Sunday, May 31, 2015

Professors of The Book, students of The Smartphone

Photo from U.S. News & World Report
The Internet is a revolutionary tool of communication. Because of that, teachers of communication have to face up to the possibility that our models for teaching and learning are becoming less effective and relevant.

Like many of my teaching colleagues, I have complained that students don't read. Well, they do read, but in a different way.

To understand the trend, we should step back and look at another communications tool that was revolutionary in its own day -- the Book.

(Versión en español)

For at least 500 years, research and teaching at universities has been built around the Book. We teachers of communication are still People of the Book while our students are People of the Internet.

The professor and journalist Jose Cervera explains the difference (in Spanish) in a brief article called "In Praise of the User", on his blog, El Retiario (The Net Warrior), published on Spain's public television website. El Retiario comes from the Roman name for gladiators who used a net as one of their armaments.

"We are failing the Internet audience," he begins. "The reason: digital news media are doing the same thing they did in the era of publishing on paper. We are treating our audience like Readers, and they are not. They are Users."

He could have said the same thing of professors of communication: we are treating our students like readers while they are actually users. 

Reading is antisocial

Private reading, in silence, has been the preferred method of learning and teaching, Cervera says. And for professors, "True, deep learning is possible only by way of careful, detailed, deep reading. In fact this is the only way to obtain knowledge in their view."

"In that sense, being a reader is equivalent to being knowledgeable. By extension, anyone who is not a reader never will be able to acquire true knowledge." However, the problem with the "myth of the reader" at the end of the era of the book is that "the depth of analysis that drives reading and the natural gregariousness of people has ended by creating silos of knowledge practically isolated from each other between which communication is practically impossible." 

By contrast, the model of learning on the web, Cervera argues, places emphasis on connecting different ideas from various disciplines by means of a variety of media. "The web is designed to bring an end to the Reader and replace them with the User."

Reader and User, the differences

The differences between the two audiences have to be taken into account for anyone whose job is to communicate knowledge (professors, journalists, authors, etc.):

"The Reader is passive, a defenseless receiver of ideas spread by others. The User is active and participates in a dialogue and does not accept a monologue. The Reader follows a linear argument laid out by the author. The User can mark out their own path. The Reader stores up information; the User shares it....The Reader is alone; silent reading is the epitome of antisocial and private work. The User is gregarious and, by nature and necessity, a multitasker."

A new formula for teaching

Any professor who has taught classes in the last few years, and any editor who has tried to attract a new audience of milennials to their web content, can recognize the characteristics and the mentality of the User that Cervera has so accurately described.

So, that means professors of communication should:

  • Focus more on learning activities than on lectures to passive audiences
  • Take advantage of the Internet and its multimedia features during class to search for and verify information
  • Encourage more interactivity among students to make learning more social
  • Show students techniques of reading and in-depth research (including the value of books as teaching tools)
We all need time and research to better understand how to respond to the changes we are living through, both in the classroom and in the news media. 

So we need to include the study of the principles and best practices of innovation and entrepreneurship in our courses and in our own research, because from now on, we will be working in an era of continual innovation.


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What makes a professional journalist? Ethics 
5 dirty words journalists have to learn to say without blushing 

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