“From Knowledgable to Knowledge-able: Building New Learning Environments for New Media Environments,” a keynote speech by Michael Wesch. Caveat: I am not a good notes-taker, but this talk inspired me to take more notes than the  one to two sentences that is my norm. Michael Wesch is not only a powerful speaker, he speaks with clarity about things that a lot of people in education think is complex (well, they kind of are…) and not something they could do (actually they can, and that was pretty much his point). His gift is that he gets it across that yes, they can do it, and that they should do it. The presentation is now available to view, but if you would prefer notes, here they are.

His first point was what he called a clear point: Most good learning begins with a great question. Of course most students are not taught to do this…so how can we as teachers avoid the dreadful questions that we all will get on the first day of class next week, questions like “How many points is that worth?’ or How many pages does that need to be?” As Wesch observes and I easily agree, as a teacher, it is hard to inspire great questions.

It was clear from the photos that Wesch teaches a fair number of undergrad large lecture hall classes. Large classes are tough. Input from the students can be limited and the limited time per student can mean superficial questions. Wesch points out that the bad questions are not their fault–it’s not them. At their core, they ARE seeking meaning, recognition, and want the answers to the big questions that will influence their lives. So, how can this happen?

As a Computers and Writing person in an English department rather than the Cultural Anthropology that is Wesch’s specialty, my first though is that the answer is interconnectivity and basically, webbed learning rather than top-down learning.  Wesch points out that even in that huge classroom, there is a big screen with a video projector that has internet access. Access is the key– as he says, “there’s something in the air”…access, easy access to the body of human knowledge. Education and really, communication is moving towards…connectivity, easy communication….a networked society. A new logic, a network logic rather than hierarchical.

The disengaged questions students ask such as how many points is that worth, need to be replaced with the ability to individually FIND knowledge and ask really good questions.

Wesch then took a side-trip to the dis-connectedness of his main real-world scholarly area of Papua New Guinea. He gives a literacy example. For the first written census, the New Guineans had to invent names for people that could actualy be written down, a shift due to new media, the new media being writing. Another mediated change: Disputes used to be dealt with face-to-face in the village square, but the onset of written law led to courts. Power began to reside in the literate, usually men. Shifts in identity, relationships, power, all due to new media.

Next, a move back to the U.S. with a look at TV. Have things changed because of TV? Of course. On the physical level, American homes arrange furniture differently and there are special media-room furniture designs. We are used to 30 second commercial when conversation can happen. In other words, the media talks, the audience is passive. A one-way conversation. Reality TV is most likely a way for everyday people to be in this one way conversation. The search for identity and recognition goes on, even in a top-down medium. Now.. .what happens when information and communication is webbed instead? To answer, Wesch gives a look at several collaborative YouTube projects.

So, the need for critical thinking is important, but is just a first step in the road to knowledge-ability (knowing how to manipulate and even create knowledge). The digital environment is about finding the material as well as understanding the material. They (students) have to discern the real sites from the faux. They have to assess value and identity. Media literacy. Insight, technical ability, both lend greater discernment.

Maxine Greene, the social imagination. “The capacity to invent visions of what should be and could be in our deficient society.”

Viral motion with news, both from traditional media and everyday people, in fact, the everyday people may have the edge when it comes to the very newest thing within their interests.

Know that knowledge-ability is more than critical thinking or being able to find things. It includes the ability to create digitally and share, even using that ability to be good digital citizens. In conjunction with that idea, he gave a 3-minute how to edit video primer. Dead easy. Used the Dove video on YouTube. Downloaded as mp4. Downloaded another video, then let the mashup begin. He mixed one’s soundtrack with the other’s video using iMovie, to good effect.. Free and easy to do with iMovie, whether desktop, laptop, iPad, or smartphone. With that in mind, clearly the tech is now easy, but telling a good story, making it relevant and good– that is still hard and something we as writing/ new media teachers can teach students. They also may not have the tech skills some think they do, despite the perception that they do.

Instead of big media, we now (potentially) have OUR media, if only we take up the spaces and the literacy.

As teachers, when it comes right down to it we don’t want to teach followers. We want active learners. By incorporating collaborative media, students are part of the learning process instead of passive learners.

Example: He passed a video camera around the very large classroom and had each student film. A good object lesson for an overly large lecture class.

In short, “what walls say” (the walled classroom without connectivity):

  • To learn is to acquire info
  • Info is scarce
  • Trust authority to give good info

Gee. he had more, but I wasn’t fast enough. He did say something very witty about Powerpoint and its reductive top-down nature, but in essence here is what he concluded with:

  • This could be the age of the great digital citizen, a chance for an empowered voice for our students. Global collaborations possible.
  • In digital collaboration, one person gives their voice, another adds theirs, the another,then another, until a great collaboration exists.
  • His vision for our students: find their voice and embrace and engage with the world.
  •  Knowledge-ability is a practice.


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