Monday, January 29, 2007

Learning Technology and “The Vision Thing”

This is a bit of a sequel to my previous post. I felt guilty about taking a pot shot at the profession toward the end of that piece and in the spirit that you shouldn’t criticize unless you offer up your own alternative, here’s mine, with the warts mind you.

Let me begin with a little personal philosophy; I subscribe to the Umpire Theory of Technology. According to that, in a baseball game the umpire is absolutely critical to make the calls in an unbiased way. But if you watch a game the only time the umpire gets noticed is when he makes a bad call. If the umpire does his job very well, he becomes invisible. Learning technology well employed should be invisible too.

It’s hard to have “a vision” about something that should be invisible and, actually, that’s the point. We need to figure out what game it is that we should be playing, a game that is not defined by the technology itself, that comes from outside our field not from within, some of the mistakes I believe we’re making now stems from taking the technology itself too seriously, and then when we’re clear on what the game is we can work through how the technology might support it. Much of the rest of this piece is an argument that we should be playing a certain game.

But there’s one other point to be made before making that argument. If we look to outside the profession for our source and inspiration, it would seem that we’d be in reactive mode (I think we have been the last few years) rather than taking a leadership position. I recall a presentation by Terry Hartle of ACE that I heard at the Frye Institute in summer 2003, where in a bit of oversimplification on my part to keep this brief, all of Higher Ed was cast in reactive mode and trying as hard as it could to do damage control in light of Bush Administration policies and the acts of the Republican Congress. Further, on the presentation we heard at ELI from Julie Evans on student technology attitudes in K-12, where the general tone was that students feel their schools don’t provide an environment conducive for learning and that they are under a great deal of pressure due to persistence of high stakes testing, surely this is an indictment against No Child Left Behind and its derivative impact on schools, including those that in terms of performance on those high stakes tests would in no way would be deemed deficient.

My point is that it doesn’t take a genius prognosticator to anticipate a sea change in government policy toward higher education, irrespective of who becomes our next president, pendulums do swing both ways however slowly, and whatever we come to conclude now about vision should be aimed for after that new administration is in place. We can show leadership in this by helping to frame the argument of what should be next and by creating a sense of what is possible. But we also must be self-critical because we in Higher Ed are struggling under the weight of many serious problems – relevancy and cost being the two biggest – and if we don’t give full weight to those challenges we’ll seem out of touch and hence be ineffective.

Let me also give a disclaimer here that in substantial portion my suggestions on “the game we should be playing” lie outside my own personal areas of expertise and so I may be off more than a little on the specifics in framing this. One might readily agree with my general argument but want to make changes in the specifics. Very good then, please do that. I’m trying to paint with broad strokes here so others can chime in on their own.

The argument has two pieces, a technical side and a humanistic side. On the technical side, we currently teach a lot of courses that are “pure theory” and a good fraction of our faculty would describe themselves as theorists. I was definitely in that category when I was doing economics research. This part of the instruction must move to emphasize data and the use of data for decision making and technology can be quite helpful in terms of data mining and data visualization. This Ted Talk by Hans Rosling gives an inkling of what is possible in this regard. At present, the tools for making such a presentation are still esoteric and hence removed from day to day practice. We need to communicate with big commercial software vendors, Google and Microsoft come to mind, that we want this type of functionality in their ordinary suite of tools offerings. If they actually delivered on this ask and only then might we expect reasonable diffusion of the practice of working with data, even among theoretically minded faculty. Further, since the commercial giants will show interest in us only if they can make a buck somewhere else as a consequence, we need to make a credible argument that these type of data analysis tools will have wide use in the world of work as well. (I think that’s possible, but even with the success of Freakonomics, I’m not sure others yet buy the argument.) So in this dimension all we can really hope for is to speed up the deployment about what we should all anticipate will eventually happen anyway, by pointing to the urgency of this need and articulating that with consistency and with good understanding of the limits in current offerings. (I’ve not yet looked at Excel 2007 and so don’t know what it does in this dimension, but I suspect there is quite a way to go to get to what we need.)

Let me turn to the humanistic side. I believe we need something we might call “Humanism Across the Curriculum,” a next generation extension of Writing Across the Curriculum. This is not something I’m making up on my own. A report from AACU, College Learning For The New Global Century, makes this argument. I’m borrowing ideas liberally from them. But that document should be thought of as a synthesis only. There are hints to these ideas in many other places, for example in Tom Friedman’s book The World Is Flat, George Packer’s piece in the New Yorker The Lesson of Tal Afar, and Jaron Lanier’s article on the Edge Foundation Website Digital Maoism, to name but a few. It is instructive to note Glenda Morgan’s observation that the AACU report is quite different in its recommendations from the Spellings Commission Report. This does not mean that Casey Green’s admonition to Bring Data will become irrelevant. That horse has left the barn. But it does mean that what we teach an how we teach should change substantially in accord with a Humanism Across The Curriculum approach. In my view, this is the game we should be playing and right now the goal should be to add some flesh to the argument because at present there is mostly only skeleton to these ideas.

Now for the bad news, this is going to be really difficult to do. Writing Across the Curriculum, the precursor, failed. It didn’t fail because of the pedagogy, which was excellent and had lots of insight into how students learn. Rather it failed because it was a program and not an institutional embrace and because as a program it insisted on being labor intensive, more intensive than most other instruction at the institution. Students take around 40 courses in their undergraduate careers. At Illinois, the writing requirement is in two courses only, Freshman Rhetoric and Advanced Composition, and it is only in that latter offering that we find the embodiment of the WAC approach. In the other 38 courses the level of writing is entirely determined by instructor discretion and I dare say there isn’t much writing in those courses. I don’t know how anyone can reasonably conclude that typical students will learn to write well and to use writing as a way to explore their own thinking in this type of environment. If you look at the overall picture the students is getting the message mostly that writing is not important and that it only comes up in special cases. WAC fails in terms of learning outcomes for that reason.

WAC also didn’t work in terms of instructional resource. The trouble with teaching in a writing intensive way is that the writing requires human evaluation and that evaluation work is labor intensive. So WAC courses had more human resource than typical courses and that can really only be funded by a robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul approach. This works programmatically but obviously not for the institution as a whole, which doesn’t have more human resource, and it doesn’t even work programmatically when the campus has to face budget cuts, as it did in the early part of the decade, when an “expensive program” like WAC gets cut by teaching the same courses with fewer human resources and with instructors who have not been given the needed faculty development. This is the underlying issue that nags at any reform and unless it is acknowledged and addressed squarely, efforts in this direction will fail. I continue to believe that the bulk of the solution to this problem lies in recognizing the students themselves as the needed human resource. (My blog archive from August 2005 has 7 posts on Inward Looking Service Learning that sketches the type of solution I have in mind.) Otherwise, this is an exercise in pulling rabbits out of a hat, or worse.

The needed reform has to occur in all courses, the AACU reports emphasizes this point, and the reform must be mindful of the human resource constraint; not too many people talk about this juxtaposition in the same breath. But there still are other issues to consider. What does Humanism Across the Curriculum look like? And why should we be doing it?

In my conception, there are four pillars to Humanism Across the Curriculum, iconically represented by Abraham Maslow’s notion of self-actualization, Margaret Mead’s ethnography, Norman Mailer’s writing and his providing ego for the other (this may seem a particularly idiosyncratic choice, which I made in part because the book review is such a great read), and JFK’s ideal in his inaugural address, ask not what your country can do for you…

Let me briefly provide a rationale for each of these. On Maslow, as of late there has been much talk about promoting creativity in our students. I believe the Maslow ideal subsumes that. Further, by framing the issue as one of personal growth it addresses in full the student motivation for pursuit of the ideal. And too, it encourages a self-direction driven by that need for personal growth. Both the Mead pillar and the Mailer pillar emerge from a need to abandon provincialism and tribalism in favor of a global understanding and the only way to do that is to have a deep appreciation for the views of others; the Mead pillar emphasizing the need to study others with a depth of understanding for their culture while the Mailer pillar is meant to emphasize the importance of written communication and the need for understanding of the other in that.. Finally, the JFK pillar (Lincoln may be a better source for this pillar but Lincoln stands outside our living memory) is clearly there to reaffirm the social compact and that we’re all in this together, an antidote to the obsession with making money that many of our students have and that we implicitly sanction.

How does one teach this way? Think of it affecting the choices in what we assign students to read, in what assignments we give them to be evaluated toward their final course grade, and in making explicit in presentation how some of the subject matter in the course is perceived or used by others.

The reason to teach with Humanism Across the Curriculum is to encourage students to make connections with what they learn, connections between the subject matter and their own personal experience, and connections between the subject matter and the world outside the classroom. If those connections are made the learning will be deeper. And that is why this can be an approach implemented in every course that students take.

That said, it will be a lot easier to sell the idea to humanists than to faculty in other disciplines. Those in fields like Computer Science or Biotechnology, where the field itself is going through rapid growth and change, will argue (rightly in some sense) that however noble is the concept behind HAC they simply don’t have the time in their courses to adopt the approach because there is some much else that must be covered. Those who are in less rapidly changing fields but who teach technical courses (microeconomics is in this category) will also be resistant because of the perceived lack of rigor that HAC provides. Both of these reactions can be anticipated and they both need to be confronted squarely if this innovation is to succeed. The refutation needs to be based on the ideas in the previous paragraph, but there must be evidence brought to bear to support those ideas. And if after having tried it for a while and the evidence is weak or not supportive, we need to say that.

Before I close let met quickly make the technology visible again. The discussion of Web 2.0, of podcasts, wikis, and blogs, something that admittedly has produced a wrinkle of excitement on our campuses, will surely not fulfill their potential promise if we continue to promote these technologies as things in themselves rather than as instruments toward achieving a bigger goal. We need to amp up on the bigger goal, to force the discussion on that, and to situate the services we provide, particularly the faculty development services, in support of the bigger goal.

That’s my two cents worth. I’d be delighted to hear alternative views.


Barbara Ganley said...

A great two-post sequence, Lanny, filled with much good sense, vision, concern and questioning. I very much agree with your idea about teaching Humanism Across the Curriculum, but I do not believe it can be inserted into courses or departments as they are now. What you are suggesting means that we have to change our notions of course and major requirements--indeed of the role of an undergraduate education.

We have to stop being subject-centric, major-obsessed at the undergraduate level, re-examining what it means to be a well-educated citizen and why that means taking 12 courses in a single department. I think it means abolishing single-discipline majors altogether.

Perhaps we should be taking to heart my student, Megan's suggestion from her comment to my last blogpost: "Our classes at Middlebury could be like that. Departments could be more communicative. Perhaps, there wouldn't be a need for the Independent Scholar major if we were all in fact "independent scholars." Professors across the board could utilize blogs. We could all meet in rooms where the chairs were arranged in a circle, or Coltrane Lounge was multiplied. In fact, professors could be blogging with one another across departments about educational visions. Perhaps, there might be more service-learning; perhaps, we'd have an Education major; perhaps, student clubs and organizations would then transgress boundaries, and those perspectives might step into the classroom more fervently. Would we be more active?"

I'd like to see every college and university hold a summit on HAC and on student-centered learning--what that really means. I bet it's far more scaleable than any of us suspects, and far more useful than what kids are getting in our classrooms now.

Lanny Arvan said...

Barbara - Thank you for the comments. When I first got started with this stuff (summer 1995) we had online conversations of how to teach that were really quite exhilarating. But, of course, those discussions happened in a circumstance where people were trying to implement. I don't know if it is possible to get folks to to the table otherwise. Do such conversations happen as a matter of course at Middlebury? They don't here.

You are likely the best person out there to start a grass roots dialog of this sort. We're doing strategic planning on our campus now (not around these themes) and I can assert with some confidence that a top down approach does not elicit the interest and engagement from the faculty to make much progress, so the visioning that comes out is necessarily extremely conservative and the disciplinary boundaries are folded in as a matter of course.