Disappearing Ink -- Todd Gitlin in a Essay

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Disappearing Ink -- Todd Gitlin

In a September 1999 Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, New York University Professor Todd Gitlin wrote of a new trend in university education, cropping up amongst American colleges -- an Internet company posting free notes for core required courses at 62 major universities. He was reminded of his days at Berkeley, in which a note taking service attended lectures (always a graduate student), take notes, type them, and sell for a nominal fee. The notes were professionally done, organized in a manner that would suit "most of the group," and even the professor could use them as a template for courses. However, soon class attendance began to wane; why go to class if you could get the materials elsewhere? And those who attended were far less lively and willing to discuss key events in a cogent and active manner. Gitlin notes that education is not about rote memorization, at least it should not be. Instead, education is about discourse, new ideas, making new connections -- and often learning more from one's colleagues than the text or professor (Gitlin). College tuition is expensive, it is less a fee than an investment, and the very idea of modernizing and deconstructing classwork has some very serious connotations.

Over the last few decades, the extraordinary developments in technology have had a similar extraordinary influence on education, particularly that of the internet, online learning, and interactive computer-based learning in the classroom. In fact, as early as the mid-1990s educators were receiving reports from the Department of Education that "through the use of advanced computing and telecommunications technology, learning can also be qualitatively different. The process of learning in the classroom becomes significantly richer as students have access to new and different types of information, can manipulate it on the computer through graphic displays or controls…. And can communicate their results and conclusions in a variety of media…" (Technology's Impact on Learning) What literally hundreds of research studies do tell us, though, is that used properly, technology can enhance the achievement and interaction of students at all levels, improve teacher/student/parent communication, and even improve school administration and management.

In the 21st century, it is not only ink that is disappearing, we know most note taking is recorded, later transcribed, or notes furiously written on netbooks and laptops, but also the idea that technology can distance one from the very process of communication, dialog, and ultimately personal growth and actualization. However, technology can, as most know, be used in both positive and negative ways depending on the circumstances. For example, Texting, or text messaging, is a modern colloquial term that refers to the exchange of information between mobile devices, made possible by transmitting messages through cellular networks. Because so many students have access to cell phones, and often carry them to school, communication with texting is not unusual but expected.

One of the consequences, though, of the internet age is the preponderance of entrepreneurs using E-Mail and E-Commerce to provide services for students; from tutoring to lecture notes; from essays to actual customer research and writing. Online lecture notes are a fairly recent phenomenon, obviously an extension of Gitlin's campus note taking services. These not companies are not affiliated in any way with a university, or with a specific professor. Instead, they are privately owned businesses that have attracted large sums of money to tap into the market of student services. The companies, like the graduate student at Berkeley, work on a for-profit basis and the lecture notes are solicited from students enrolled in the course or companies may recruit note takers; sometimes paying as much as $400 per semester per class of notes.

One first must ask about the ethics and morals of this service. On one hand, is this any different than purchasing a Cliff's Notes or study guide -- designed to supplement one's reading and study of a particular concept of novel, not to replace it. Some learners have limited skills when it comes to listening to a lecture or presentation, understanding the material or point-of-view, and then translating that into readable notes. For these students, purchasing the notes is a boon -- they can concentrate in class, and then have the notes with which to review.

Philosophically, if we decide that we need to police the use of these services because some choose to miss class and get the notes, we must also realize that a weapon of any kind is harmless unless it is used. If students wish to compromise their education, and considerable expense, by skipping class and the value of the lecture from a live professor, that is a personal choice they will make. A good professor will base their exam on a variety of components: class lectures, the text, outside reading materials, and of course, course notes. Missing one of these components should, in theory, negatively impact the grade and encourage students to attend class. What might even be more proactive would be for the professor to distribute, either on paper or electronically, their own outline of the lecture. If a professor uses a power point, for instance; that day's lecture could be uploaded to a virtual blackboard as a PDF file for students to access as needed.

If we really analyze the situation, the distribution of notes is really not anti-education. Much new theory in constructivist education, for instance, states that it is more advantageous to tell students what will be taught, then teach it, and then ask questions and dialog together (I do, we do, you do). This approach makes it very clear what you, the instructor, thinks is important and should be emphasized. There is nothing wrong with emphasizing the terms and concepts students should know -- everything does not have the same level of importance in a lecture, and therefore, notes highlight and organize the way one should think about the material, review, or study for an exam.

Thus, the arguments seem polarized: one side believes that commercial note taking companies, or surrogate students hired to take notes, pose a major threat to education. This view believes that students will not come to class, will simply rely on the materials from the note takers, and not participate in the materials used in the syllabus. One cannot imagine, though, that there are many learning experiences in which the class notes are the sole means of communicating the appropriate information.

Conversely, others believe that online note companies may actually be quite beneficial and suggest that teachers welcome this service. However, if teachers rely on the publication of online notes, they might refer students to those materials rather than take extra time and effort to adjust their own explanations. Instead of allowing outside internet companies to organize notes, this can all be prevented if teachers manage and distribute their own notes. The veracity of the materials are ensured, their timeliness, updating, and even source materials -- what is missing is the economic incentive for the middle-man, to profit off something that should be, by most academic standards, free. One is not giving away answers by publishing class notes. What one is doing is providing a way for students to understand and focus though seemingly insurmountable readings lists and concentrate on what the professor believes to be important.

Still, there are positives to the integration of new technologies in the classroom, too. Done right, the use of any additional technology that helps learning, and certainly internet research and/or cooperative note taking, opens up a wide world of possibilities. It is all about using sources responsibly, analyzing the text, and finding the best way to research one's topic. Take Wikipedia for instance; it can be one of two things; a first blush overview and source idea for many subjects, or a way to copy material without even being sure of its academic veracity. The same would be true when utilizing notes penned by others -- how credible is the source.

Wikipedia is not meant to be the depository of all human knowledge saved for posterity with no qualms about sources. It is a reference work on all types of subjects that is constantly evolving, it is not meant to be a final destination, nor a single source for a subject. Simply a way to disseminate knowledge in a practical, real-time manner using everyone everywhere as an expert. Wikipedia was conceived, and is managed, to be the starting place for research. It is a quick review of most topics, and, if the editors are doing what Wikipedia wants, will source and reference their material enough, and update needed citations, that it will provide not only content, but sourcing and additional expertise as well. Wikipedia is also not meant to be the only source users cite -- in fact, that is antithetical to its purpose. Instead, at least one author noted how truly amazed he was at Wikipedia and sister sites, in all languages across the globe, are all being run by a non-profit foundation…[continue]

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