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Enoughness of expertise in higher education in the age of web 2.0

I want to introduce the concept of ‘enough expertise’ into higher education – particularly with respect to teaching undergraduates.

The concept of ‘enough’ (or should that really be ‘enoughness’?) is in the air – see, for example this symposium at UCL. But usually we are referring on such occasions to material or economic sufficiency (recall the quote from Obama about having enough money if your curtains cost more than an average person’s salary).

But in an age where the greatest experts are pretty much available in person through their videos and texts on the web, why should undergraduates care about having experts teach them in any particular class? My point is that maybe even in teaching and learning there is a place for being taught by someone who is enough of an expert to join the learning of the class to the presentations from experts from the web so that the learning is enhanced even beyond what the expert can give alone. A superabundance of expertise is not necessary for a fantastic learning experience, just as a superabundance of money is not necessary to enjoy yourself. This is not quite the old ‘great teacher vs great academic’ debate – for that, see below. The web has shifted the ground here.

Part of the desire to have the best experts in front of you comes from the same desire many of us have to have a painting really attributed to a great master. We feel cheated in some way if we are not sure where the painting comes from. And so, in learning, we want to feel we have heard it from the absolute best, the most expert – and in person. The ‘in person’ bit gives us some extra kudos and a feeling of added value which seems worth the wait or the extra fees. But I seriously question whether we learn any more in this way. We may conceivably learn more if we have several one-to-one sessions with a great expert, but that almost never happens in universities these days, and is impracticable for large groups. Otherwise, surely, we can learn just as much by watching the video capture of a famous lecturer several times, stopping it and replaying where necessary, and discussing any issues or difficulties with friends and peers.

So if the expert is not strictly necessary for a very high standard of learning in the classroom or lecture hall, what do we need? Well, we need great teachers, great facilitators, guides with whom we can watch the great experts and who then tease out the details of the lectures or provide activities around the lectures or texts to deepen and strengthen our knowledge.

In the past there has often been the debate around ‘great academics vs great teachers’. Some have claimed that there is no correlation between a great academic mind and a great teacher; others claim that, on the contrary, often the best academics are also the most able to simplify, clarify and convey the most difficult and important concepts. I have usually been in the second of these two camps. I have faith that the very  best thinkers, the Einsteins, the Feynmans, the Dawkins, the Chomskys, the E H Gombrichs, and so on, are also the best teachers. It is the extraordinary grasp of their subjects that allows these thinkers both to push ahead to the next level of research and  to teach others the essentials of what they know, so that their students too can make the next, exciting steps.

But we now, all of us with decent internet access, have the opportunity to see, hear and read all the best contemporary thinkers. Why settle for anything less than the very best? Why settle, as it were, for a half decent lecturer at your university when you could get the very best online and then work through their lectures with someone who is expert in using these online sources to further your understanding in a way that could well give you a better learning experience than being at such a lecture ‘in the flesh’?

This presents a challenge to any lecturers who are other than the very best. But, in the phrase that has become a cliche, this challenge also presents an opportunity – in this case to the great new users of modern media, those who are able to use web 2.0 and its fantastic wealth of resources to enrich and enhance the information passed on by great experts.

What these new sorts of teachers and facilitators need is not necessarily an equivalent level of expertise to that of the famous expert, but they need enough expertise to understand the lecture in some depth and then to capitalise on that for the benefit of their students. These teachers are part librarians, part coaches, part summarisers, part editors, part provocateurs – and, of course, they must be inspirational in their own way, as all good teachers must be. These qualities constitute, no doubt, a new sort of expertise all of its own. But it is different to what came before.

The new teachers do not need to be academic experts in the sense previously understood. Web 2.0 moves us to another place where the greatest lecturers can speak directly to students anywhere. The great teachers of web 2.0 take those resources and, using enough expertise in the subject, plus an entirely new sort of expertise born of the internet, provide learning and understanding of the highest level for their students.

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