Laura Blankenship (Emerging Technologies Consulting), Leslie Madsen-Brooks (University of California, Davis), and Barbara Sawhill (Oberlin College)
Shuttering the factory
Historians often point to prisons, hospitals, factories, museums, and universities as key institutions arising from modern and industrial impulses. It makes sense, then, that higher education would share some characteristics with its modernist siblings. Increasingly, however, education in the U.S. looks and feels like one of these institutions: the factories, mills and processing plants that were once a symbol of economic promise in American economy as they provided generations of jobs for its workers. The downfall of these industries resulted from poor financing and financial mismanagement, inflated salaries for administrators, and a disregard for the realities of the rapidly changing world markets. The parallels to the current realities of the U.S. public school system—which is crumbling under the bureaucratic imperatives of a professional management class, misguided investments in technologies of control instead of innovation, and the restrictions imposed by No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—are remarkable.
Current practices of higher education in the U.S. result from Fordist processes, in that the vast majority of children who will go to college have arrived there after years of standardized and regimented assessments, each marked now by what industry might term a “quality assurance process,” but which in education has come to be known as high-stakes testing. The result is that students come to college, and particularly to large state universities, with a keenly honed ability to absorb—but not necessarily digest and thereby make their own—facts and basic skills like grammar, arithmetic, and algebra. Faculty frequently complain that students lack the ability to think critically or creatively, to analyze scenarios or synthesize information.
Faculty, too, are products of this system and often perpetuate it, either because it’s what they know from their own education or out of necessity. Class sizes are skyrocketing—at UC Davis, for example, there is a bioscience course that enrolls more than 900 students—which leads faculty to see themselves as having few options beyond this same kind of bubble-form, high-stakes testing, where students’ “learning” is measured by their performance on three or four multiple-choice or short-answer exams over the course of a quarter or semester.
Despite what the media might tell us about the fearlessness of the Millennial generation, our students misunderstand and fear both the responsibilities society places upon them and the opportunities available to them. “Gen Y” students enter institutions of higher education after having spent years in an industrial model of education that has not challenged them to learn for themselves. In this increasingly complex world, the ability to learn independently is perhaps the most important skill to have, yet the educational industry still functions as if we live in a world where people graduate from high school or college, head off to their company job a line worker or middle management, and stay there a lifetime.
It’s time to close this widget factory.
After years of observing various kinds of resistance to social media from faculty and students, the three of us realized that much of their reluctance is rooted in fear and anxiety. That’s understandable, as these technologies challenge the status quo in many ways and raise, albeit unconvincingly, the specter of faculty irrelevance. Although student-centered learning is not a new concept, the web, and especially social software, has made it increasingly simple for students to shape their own learning. In this article we offer some anecdotes, alternatives, and—we hope—some inspiration for those willing to embrace a recontextualization of learning in U.S. universities.
The topic of fear is a complex one. A couple of years ago, when we first started talking about the fear of web 2.0 technologies in the academy, we were able to fill pages and pages with sources of fear. Our first presentation, at the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) conference in 2008 with Barbara Ganley (then of Middlebury College, and now Digital Explorations) and Martha Burtis (of the University of Mary Washington), articulated several fears: the faculty’s fear of tripping up or relinquishing control; students’ fear of being asked to take on more responsibility for their own learning; the administration’s fear of letting faculty and students use tools that weren’t tested, that were open source and lacked an official online help desk, or whose content was viewable by the web-browsing public; and the more heartening, and also more overarching, fear felt by growing numbers of people within the academy that if we don’t change and embrace these new tools, American higher education will become an analog relic in a digital age. At that first presentation, we invited the audience to share their own fears and brainstorm how to overcome the many fears that arose. Some of the fears they expressed and solutions they generated are archived in this set of Flickr photos. We’re still seeing many of those same fears, though we’re also seeing novel solutions.
In the spirit of the collaboration of our ELI and NMC presentations, instead of this article being a tightly conceived thought-piece on our topic, we’ve tried to capture the back-and-forth style we deploy in teaching and learning, as well as the insights our audience shared with us.
Methods to our madness: modeling our teaching and learning at NMC, and the audience’s response
Barbara: I think it is important to note a few things about the way we chose to present this topic to our audience. To those who do not know us, or what we write about in our blogs—and this certainly pertains to the couple of folks who wandered into the room and then promptly left upon seeing participants scribbling on large sheets of paper—our presentation style is a bit out-there, seemingly devil-may-care and weird. But I assure you, there is a purpose and an intentionality to our perceived madness.
Over the past few years at our respective academic institutions, we independently developed a concern for what we felt was a growing trend to create a one-size-fits-all form of technology for teaching and learning. In talking to each other, we realized that our institutions’ desire to purchase course management systems that touted efficiency, one-stop-shopping, centralization, security, and control was actually our schools’ way of manifesting their collective fear of the changes in technology, learning, and teaching that were erupting around them. Curiously, the very technologies that we see generating fear in our institutions’ teaching and learning has brought us together as friends, collaborators, and co-presenters.
This form of collaboration carried over into our NMC session. We have learned that by “presenting”—a term that is awkward for us, as it suggests material moving in a single direction—in a more inclusive style, we can effectively model the kind of classroom we feel best supports and encourages learning. If you watch the video of the session, you’ll notice that we never stood still; there was always a give-and-take among us and our audience. We even let them create the visuals. :-)
Our presentation philosophy is this: since web 2.0 tools create a student-centered environment, the teacher/student relationship must shift to accommodate those changes inside and outside the classroom. As she teaches with learner-centric, community-creating tools, the teacher has to let go, to take a chance, to model and to trust. This is unnerving for both the teacher and the student (and in our case, the unsuspecting audience). But the underlying principle behind these tools and the pedagogy they encourage is that our classes are no longer about the teaching; rather, they are about the learning they promote.
Laura: We immediately put our participants in the mind of contributing to the session by asking them to draw pictures that were metaphors for what education is today. This was a little like a magician’s card force because we hoped certain images would arise out of this exercise. Specifically, we hoped that someone would draw a factory model of education, a model that, despite the decline of manufacturing jobs, is still with us and still informs the learning practices of the students and the teaching practices of many faculty.Barbara: We got one! Smokestacks, conveyor belts, mass production. . .the whole nine yards.
Laura: Like people who know nothing but the manufacturing world, both teachers and students have a hard time imagining something else—or they can see that there’s another way and aren’t sure how to get there. Yes, we did get a drawing of a factory, but we got many others that equally articulated the problems facing higher education and its struggle to deal with the influx of new technologies.
Laura: My favorite drawing was the first drawing that we discussed. It was an image of the ivory tower, which looked a little like a wedding cake. There were people standing on the top, but there also were people climbing up the sides, many of them falling off. On another side, towards the bottom, there were people chipping away at the tower, trying to bring it down. The woman who made this drawing explained that the people at the top were completely oblivious to the people climbing or the people chipping away at the tower. I thought this was an apt representation of how higher education is often perceived by the general public. They view faculty as being in this higher plane, unaware of the world around them, studying completely impractical topics. Some students aspire to be like their faculty and therefore begin the long climb to the top, but many fall off at different stages in their academic careers. The people chipping away on the side, the woman explained, were people trying to change the ivory tower, trying to bring it down to earth, to level the playing field. Outside the drawing, these efforts are represented by resources such as OpenCourseWare or Academic Earth (a video site that hosts academic lectures), but it’s also represented by open access journals, open educational resources, and calls for greater transparency. These latter projects threaten the modus operandi of higher ed, but many people, the very people in fact on top of the tower, are oblivious to these pressures.Barbara: I like that one, and this one as well. It reminds me of one of those great Busby Berkeley dance routines. I also like the symbolism of the sunny (and apparently lucrative) skies up above and the cloudy, dreary conditions for the apparent underlings that dwell below. One of the things that came through in a lot of these pictures was a sense of inaccessible verticality. People seem to have set places or roles, and the possibility of moving up is impossible. Many of these drawings portrayed the academy as made up of impenetrable and rigid tiers, with people stuck in the lower levels and far away from the upper tiers.
Leslie: Many of the tower images, and particularly the drawing of the the pink, tiered tower above, reminded me of paintings of the Tower of Babel:
Faculty, Teaching, and Fear 2.0Barbara: This is an interesting image too. The teacher appears to be the hub and the technologies and tasks are the spokes with the students are on the outside. It looks like the students are making the wheel spin, and the teacher is not in control. The technology to reach the students seems to be in fact turning on the teacher. Looks like the teacher is losing control of the tools and the students and ultimately the creation of knowledge.
This reminds me a lot of the fear and the pushback I sometimes get from faculty when I talk with them about incorporating technologies into their teaching. I have to frame that conversation, and often calm their nerves, with the caveat that technology is not a panacea and I am not suggesting that it will cure all of their teaching ills. When used effectively, technology helps augment the learning experience in the classroom. It takes time, sometimes lots of it, and persistence, to figure out what area of the curriculum could be improved through technology. . .and sometimes faculty just do not have that kind of time. In some schools, technology integration is perceived to be a kind of litmus test; it is another obligation, another task, something that has to be mastered (controlled) before they can use it in class, lest any mistakes they might make be reflected poorly in the dreaded student teaching evaluations. Alas, the teacher, according to the models passed down through the years, is meant to feel he is supposed to master and convey knowledge, not create it alongside and with his students, which, ironically, is specifically what these new tools allow us and want us to do.
Leslie: I wholeheartedly agree. I have observed, and experienced as an instructor, that faculty lack the time to learn new technologies that could usher in an era of new ways of teaching, learning, thinking, and collaborating. The initial investment in these technologies may actually save faculty time spent preparing for class and grading papers, but three primary factors keep faculty from exploring these largely social technologies:
- Faculty are swamped by teaching responsibilities (at small colleges and four-year state universities) and by research requirements (at research universities).
- By the very fact of their reaching the top of the academic hierarchy (i.e. being professors), faculty have demonstrated that as students they learned in ways traditionally expected and rewarded by the system, for example by listening to lectures, or by writing up lab reports and essays on their own. Accordingly, many of them assume that their students learn in these same ways: through listening to lectures, taking notes, completing exams, and authoring papers without assistance from their peers. (In fact, some colleges have honor codes that ask students to pledge on their papers that they have neither given nor received assistance from their peers. Frankly, I find that horrifying.)
- Social technologies suggest a loss of control on the part of the faculty member and a decentralizing of her authority. If students are collaborating on a project—for example, by creating a wiki-based textbook for chemistry courses at the university (an actual project being undertaken at the University of California, Davis), what is the role of the traditional collector of knowledge, the degreed professional who will pour out his knowledge into the vessels of the students? Social technologies can completely rewrite—fruitfully, if they are used well—the role of the instructor.
All of this adds up to fear and anxiety on the part of faculty—but also on the part of students, who may use these technologies to make personal connections but are wary of using, or not savvy enough to employ, these technologies for learning and collaboration.
Making the situation worse are academic institutions themselves, which must defend their network infrastructures from attacks by hackers, careless authorized users who inadvertently download and disseminate viruses, and corporate entities who expect institutions to be vigilant about the use of corporate intellectual property. Faced with these challenges, all of which seem to call for greater control rather than more openness, institutions are reluctant to experiment with new social software that promotes sharing and collaboration. Thus are born lists of approved software and web sites that the campus community can’t access because they have been deemed too dangerous by network administrators or copyright compliance officers, or too unproductive for staff to use during the workday. Institutions, like faculty, fear losing control.
Laura: There are a lot of things working against faculty (and students), for sure. And these issues came up a lot from the audience in our session. Certainly, there are things institutions can do to alleviate these problems. They can support faculty in their explorations of new technology for teaching. They might provide monetary compensation, or just the time and space to work in. Faculty can consult with teaching and learning center staff, people like Leslie, or with instructional technologists to discuss the pros and cons of different tools. And faculty should be advocates for themselves, promoting the responsible use of technology that enhances learning. Figuring out the security issues should come second. They can almost always be worked out. Much as I know faculty hate more service work, faculty should put themselves on technology committees or make one if there isn’t one (and there often isn’t) and always approach decisions about technology in ways that are about teaching, learning, and research. Don’t let the IT people always control the conversation.
Leslie: Amen. There are some brilliant IT folks out there, and their insights shouldn’t be discounted, but faculty should be driving this process.
Barbara: I don’t think more committees or more service work are the answer, actually. I think schools of all sizes have to figure out how to promote exploration, experimentation, questioning, curiosity in ALL forms of learning but especially when it comes to exploring new ways of teaching. We have to be able to model those things for our students, and we simply can’t do that if we are fearful that one slip-up will lead to a pink slip.
The students we teach: They are more like us than we realize
Laura: Faculty have been saying for years that students aren’t as prepared as they should be, usually in terms of typical academic skills such as writing or research. When it comes to technology, though, many faculty have gone the other way and assumed that the students know everything there is to know about technology. It’s funny because I don’t think that 20 years ago faculty were saying that since most students could program a VCR, they can program a computer. But that’s where we are now. Faculty believe that if students can use Facebook, they can use the web for effective research. I tell most faculty that a majority of their students will need help with the basics of using many of the tools out there, from blogs to Blackboard. More importantly, they need help thinking critically about the way they use these tools, about all the content they’re experiencing on the web, and they need help moving from consumers of that content to creators of it. I think once faculty realize that they have an important role to play in student use of technology and that students are not the computer geniuses they think they are, they will feel more comfortable trying new technology. It’s important, I think, to feel that it’s okay to learn the technology with your students.
Barbara: The funny thing is that even as adults, we also need help maneuvering the endless sea of information that now awaits us every time we open a browser. The more you find, the more you realize how much there still is yet to be found. This can be very perplexing to a recently minted Ph.D., now a professor, who has just spent the last several years mastering and defending his or her knowledge about one specific thing. To be thrust now into a college classroom where information comes hurtling from a variety of sources, and filtered through a multitude of personal lenses, is problematic. Learning to parse, weigh, and reflect upon that information is a skill the teacher must acquire in areas other than his or her “area of expertise.” There is an important opportunity here and that is the chance to model the discomfort, the feeling of being overwhelmed, and the process of seeking answers. That is one of the fundamental shifts that these tools create: that we find ourselves modeling the best practices—and sometimes some exquisite failures, too—alongside our students. Through these tools there is a great leveling of hierarchies, and as such we learn together, and together we discover how much more there is to learn.
Laura: Our NMC audience came up with lots of great ideas for learning about and also through the tools. One great one I think was to make technology and education an area of intellectual pursuit. I’ve personally had a lot of success with that. There’s a lot of potential there, from looking at YouTube as a political tool to examining the effects of Facebook on social relationships. Professors can certainly use their own discipline as a lens through which to examine technology. The audience also discussed the fact that our students are not necessarily ill prepared. They’re just in a different place. As Barbara pointed out at the beginning and as the pictures that our participants drew show, students have been enculturated into a factory model of education. They expect their learning—and the teaching—to happen a certain way. When it doesn’t, and it usually doesn’t, even in courses that don’t make heavy use of technology, they get scared and often stumble quite a bit. They’re going to struggle. Teachers need to help them with that struggle and technology can be a part of that assistance. Teachers can encourage blogging their learning, taking assessments online, looking up new materials, and generally showing them how to use tools to support their learning.
Is there an ideal model for education?
Towards the end of our session at the NMC summer conference, Bryan Alexander, director of research for the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education (NITLE), said he feared that higher education might become irrelevant if it remains stuck in the technological past. Is higher education going the way of travel agents? Our anachronistic approach to teaching and learning and our refusal to break with some apocryphal glorious past, Bryan suggested with his usual wit, renders our campuses akin to Renaissance fairs, where players reenact the most pleasant aspects of how we imagine Renaissance-era life to have been. But although Renaissance fairs are born out of passion for a bygone era, their portrayal of it is superficial and commercial. And so is much of the “learning” taking place in overflowing classrooms. It’s time for faculty to acknowledge that their colleagues in schools of education and elsewhere have undertaken decades of excellent research on learning in higher education, research that suggests interaction and collaboration—yes, the kind that can be facilitated by social media—are far more effective methods for promoting learning than lecture, multiple-choice exams, and PowerPoint slides posted online.
Leslie: At the same time, I find social media incredibly useful and I value the almost monastic-retreat atmosphere of some of the small, elite liberal arts colleges in this country. I graduated from Grinnell College in 1997, and there’s something to be said for establishing a learning community in what most folks would call the middle of nowhere. That said, the retreat model relies on privilege—having the resources, time, and space in one’s life to spend four years immersed in learning, with regular excursions to provide the service to community, country, and world that was so strongly encouraged by Grinnell. Finding this balance between retreat from the world and engagement with it can be difficult, but I think this can only be aided by a judicial use of social media in learning, research, and collaboration.
Any instructor incorporating social media in her classes will likely need to lead a discussion on information overload. Such a discussion would complement naturally, I think, a discussion about identifying reliable and useful sources online. We need to help students determine where and how to spend their time when they’re undertaking virtual research and collaboration.
A metaphor for learning at the intersection of the bricks-and-mortar world and networked spaces is, for me, the classic small-town downtown. I know this is a well-worn metaphor, used explicitly by online communities like Apple’s eWorld, but there’s something to be said for being able to walk or browse easily from library to newsstand, from bookstore to coffeehouse, from copy center to post office. Bringing in a big-box store like Wal-Mart—the virtual corollary might be Blackboard or another learning management system—might kill the diversity and social serendipity of this pleasant small downtown life. Where’s the arts district, for example, in Blackboard? Outside of Blackboard or Wal-Mart, one can skip from Twitter to Ravelry, from favorite forums and blogs to Powell’s Books. But big-box, closed-down systems curb creativity and serendipity, replacing it with centralization and control.
Laura: That idea of diversity and serendipity was something our participants touted during the discussion about ideal education. As Leslie says, the possibility for a small-town atmosphere, or commons if you will, is certainly available online. But she’s right that students will need help in finding or creating that atmosphere. It’s easy to be superficial about what one does online, but with a little work, one can have more substantial experiences. As someone else in the audience said, it’s about building a network, and like a small town, that network will include people, not just locations. Sure, Wal-Mart and its equivalent online are convenient and on occasion necessary, but they’re often missing the point.
Barbara: Ah, serendipity. It is what makes education and the act of teaching such a wonderful thing. There is a certain sense of serendipity that comes from trying something new, and that needs to have a place in the academy. Serendipity is key, as is letting go. Our role as educators is to prepare our students for the world outside of the academy. It is not about us, and it has never been about us. But it is and always has been about them.
Our job is to prepare our students to launch into the world and to make sense of that world with the skills we helped them develop.
Leslie: Who was it who said that education—and I’m paraphrasing here—is what remains when you’ve forgotten everything you were taught in school? I think that’s key here. Ideally what remains after we’ve forgotten, for example, that a sea anemone has a hydrostatic skeleton, is the ability to think critically and creatively about the utility of collapsible structures and about how adaptations drive the natural world, to analyze and synthesize. A colleague told me today that best practices for teaching in the sciences are shifting slowly from the assumption that students need to know all kinds of facts before they can become practicing scientists to the belief that students first need to learn to think like scientists so that they have a framework for understanding and using all those facts. Social media, I think, can aid us in developing a broad spectrum of intellectual skills that are useful across the disciplines.
Barbara: As a language teacher, I am reminded constantly that the true measure of my success as an educator is not what my students can do in the classroom, but what they do with the knowledge they gain in my classroom in the world beyond the classroom.
The way social software connects us to each other and to so many rich resources that allow that serendipity to happen reminds us, sometimes far too well, that we are all learners and that our learning will never end. In fact, teaching and learning are journeys that are meant to lead to even grander journeys and adventures. In some ways that seems overwhelming, even fearsome. . .but in many ways that is what makes education and being open to learning new things so critical in our society today. We can’t let fear keep us from setting out on that journey.
NMC session video: http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/1641117