I attended the EDUCAUSE Learning Intitiative (ELI) Annual Meeting in San Antonio a couple of weeks ago (Jan 28–30, 2008). It was my first such conference, and I was representing Dickinson College as a new member of the organization. (ELI itself is not new to me — I have been part of member institutions in the past — but this was my first conference.) My overall impression of the conference itself was very high, especially compared to my experiences with the gargantuan EDUCAUSE conferences, which have become too big to be useful in my opinion. ELI seems just right, although I understand that it too is growing very fast. One sign of the appropriate scale of the conference was the ubiquitous presence and approachability of Diana Oblinger, the new president of EDUCAUSE. Basically, if you wanted to speak with her you could.
ELI is great for a number of other reasons. First, it focuses specifically on academic technology and how it is actually used in real contexts of teaching and learning. Second, it brings together technologists, librarians, faculty, students, and administrators in one space. (Next time, I will want to bring more librarians as well as my technology team.) Third, it really does make an effort to focus on the student perspective, which is all too often forgotten or undervalued.
This was the first conference I attended with its own Twitter feed, running on a wall-mounted plasma screen for all to monitor. Gardner Campbell, one of the designated Citizen Bloggers for the conference, wrote about his morning-after experience with Twitter, in which he and fellow Twitterers got all snippy about the last speaker (of which more below). They all felt bad about their behavior later, but stuck to their opinions, and rightly so. Anyway … below is my my account of some of the talks I attended, impressions based on the notes I took.
Henry Jenkins, “What Wikipedia Can Teach Us About the New Media Literacies”
This was a very good talk, but I can’t say I really learned anything new, nor did I come away with any really good arguments for Wikipedia to present to faculty that I haven’t already tried. Jenkins is a good speaker and a good academic, but he, like any other advocates I know, loses people, when he uncritically makes claims like “Nobody is smarter than everybody.” Many of my faculty colleagues would regard such claims with bemused suspicion, responding with a simple “Unpack that, please.” Talks like this should focus entirely on such propositions rather than using them as evidence for what they are trying to prove, for this is really what is at stake here — a new kind of epistemology. (See themes below.)
Gardner Campbell, “Information Fluency as Curricular Innovation: New Media Studies in General Education”
A very good talk on Gardner’s experience with a general ed course on New Media Studies. Two of his students presented their work, which I felt was a great idea. However, I am not sure they would have made an effective case to a board of trustees that new media literacy is a “have to have” item in the curriculum. (Which of course was not their goal.) The conversation afterward focused on the importance of this effort and the need for an interdisciplinary field of media studies. I understand but strongly disagree with that view. Interdisciplinarity is the Shangri La of academics — a place where lambs rest with lions and all that. It never happens in any long-term, stable way. Instead, interdisciplinary programs end up being their own departments, with their own credentials, history, canonical literature, modes of thinking, etc. Interdisciplinarity works best as a side effect — or emergent property — of good faith interaction among members of established disciplines. Anyway, I discussed with Gardner afterwards my idea for targeting methods courses within disciplines, using a digital scholarship model.
Jude Higdon and Karen Howell, “Comaprative Political Media 2.0: Blogs, Wikis, Podcasting, YouTube, and More”
A good war story talk on a great idea — teaching a course on political media that takes on the new media not just in content — “you need to read Daily Kos” — but in process — “you need to blog too.” Frank discussion of what worked (blogging) and did not work (wikis) in this case. I see this as an example of digital scholarship because the digital is used at the level of course content, and not simply as a delivery or organizational mechanism.
Michael Wesch, “Human Futures for Technology and Education”
Without doubt, the high point of the conference. We all know Mike from his incredibly viral “The Machine is Us/Using Us”; in this talk, he used PowerPoint as an almost cinematic medium to make the case for a new pedagogy based on (1) the new media, in which information is not scarce but incredibly cheap, and (2) anthropology, which has always taught that meaning is tightly related to context and the social. You can see the talk on-line here. My take on his pedagogy is “use with caution.” I can’t imagine many Dickinson faculty embracing it anytime soon, but there are important lessons to be learned from his perspective , which actually has very close parallels to the ethos of the small, liberal arts campus that we strive to cultivate at DC. In addition, whatever one thinks of Wesch’s pedagogy, there is no denying he is a great film maker.
Gardner Campbell, “Innovation in Faculty Development”
An excellent round table discussion on how various colleges and universities approach the issue of bridging the gap between faculty and technology developers (like me). Because the room had literally what seemed to be over 100 folks, it was a bit tedious, but once we broke up into four groups to propose and discuss solutions to one of four problems, we had a lot of traction. Among the things that emerged for me was (1) everyone has this problem, (2) no one has a good answer to it, although there are lots of fairly good partial solutions, and (3) no one has really tried the digital scholarship approach that I am trying to accomplish here (at Dickinson).
The problem itself was cast primarily as a credibility gap: faculty don’t really respect us peers, they see us a technicians to solve specific, technical problems such as getting a projector in a classroom or teaching students to edit video. They often do not realize that technology is a craft with its own logic and pedagogical implications, and that we — academic technologists and librarians — have a lot to offer at this level.
Among the solutions offered were the following:
- Create Faculty Learning Communities of Practice.
- Don’t call workshops workshops.
- Build your credibility by teaching courses yourself.
- Let faculty teach faculty. Faculty trust other faculty.
My own perspective on the issue, which I expressed, is that a major driver in this divide is ideology: we tend to accept the Great Transformation Thesis (see below), which holds that technology is changing everything, and that the old models and even goals of teaching and learning have got to change, whereas faculty (in my mind for the most part rightly) are critical of all this. Faculty have a “show me” attitude, can see through the shallow if flashy pseudo-sociology of technology advocates, and don’t want to throw babies out with the bathwater. (This is where digital scholarship comes in …)
Bob Young, “Educational Publishing: Moving from the 18th to the 21st Century in One Step”
“… and, in the process, skipping over all of you educational technology bureaucrats who are getting in the way of progress and who, but the way, ruined my education growing up.” Which was essentially the man’s message. He did not really talk about LuLu, his latest business venture, beyond describing the obvious long-tail, get-rid-of-the-middle-man-publisher business model. This was the talk that got so many of the Twitterers on edge.
Literacy, fluency and genre
If I were to capture what I learned in this conference, it is that under the sign of the overused, over-hyped label “2.0″ is an emerging consensus on how to think of the such things as Wikipedia, YouTube, MySpace, World of Warcraft, SecondLife, the Blogosphere, Flickr, Del.icio.us, and other quintessential Web 2.0 phenomena. That consensus is captured by the semantic cluster of terms like literacy, fluency, and genre. So, for example, Wikipedia represents a genre within a new kind of literacy which is, by implication, just as useful and important as the older, print literacy in which education is currently so heavily invested. Although careful not to argue that the new literacy will displace the old, a number of very strong claims are made in the name of the new literacy which amount to a kind of manifesto of epistemology (see below.) I like this turn, even if it is only at the level of vocabulary, because I think it is the right way to think about how the new media and Web 2.0 practices potentially fit into an academic curriculum such as what we have at DC. I think faculty will have a better understanding of the implications of things like Flickr and Wikipedia and blogging if we describe them as new genres with their own potentials and pitfalls for academic use.
Beyond the linguistic turn, as it were, is a more or less explicit cognitive turn that is much more pronounced than I have seen in the past. The new literacies, although presented cautiously as augmentive to the old, were in fact repeatedly represented as harbingers of an an entirely new way of thinking (literally) that will at some point displace the old. Specifically, there was constant reference to “collective intelligence,” “distributed cognition,” and “participatory cognition.” The import of these terms is actually pretty revolutionary when put in the light of how teaching and learning happen now. For example, whereas the old epistemology (often referred to by the unfortunate gloss “Cartestian” … anyone for Newtonian too?) is individualist and focuses on a decontextualized notion of content, the new epistemology is collectivist and contextually sensitive. The argument is that, since “nobody is smarter than everybody,” the new literacy is, well, better than the old. We are beyond critiquing bolt-on uses of technology and way into a kind of revolutionary mentality.
The Great Transformation
Finally, another theme that ran through the conference was that we all need is a metanarrative to link our pursuits together, even though, in good postmodern fashion, we are skeptical of metanarratives (like Marxism or Enlightenment progressivism). This idea was ignited by Wesch, who proposed a “Spaceship Earth” story. But all of this surprised me, since the obvious metanarrative, at least among academic technologists for the past 10 years or so, goes somethng like this:
We are in the midst of a Great Transformation caused by digital technologies, which is like Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press but orders of magnitude more profound. Everything is changing, a fact that our students instinctively understand but which our faculty do not. Our mission is to ride the wave of this profound historical upheaval and get our faculty to come along and enjoy the new information prosperity that awaits us.
Based on my experience with this conference, the narrative has been refined: Because all learning is social, and Web 2.o is social, and traditional learning models are not, therefore web 2.o will save us.
That may be an exaggeration, but it really isn’t that far from the truth.