Extreme Learning and the University Professor, Part 1” by Jennifer Funk was first seen on Edcetera

In 1945, as the world was emerging from war, Dr. Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, called for scientists to rally around a new, post-war cause: make our collective knowledge open to the masses.

Now, more than 65 years later, we are living in a knowledge economy. Tens of thousands take classes online from the top universities in the world, anyone with an Internet connection can read, view, and study the documents catalogued by the Library of Congress that make up our nation’s history, and young explorers sailing around the world get an education via Skype.

Remarkable, yes — but Dr. Curtis Bonk, who has students in his Emerging Learning Technologies seminar read Bush’s essay, calls it something else, too: extreme learning.

What is Extreme Learning?

Extreme learning, a new area of research led by Bonk, refers to how people learn and teach with technology in nontraditional or unusual ways.

Bonk, professor of instructional systems technology in the School of Education at Indiana University, stumbled upon this research while writing The World is Open: Web Technologies Revolutionizing Education, a 2009 spin-off of Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat that names 10 trends changing the way we teach and learn.

“As I was writing The World is Open, I started collecting stories of people whose lives had changed through technology, or who had changed the lives of others through technology,” Bonk says. “After finishing the book, [I decided to] explore this more and capture and catalog stories of life change.”

It’s in these stories — everything from the casual, informal learning that takes place via Wikipedia and YouTube, to learning that happens in the most remote parts of the world via Skype and satellite phones — that the concept of extreme learning is best understood.

“We’re collecting stories as opposed to trying to pin down a definition of what it is,” Bonk says. “We’re trying to collect stories of how people have learned, so that we can inspire people and change the conversation about what learning is.”

Stories of Extreme Learning

Just what are these stories? Here are some of Bonk’s favorites.

Amy Stokes was named one of 2011′s CNN Heros for founding Infinite Family, a nonprofit that connects orphaned youth in South Africa with mentors in other parts of the world via online video. Mentors video chat with their “net buddy” once a week for half an hour. Some youth are introduced to their first computer through their involvement with the organization.

A few years ago, Bonk’s friend Cassandra Brooks traveled to Antarctica to study the Antarctic toothfish, also  known as the antifreeze fish, or more commonly, the Chilean Sea Bass. With the one hour of Internet access she got each night, she often published“dispatches” to the Exploratorium museum’s Ice Stories project, so that youth around the world could learn from her experiences.

This past September, when the Pakistani government shut down YouTube to prevent access to an anti-Muslim film trailer that was inciting violent protests, 215 people in Pakistan, including an 11-year-old girl, lost access to the videos that were part of the physics MOOC they were taking through Udacity. On one of the course’s message boards, the 11 year old expressed her anger and her determination to complete the course anyway. Time reported that within an hour of posting her message, her peers from around the world began devising ways to help. Later that night, a Portuguese professor uploaded all of the videos to an uncensored photo-sharing site and the girl was able to complete the final exam.

In The World is Open, Bonk tells the story of a UCLA rugby player who goes on archaeological digs in Canada during her summers and publishes blog posts about what she finds and what she’s learning. “I can become an arm-chair Indiana Jones in the state of Indiana without ever going [on these digs],” Bonk says of reading the posts.

Across the spectrum of learning, these stories represent the most extreme, but Bonk says that we all participate in extreme learning every day by commenting on blogs or learning to use our camera from a YouTube video — though we might not recognize it as so.

Extreme Learning and the University Professor

So, what does all this mean for today’s university professor?

According to Bonk, “If instructors are not aware of these far edges of how technology is being used today, they’re not prepared for what’s going to happen tomorrow, because what’s extreme today is going to be fairly traditional tomorrow. If one person had learned online in 1950, that person would have been Time’s Person of the Year; today, millions of people learn online and we yawn at all this.”

Part 2, then, will detail the ways in which professors can become aware of and start to incorporate the principles of extreme learning into their classes.

In the meantime, what stories of extreme learning have moved you?

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