Panel Discusses Online Education


Teachers should emphasize critical thinking among their students as education moves increasingly online, a four-person panel said yesterday at Lowell Lecture Hall.

“We are facing a new world in which we need guidance,” said panelist Robert Darnton ’60, a history professor and director of the Harvard University Library. “I believe a lot of the guidance will come not from search mechanisms, though they are terrific, but from human beings called teachers.”

The panel, part of a celebration of the Extension School’s centennial, touched on the future of the printed book, the pros and cons of multitasking, and the role of educators in the modern age.

In addition to Darnton, the panelists were Craig D. Silverstein ’94, Google’s director of technology; David Weinberger, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society; Sherry Turkle ’69, an MIT professor of social studies and technology. Harry R. Lewis ’68, a professor of computer science, moderated the discussion.


“Books give us the sense that knowledge is masterable,” Weinberger said. “Links are a new type of punctuation that, instead of telling you where to stop, tell us to continue.”

Not all in attendance were persuaded of the virtues of links and multitasking.

“I was struck by the celebration of links as a way of expanding knowledge,” said Christopher Queen, a religion professor who just stepped down as the Extension School’s dean of students. “To me, the definition of a critical thinker is one who can decline to link an existing problem to every possible source, who can focus in and look deeper.”

Darnton stressed that information overload is nothing new but said he is worried about a corporation like Google monopolizing information rather than democratizing knowledge.

Silverstein declined to respond to concerns about Google’s future, instead emphasizing the need for comprehensive computer education on the “common-sense” level.

The panelists also discussed the implications of texting and surfing the Web during lectures.

“When I was in school, there was such a thing as a beautifully crafted lecture, but now we lecture to a hierarchy of back channels,” Turkle said.

Lewis teasingly noted that he had never seen Weinberger at a meeting without an open laptop.

Weinberg defended the practice as a “social good” because he uses his laptop to discuss events as they’re going on.

Turkle also warned the panelists and audience to question simulations of reality made possible by computer programming.

“Simulation wants—and it demands—immersion,” she said. “But there will always be something in the social real that will not be represented by our simulation.”


An earlier version of the Nov.19 news article "Panel Discusses Online Education" incorrectly referred to Berkman Center fellow David Weinberger by the last name Weinberg.

In addition, the version also misquoted Computer Science Professor Harry R. Lewis ’68 as saying that he had never seen Weinberger at a faculty meeting without an open laptop. In fact, Lewis simply said meeting, not faculty meeting, which Weinberger would not attend as he does not hold a faculty position.


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