action media pedagogy

AMP. How’s that for an acronym? Just kidding. I was reading Will Richardson and his reference to a Clay Shirky video. The Shirky video is mostly a discussion of the themes of his book, but Will picks up on this one little phrase about the move from "media for knowledge" to "media for action," meaning that now the organizational tools of networks allow us not only to share knowledge but to participate in collective action in powerful new ways. Shirky gives several examples from the book and one new example regarding the mafia in Palermo.

As we know, Shirky’s main theme is that contemporary networks make it so much easier for everyday people to organize for any number of purposes that social networking is altering traditional relationships between people and the institutions upon which they used to rely for organizational infrastructure.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this in terms of our dear ol’ institutions. The first (and ongoing) crisis of social networking was sharing media content. This didn’t affect colleges directly, even though media content production is an integral part of our work. Obviously, no one really cares much about the pedagogic media content we produce; that is, students don’t pay for access to content.

Much to our chagrin, they pay for the degree. But what does that certification represent? Well, expert testimony: I’ll get back to that one. The other part is organization/coordination, e.g., curriculum. Here is where we can start to see changes if Shirky is right. What happens when you can freely coordinate content with easy and free/cheap organization? How hard would it be for a couple of English MAs or BAs to put together an undergrad lit studies curriculum just with freely available content? All the prof lectures you need are available here or there. All the pre-20th century literary texts are freely available. There’s plenty of full-text databases available through public libraries if you need that. Even if you have to buy some material, the cost is very small compared to tuition. Then you set up a syllabus and a discussion board and just go. You can already see this in Facebook with an app like Supercool School.

Now you could say that you’re going without the feedback from professors, but I went through my English BA with huge classes graded by TAs and occasional, research-free papers graded by professors who offered little more than a few check marks, a comment like "very good" and a grade. That’s not optimal, but I don’t believe you can argue that "feedback" is a necessary or integral part of an undergrad education

Of course you do need "expert testimony," someone who is qualified to say you’ve accomplished something. It seems to me though that you could accomplish this with some examinations and a portfolio review. So you could replace many colleges with an extended ETS-like service. Basically you could get rid of all the colleges in the middle. All those average colleges and all the students who attend them and graduate with sub 3.0 GPAs. You’d keep the top colleges for the top students and you’d keep the open admissions colleges for students who wouldn’t have the literacy or educational habits to get a degree in this way.

Obviously I’m not recommending that future, but I could see how we could end up there. The other possibility is perhaps action media pedagogy.

If we take media for action as Shirky explains it, then we might start to think about the learning opportunities that arise through mediated action. There are many different roles learning might occupy in relation to mediated action: things you might learn through the experience, learning necessary to carry out an action, and even learning as the stated objective of an action (imagine that!). What I am trying to imagine is a role for the professor-instructor that is more than the sum of

  • producer of pedagogic media content +
  • evaluator of student works +
  • provider of expert testimony.

Yes, there is more that teachers do in terms of establishing mentoring relationships with students, but I just want to bracket activities that are not strictly those of the classroom today.

What I am getting at is thinking about faculty as experts in using "media for action." Shirky notes that one of the powers of social networking is that the cost of failure is low. Still, there is a cost, particularly in terms of labor. Colleges insulate professors from that cost. Not entirely of course but in substantial ways. We are in a position to build systems that are interwoven with the physical resources of the campus. If you want college campuses to thrive into the future, they need to be built into media networks; they need to be integrated into mediated activities in a way that creates recognizable, special value.

One might start by reversing the typical questions asked about networks in pedagogy and ask instead

  • how do I make the campus into a place worth visiting?
  • what would have to happen to make my office or other campus workspace more useful than my home office?
  • how can the classroom enhance the possibilities of media networks?