Context is everything.
Those touting the benefits of the “brave new world” of technology have forgotten the context of this oft invoked quote. In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the naïve and innocent Miranda utters this line as she longingly peers at Ferdinand, the male eye-candy of the play. While the line seems to suggest that the “new world” of the Americas represents a return to Eden, the real meaning lies in her father Prospero’s response: “tis’ new to thee.”
This, of course, undercuts Miranda’s naivety with the experience of a ruler who had been tricked out of his kingdom. Shakespeare isn’t saying that this new world is good, only that it looks good to someone who is inexperienced.
Cue starry-eyed comparisons to technology and teaching.
It’s great that students can take classes in their pajamas; it’s great that we can track a student’s learning; it’s great that computers can offer individualized instruction; it’s great that the administration’s embrace of shiny new things blinds them to the need for teachers and brings hefty profits to a few publishing companies . . . . Uh, scratch this last one; it doesn’t fit into the starry–eyed narrative.
Back to the stars: (to sounds of rising cheers) technology now, technology tomorrow, technology forever!
This all sounds depressingly familiar. Remember correspondence courses as the end of traditional college? Telecourses as the end of traditional college?
And consider the recent crash and burn of the most recent media darling, MOOCs, which, before many of them folded up shop or moved into specialized applications, were the latest in a long line of “end of traditional college” disruptions.
In this continuing series of countering the narrative of disruption, I’d like to compare digital to carbon based learning. In “Pedagogy, Prophecy, and Disruption,” Ian Derk points out one of the major problems with a perceived advantage of technology: the illusion of a personalized education. He notes that “Models of personalized learning, while changing the dynamic between teacher and student, treat education as another commodity rather than experience.” It’s the same as the false “choices” offered by Netflix, which are limited to the content licensed to the company and on the server. Algorithms that generate suggestions are quick, but as those who’ve looked at the suggested films list or tried to find a specific title that isn’t even available, they suppress instead of surprise: offer constraints instead of possibilities.
In the same way, a good teacher (carbon based educator) can intuit and respond with a far wider range of suggestions than a program limited by what’s been baked into the program/database. As Derk notes, “Groups developing digital technology create products that simplify and personalize rather than challenge or examine. The filtering of information limits the ability of people to interpret and understand the world, for they might assume that the information presented is the only information available, rather than an algorithmic guess.” Even in the assumed role playing or problem based digital learning tools, students are always limited to what’s been programed. I’m reminded of how, when I play video games with my son and I wander off course to examine a hill or an empty house, the screen suddenly stops and my avatar cannot advance: I’ve reached the limits of the design. What happens to deep thinking when a student is similarly boxed in by the artificial parameters of a course package?
Derk looks to ideology to explain the lack of questioning surrounding technology and education. He suggests that instead of a rigorous testing and vetting to ensure the validity of their constructs, those supporting digital education resort to prophecy, looking forward to a glorious tomorrow land where higher education becomes as easy and accessible as a game of Tetris/Angry Birds/Candy Crush/___ (insert latest most popular gaming app).
Of course modern teachers aren’t luddites. Instead, most realize that while technology has made parts of teaching easier, it falters when it comes to what people can do: easily shift between global and granular instruction. Rote learning programs or even more complex simulators cannot replicate the “good question: let’s work from there” from an experienced teacher in the classroom which encourages and spurs a student on, deepening and enriching the learning experience (see Adrianna Kezar and Dan Maxey for recent work on this). They also cannot employ quick topical anecdotes which can flick on the light switch in a student’s brain (recently I’ve been getting mileage from the Ebola media circus and how it shaped public opinion and electoral politics). Nor can they present the model faculty set as enthusiastic explorers of truths and wisdom.
With technology you get standardization, anathema to higher education. And this doesn’t only infect digital learning. Here I’m thinking of Neil Lavender’s blog post where he notes that OCC faculty have been evaluated on whether they made eye contact with each student, did group work, and used technology. This is bringing the worst of technology — and its attendant obsession with data points — to the classroom. What students want in an on-campus environment isn’t a robot, it’s human interaction.
Unfortunately, the college’s hiring policies – limiting the number of full time faculty – has similarly limited teacher/student interaction. Interestingly, OCC’s opposition to tenure is refuted rather forcefully by the Director of Disruption himself, Clayton Christensen, who, as a tenured Harvard professor, apparently only likes disruption when it effects a career that isn’t his own. He writes that
tenure can also work in favor of a skillfully led institution. A faculty member who enjoys a sense of employment security may be more likely to support a well-reasoned and communicated administrative proposal for change [. . . .] The tenure debate, to the extent it focuses on reasonable employment security and intellectual freedom, is misplaced. A high degree of individual security and self-determination are good for all organizations that depend on human insight and commitment for their success, including and especially universities.” (Christensen and Eyring 376)
His caveat, “skillfully led institution,” is interesting in the context of OCC. And note his last line on the importance of “individual security and self-determination,” qualities which were sorely lacking in the most recent surveys of faculty. Since Christensen’s ideology of disruption forever has been adopted by the administration, it’s surprising that this full throated endorsement of tenure is mysteriously absent on our campus. The disruption model in higher education hinges on several legs, one of which, according to Christensen, is that in the midst of a whirlwind of change, faculty stability holds the center and keeps it from falling apart. If this administration continues on its path of treating faculty as disposable and interchangeable, so many cogs in a machine, learning is transformed from a voyage of discovery and knowledge into a ride on a conveyer belt; students are left with a 20th century education for a 21st century world. While I’m not sure how this is brave, I know that it’s not new.
But there are some who understand Shakespeare’s line: Aldous Huxley didn’t get it wrong. His mechanized and controlling Brave New World is not brave at all. It’s a dystopia by choice, replete, appropriately enough, with technology that has left people bereft of the very faculties which made them fully human. And in that it echoes the embrace of technological “solutions” to problems that don’t exist, solutions that get in the way of an actual education.
Christensen, Clayton M. and Henry J. Eyring. The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011. Print.
Derk, Ian. “Pedagogy, Prophecy, and Disruption.” Hybrid Pedagogy. 18 September 2014. Web. 21 September 2014.
Kezar, Adrianna and Dan Maxey. “Faculty Matter: So Why Doesn’t Everyone Think So?” Thought & Action. 30 (2014): 29-44.
Lavender, Neil J. “Killing Academia: The Death and Destruction of America’s Colleges and Universities.” Impossible to Please. Psychology Today. 20 August 2014. Web. 25 September 2014.
By David Bordelon