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Why Carr Is Wrong About Cushing Academy
January 26, 2010 - 9:07pm

Nicholas Carr writes that he "… feel(s) sorry for the kids at Cushing Academy." Cushing is the New England prep school that is substituting digital for print in its school library. In an open letter Cushing parents, alumni, and friends, Headmaster James Tracy writes:

"As a natural and integral outgrowth of the school’s strategic commitment to becoming the national leader in 21st-century secondary education, Cushing Academy is replacing, over a two-year period, the library’s printed books with electronic sources. This transformation places Cushing in the forefront of a pedagogical and technological shift."

I'd be the last person to argue that our university libraries should follow Cushing's lead. The printed books in our academic libraries are all precious and irreplaceable. The process of wandering around the stack to discover new treasures bring true joy. Your college and my college should not follow Cushing's lead.

But not imitating Cushing is different from not celebrating its willingness to experiment. We need institutions that are willing to take risks and go "all in" to push innovation. The Cushing experiment may fail miserably, but it also might be a great success. Either way, we are all going to learn something. And this learning would not occur if Cushing hedged its bets. If Cushing kept half its books, then the librarians, teachers and students would not be forced to think of creative ways to thrive in a purely digital world. Cushing is doing total immersion. This is how the CIA teaches its recruits a foreign language, the only method that has been demonstrated as a successful means of rapid language acquisition.

Carr should not feel sorry for the kids at Cushing because these kids are part of a great experiment. These students are perfectly situated to be part of this experiment, as being the privileged bunch they are it is doubtful that they will be left behind. Who knows which of these students will be influenced from their experiments living digitally to develop passions and careers around in publishing, media or education that otherwise would not have been relevant?

Are we engaged in enough high risk / high return experiments in higher ed? What are the examples that we can point to of jumping into an experiment in learning and technology that the rest of the world thinks is nuts (and would not want to copy), but is sure to yield new and surprising findings? In an age of declining endowments and reduced state support the biggest risk is that we stop taking risks.

What risks are you or your institution taking? Can anyone point us to the high risk / high reward educational technology experiments in higher education? What experiments in learning and technology would you like to see?


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