Will Richardson shares his recent pessimism for his ongoing efforts to bring technology into the public schools. Will will be at Cortland on Tuesday (at noon in the library, open to the public). Anyway, I understand Will’s frustrations having spent the last few years (including this semester) trying to teach H.S. teachers to use technology. I have noticed a change in that time. Today, I’d say that the large majority of teacher-students I work with recognize that we are in the midst of a significant technocultural shift. They can see the explosion of media and networks, and they understand that their students will need a "literacy" that will enable them to live and work in this context. To a lesser extent, they realize that English is the classroom site where this literacy will be developed.
However, I think they don’t realize the implications of this, particularly looking ten years or more down the road.
They still imagine themselve teaching literature, teaching To Kill a Mockingbird for six weeks. Their adaption is to consider that they might have a class blog for discussing the novel or maybe the students will make a video related to the novel. Perhaps they will devise a way to use a wiki to teach vocabularly words or identify parts of speech.
In other words, they continue to view their profession as one that will be founded on a discrete, unchanging body of information that they will acquire before graduating. We might all deride the notion of the teacher/professor reciting the same lectures and lessons plans year after year, but somehow this does not alter this belief that a degree will certify us once and for all as authorities. Sure, all these teacher-students recognize that they will gain experience as teachers, learn helpful tips along the way, and become better practitioners. But this development of practice is separated from the acquisition of authoritative knowledge.
And this faith exists in both K-12 and college faculty.
The threat of the network is the dissolution of this authority. The ongoing development of media and networks requires us to keep moving. It doesn’t mean that what we’ve learned has no value; it means that it cannot establish us as authorities. We cannot imagine the classroom as resting upon a core body of knowledge. We are engaged in a technocultural shift that shakes the very foundations of epistemology: what began as a philosophical critique in theory now becomes a material condition (Hayles makes this argument, citing the birth of Netscape as the end of the "postmodern" era and the beginning of something new).
I understand Will’s pessimism as I don’t see how educational institutions will manage to make these changes. I know public school teachers often cite the limitations of testing requirements as a roadblock to innovation. However I think the limitation is more fundamental than that, closer to their own sense of professional identity. As much as the tests may limit teachers, they also secure them within a defined space of authority. I know my students and colleagues view me as an "expert" in new media, but how could I be an expert in something I did for the first time only a few months ago, something that may not have even existed a year ago?
I’m just keeping ahead of the curve, my "expertise" coming from my ability to tap into a network of information. In other words, my expertise doesn’t come from inside, from my authority, but from outside, from my intersection with the network.
The cold reality, as we all know, is that school has never been about educating people anyway. It’s about child care and warehousing labor. It’s about hailing children into subject positions, about defining us all and placing us in a hierarchy. And maybe it’s about measuring us and slotting us into different functions. After all that, maybe, maybe, it’s about learning something. So maybe it isn’t a big deal that the so-called education schools offer will continue to lose relevance.
My only real concern with that is the increasing social divide that will result. When the publicly available education becomes increasingly devalued, we will all look to other places to learn and those with the material resources will be able to provide a better genuine education for their kids online.
Is that pessmistic enough for you? No? Then try this. When my kids go to college in 10 years or so, a state university education at SUNY will cost you six figures. Am I really going to lay down $125G to have my daughter subjected to an education that is completely disconnected from the world in which she’ll be working and living? I mean the tension between academia and the mainstream culture is heavy enough as it is based strictly on ideological differences. What happens when academics continue to insist on providing an increasingly irrelevant education and charging more and more for the privilege?