Higher Education Teaching

education is/as a platform

In a kind of dog bites man story, the Chronicle reported earlier this week on a study that indicates that "many professors use interactive tools ineffectively in online courses." Really? Just "online courses"? Is that meant to suggest they use them effectively in face-to-face courses or just that they don't use them there? Specifically the study indicates "most professors relied on text-based assignments and materials. In the instances when professors did decide to use interactive tools like online video, many of those technologies were not connected to learning objectives." OK. But let's be clear that "video" is not any more interactive than text. In certain instances video might be more instructive, and overall I think it's probably worthwhile to vary the media one uses, but that's not interactivity.

Interactivity is certainly a potential feature of a networked pedagogy, but that's now how I would characterize this shift. I would say that traditional pedagogy is individual, but impersonal, and private, but mass-experienced. That is, though students learn mostly on their own, their learning experiences are not personalized to them. Thus they privately experience the lecture given to a hundred students. Conversely, a networked pedagogy would by personalized, but social, and public, but customized. That is, new technologies can give students a greater deal of flexbility in how they approach the material and that approach is now shared with other students. Thus their learning experiences are public (to varying degrees but at least beyond themselves as individuals) but can now be shaped at the user level.

As I've written here in the past, if one is asking how do I achieve the goals of my face-to-face class in an online environment, then one is asking the wrong question. The goals of legacy curricula are products of that environment and do not necessarily apply to a new context. That is, for example, the broad stroke goals of our English major (e.g. gaining a knowledge of literary periods) would remain the same, but the particularities of the knowledge and the means for gaining that knowledge would change. (Indeed it is possible that the notion of period might be altered as well, but that's a question of research rather than pedagogy.) As such, if we think about it, it's easy to begin seeing the extensive apparatus that has to be put in place for the 50- or 80-minute class meeting to operate; for textbooks, lectures, class discussions, exams, essay assignments, and other familiar features of courses to make sense; for the goals of individual courses and majors to develop; and so on. Needless to say, the goals were not created first, but as professors we typically conceive of our pedagogical role as basically pouring content into the existing educational platform. Certainly there are some innovators within that context ,and some professors take up the task with more energy and/or success than others, but in the end, it all looks much the same. This is why it comes as no surprise that professors struggle as outlined in this study. As faculty we are not well positioned to address questions on this pedagogical level, and, unfortunately, the educational products out there, at least the ones I've seen, don't help much…. in part, because they are marketed to faculty with the promise of making it possible to translate the face-to-face to the online, but also because they have not been able to keep up with the changing digital media practices in the broader culture.

When I say that education is a platform, I mean that it is a structure for formalizing learning. Obviously people learn in informal ways all the time, but formal learning allows for a more sustained and directed learning experience that results in learning that is hopefully more complex, deep, and meaningful. Our primary complaint about these online tools is that they are shallow. As we know, these complaints are always made of new media. That said, there is no doubt that social media is filled with shallow communication. Shockingly, life is filled with shallow conversations. I think we haven't yet figured out how best to use social media as an educational platform. The first books published weren't scholarly mongoraphs or university textbooks. Our now familiar academic discourses emerged from those technologies. 

Of course to say that education is a platform is also to recognize that it has a strong technological component: books, clocks, chalk, paper, buildings, lights, labs, libraries, etc. etc. Some of these are obviously more specific (or with specialized uses) to education; others are just features of the industrial world. So what if we imagined the technological platform of 2020 as an advanced pc tablet, something like whatever the iPad 7 might look like, but not necessarily Apple; fast, mobile, high-speed network, excellent graphics, and with an increased capacity to compose as well as consume media. 

What kind of platform is that?

By now, we are all familiar with the "flipped classroom," basically watch lectures as homework and come to class to work. A decade ago I think that was an exciting idea. However, we ought to realize that watching a video lecture is a kind of remediation (hell, the textbook book remediated the lecture for that matter). Obviously we still need students to learn content, but we might revisit the role of text and lecture (video or otherwise) play in that learning. Or, more precisely, we might rethink the practice of reading. This is very hard, especially for people like me who love reading. My education is built upon independent reading (I say "is" because it's ongoing). We read something and then we talk and write about it. That's certainly what education is about in English, and it's an integral part of almost every discipline. I would not want to make the argument that we should abandon these practices because "kids today" can't handle them or because they aren't valuable anymore. Instead, we need to imagine how these valuable practices translate into the new platform, and, in turn, discover/invent ways that this new platform expands our capacities and allows us to imagine our goals in new ways.

So, for example, I teach an undergrad course in new media (I'd use a literary example, but I don't teach literature courses). We will read texts in that class, primarily because many of the interesting ideas (historically and today) are found in print. Even though it's a 300-level class and the texts we're reading aren't super difficult (e.g. Bush's "As We May Think"), I can't expect that the students will be able to understand the texts through independent reading. Shifting the platform, it's not too hard to imagine reading this text on a tablet with access to any number of tools that could help a student understand the text (my notes, student comments, other online resources, etc.). But we can then go beyond that perhaps into some multimedia presentation of the evolution of the memex idea (e.g. how the tablet they are holding relates to the memex). Then there is an activity that helps students recognize the information problem Bush is addressing and how current technologies respond to it (or fail to). In other words, we are still reading, but now we are engaging with the text in a way that incorporates our capacity for sharing our experiences (which is already intergral to reading but has always been limited by the available tech) and expands our opportunities for engagement by making use of new tools. This might be followed by some response (with varying degrees of formality) to the text. Our new platform allows us to compose in a wider range of ways. We can still hold onto our value of "critical thinking," but now the terms vexing nebulousness becomes an asset as we can think variably about how a "critical" thought might manifest itself in different kinds of compositions. 

I personally still value the face-to-face meeting. If we are all coming to campus anyway, it's silly for us not to meet. And I do think that having ftf communication is important for our students: class discussions and presentations are places where they struggle, and I can't imagine a future where speaking to other people won't be important. As such, I think you can still keep class meetings and thus some kind of course structure (a beginning and end to the meetings). However I have long thought that classrooms should be about doing. Some problems are more easily worked out face-to-face. Presentations can be made. Planning and coordinating are often easier. Differences can be resolved. Most importantly I think those meetings help to strengthen the relations among students that are very difficult to form in a purely online course. In other words, class meetings serve an important social function, which I think is one thing that we most ignore in conventional pedagogy.



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