Wednesday, June 6, 2007

This generation of students

Some have suggested that our (educators') generation is one of information explorers; students of today are a generation of editors. Not only must they find the information but they must do more with discerning good information from weak information and produce quality content. One blogger brings some interesting insight to that notion.

Are We Just Editors Now?
I think, however, that simply calling the current school-age generation a "generation of editors" is a little too limiting. It's true that today's kids don't have to hunt down kernels of information as if they're ancient Cro-Magnon scrounging for roots and berries. Instead, it seems to be replacing those hunting-and-gathering skills with the ability to synthesize and combine information in ways that my own Baby Boomer mind can't always grasp.

It's also creating a generation of skeptical kids who can better sort out bad information from good information. In the old days—the 1980s—finding what seemed like a relevant piece of information was like digging up gold. But sometimes it was fool's gold, and it was often difficult to tell what information was good and what wasn't. We had to rely on editors and peer review to uncover bad information. Even then, bad information would propagate, and would often take years to correct.

One minor example of this is the statue of David, sculpted by Michaelangelo. Art history books had long noted that the statue was a little over 14 feet tall, and this was accepted as fact. But while working on the Digital Michaelangelo Project, researchers discovered that the statue was actually 17 feet.

These days, we get upset when network news doesn't correct factual errors in real time.

I think also think that the baby boomers tend to view information as simply words, pictures and diagrams. My older daughter regards information as something that's mutable, and that flows, not as something fixed and chiseled in stone. We see that on the Internet, too, as people experiment with mashups of different media, with information (data) mixing freely with algorithms to create different ways of looking at the world. One example of this is the work that Imran Haque, the Stanford graduate student who won my old PC in our recent essay contest, is doing by mashing up Google Earth with US Census data.

Editors, synthesizers, and creators. That's the new generation. They'll no longer have hunt and gather for precious bits of information. Instead, they'll be able to build something new and—we can hope—better.

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