Higher Education

writing on actor networks and distributed learning environments

I’m taking my little song and dance to a different kind of audience and writing an article for a journal called On the Horizon. Michael Feldstein at e-Literate is guest-editing the issue. Essentially I’m going to be writing about the things I’ve been writing about here over the last two years: the courses I’ve taught, the technologies I’ve employed, the institutional and disciplinary contexts, and the pedagogy.

Of course I’ll probably need to be a tad more specific than that.

I suppose my fundamental point is that a distributed learning environment necessarily goes beyond the local campus network. In fact, it goes beyond what an institution can organize. Right now, probably the most radically an institution can imagine is endorsing Personal Learning Environments, which is something Gardner Campbell was discussing at CIT. But let’s say you set up a PLE and enroll students in it in 2008. How’s that system going to be working in 2012?

For example, in 2004, I was blogging here. I was maybe using delicious, flickr and a blog aggregator. Those were the next few things I got into anyhow. Now I’ve got this long list. Many of the things you can see in my sidebar. So I suppose, you could imagine a PLE serving as a kind of repository, a curation space, as long as it was open enough to receive feeds coming from all over the web.

But the PLE might not actually be a site of any direct activity. Along those lines, some faculty would want to insist on their students using institutional applications. Some faculty like it that way. They want to set up their rooms and run their courses over and over and over. Whatever. That’s their business. On the flip side I’m doing different things every semester which probably just a crazy. But there you go.

So this is what happens with me. Some things I get involved with are institutional, like iTunesU. Some I go begging for a little cash to support me, like getting an SL island. But mostly this stuff comes free as we all know, and I just do my own thing. That’s where I am out on the experimenter curve. I should be clear that I don’t think everyone should be doing what I’m doing. In fact, I have very little opinion about what other faculty ought to be doing.

However I do know that… If institutions want to follow up on experimentation, if they want to clue into the Horizon report-type trends, they are going to need to redefine faculty labor. And they’ll have to do that in concert with the faculty. They’ll have to

  • provide professional development and technical support to keep faculty on the learning curve
  • employ emerging technologies in the daily operation of the college (e.g. none of this asking faculty to revise curriculum and then turning around and asking for a paper form in triplicate to put new curriculum through the bureaucracy)
  • reward faculty for publishing scholarship in new media (you can’t ask faculty to teach students to use technologies they don’t use themselves)

All of this means significant redefining of the campus. I continue to say that I don’t think colleges are up to the task and that they will breakdown over the next 2-3 decades. Meanwhile something else will come along to replace them. Oh, there will still be colleges of course, but they won’t be the places we send half of our HS grads every year. (Of course if McCain becomes prez will be sending those grads to Iraq as we’ll only be 1/4 of the way into the century-long war he has planned for us.)

So those are the technical and practical elements as I see them: keeping the campus learning network to open standards so that it can integrate with innovations and rebuilding campus culture to support a new kind of engagement with technology.

The other element of this essay is the theory, which will be the tricky part for this audience I think since it’s outside their areas of expertise. But basically, understanding the distributed learning network means recognizing that the network moves beyond the conventional computers and wires. It means drawing on Latour’s actor-network to see a larger context at work.  Faculty, staff, and administrators all need to understand the broad network of objects and forces that shape student learning in distributed networks which include technical matters, legal issues, campus policies, and disciplinary-curricular practices and goals. Distributed learning networks make these matters more complex: university knowledge-making from undergrad lecture halls and researchers’ labs to scholarly journals and committee meeting rooms no longer occur in a sequestered environment.

Anyway, I’ll be writing something more formally in the next week or so that will be going up on e-Literate.

So I’ll refine this as I go along.