Higher Education

hindsight is 2020: twenty years of ed tech banter

Audrey Waters writes today listing “the 100 worst ed-tech debacles of the decade” (h/t Seth Kahn). Coincidentally I learned today I had been nominated to be one of UB’s SUNY Online Teaching Ambassadors. This got me thinking about the 20+ years in which I’ve been teaching online and hybrid courses (which is basically the span of my career). As Waters’ list indicates, there is no shortage of debacles. It is a litany of hucksterism, boosterism, short-term thinking, knee-jerk reactions, technophobia, bureaucratic corruption, and corporate greed… especially those last two. Really it’s not so different from the broader stories of debacles in digital culture. As I (and many, many others) have argued over the years, we do not know how to live with digital media, and one of the most important roles the humanities might play in this century is helping us figure out how to do that. Or, to quote myself:

As I have said before (and will say, I guess, again and again), folks in English Studies need to realize that their critical competencies, their ethos, their knowledge, and their methods are not inextricably tied to a particular technology. If they are then English Studies will fade away and die from irrelevancy. Our disciplinary task is to learn, critique, and engage emerging forms of information/knowledge production and communication and to develop new modes of literacy in response that carry forward our ethical, political, and intellectual concerns and values.

(I wrote that 15 years ago. At least I got the prediction that I would say it again and again correct. FWIW, according to the NCES, the number of English majors graduating annually has dropped 25% in that period (~55K to 41K) and English departments’ share of majors has dropped 46% (3.7% to 2% of all four-year degrees). So I guess I also got the fading away part correct.)

That said, surely we can wring some good gallows humor out of all this. I’m afraid I can’t be as committed as Waters to a lengthy list, but here are some stand out moments.

Attending an NMC Conference in Second Life: I was trying to track down when this actually happened. It must have been 2007 or 2008, but I remember going to some New Media Consortium event in Second Life where Larry Johnson was giving the keynote. Waters starts off her list with a quick swipe at the (NMC-authored) Horizon Report but leaves Second Life off her list (maybe because it was already pretty much dead by 2010). I spent some time in Second Life. I even taught part of an online course there (in the fall of 2007). Part of my work has long been trying out stuff like Second Life.

I mean the jokes practically write themselves here. Second Life fizzled, but MMORPGs continue to flourish, and I attended several presentations on my campus last semester about VR. Maybe it was just too soon.

MOOC station wagons. Typically we’d talk about how quickly people jumped on the MOOC bandwagon, with no less than The NY Times calling 2012 the “year of the MOOC.” (My professional dream is to have something that ridiculous to live down.) But I’d like to call it the MOOC station wagon. If you’re of my generation then you know the kind of which I speak.

The MOOC Station Wagon

You can cram a surprising amount of people and/or crap into that thing. Plus you could shove the kids way in the back (no seatbelts of course) where they could jostle about largely unobserved. See, just a like a MOOC. Still the station wagon didn’t so much disappear as evolve into the minivan and the 8-person SUV. And the MOOC continues along, maybe with a little less hype.

Badgers. This is really my favorite and one of my most hit upon blog posts (“Welcome to Badge World“). Despite Waters decrying badges as a debacle, they seem to keep on keeping on. In fact, UB just started offering badges in the last year or so (and we have one in Digital Composing!).

I mean who wouldn’t want to sign up for MOOC where you can earn a badge for customizing Second Life avatars?

It was 20 years ago today:” 20 years ago, I was one semester into my first tenure track job at Penn State Capitol College and living in Schuylkill Haven, PA. Here’s what the UB home page looked like then (via the Wayback Machine).

UB Homepage Feb 2000

In some respects things have changed a lot. I mean bandwidth and screen size alone have changed things. Now we have little rotating video clips rather than rotating images. But we still have news; we still have the same basic links. The aesthetic has changed some, but the content and organization are still the same because the content and organization of the university are still largely the same. I’m picking on my own university here but really they’d all be the same (except for those for-profit hucksters out there).

It’s useful and even a little fun to take a poke at the ridiculous business of educational technology over the last twenty years, but the real joke has to be on the academy itself. 20 years ago, Blackboard and the whole CMS industry was just starting out. I recall getting a stipend to learn Blackboard at SUNY Cortland in the early 2000s! Can you imagine that? And it’s really not all that different now from then: assignments, quizzes, content units, discussion forum, grade book, blah, blah, blah.

At the first academic conference I attended as a grad student (CCCC, 1996 Milwaukee), Lester Faigley said in his keynote, “If we come back to our annual convention a decade from now and find that the essay is no longer on center stage, it will not mean the end of our discipline. I expect that we will be teaching an increasingly fluid, multimedia literacy”


That’s the true banter. It’s all fine and good to cry, laugh, and/or shake a fist at the NMCs, Pearsons, Googles, Second Lifes (Lives?) of the world, but how many times have we surely missed the boat?

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