Thanks for all the comments and conversation on the previous two posts. At this stage, I think it would be worth while setting out a simple list of principles, and see I can get your feedback on them. I feel that it will help move the argument forward constructively.
The principles I’d like to put forward are:
1. No one can become an expert without access to information. The web helps provide and broaden this access.
2. Access and opportunity alone are not enough. Will and perseverance are also required. The web does nothing to prevent this, and may actually augment the perseverance by making it easier to become an expert.
3. Having access to a mentor or moderator is valuable, particularly one who has the experience and critical skills related to the expertise sought. Teachers used to be mentors and moderators for centuries, before chalk-and-talk broadcast was adopted as an Assembly Line norm. Good teachers continue to mentor and moderate. The web facilitates this, in terms of allowing asynchronous communications with relevant links and bibliography, as well as synchronous communications when face to face is not possible.
4. Having access to a mentor or moderator who can inspire as well is invaluable. This is how expertise will really flourish. The web facilitates this as well. You only need to see one TED talk to understand how people can be helped, motivated, inspired by someone they don’t know and haven’t ever met.
5. There are 72 million children of school-going age not at school today. Rather than argue about the nature and role of experts and expertise, we should be doing everything in our power to ensure that every one of them has access to basic education as a human right. Queen Rania and her cohort are doing great things in this respect; the World Economic Forum’s Global Education Initiative, where Queen Rania is also involved, is a good place to start if you want to know more.
6. Of course the web gives us the opportunity to be superficial about learning, about knowledge, about expertise. But then this was true of all previous paradigms as well. What has changed is that the web allows us to delve deeper if we want to. And it makes that easier.
7. Of course face-to-face learning, with a moderator present, is invaluable. Of course the sense of community that comes from being in a classroom with other students is invaluable. But if for some reason this is not possible, then let’s not pooh-pooh the value of putting a computer with web access into a hole in the wall, and allowing for minimal moderation. This is what Sugata Mitra has been demonstrating, and more power to his elbow. You can keep track of what he’s been doing here: http://www.sugatam.wikispaces.com
8. The web is still in its infancy, there’s a lot broken with it. There is a lot that can, and should, be done in the context of curation, of indexing, of search tools, of filters and visualisation tools, of the semantic underpinnings. Read Esther Dyson’s recent post on the future of internet search if you have time, it’s a brilliant piece. You can find it here. See what Tim Berners-Lee, Wendy Hall, Nigel Shadbolt, Rosemary Leith, Noshir Contractor and Jim Hendler et al are up to at the Web Science Trust.
9. The privileged position of the expert may be under stress. An environment where more people can become experts is a good thing, and should be encouraged. An environment where their heredity and background becomes irrelevant, where what matters is their willingness to apply themselves, is a good thing. So don’t let people convince you otherwise.
10. Education trumps everything. Access, opportunity, facilitation, motivation and inspiration are critical. In all this the web is an aid; it is not the answer by itself. But it helps.
In this series of posts, I have not tried to make out that individuals working in dark rooms on their own, with access to the web, will suddenly become experts. If that is the impression given, I have failed to communicate my message.
What I have been trying to say is this: people are saying the web dumbs us down. This is wrong. The web can dumb us down, but only if we choose to let it.