Whitman must do more to innovate

Photo Credit : von Hafften

Looking back over four years at Whitman, I am disappointed and frustrated with a system that could be doing so much.  I think that there is a severe lack of encouragement and valuation of open knowledge systems at Whitman. While disappointing for my four years here, there is quite a bit that future students can do to force the institution to recognize the value of these learning systems.

These open systems can take many forms but essentially boil down to one key aspect: the ease with which others can view and contribute to the information being produced on campus. The tools should be public-facing, open to public contributions and use standards-based, open source software.

There are some  cases of real innovation at Whitman, but, unfortunately, they are few and far between. They are the exceptions that prove the rule of confined learning. There must be a conscious shift toward a more open and collaborative educational environment. Even though this did not happen during my four years on campus I think that there is a tremendous amount of potential for Whitman to change, and to change rapidly, in the coming years.

First, if it wants to maintain its status as an elite liberal arts college that encourages students to address problems in new and critical methods, Whitman must do far more to encourage participation in open systems of knowledge.

Mark Pesce writes that, “The educational field does not recognize the boundaries of the classroom, the institution, or even the nation.” Education in general may not recognize these boundaries, but Whitman solidifies them. Classes here have driven home the idea that the legitimate participants in a discussion are those within the classroom.

In order to effectively address societal issues Whitman must produce knowledge that is open and public. It must create an environment within which students conceptualize knowledge as something that is a public good. It must seek to create databases of knowledge that are available to all online in a searchable, standards-based format.

Finally, it must work to actively create knowledge that is not just the privileged possession of its student body. If everything is kept within a tiny campus of 1,400 students Whitman will not be able to enact the type meaningful change it champions.

Don’t read this as a typical “break out of the Whitman bubble” argument. What I think Whitman can do goes far deeper than that. Whitman has the ability to re-conceptualize how information and knowledge are produced on a college campus.

The tools exist that would allow students to start creating knowledge that will be accessible to them, to their classmates and to the broader public for the coming decades. What is left is for departments on campus to recognize the validity of open learning and incorporate it into their curriculum. By calling for an end to assignments that never leave the walls of Whitman and organizing together outside of class to take part in public-facing discussions about their education, students can spur this change.

If we cordon off the knowledge produced in undergraduate education to a series of inaccessible PDFs and archaic printed copies we lose everything we’ve learned in the four years here. Put knowledge online, make it public, make it accessible. Make assignments carry weight and authority for the years after school.

Whitman needs to reframe knowledge as a collective endeavor instead of an individual possession. If others can see what has come before them then they can truly start working on the problems of tomorrow.

Whitman is a great institution and, because of its size and student body, could be doing really innovative things with its academic programs. Instead, Whitman classes recycle the same types of learning and assessments. This no longer works and, more importantly, is not what Whitties need if we are to go on to positions of leadership in our world. We need a Whitman College that embraces knowledge systems open to all and information that remains accessible beyond the confines and comfort zones of classrooms.

Note: Unfortunately the space constraints of this column prevented me from going into detailed specifics about how some of this could be accomplished. If you are interested in reading those specifics I will be posting them online in the coming weeks.




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