What if Google disappeared? An educational view.

Yesterday I had a discussion with a participant at SITE 2012 about our 21st Century Educators program, and how we have a lot of the content of the program in Google apps. We are using Blackboard (and also Moodle) for the content home base, but the activities happen through Google apps.

So, I was asked, “What happens then if Google servers go down?”. Aren’t you afraid of that?

To a question like this, it would be easy to answer something like If Google goes down, well, most likely something more drastic has happened in the Web anyways, or, Which one do you think is more secure; Google servers or your small organization’s servers? Which one has more professional people checking all the time that everything goes well and develops? Which one has their share prices to watch and keep their shareholders happy (which is a big carrot to make sure everything goes well)?

But I did not, and do not, want to use these arguments, as it goes around the thing that is actually important: What is learning and where it happens?

When you combine the idea that we all actually learn different things all the time (this is an undeniable fact), with the fact that the half life of knowledge is very fast, you understand that rigid static repositories are in many ways history. But I do not want to use this as an argument either.

But, what I would like the people to understand is, that at least in our context (faculty development of teaching in higher education), the activities that take place, are more important, not the content (which sometimes for example acts as a spark to engage an inquiry around a topic).

The activities itself, at least we would like to see them doing it, change the behavior from perceiving information as something to be merely consumed and “learned” to something actively questioned and developed progressively forwards. If we want innovation in any field, no matter if it is education or developing cars, this is simply behavior that we need, and it can’t be learned otherwise than doing it from the start.

The Web is full of new research, ideas; content as such. It is abundant and we should question it all. We are never going to run out of it. Because of that, we don’t need a place to organize that, as such. The Web is the place. So the problem of Google going down, is not important in that sense.

Also, if we think about social media, what does it do best? One of its most important affordance is acting as a tool for people to interact and collaborate. And when you genuinely interact with people, you interact with yourself. You learn.

If Google goes down permanently, yes, some history of the activities, i.e. interactions, might be lost. But you are still in yourself. And if we want to continue interacting through the Web, we merely change the tools or the platform.

Still in many conversations, it is an ignored fact, that for example Facebook started as a tool through which students interacted with each other. Not “just” for fun, but also for learning. A lot of, I’d almost say, zero sum research is conducted to “find” this same fact that community and trust are the cornerstones of online collaborative learning. We should not break something as natural as that with badly designed LMS’s or most importantly, inefficient pedagogical methods. Unfortunately a lot of formal education does just that.

So what happens if Google just disappears? Something that has always happened, I think: We evolve and move on. The world and the Web is a learning environment in itself. Tools and learning activities are not the same thing.

More interesting ideas around this conversation for example in Teemu Arina’s post “Cloud Learning as Universal Primary Education”.

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