Thursday, May 14, 2009

Stanford launches Open Office Hours on Facebook

Stanford U - like much of California - is known to push the envelope when it comes to technology (and culture). After all, Stanford was the pot in which Yahoo and Google - and a whole lot of other wonders of modern living - were stewed and brewed. Understanding that the traditional educational model isn't really working well (or perhaps just in a fit of whimsy), Stanford now has leading professorial lights holding office hours on Facebook -- not only for its own students, but for anyone in the world so inclined. If there are any more holdouts out there who have thus far resisted the inexorable forces that push us all into the vast Facebook ocean -- and who think that Facebook is meant only for kids sharing pictures of their drunken revelries -- there's goes their final excuse. I mean, who wouldn't delight in engaging in a conversation with, oh, I don't know, Donald Knuth, the living patron saint of all computer scientists? Or Phil Lombardo, infamous for conducting the famous prison experiment? I'm getting goosebumps already, just thinking about it.

Like all social experiments, this Facebook Open Office Hours (FOOH?) initiative is likely to have consequences way beyond and quite different from those that led to its lauching. People are going to pick it up and run with it. I am very excited to see how this might transform education and learning. FOOH not only breaks downs the walls of the classroom, it also removes the larger wall around the institution itself. Previously inaccessible and remote scholars of repute will now be seen as real human beings, inspiring a wider swath of young people to take to scholarship, now that they know that great people are fashioned out of ordinary - but enthusiastic - little people like themselves.

Facebook wasn't originally meant for such an application at all. It was meant for Harvard students to extend their exhibitionistic and voyeuristic proclivities into the virtual world -- and it has succeeded in this project well-beyond its creators wildest dreams. It's delightful to know that there are curious adult minds that have begun to experiment with applying the technology to other domains. Persons beyond a certain age tend to feel threatened by what feels like an uwelcome intrusion into their private spaces and time. But that is true only if one is still grounded in a way of life that is rapidly vanishing before our eyes. Members of the younger generation are able to seamlessly blend their real and virtual lives and thereby extend the relationships, influence and sources of knowledge into dimensions that didn't exist even one decade ago. This is the new reality that the world of education must come to terms with employ as the basis for the complete redesign of architectures of education.

What are some benefits of FOOH? To be sure, this is not just about Facebook, but any means of direct engagement between teacher and student by employing video, audio, rich media in general and conversational structure. Harrison Owen, the inventor of a now wildly successful and widely employed group process called Open Space Technology came up with the idea for his process at an academic conference. He found that the most interesting discussions and explorations occurred not during the scheduled sessions themselves but during the brief coffee and lunch breaks when attendees from various sessions jostled and mingled in a disorderly fashion. Why not, he thought, organize a conference which in its entirety was like a coffee break, where discussion groups self-organized and important issues emerged out of this social process, thus turning the concept of a conference on its head? The relevance of Owen's observation here is that the most significant components of the educational process occur not merely during the scheduled classes but in the breaks in between them, as students and teachers wander about and mingle, on and off campus. FOOH provides a framework for structuring, capturing and preserving those interactions for later review not only by the original participants, but by later visitors. Imagine what it would be like if one could eavesdrop on all sorts of conversations going on across a campus, and hang out in the presence of great scholars whenever they choose to emerge? FOOH then becomes a Knowledge Bank.

No doubt naysayers will abound, and disadvantages of FOOH will be discussed in depth across the internet. But all tools and technologies have their downside, it is how you choose to use them that brings benefits. Me, I'm all for extending this experiment around the world.

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