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Beyond Britannica

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011
Michael Paik

This past Christmas, I gave my children a complete bound set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, thinking that this would be a wonderful way to spur their education and satisfy their curious minds.

The feedback I got from my eldest, in high school, was that first, this didn’t “count” as a gift, since it was an educational item, and second, that it was doubtful that the information was “current,” since in his mind, anything in hard copy was dated before the ink dried. From his middle-school younger sister, the feedback was marginally more positive, as apparently she appreciated the “graphics” and “format,” as “old school cool” but still, helpful.

Growing up in Seoul, there were very few households with reference materials like these, and we often had to make a special trip to peruse the library editions. Sometimes, one had to wait at the library for the right volume to be available, unless one went early, as soon as it opened. I came to appreciate the Britannica, and its less authoritative cousin, the World Book Encyclopedia, as depositories of information, comprised of the world’s knowledge, from my perspective, and books in general as highways to an improved understanding of how the world came to be, and where it was going. In short, books were, to me, paths to an improved understanding of whatever my juvenile mind was curious about, ranging from science to sex to syllogisms.

This view of books hasn’t changed for me, but apparently, there’s a growing generation gap in how learning is approached, at least in my household. Obviously, the digital era, the web and user-created content such as Wikipedia have come to occupy a more central position in today’s world, and this month’s column is about a few of those resources and their platforms, from the perspective of an educator and parent, as well as a heavy user.

I will scan past the usual suspects (i.e. Wikipedia) to some favorites that I’ve used in teaching college, graduate and professional students here in Korea. First, there’s iTunes U. While most people are aware of Apple’s music, television and movie offerings on this platform, there’s less awareness of what I consider to be its prime utility for students, particularly for those without other access to lectures and other content from some of the greatest universities and colleges in the world. iTunes U is potentially the world’s greatest continuing education program, and it’s free! One can download lectures, discussions, language lessons, audio books, podcasts, and other opportunities for enlightenment from top universities, museums, and other cultural institutions around the world. While an Apple iPod helps to make the material more easily portable, it’s actually unnecessary if you’re willing to sit with your laptop or at a computer terminal. This means that for nearly everyone, there’s a way to access these materials, and my belief is that ultimately, these materials will serve as a means of uplifting the general quality of instruction, particularly in English, available to those students in countries like Korea, where quality has suffered in a drive to raise the lowest common denominator.

Right now, I’m going through a series of lectures on cleantech, global warming and green growth, via iTunes, from providers such as Yale, Harvard, MIT, the London School of Economics and the University of California at Davis, for free, at my leisure, usually via my laptop but also sometimes via my iPhone or iPod. Check this out, at: www.apple.com/itunes/how-to/.

This platform also includes hundreds of thousands of podcasts. Podcasts are much like a radio or TV show, and they offer video or audio series about anything and everything. Podcasts are created by independent creators, as well as big names such as HBO, NPR, ESPN, The Onion, CBS Sports, and The New York Times. Podcasts download to your iTunes library automatically, and you can listen to them on your computer, iPod, iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV. And best of all, they’re free, as well!

For English-language students, this is a virtual cornucopia (see also: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornucopia) of free lessons in everyday, professional, academic and colloquial English in accents ranging from Welsh to Southern Californian. Of course, there are materials available in other languages such as German or French, as well, but for my students, the English-language content has been the most useful.

Lest it be said that I’m simply plugging Apple, I should point out alternatives here, such at YouTube EDU (see: www.youtube.com/ education), which has much of the same content available on that platform. I’m less of a fan, though, since the interface is (to me) less elegant. What’s great about YouTube, though, is something I learned from my daughter: YouTube ‘how to” user-created content, which covers everything from how to salsa or waltz to how to survive a venomous snakebite.

What’s disturbing about this is that she introduced this to me by sharing a video on “how to field dress a deer.” It scares me to think what’s going on in her mind, at times...

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