On “Technology:” Some Notes from the Higher Ed Salon

Over the course of the summer, my mind was ablaze with many a new input surrounding technology and higher education. I have been working closely with April Lawrence and Gene Roche to construct a series of pedagogical modules that will help William & Mary faculty introduce online tools to their courses. I also taught my first blended/hybrid course: an introductory cultural geography course at John Tyler Community College. My involvement with these projects has exposed me to an array opinions, strategies, and tactics with regards to the intersection of technology and post-secondary institutions. These are clearly volatile times for those of us in higher education.

I think it is this volatility that inspired one of the themes to this summer’s Higher Education Salon, facilitated by Pam Eddy and Jim Barber on July 24th in the School of Education. While the session, titled “MOOCs, Rising Tuition, Changing Faculty Roles, Internationalization: What’s a Colonial College to Do?,” proposed a wide-ranging discussion, technology proved to be the overriding theme.

In opening, Barber commented on how digital culture has reshaped our experiences of banking, billing, taxes, et al. He acknowledged that content is no longer a college’s unique asset, as syllabi and reading lists are widely available online. Fellow Academic Technology Blog contributor Gene Roche pointed to newspapers, travel agencies, and record companies as examples of industries that are “shadows of their former selves” due to technological advances. At the salon, participants recognized that deep change is coming to higher education, but what shape should it take? What does a college education have to offer in the Internet age?

  • Some talked about the increase of technology in community college courses, but lamented the digital divide seen by instructors and administrators through students’ lack of access to computers and the computing skills necessary for success in the courses.
  • Another digital divide explored was generational, that there are six-year-olds who understand technology better than we do. How do these future college students take in information and learn differently than us?
  • One argument was made for clarifying an institutional mission first, then exploring how technology could fulfill that mission. “Technology is the last thing you tack on.”
  • There were claims that some programs are flatly “incompatible” with online learning. Technology had been explored and was not a good fit. Case closed.

The salon was a fascinating introduction to these conversations at William & Mary. I came away from the salon with two major points: the conversation was frequently inhibited by a conceptual fuzziness, and that we in higher education are navigating the bumpy beginnings of this technological revolution.

“Technology” is Too Ambiguous a Term

“Technology” is currently an under-examined, under-developed, under-theorized, yet increasingly over-used term in higher education. It is losing traction for productive exchange because it refers to an ever-increasingly complex set of tools, epistemologies, and paradigms. While attendees at the salon could agree that technology is and will be changing higher ed, it was difficult to develop this idea more concretely. For conversations about technology in higher education to be effective, we need to be more explicit and specific.

This murkiness is fully understandable. The Internet brings us networked communication and unprecedented collaborative capability. As technology scholars like Clay Shirky and Gardner Campbell have been telling us, the Internet fosters a revolutionary form of communication that is fundamentally different than anything humans have encountered before. Information and content is freely shared (and with continued effort will remain so). The college has been usurped as a content deliverer. Those of us in higher education are all (administration, faculty, staff and students) struggling with this fundamental change.

An Example: Technology Changes Our Perception of Distance

Map showing the travel time from New York to various regions of the continental U.S. in 1857.

Map showing the travel time from New York to various regions of the continental U.S. in 1857.

As geographer David Harvey tells us, technological advancements have collapsed the amount of time it takes to move and communicate over even the greatest distances: the annihilation of space by time. Consider another technology’s effect on our conceptions of space. There is a fascinating map of railroad travel times from New York City in 1857. Due to the uneven development of railroad infrastructure, Chicago was only two days from New York, yet much closer places in Virginia were a three-day trip. The railroad started to shape how we thought about distance. Chicago started to feel closer than Virginia.

Similarly, the Web is changing how we share and develop knowledge. Perhaps in being more specific, we can start to map out how the Web is affecting our conceptions of higher education, learning, and information exchange. With a map, perhaps our discussions about “technology” can begin to gain traction. This is in line with Dr. Pam Eddy’s calls in the salon for questioning our assumptions and collecting data — building blocks of a map — in an effort to effect “second tier” (i.e. deep, meaningful) change in higher education.

Transitional Crudeness

Morse-WhatHath

First message transmitted via telegraph, in Morse code. [Image source.]

Until an effectively increased specificity enters our conversations about technology in education, we will find ourselves hobbling through a period of transitional crudeness. Humans experienced another thrust of technological impact like this in the nineteenth century: the telegraph. This technology is considered the biggest revolutionary technology since the printing press. It quickly usurped previous technologies (e.g. the Pony Express) and its speed of communication changed culture, economics, politics — all manners of social life. But early on, the technology was crude, communication was rudimentary. Consider the first telegraph sent by Samuel Morse to his assistant Alfred Vail in 1844, pictured to the right (“WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT”).

The original Morse code alphabet contained no capitalization or punctuation, and therefore the message harbors ambiguity. The words are taken from the Book of Numbers, and without punctuation and in all capitals, the receiver might wonder if this is a question, a command, a claim of impending doom, a revelation of divine providence, and so on. Not until the alphabet matured and users became more familiar with the subtleties of this new form of communication did the telegraph come into its own. Soon users could accomplish new levels of nuance and clarity, even hiding secret messages in plain sight. But at first, users needed to carefully consider each letter, each word, each pause, and bravely explore the minefield of (mis)communication.

Transitional crudeness. So, in twenty-first century higher education, what hath God wrought? The massively open online course.

MOOCs

A fundamental weakness of MOOCs is that they are a reincarnation of the standard higher education “course” format of content delivery. MOOCs fail to acknowledge, appreciate, or mobilize the most profound innovation of the Internet (link autoplays a video). Yes, MOOCs administer the course formats to unprecedented numbers of students per course — and this is some fascinating stuff — but it amounts to an all-capital, unpunctuated, and crude message. MOOCs fail miserably in their few attempts to assemble a fruitful network among students. At their core, MOOCs mostly reinforce the banking model and tabula rasa conceptions of education and students. Gene Roche’s previous post reconceptualizing MOOCs as resources accurately reassesses their worth in education.

As Dr. Jim Barber opened in the session, the Internet — and everything we beam across it — is changing our lives. Just like the railroad and the telegraph, the Internet is altering our perceptions of space and time and providing new ways of sharing and connecting. As we adjust to and interact with this new technology, we are discovering new ways of utilizing it. Let us get specific in our explorations, and be patient as we stumble through these early stages.