The book itself, however, disappointed, and it’s been a little hard to figure out why. The actual book is less about thinking than it is about the learning environment the authors envision for the future. But that’s OK. I understand that the structures of our existing siloed educational institutions were conceived of centuries ago. They certainly don’t reflect the way people are learning informally outside of those institutions today. But wait. Do they have to, I asked myself? The authors seem to say yes. Is this the new reality?
Although from time to time the authors claim that they do not advocate using digital tools and technologies just because they are there, they do in fact believe that learning within institutions should better reflect how people interact outside of formal learning environments today, including social networking tools, massively multiplayer online video gaming, virtual learning institutions, interactive collaborations, and open-access public forums. So let’s see where that takes us.
Existing traditional educational institutions are failing us, the authors argue. They envision future institutions as "mobilizing networks." This is all very up-to-date indeed, I thought. Instead of top-down authoritative teaching and learning, the mobilizing network would support peer-to-peer learning and collaborative knowledge production. Digital learning, they emphasize, is participatory learning— which is in part code for not "teaching to the test." That’s fine. Teaching to the test has never worked very well anyway.
But there was still another problem with this book about the future of thinking. There's a way of arguing in this book that says: “Here we are. Here are roughly the outlines of the arguments. Here are some drawbacks. But still we must go on with our vision, mustn’t we?” And they assume an audience that is fully onboard with their collaborative thinking: For example, the authors are concerned about how Web 2.0 as a network of "many-to-many collaborating and customizing together" may evolve in the wrong way as corporations such as Google gain control over more and more personal and institutional, and national information. But never mind: "Yet even though the concept is vague or open to exploitative, monopolistic, or oligopolistic (wow!) practices, Web 2.0 is a convenient way of signaling a new type of institution. It is one where contributions are distributed rather than coming from a single physical location and where ideas are shared outside the normal rules of tenure, credentialing, and professional peer review." Is there any room in their collaborative world for skepticism? For questioning whether loose collaboration-for-all is right for every age group and every discipline at all times?
There's also often a troubling lack of in-depth reasoning behind their advocacy of certain processes in the new forms of learning. Many people read differently these days, the authors argue. By implication our institutions should reflect these new processes, apparently with no analysis of their inherent value. Here's how the authors redefine reading for the digital age: "Even online reading . . . has become collaborative, interactive, nonlinear, and relational, engaging multiple voices. We browse, scan, connect in mid-paragraph if not mid-sentence to related material, look up information relevant or related to what we are reading. Sometimes this mode of relational reading might draw us completely away from the original text, hypertextually streaming us into completely new threads and pathways." It's an interesting description of what often happens online, but does it have anything to do with learning? Is it supposed to in the future?
Collaborative, many-to-multitudes, virtual, peer-to-peer—the authors present a remix if you will of some au courante concepts. From Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail, they project from economic and business theory onto the role of the university: "If we do indeed live on the long tail, . . . then virtual institutions may be the long virtual tail that wags the dog of traditional institutions without which it could not exist." Huh? Other popular ideas, such as those from Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations and Yoklai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks are added into the mix, all seemingly part of the ideal audience for this book.
I suspect part of the repetitive, jingoistic, and sometime contradictory statements that emerge from the text reflect on how the text was generated. You got it: very collaboratively. Not only did the two authors collaborate but they then posted the draft online and invited comments—for a year. The draft was also presented in three additional public forums. Lastly, the authors worked to incorporate many of the comments and concerns voiced by others. It is a form of writing by committee that can wobble under the weight of the various points of view if not carefully shepherded by one (or even two) good writers with a single strong vision.
It isn’t that the book doesn’t offer some food for thought on many issues. It does. How do we create multidisciplinary forums and projects within the currently rigid institutions? Is learning more a process of learning how to learn, than learning what, these days? Is it less about actually acquiring the information, since the information will always be there to be acquired when needed? And what about credibility on the Internet? How prominent an emphasis do we need to give to teaching students how to discern credible sources of information as a new part of that learning "how" process?
But as for the future of thinking . . . well, it seems there still needs to be more thought put into that. I just don’t know how collaborative it has to be.