Does the Web make experts dumb? Part 3: The issues

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:

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.

Comments welcome.

10 thoughts on “Does the Web make experts dumb? Part 3: The issues”

  1. On perseverance, I suppose their is also the need for one to persevere with accessing information on the web. Navigating the web these days has its challenges and does require the ability to differentiate between truths, lies and true lies. I also agree that having a teacher/mentor/moderator who actually does really teach/mentor/moderate is invaluable. Receiving an education is one thing, but having a teacher who inspires, encourages deeper learning, and promotes critical and independent thinking, is quite another. One thing that was drummed into me as a child growing up was the value of education. Your 10th point that starts with “Education trumps everything” underscores and summarises the discussion thus far in three words. The web and the Internet are but tools, it is upon the user to utilise them so as to maximise the opportunities they offer. Great series (I hesitate calling it a trilogy lest there be more), what’s next?!

  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.” — too many experts argue against this right now, it is too fashionable to argue that the Web makes us dumber and fries our brains. One may if one wishes fry one’s brains with Plato, Planck or advanced maths. For a great example of the Web enabling will and perseverance see, which is an amazing site for learning languages.

  3. Teenager find chatting as the most valuable thing that web can provide them, but as they grow up,get more mature, they also find that there are other valuable stuff as well. I remember, in my Hindi textbook, we had to memorize the lives of some Hindi literature guys. It was very frustrating. Now, unconsciously, I found myself read about people on Wikipedia. The web has the potential to change one’s life constructively or destructively.

  4. “Expertise” is another thing that is falling to the shift from scarcity to abundance, and suffers all the same opposition from incumbents as music and news. Not only does the internet make it easier for people to become experts, but also makes existing experts more accessible.
    My contention would be that by increasing the accessibility, “shareability” and velocity of “expertise” we vastly improve the chances of increasing its quality and application – not at all a bad thing, really …

  5. Agree, and as accessibility becomes more ubiquitous people will embrace the internet and thrive and prosper…
    Apart from the third of digitalbritain who can’t get better than dial up speeds. I guess they will stay analogue.

  6. “The web can dumb us down, but only if we choose to let it.” Key point right there, it is a tool, and, like all tools, we alone control it.
    Good series of posts, thank you.

  7. My sister had a successful career as a computer programmer. She had the knack of passing tests and getting A’s. Now, however, she really wants to understand those courses that she passed years ago. She is doing the courses posted on-line by MIT and since she doesn’t have any time pressure she can really pull them apart.

Let me know what you think

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