Tech Geek of the Week!

You may recognize Michael Wesch‘s name if you have been online within the past six years. If you are an educator, you SHOULD recognize the name Wesch. Besides being an Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University, Dr. Wesch has received numerous teaching awards, including the 2008 CASE/Carnegie U.S. Professor of the Year for Doctoral and Research Universities. He has been dubbed “The Explainer” by Wired Magazine, in addition to receiving their Rave award. He was honored with the John Culkin Award for Outstanding Praxis in Media Ecology. He was named an Emerging Explorer by National Geographic. He has also published videos on culture, technology, and education that have been viewed over 20 million times, translated in over 20 languages, and are frequently featured at international film festivals and major academic conferences worldwide.

My first exposure to Dr. Wesch came around 2008, when a colleague turned me on to two of his most viewed YouTube creations: “The Machine is Us/ing Us” (1,588,676 views), about the effects of social media and digital technology on society, and “A Vision of Students Today” (4,829,666 views), about the most important characteristics of students today – how they learn, what they need to learn, their goals, hopes, dreams, and the challenges they will experience in their lifetime. These videos made a tremendous impact on me — sure they are thoughtful and entertaining, but what really struck me was the means by which Dr. Wesch created these short masterpieces. “The Machine…” was created in his Kansas basement for a Digital Ethnography class and sent to ten colleagues for feedback and collaboration. According to his blog, four days after posting to YouTube, the video was the most blogged about in the blogosphere, eventually reaching over 11 million views. The short film touched on a sweet spot of our culture — short enough to be accessible to many, relevant enough to peek anyone’s curiosity, yet intellectual enough to stand up against both criticism and online trend-ism.

Michael Wesch’s next film sensation, “A Vision of Students Today” has inspired my own aspirations as an educator. Dr. Wesch quickly transitioned from the power of a short film story that inspires students through raising questions, to the creation of a short film that inspires students through directly involving them in the sort of questions that are raised. In “A Vision…”, Dr. Wesch collaborated with 200 students to produce the film in his Digital Ethnography course. The story is basically a summary of his incredibly designed learning process… a result that leaves us with even more questions that beg students and teachers to collaborate together toward exploring answers and raising more questions.

“Some have suggested that technology (alone) can save us…”
After addressing a number of the overwhelming social problems facing students today, “A Vision…” shares a quotation that technology may be the answer, ominously transitioning to a quotation that technology ALONE can save us, and finally, with good self-aware humor, raises the quotation from Josiah F. Bumstead “The inventor of the system deserves to be ranked among the best contributors to learning and science, if not the greatest benefactors of mankind.” …a quote made in 1841 on the benefits of the chalkboard.  Therein lies the brilliance of Michael Wesch and the foundation for his firmly rooted place as my favorite “Tech Geek.” While he does not over-inflate technology as the key to our salvation in the realm of Higher Education, he appropriately identifies it’s power for inviting students in to a question and a story. He leverages the cultural relevance that using technology has to contribute, yet maintains his focus on it’s power as an educational tool lying in it’s ability to INVOLVE students in the process of learning, both receiving and creating new knowledge.

Two recent tweets from Dr. Wesch illuminate these aspects of his success as an educator. One outlining his slight tendency toward the radical, emotional, and interactive (as well as the power of short meme-oriented multimedia question-raising, in this case for a local school district). The second tweet demonstrating his mastery of involving students in the exploration of questions and experiences while maintaining a purposeful project-based intent that does not leave the student wandering, wondering what to make of their journey with no clear destination (the destination in this case being, of course, learning first, but more secondly and more tangibly recognizable for Undergraduate students, a video documentary).

*Another good article about Michael Wesch and his views on the use of technology in Higher Education is available in the Chronicle of Higher Ed: “A Tech-Happy Professor Reboots After Hearing His Teaching Advice Isn’t Working” (2/12/2012)

– Matt Wojciakowski is the Student Engagement Coordinator at the Carlson Leadership & Public Service Center, University of Washington
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