Join the Discussion! The Arts of Freedom in a Digital Age

[This is a guest post written by the coordinator of W&M’s eLearning Community, Karen Conner, who is currently transitioning to a new position in support of e-learning at the Mason School of Business.]

wmelearningAre you familiar with the W&M eLearning Community?  Now is a great time to join if you have not already done so!  The eLearning Community was formed in December, 2011, and now has more than 170 members.  All W&M faculty and staff are invited to join.  Regular meetings are held during the fall and spring semesters.  Most of the meetings in the past have highlighted faculty members and staff who have shared how they use technology to enhance student learning (not to use technology for the sake of using it, but to engage students in ways that go beyond what can be achieved in the traditional classroom).

Our First Virtual Meeting, with Gardner Campbell

Gardner Campbell was the presenter at our first virtual meeting.

Gardner Campbell was the presenter at our first virtual meeting.

The Community held its first virtual meeting on June 19, 2013.  Gardner Campbell, Director of Professional Development and Innovative Initiatives at Virginia Tech, was the guest speaker. Gardner was recognized by the Center for Digital Education as being one of the “Top 50 Innovators in Education in 2012,” and it was a great opportunity for him to connect with our community and discuss the topic, “The Arts of Freedom in a Digital Age.”

Gardner had just recently returned from a conference in Europe.  He stated:

We are all together in asking some of these very basic questions about what it means to be human beings in the time in which we live. This is a perpetual question, but it’s one that I think has received particular urgency since we are in what I fully believe to be in a real ‘hinge moment’ for civilization as a species …. I think that we are in an exceptional period, not only of change and invention, but we are in an exceptional period of our development as a species.  We really are looking at what one of my colleagues calls a particularly ‘crucial moment in biocultural evolution.’

Gardner states that as human beings we share similarities with human beings of 2,000 years ago in that we have bodies; we have teeth and hair, etc.  As physical beings, we have not evolved very dramatically over the last few thousand years.  He states, “what we have done as a species in terms of culture and civilization, which is really where the evolutionary path lies for us, I believe … that’s pretty astounding … and the digital age is the one that I think has turned the next big corner.”

Three Key Abilities We Have as Humans

During the online session, Gardner discussed three key abilities that we have as humans:

  1. our ability as a species to use our imagination and store memories (crystallized intelligence)
  2. our ability to adapt and use improvisation (fluid intelligence)
  3. our ability to express and to create symbols (symbolic intelligence)

He states that symbolic intelligence is the source of some of the richest experiences that we have as humans.  It allows us to conceptualize and share structures of meaning.  These abilities give us the potential to advance as a species, (assuming you believe that advancing as a species is possible, which Gardner apparently does).  He went on to say that the digital age has resulted from the ongoing biocultural evolution of these three key abilities.  He discussed the potential of the digital age and how educators should live up to the vision of Douglas Engelbart, the inventor of the computer mouse.

Douglas Engelbart, inventor of the computer mouse.

Douglas Engelbart, inventor of the computer mouse.

In 1962, Engelbart wrote of a “way of life in an integrated domain where hunches, cut-and-try, intangibles, and the human ‘feel for a situation’ usefully co-exist with powerful concepts, streamlined terminology and notation, sophisticated methods, and high-powered electronic aids.” Those words were written in 1962, almost twenty years before the advent of the personal computer. In 2013, we have enormously powerful computing devices that we carry in our pockets every day.  According to Gardner Campbell, we inhabit a world with the potential for the kind of integration that Engelbart envisioned, but we fail to live up to that as educators.

In Erica Goldson’s valedictorian speech in 2010, she says:

I have no clue about what I want to do with my life; I have no interests because I saw every subject of study as work, and I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning.  And quite frankly, now I’m scared.

Gardner asks us to think about this in relation to the soaring vision of Engelbart, the way of life in an integrated domain that the digital age could bring to us.  That was in 1962.  Erica spoke in 2010, and she says something that according to Gardner is all too true of many of the students with whom he works as they are about to graduate from college or as they prepare to get their doctoral degrees.  He said, “I think it is a measure of the great ‘yawning gap’ between what we have invented as a species and what that can make possible and what we continue to do in education.”

Thinking About These Issues as We Start the Semester

Gardner’s session was thought-provoking and very well-received.  If you are interested in learning more about the digital age and learning within it, you may view the entire session here. As the Fall Semester approaches, perhaps we can come together and think about the complexity of what we are trying to do for our learners in this digital age. How can we stimulate curiosity and prize interest to propel self-directed learning and encourage learners to try new things? How can we preserve the human element in the digital environment? How can we ask the big questions and aim at wisdom, the highest learning outcome? As a community, we ponder these questions and more. What are your thoughts?

Our next eLearning Community meeting will be held on Friday, September 13, 2013, at 1:00 pm in Miller Hall, Room 1008. Gene Roche will update us on e-learning at William & Mary and share some of the projects that faculty and staff are currently working on.  This is a great opportunity to join the community if you have not already done so. Simply send me an email at If you have topics that you would like to share or something that you are interested in learning about, please let me know. I will do my best to accommodate.

Please check out our blog for Gardner’s recommended readings, helpful resources, and information about Community events. I look forward to seeing you at our next meeting!