“If I can get the Power Point online…”: Technologies as a mirror on higher education, Part 1

23 Apr

[The] medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium–that is, of any extension of ourselves–result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology. […] Just before an airplane breaks the sound barrier, sound waves become visible on the wings of the plane. The sudden visibility of sound just as sound ends is an apt instance of that great pattern of being that reveals new and opposite forms just as the earlier forms reach their peak performance.

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (1964)

The “medium” of higher education

Higher education has been confronting fruitful tensions in recent years that are making learners and educators take stock of the outward structure–the “medium”–of higher education.  To the frank observer, higher education today can sometimes feel “broken,” inverted, or threatened from several angles: from the perspective of students who are more concerned than ever about finding jobs and paying back debt post-graduation; from the perspective of instructors who are under pressure to both adapt to and distinguish themselves from the technologies they teach with; and from learners outside of higher education institutions who are justifiably skeptical about whether it is worth their time to pursue education within our existing institutions.

But it is exactly these tensions that draw us into a meaningful discussion about the “message” our higher educational institutions present to broader society.  In two late April 2013 posts, we want to pick up the discussion on educational technologies in particular and ask ourselves: What sort of mirrors are technologies holding up to traditional institutions of education?  One underlying question we have consistently had to ask ourselves as learners and educators is: “If I can get the Power Point online, why am I bothering to attend a university or walk into a classroom?”  We have answered this question for ourselves in various ways throughout our educational careers, and will outline some of our thoughts here.

The “we” here is two graduate students who find a home at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities campus: Alison Link is an M.A. student working in academic technology and program evaluation, and Marisol Brito is a Ph.D. student in the field of philosophy.  We will take two passes at the question above:

  • This week from an institutional perspective at the level of the University, and
  • Next week from a pedagogical perspective at the level of the Classroom.  

Ultimately, we want to seize this moment to reaffirm what we value in education and what we need and demand from our educational experiences both as University students and educators.

“The University”: Alison’s Perspective

Serendipities of Shared Space

Technologies are showing us that the University is about the serendipities of shared space.  University campuses are complex organizing structures–what Davidson and Goldberg (2010) describe as “mobilizing networks” for “aggregat[ing]…and adjudicat[ing] complex flows of resources (p. 129).  What a university does is essentially a complex curatorial feat, pulling together activities, resources, and spaces for engagement that otherwise would not exist together in one space.  For example, although my master’s work is focused in the College of Education and Human Development, I’ve also found excuses to head to the library to discuss critical race theory as part of a women’s book club; I’ve listened to slam poetry in the basement of the School of Architecture; and I’ve learned the best way to get to Antarctica by chatting with the folks at the Polar Geospatial Center.

These kinds of juxtapositions aren’t unique to a campus: there are also online spaces where I actively curate my exposure to new ideas–for example, by watching friends on Facebook, or by following lists of people on Twitter.  Social media’s serendipities, however, exist largely in the space of information, not experience.  Campuses, on the other hand, are a very physical and embodied manifestation of this diversity of life experiences.

Time Commitments at Transitional Life Stages

Technologies are also showing us that the University is about time commitment–particularly time spent at transitional life stages.  We are in an educational landscape where learning interactions can take place online, on campus, or in any hybrid combination at any time of day.  This fact is fueling a “credit hours” vs. “competencies” debate: students and educators are beginning to question whether “seat time” and “credit hours” are relevant descriptions of student accomplishments, or whether competency-based measures are better descriptions of achievement and mastery (Berrett, 2012).

The fact that we continue to cling to credit hours as a metric may amount to more than simple intransigence on our part.  Indeed, a lot of students and educators sense that it is important to acknowledge time and effort spent on a task, regardless of the “outputs” and “competencies” that result.

Particularly in American society, where the is no great cultural agreement on what it means to “come of age,” time spent at a college or university bears cultural significance as a liminal experience and preparation for adulthood (Bruckman, 2012).  And for those looking for a career or life change, squeezing a few open online courses into life’s “in between” times may not be the same transitional experience as committing time in a university degree program for reflection and recommitment.

Histories of Thought

Technologies are showing us that the University is about respecting the history of thought.  Universities have an idiosyncratic way of organizing information–what we call “academic disciplines”.  This organizational structure affects how information is juxtaposed, comes in contact and contrast with itself, and generates new synthesis.  This becomes particularly transparent now that we have entered into an age where nearly any two pieces of information could come to be juxtaposed in bizarre and incongruous ways. (Just head to Twitter and search for “educational philosophy”, for example, and prepare to wade through some interestingly varied information).  These novel juxtapositions of thought that frequently confront us in online spaces can lead to new and creative ways of framing knowledge.

And yet, I will argue that we clearly still crave some organizational structure to help us navigate this cacophony.  Academic disciplines still represent a necessary historical continuity in human thought, and help us organize what otherwise might become massively incongruous amounts of information.  Indeed, most of the major MOOC platforms evolving today still allow students to sort and search for courses along disciplinary lines.  For example, the Saylor Foundation, one of the main champions of open online resources, is clearly still intent on organizing its offerings along disciplinary lines (see Saylor.org, 2013).  I choose to view this as more than simple lack of imagination, but rather continued recognition of the value of being able to put on a “sociological lens,” a “mathematical lens,” or any other “disciplinary lens.”

Learning within a discipline connects us to the past and sharpens our perceptive frames moving forward.  “Walking a mile” in a disciplinary mindset is both an empathetic and creative act–and our universities continue to be relevant as shapers and champions of disciplinary and interdisciplinary thought.

Harnessing the Power of Community

Technologies are showing us that the University is about harnessing the power of community.  Indeed, there seems to be something about humans that makes it compelling for us to be loyal to and mobilize within small, in-person, visible communities.  Take the authors of these late April 2013 posts, for example: we both went to the same, relatively small college for our undergraduate degrees, but graduated in different decades.  We never crossed paths as undergraduates, but when we met years later on a much larger campus at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, we connected as friends and scholars, despite being in very different departments in our new institution.  Universities can engender a trusting community, grounded in shared experience–an experience that can carry through across decades and student cohorts.

Imagine having an “alumni network” of Coursera or Udacity MOOC students: it might work, but its success would not lay in its breadth, but rather the ability to construct a sense of strong community identity.  MOOC “alumni networks” seem likely to self-organize into small subsets of individuals with similar interests and levels of investment.  Such networks might very well  be more globally diverse than an alumni network on a bricks-and-mortar campus–but then again, they might also be more self-selecting, and more fleeting.

At the moment, it seems that it is still our bricks-and-mortar schools and universities that offer more manifest and lasting community to students and alumni.

Amy Bruckman (2012) sums it up nicely when she says in a post on her blog: “The future of universities is in excelling at everything a MOOC is not.”  Universities will remain as relevant as ever, if we affirm their “message” as one of shared space, dedicated time, and respecting the community of learners–both past and present.

  • Davidson. C.N, & Goldberg, D.T. (2010). The future of thinking: Learning institutions in a digital age. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  • McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man [Critical edition, 2003]. Berkeley, CA: Gingko Press.

2 Responses to ““If I can get the Power Point online…”: Technologies as a mirror on higher education, Part 1”

  1. Saylor Foundation (@saylordotorg) 25 April 2013 at 10:32 am #

    (Disclosure: I work for the Saylor Foundation.) Alison, thank you for including your thoughts about the Saylor Foundation. I’m glad we are absolved of a simple lack of imagination 🙂

    I would agree with your assessment of why we have chosen to follow these lines, and I can expand a bit. In part, we took this fairly strict path because it wasn’t otherwise being done by free courseware. While offering students the freedom to pick and choose, this structure also helps to locate the course and the student within the larger discipline and families of disciplines. The student has access to scaffolding, and by extension to at least some intellectual input from professors. That, and we consciously wanted to keep self-learners from having to “drink from the firehose” of information readily available today.

    Certainly, this isn’t especially innovative, and people can meaningfully disagree with, say, our pedagogy, but we’ve had good reactions from students who either (1) have limited or no access to traditional higher ed but do want its structure in the sense of having a “full course of study”, and (2) students who are looking to fill particular gaps. Our program helps the latter group identify which of our courses fit where in their own learning.

    Speaking personally, lenses do still matter. In the same way as one should first know the rules before bending or breaking them, one should have some comfort with specific ways of knowing even if the real world and abstracted knowledge represent a more seamless (or at least very complex) unity.

    Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful piece on the important role of the university!

    Sean Connor, The Saylor Foundation

    • linkalis 25 April 2013 at 11:51 pm #

      Sean, I really appreciate that insight into the deliberate choices Saylor has made, and how students can be served by this kind of continuity with traditional academic disciplines. I suspected there was some wisdom behind that choice, but it’s nice to hear it confirmed. And you’re absolutely right to note how daunting the information “firehose” can be!

      In brainstorming for this post, another discipline/classification scheme that came to mind was the one Thomas Jefferson used for his library: http://www.masshist.org/thomasjeffersonpapers/catalog1783/catalog1783_chapters.html . I couldn’t help imagining what open courseware might look like when organized along THOSE lines!

      Anyways, thanks for your insight, and much respect to Saylor for being such an active presence in discussions on the evolution of higher ed.

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