The Gorilla in the Classroom

Recently, many factions at the College have become interested in exploring opportunities in e-learning. E-learning is a difficult topic to talk about on campus, with faculty members worried that this means putting classes online and increasing enrollments beyond our capacity, and administrators not quite sure what they mean when they say “e-learning.”  So when our Academic Technology group met a few weeks back, we decided to take up the questions, what does e-learning mean to William & Mary, and what should we be doing to support it?

Now You See It

Gene Roche suggested that we start the conversation by looking at some books that address the issue, and the first book we looked at was Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It, which looks at ways we can reform our educational structures to prepare students for the realities of a 21st century workplace. The title of my article, “The Gorilla in the Classroom,” comes from the central metaphor of her book, the famous study in selective attention by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, in which participants are asked to count the number of times a basketball is being passed back and forth in a video. Spoiler alert: a person in a gorilla suit walks through the game halfway through the video, and supposedly most participants never see the gorilla because they’re so busy counting basketball passes. Here’s the video, in case you want to see it:

Anyway, Davidson appropriates the study for her argument in favor of collaboration, arguing that her dyslexia caused her to not bother counting the number of basketball passes when she was first presented with the video, and so she had no trouble seeing the gorilla, while her classmates were all shocked when confronted with their selective blindness. Whatever. I think that the main, although not particularly innovative, point Davidson makes is that different people see the world differently based on lots of variables: cultural cues, learning differences, etc., and that we should be using these different perspectives to learn from each other. Okay, so this is a bit reductive, but it is a powerful argument for the value of a collaborative, participatory educational model. Kind of like that terrible Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor movie, where one of them is blind and the other is deaf, and individually, they have a rough time, but together, they make a great team.

Here’s a not-particularly good scene from that movie, See No Evil, Hear No Evil:

Why E-learning Matters

Okay, but I’m still not much closer to understanding what e-learning is and why we want it. So, it seems that there are any number of reasons to be exploring e-learning. First is the possibility that e-learning, whatever that entails in practice, will result in cost-savings. Second, along that same vein, is the possibility that e-learning will result in increased revenue. Apart from these financial considerations, though, are there other reasons for us to be exploring e-learning, and if so, what are those reasons? One possibility is that e-learning might actually improve the education we offer our students, that is, that they will better and more efectively learn the material and/or the methodologies of a course. However, there’s another possible reason to explore e-learning that I don’t want to overlook, and which I think is just as valid as any of these other reasons. E-learning has the potential to teach students (and professors) the skills and tools needed to engage in e-learning itself, and knowing these skills and tools (eg. how to video-conference, best practices for creating presentations, etc.) might be the most important pay-off in developing a course that works to incorporate e-learning.

Well, now that I’ve laid out the ground rules of what I perceive to be some of the major goals of e-learning, I will be exploring the issues of e-learning in greater detail and, hopefully, with some practical application, in future articles.

About Mike Blum

Mike is the Academic Technologist for the Humanities at the College