangible changes in education definitely are. We will, for example, see a fairly complete transition to digital textbooks in the coming decade. We will also see a radical change in the actual design and makeup of textbooks. With those changes, as with others, the position we should take is not one of denial or of questioning how this could possibly happen given the way we have been doing things. Rather, we should accept and embrace such changes as inevitable and determine how we can adapt to the coming evolution(s) in the most positive manner possible.
There are certainly changes, and radical ones, coming to education. My question is whether we will be like the newspaper industry that has seen the media revolution happening in front of its eyes, yet has not been able to react or adapt quickly enough to take advantage. Ultimately, I hope we will take the time to understand the language of educational revolution and accept or reject it based on the merit of the ideas themselves and not with regards to how well they align with our own language and thinking.
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