Internet reduces need for experts. Where does this leave professors?

Posted October 23, 2008

[I wrote this originally on Island, the student learning website I’m building at BYU.]

Clay Shirky writes:

[Credentialed] experts the world over have been shocked to discover that they were consulted not as a direct result of their expertise, but often as a secondary effect --- the apparatus of credentialing made finding experts easier than finding [non-credentialed] amateurs, even when the amateurs knew the same things as the experts.

In the web2.0 world, I’m seconds away from a Google search that connects me to resources and online communities that know more collectively than any professor. In this brave new world with near ubiquitous digital knowledge, what then are professors good for?

They aren’t nearly as valuable at teaching explicit knowledge so what’s left is to teach tacit knowledge (knowledge that’s hard to learn from reading). What tacit knowledge? I’d suggest the most important tacit knowledge that professors can help students learn is how to ask the right questions in their field. How do students learn to ask the right questions? By joining and participating in communities of practice.

I see Island’s (and other web2.0 tools) greatest potential is in exposing and connecting students more easily to active participants in different communities of practice. Through this exposure and connections they can learn to emulate these experts through experiencing and doing what experts experience and do.

Good learning is learning to be something not learning about something. I might know everything a book can teach me about chemistry but still fail miserably at being a chemist. I might be able to pass every grammar test in existence but still not be able to write a sensible essay. Learning split from its context is worthless.

Some of my most valuable classes here at BYU were taught by active participants in their community of practice. By watching them practice their craft, I learned what it meant to be a member of that community and what it meant to practice that community’s craft.

So what then are professors good for? I believe as guides. They can lead students into communities of practice and can model proper behavior and attitudes. And once students are in the community of practice, professors can help students choose appropriate experiences that will help them move through the stages between novice to expert.

Tagged with education | internet | experts

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Kyle's profile picKyle Mathews lives and works in Seattle building useful things. You should follow him on Twitter. Currently exploring what's next and open to consulting.