I heard an interesting interview with Clay Shirky on CBC’s Spark last week. Shirky is the author of the book Here Comes Everybody, and one of the many ideas he puts forth is that of cognitive surplus. In a nutshell, he proposes that in the past half century, leisure time has increased to such an extent that people now have a surplus of cognitive resources on their hands – that is, they not only have brains, but they now have time and energy to use that brain on things other than making ends meet. Unfortunately, says Shirky, this increase in leisure time and cognitive surplus coincided with the invention of television – and so for the past fifty years the cognitive surplus of hundreds of millions of people has been devoted to the passive consumption of I Love Lucy, Happy Days, Law and Order, American Idol, and so on. Even watching ostensibly “high brow” television shows like Charlie Rose, Meet the Press, and the nightly news is, according to Shirky, merely a form of passive consumption.
Shirky is excited, however, by the opportunities afforded by Web 2.0, specifically the fact that the Internet now allows people to not just consume, but also to create and share. That is, the Internet has become a medium where people can re-direct their cognitive surplus toward more active and social ends. A case in point is Wikipedia, which has come into being as hundreds of thousands of people have devoted their cognitive surplus towards writing, revising, debating, and sharing encyclopaedia articles. Flickr, the photo sharing site which now houses over a billion user-uploaded pictures, is another example of people using their cognitive surplus to create and disseminate, rather than just staring at a TV screen. Likewise, whatever you think of Facebook, you have to admit that a student who is sharing photos and updating their status is doing sometime more active and social than another student who is watching So You Think You Can Dance. Ditto with web services like Twitter.
Now, if I had the chance, there’s a few questions that I would like to put to Shirky, such as what does he think of books. After all, isn’t reading – like TV – a merely passive form consumption? Still, what I like about Shirky’s argument is how it parallels what is happening in university courses: that is, there’s a shift from envisioning learning as a form of passive consumption – the old “filling the vessel” paradigm, with students sitting in a classroom listening to lectures – to recognizing that good learning needs to be (at least in part) active and social. Students need to make things and share them with their peers. The things they make and share might be physical – like posters or diagrams or a circuit board – but they might also be conceptual, such as ideas, perspectives, in-class questions, feedback provided to a fellow student, a contribution to a discussion forum, and so on. This is happening in hundreds of courses at the UW to an extent that wasn’t happening twenty years ago. Instructors of even very large courses – ones with several hundred students – are finding ways to use new learning technologies to facilitate a deployment of student’s cognitive resources that is both active and social. In short, a student’s university experience is becoming less like watching a series of educational TV shows (AKA lectures), and more like participating in the great conversation that is Web 2.0.