On Google maps and education

At lunch today, I talked with a former professor about some of the issues that he sees with his students. This, by the way, is at Amherst. The students who get in there did so because they knew how to present themselves to their high school teachers and admissions boards. They knew how to win.
Many student wrote papers that were focused on a narrow topic, crisply-defined, but with little connection to other ideas or domains. These students did well well because they showed a clear answer to a specific, albeit esoteric, question. Their research skills were limited to delivering a precise answer with no ragged edges.
If you ask Google Maps (or any GPS system) for turn-by-turn directions, you get good results. Using those directions will get you where you intend to go, but with a curious side effect. You are delivered as in a tunnel, without context.

Time was, we studied maps and knew not only the path, but also the frame of reference. Recently, I had to travel to a part of a nearby town that was unfamiliar to me. The person I was visiting said that his street is right near the so-and-so school. I used Google Navigation. It made no mention of the school as a prominent reference point. Instead, it said, “in 600 feet,  turn left.” I got where I was going, but Google told me nothing of the fact that this family lived near a school.
It turned out that living near a school was very relevant to this person and his wife because his kids could walk to school. Google told me what was true, but not what was meaningful.

A solid educational experience

In the early 70s, I worked for McManus’s, an all-night restaurant in Hadley. We had a Metro van that we used for errands around town. The van was an International Metro Mite, painted with the McManus logo. The notation near the driver’s door said that the van’s height was 7′ 00″.
One day, I needed to go to UMass for something and so I went to the parking garage in the center of campus.

I made my way into the garage, made the first turn, and got stuck when the top of the truck hit the roof of first parking level. After many uncharitable words toward the nameless workers who hadn’t measured all of the clearances in the garage, I let enough air out of the tires to lower and free the truck.
It was in that spirit that I went to UMass yesterday. I was there for a conference, but I found myself thinking about nearly 50 years in the valley.
I started hanging around there when my father was working on the construction of the Southwest dorm complex. During the summer, we’d drive from the camp, through the fog banks along Route 202 near the Quabbin, to Amherst. I’d spend the day on campus, reading newspapers, drinking coffee, smoking the cigarettes that I could buy for thirty cents from the vending machine.
I had a good time pretending to be a college student. I did that for a long time.
During those years, UMass grew in size and stature. The Boston Globe had a good write-up this past Sunday about the aesthetics of the concretized campus. I have a fondness for those buildings in way that I remember that old van. It wasn’t real pretty when new, but it got the job done. It was dented front, sides, and back. I was the only one to put a dent on the roof.

Our technology conference was in the campus center auditorium, gray vaulted ceilings high enough for the tallest truck and unfriendly to radio waves of any type.