To save higher education, click here

Last month (November 2013) the Faculty of Arts issued a report on “Post-Secondary Education in the Digital Age.” (I was a co-chair.) We gathered information on faculty members’ use of learning technologies, or more specifically, on their

“current e-learning practices, their needs and desires regarding e-learning, any impediments that limited their ability to utilize e-learning in their classes, the means by which the Faculty should support e-learning, and the priorities the Faculty should set for e-learning.”

Finally, we made seven recommendations to foster pedagogical innovations.

The results of our canvassing will change the way the Faculty implements and customizes learning tools and platforms, from the new Learning Management System, Desire2Learn, to MOOCs, which I wrote about yesterday.

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So why am I rehashing the e-learning report now? Because I wanted to point out a key finding: my colleagues have a healthy skepticism about the use of technology for its own sake, and the ways that it can interfere with the nuanced, unmediated, focused, public-spirited, and reliable tools we’re already using: paper books, chalk, index cards, and well-designed classrooms.

We have thrived for centuries with these technologies, the argument goes; and no Facebook forum or mobile app is going to teach critical thinking better than a good seminar, a stack of paper and a cup of sharp pencils.

It might surprise you to read — on a blog, no less — that I wholeheartedly agree with that argument. It resists “the folly of technological solutionism” that Evgeny Morozov has described in Silicon Valley: the mentality that all disruption is beneficial; that new technologies are all forces for good; that “there’s an app for that,” no matter what “that” is. To a hammer, as they say, every problem looks like a nail.

Advocates of technological solutionism need more humility, more historical self-awareness, more balanced and critical assessment of new tools. In other words, they need to see the new not as a wholescale replacement of the old tools and methods, but as a necessary addition to them. Our Swiss-army set of current tools do a fine job. That said, even Victorinox is adding USB drives to their classic tools.

But if even the book was once touted as a revolutionary new technology, that doesn’t make it dispensible. To quote Umberto Eco on the codex interface:

Alterations to the book-as-object have modified neither its function nor its grammar for more than 500 years. The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved.

Let’s parse that last claim. While the codex itself can’t really be improved, it can be augmented. Who are the English professors who prefer a printed concordance to a searchable interface? Who will claim never to have searched Google Books to fill in the details of an incomplete footnote? (Guilty as charged.) Who has never bought a book on Amazon to save the trek to a bookstore?

Leave those examples aside and consider this. For two reasons, the university classroom is the ideal environment for evaluating the affordances of new technology:

  1. We have a renewable resource of students who bring us fresh ideas each year. Ask and they will tell you about the social networks, viral videos, and mobile games that are the next Twitter, twerking video, or Fruit Ninja. (So long as you’re willing to confess some well-earned ignorance.) And yes — they often lack the information literacy to do an Advanced Search in Google, or the knowledge of Creative Commons or Open Access media. That’s where we come in.
  2. We exercise the critical thinking that puts new media in the contexts that evaluate its affordances, that reveal what’s beneath its shiny surfaces. We know how algorithms filter culture, and why living in a filter bubble is harmful to free thinking. We’ve read our John Stuart Mill (“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little”) or John Milton (“I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue … that never sallies out and sees her adversary.”)

The Faculty of Arts is full of critical thinkers who know the truth is a synthesis of the thesis (e-learning as panacea) and antithesis (e-learning as pandemic). We know that “the best and most effective form of teaching and learning is face-to-face interaction,” and why that works better than a Helpout on Google+. That makes our skepticism healthy, and not cynical.

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