Technology and Liberal Education: Yes and…
By Rebecca Frost Davis, Program Officer for the Humanities, National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE)
The theme of this year’s annual meeting, “Innovations, Efficiencies, and Disruptions—To What Ends?,” includes rapid technological advancement in the list of challenges facing higher education today. This advancement offers alternative delivery methods that promise to lower costs but also require substantial investment in infrastructure. It promises to enhance learning both in and out of the classroom. At the same time, new digital methodologies are changing the face of the disciplines and reshaping academic practice. Our students face a world in which knowledge is created and shared by both amateurs and professionals, in multiple media, across digital networks, spanning domains and communities. Living, working, and civically engaging in this context is materially different than it was fifty years ago. In particular, the change in agency in this participatory culture challenges existing professional expertise by democratizing the creation of knowledge. At the same time, the openness and dissemination enabled by digital networks threatens the traditional model of higher education—content experts passing knowledge in a controlled setting down to their students—by having one expert sharing expertise with everyone’s students. Combined with alternative methods of credentialing, such as badges, competencies, or prior learning assessments, these developments put pressure on one of the core elements of the higher education business model.
So, how should those committed to liberal education react and to what ends? Before we ask that question, we must take a step back and recognize how technology is used today in debates about higher education. While technology is an aspect or even a tool enabling the changes I described above, technology itself is not to blame for those changes. As the annual meeting description notes, other challenges include globalization, demographic change, renegotiated political and economic relationships, as well as calls for accountability and affordability. Often, however, we see technology or a particular development strongly linked to technology used as a symbol to represent all of those other changes and then dismissed out of hand. For example, the session “How Much Technology is Enough? Critical Encounters with the ‘New Literacies,’” depicted those calling for changes to higher education through the inclusion of digital media as “techno-utopians” who use bullying language when arguing that our culture has already irrevocably changed and higher education must adapt. While I heard with dismay some of my favorite thought-leaders labeled in this way, this session also helped me realize that such calls from the “techno-utopians” too often (whether intentionally or not) reinforce a simple binary of technology and liberal education rather than promoting a sincere engagement.
The latest proxy for technology as an evil threatening liberal education is, of course, the MOOC or Massive Open Online Course. As my colleagues W. Joseph King and Michael Nanfito argued in “To MOOC or Not to MOOC?“, “There is something irresistibly seductive about the idea of simultaneously reaching thousands of students everywhere in the world, effectively seating them in an infinite virtual lecture hall,”” but at the same time, that model of education is diametrically opposed to the model of “the liberal arts college, with its small, intimate classes centered on discussion.” While we may rightly reject this model of education as the best way to achieve the essential learning goals of liberal education, I am concerned that we are rejecting any potential positive contribution from technology to higher education at the same time. It is easy to turn technology into the straw man, the evil “other” of liberal education. Unfortunately, that rejection runs the risk of making us obsolete when we maintain rigid adherence to old models and, like the proverbial ostrich with his head in the sand, ignore rather than address the danger.
How then do we reconcile these two opposing forces? What is a more nuanced approach? In “To MOOC or Not to MOOC,” King and Nanfito point to models of intercampus academic collaboration, such as Sunoikisis, the New Paradigms Initiative of the Associated Colleges of the South, and the Texas Language Consortium, as better approaches to the idea of the MOOC. All of these collaboration use technology to connect students and faculty on separate campuses—a many-to-many active learning experience, rather than a one-to-many delivery of content that better represents the best qualities of liberal education. In other words, they enhance or adapt rather than replace liberal education.
To give another example, in the session “How Do We Build an Improved and Successful Business Model in Support of Campus-Based Undergraduate Education” I heard important arguments for the value of a campus-based education, but I also heard the binary of technology and liberal education as incompatible. One person argued that campus-based education is valuable in that it builds community, something that cannot happen online. But that’s patently untrue. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Reddit and many other social media sites demonstrate that not only can we build community online, but as embodiments of participatory culture, these are the places where our students need to learn how to interact and produce knowledge.
Furthermore, the latest data from Pew on social media suggests that “Hispanics and Blacks are more likely to use social network sites that whites” (Bryan Alexander, “American social media users, the latest Pew Info”). If diversity and inclusiveness really is our goal, then we need to figure out how to interact with those communities via social media.
Finally, research on teens suggests that, in fact, online interaction reinforces rather than counteracts face-to-face community. As danah boyd explains in “Living and Learning with Social Media”,
They use these sites to connect to people that they already know from school, church, activities, summer camp, etc. One of the most problematic mistakes adults make when trying to make sense of social network sites is to presume that kids interact on these sites just like they do. This ain’t true. Teens are using this space as a social hangout with their pre-existing network.
As we argue for the value of the campus-based community, then we need to figure out how to enhance that community through social media. In other words, how can we extend the continuum of interaction online?
Another argument raised for the value of campus-based education is the uniqueness of a place. Connections across the network, however, can serve to define and highlight the uniqueness of the local. What does that look like? Not a virtual-lecture-hall style MOOC, to be sure, with a homogenous experience for all students. Instead, we should look for experiences celebrating the heterogeneous nature of networks. By developing a distributed online collaborative course on the intersections of feminism and technology, the FemTechNet project will cross global and disciplinary boundaries to create networked conversation among students, faculty, scholars, artists, and others and celebrate the situated nature of knowledge creation and understanding. Or consider the History Harvest project, which engages undergraduates in the authentic learning experience of finding and documenting history of local communities and makes use of high-impact practices like collaborative projects, undergraduate research, and community-based learning. Project leaders plan to link several campuses doing local history harvests with digital infrastructure, allowing students to see the value of their contributions in a network of local history collections.
A year ago I took part in an exercise to promote collaboration led by Kyle Gillette, assistant professor of Human Communication and Theatre at Trinity University. We paired up to make dinner plans. In the first round, participants were directed to say “no” to every suggestion by their partner. Next, we were directed to say, “yes, but . . . .” Finally, we learned to build together by saying, “yes, and . . . .” It felt great. Too often, when considering the integration of liberal education and technology we simply say “no.” At other times, while acknowledging the potential benefits of technology or the changes wrought in our society by digital networks, we still find “buts” to prevent us from integrating digital tools and approaches. If we want to not only survive but also thrive in a globally networked world, however, both sides need to say, “yes, and . . .” New modes of education need to recognize the that there is more to learning than content delivery; students need motivation, mentoring, scaffolding, and interaction. But proponents of liberal education must also find ways to achieve essential learning outcomes in a technologically-articulated context. By saying “yes, and” we can create learning practices not to replace our current models but to make them better.