Who’s an expert?

For academics expertise is something we have to care about. It is the coin of the realm. I have been thinking a lot about what expertise means in the days of social software and peer rating systems. What does expertise at a university look like if the classroom has students taking notes together in a shared system (e.g. Notemesh) and the lectures are available via enhanced podcast? Do classes start to look more like blogs with podcasts? Do we develop a system of courses that are culled like Technorati or Digg culls other blogs? Will faculty be evaluated on the number of Diggs their course gets rather than the SRTEs (Student Rating of Teaching Effectiveness)?

Right now our expertise system (at least in academia) relies on credentials. To be a faculty member you must, for the most part, have a PhD or similarly highest degree in field. Expertise in the social software universe is based on popularity, and presumably usefulness and interest of the information your share along with how regular you are with sharing it — blogs (like mine) with very erratic or infrequent posts have much less impact in the blogosphere. Will we see faculty hired based on their blogs and podcasts? On the faculty fear end of the spectrum — will faculty whose classes have few diggs loose their jobs? One of the original fears about video and audio of lectures is that you would only need the one expert in Chemistry that does a great job to replace all the Chemistry faculty in the country. I don’t believe that teaching can be replaced in this way, but it may force a change in the model of teaching.

For another day: the question of how all these issues with expertise play out in terms of the research part of a faculty members job.


~ by sbmcdon on December 5, 2006.

4 Responses to “Who’s an expert?”

  1. These are an interesting set of questions and do deserve some real thought and discussion. I would honestly be interested to hear what you think beyond the questions — you have to take the position that young faculty (like yourself) will preside over the P&T process in the coming decades.

    The other side of the social perspective on note taking is that it is honestly only the start of a major shift in the way individuals are judged … imagine when doc students move from taking notes together to collaboratively write the dissertation. That is not that far fetched — especially in some fields where team work and collaboration are valued. For someone like me, just the fact that the questions are being asked is a very important step. I remember a few years ago the big discussion was about how higher ed would judge a faculty member who publishes online … as far as I know that conversation has not moved ahead all that much.

    So, the question comes back to you … how do you see all this coming together? Should we be building tools that enable your vision of the future? I would love to be part of a group of people who spent their time taking the best of industry and moving into the teaching and learning space. What is next?

  2. Thanks for making the first comment here, makes me feel like a real member of the club.

    I agree that it is just the first step. I think that the potential exists to make universities much more transparent and porous — allowing more movement between what is academic and what is “out in the real world”. The biggest hurdle is letting go of control. For academics it is about expertise, for technology designers it is about tools. So, academics want to say “I know something that few if anyone else knows or understands as well as I do”. Technology designers want to say “I built this tool better than anyone else did”. It is about ego, and that is one of the hardest thing about the collective notion of anything. You participate in a social sphere to be recognized as a individual (at least to some extent). It is not just that we have a hard time thinking about or evaluating a dissertation written by a team, but also that the members of the team have to be OK with not being able to own the dissertation in the same way. That is a hard thing to wrap your head around after six years of schooling, that the final product is not yours, exactly.

    I don’t think the discussion has changed that much about publishing online, but there is increased awareness that online can mean peer-reviewed (still the gold standard), not just someone putting up a webpage of their thoughts (hmmm…like a blog).

    By the way, I think that you are a part of a group of people taking the best of industry and moving it into teaching and learning. You do it every day. I do it some days, but some days are better than others.

  3. I am now seeing as I spend more time in industry circles that it isn’t just us here in HE struggling with what is exposed. I’ve done some work with a couple of firms that will go nameless that are really struggling with what is open to the world versus what is an advantage. The one company does amazing things on the web, all of it is closed off to people who are paying members. How do you balance giving away knowledge with providing value to your members? It is a tough idea no matter what space you are in.

    Is it always about ego? I would say that on occasion it is, but outside of the walls of HE it is more about bottom line. Again are ego and bottom line analogous in the HE vs. Industry question? I feel like we (the collective) could be further along if we could better understand what the future of the knowledge economy really looked like … if Lessig gets the notion of the Commons, why do we all turn our nose up when someone wants to borrow from us and remix it to meet new needs? I am just still banging my head against the wall thinking about that.

    At the end of the day HE needs to follow the lead of industry in its use of innovation but not lose sight of the critical pieces of teaching, learning , and research. Not that I spend too much time worrying about the research aspect, but I do spend a great deal of time in the T&L side of the house. Technology is a great enabler — but shitty instruction face to face gets even worse when you throw some technology at it. There is a partnership that needs to emerge here that hasn’t had time to develop — between the researchers, faculty, learners, and technologists to make it all go around. That is the exciting opportunity … unfortunately we are all conditioned to not play well together … too much ego perhaps?

    BTW, comments make the blogger! Thanks for stepping out of the tower and sharing.

  4. I think a lot is about ego, not in the sense of people having large egos (though that is often the problem), but more that we are not good at thinking of ourselves as contributing to a collective without individual credit for our part. It is one of the difficult things about assessment in groups for k-12 and HE. How do you measure individual contribution so it can be identified and rewarded, either with grades or other recognition. I saw Joshua Prince-Ramus, an architect, speak on TED talks (http://www.ted.com/tedtalks/) and he addresses this issue in architecture. He tries to explode the “myth of the master architect” who sketches a brilliant design and then his minions carry it out. He claims to view architecture as a collaborative effort of synergy among a group of architects. It is a nice idea, and yet he is the one talking at TED and with articles about him in the NYT.

    I think on some level it is biological. The strongest individual gets the best mate and makes it most likely their heredity continues on, so if I am not recognized as being the best mate, then it can impact my survival (or at least my genes). This is Richard Dawkin’s argument for DNA as the fundamental unit of natural selection. If you notice almost all social collaboration tools have a way to recognize who did what (e.g. versioning features in Google Docs). It also maybe why Wikis are less likely to be accepted in HE, at least those without versioning features, as they lack the ability to attribute contributions that are valued.

    BTW love the picture, though I get the feeling I am being mocked.

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