Many scholars of the past burrowed into library stacks, read the printed literature on a topic, consulted with a mentor, and emerged with their research.
Today, the Smartest Person in the Room, is the Room.
The scholar of today is more collaborative. While there are many instances of scholarly collaboration throughout history, none rise to the level of what’s possible today, where dozens or scores or hunreds of people from around the world can connect simultaneously and in real-time.
Professor Clay Shirky says that most people “over estimate the value of access to information and underestimate the value of access to each other.”
Related reading: "Why Learning Through Social Networks is the Future."
Students: Master Connecters
While this may be true of most adults, students already understand the power and value of connecting to others, and they are exceedingly comfortable doing it digitally.
I recently participated in a videoconference with a high school class. The acoustics made it difficult for students to ask questions, and the session began awkwardly. I glanced at my iPhone and saw that students were Tweeting to me a long skein of brilliant questions.
Students dominate popular Q&A sites such as Yahoo! Answers, Answers.com and Quizlet. However, these sites are not authoritative, rarely provide links to references, and should not be cited as a source for a student paper.
Fortunately, students can explore dozens of free avenues online to connect with experts in almost any field of study or area of interest. All they need is for adults to open the door and point them in the right direction.
What Could Go Wrong?
When students interact with adults online, there is the possiblity of inappropriate interaction.
On the other hand, the role of adults is to teach students to navigate online safely, and these sites provide excellent learning opportunities not found anywhere else.
All of these resources are moderated to some degree, so when using them, students should be mindful, not afraid.
Just as when a teens venture into the big city for the first time without adult supervision, they need to be aware of their surroundings and take precautions.
Always have an open line of communication with your students concerning their online research.
Six Ways Students Can Learn Directly From Others
1."Ask a Librarian" - now at a library near you.
Many local, county and college libraries offer a virtual "Ask a Librarian" service through which a student can ask a trained librarian for reference help. Many libraries work through a network of libraries to provide 24/7 coverage around the world. When a student needs to find a great resource but can't arrange a face-to-face visit with a reference librarian, Ask a Librarian services fill the gap.
Reddit is an online community dividend into thousands of "subreddits," such as Reddit.com/r/history.
While some of these represent the seamy part of the Internet, many are well moderated and provide extraordinary learning opportunities for students. These range from opportunities to ask questions of scholars in various subject areas to assistance with proofreading and advice on developing good study habits.
A sampling of subReddits that are very useful for students:
Quora is a Question and Answer site that is comprised mostly of professionals. Unlike other Q&A sites, most users register with their real name and provide their credentials, and most answers are at least somewhat useful.
We recently created this Choose2Matter page on Quora; when a student asks a question about social entrepreneurship, we'll find an expert to answer it.
With over 200 million users, Twitter can be an excellent resource for students to find that handful of people who can provide them insight.
Students need to learn to use "hashtags" to target their Tweets to people likely to have knowledge about the subject of their question.
When Maggie Moran, a sophomore education major, wanted to find an expert to discuss tutoring a student with interrupted formal education (SIFE), she turned to Twitter, using the #SIFE hashtag. She reports that, "within minutes of my tweet, I received five replies with suggestions on books to read, methods to try, and educators to follow who were experts in the area."
Yoursphere is a safe destination where students can connect with other students around their "spheres" of interest. Teachers can also create a classroom "home page" where they can share content and interact with students, and other classrooms. In early 2014, Choose2Matter will launch an online community for students on Yoursphere.