Public Knowledge Enterprises, New Media and Education: An Interview with Doug McConatha

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Doug McConatha is a technologist, entrepreneur and professor of Sociology.  He  started his first company, Web Study Inc. in 1995.  In his academic work, he has studied the process of getting older users online and the impacts on social isolation of internet connectivity.  For the past 5 years he has been working in the non-profit and open source communities.  

He is currently collaborating with WHYY, the Philadelphia affiliate of PBS.  WHYY is moving beyond being a media broadcaster and into providing a media training community center.  Philadelphia is the 5th largest media market in the country and one of the first cities to have community wide public wifi access.

"Educational systems today are not meeting the needs of the information economy," Doug says. 

"From a historical standpoint, this educational system is about a thousand years old in terms of how we deliver information...Traditional educational institutions are too mired in the old model where there's a teacher standing in front of the classroom.  There needs to be more interdisciplinary activity to suit this knowledge economy."

McConatha believes that open source models, user generated content and new technologies are combining to create new economic and educational landscapes.  Public Knowledge Enterprises will play key rolls in collating available information and delivering it to the public.  New professions are emerging for individuals expert at vetting content and combining new delivery methods with new revenue models.  These sorts of professions haven't even been given a name yet.

Content production training is an educational opportunity.  That content itself could then be distributed along with other educational content, experiencial learning, all of which will be archived and searchable - creating a repository of public knowledge...  Quality has always been a problem, but now the tools to make a high quality podcast or video and then to distribute it is in the hands of high school students.  I think in 5 years or sooner these kinds of things will be what everyone does.

Though there is not yet a model for educational institutions to fully embrace the open source/ user generated content ethic, Doug believes that Wikipedia-type efforts will spill over into education very soon.  

When it comes to creation of content, McConatha believes that one of the best ways to learn content creation methods is to keep in touch with and learn from young people.  "Freshmen coming into school," he says, "bring geometrically increased skills to manipulate.  A half hour with a freshman and you've got a whole course in front of you."

He draws together his thoughts on what's important in new forms of education with the acronym CADRE:

Content - content is always king; quality, vetted, rich in detail and validity.
Access - must be accessible, in the classroom but also electronically.
Distribution - Public Knowledge Enterprises have or should have the mechanisms to distribute information, organize face to face forums, host on servers, and make broadcasts.
Revenue models for vital for sustainability.
Evaluation - the public mind validates the information delivered, like the wikipedia model.

Networks of public knowledge holders are already being formed and getting people excited to share and evaluate knowledge.  Blogs and social networking systems like MySpace and Friendster are all making it much more efficient to connect people.   "The blogosphere is building reputation, accuracy, status, etc." McConatha says.

As PBS in general works to recast itself in a public interest model, largely around a digital public square,  Doug's local PBS affiliate WHYY in particular is working to blend new technology and community service to empower individuals and organizations to more efficiently contribute to society's general bank of knowledge.  One example he provided was the use of technology and training to record and store the stories of elders and their experiences in searchable multimedia databases.  "Rapid and sophisticated availability of all this information
supports civic democracy," says Doug.

Doug finds inspiration in organizations like: