Alasdair MacIntyre on Education

Alasdair MacIntyre in 2009

By Sean O’Connor – http://www.flickr.com/photos/seanoconnor365/3351618688/in/set-72157615114247195/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9963566

One of the summer’s great discoveries for me was the work of Alasdair MacIntyre. It’s a late discovery, but in a strange way, also just in time. A moral philosopher, i.e. a philosopher of ethics, MacIntyre has had a long and distinguished career. He’s reached a wide audience as well, writing in such a way that one need not be a specialist to understand his arguments. His writing is helping me understand some longstanding difficulties I have experienced within academic culture(s). His work also helps me think more precisely, and at greater depth, about fundamental questions regarding the character of learning within higher education. I’ve been a professor long enough to have seen many complex and often very well-intentioned ideas about how to scale up higher education, make it more accessible, make it more effective, and so forth. Student-centered education, learner-centered education, learning-centered education, learning science, student success, personalized or adaptive learning, next-generation digital learning environments, workforce preparation, analytics, rubrics, Bloom, Barr & Tagg, the varieties of open, the list goes on. Yet many basic assumptions go unquestioned or even undetected. So I’m drawn to philosophy, a discipline that should help us keep our thinking rigorous and organized, to try to work through these assumptions and identify, at the very least, what I truly believe–and what I ought to be convinced of, too.

I used to think the bedrock layer was epistemology. How do we know what we know? I still think that’s an essential question, but I now think the even more urgent question is the one raised by moral philosophy: what then must we do? and on what evidence, for what reasons, do we decide the answers to that question? In the end, epistemology and moral philosophy are thickly mingled, but the latter carries with it the dilemmas and inquiries I feel most strongly.

To give you a taste of what I’m reading, I quote below from an interview with MacIntyre conducted by a philosopher of education named Joseph Dunne, and published in The Journal of the Philosophy of Education Vol. 26, No. 1, 2002. The entire “dialogue” is well worth reading, even though it’s ultimately a little disappointing that MacIntyre won’t quite grasp all the nettles Dunne offers him. That said, MacIntyre’s clarity in this lengthy excerpt puts the matter quite cogently, and with a strong sense of the dangers present in some of the rhetorics of educational “success” that are now pervading the discussion. One might even call these rhetorics the “prosperity gospel” version of higher education, and ask how such definitions of “success” will help when the storms come–as they do, especially when we dare to hope to try to build a better world, and especially when those efforts are thwarted.

Here’s MacIntyre:

During the period of fifty or so years in which I have been a teacher, almost, but not quite always in universities, the tasks of the teacher have become ever more difficult. When I spoke about those difficulties in 1985 in my Richard Peters lecture, what I had in mind was the tension between two different sets of tasks, one imposed by the social and educational system on the teacher, the other arising from the very nature of education. What the system requires of teachers is the production of the kind of compliant manpower that the current economy needs, with the different levels of skill and kinds of skill that are required in a hierarchically ordered economy. Some few children are to become corporate executives and stockbrokers, some others lawyers and physicians, very many more will occupy the lower ranks of the service, manufacturing and farming industries, and then there will be those destined by their inadequate education to provide an adequate supply of casual unskilled labour.

These unequal outcomes are required by our social and economic order. But what education has to aim at for each and every child, if it is not to be a mockery, is both the development of those powers that enable children to become reflective and independent members of their families and political communities and the inculcation of those virtues that are needed to direct us towards the achievement of our common and individual goods.

Yet, insofar as such education is successful, it will to a remarkable extent render those who profit from it unfit to participate compliantly and successfully in the social and economic order. For they will have learned how to ask questions about the activities presented by that order which it is important–from the standpoint of that order–not to ask. What questions are these? They will be of at least three kinds. A first concerns the goods served by each particular type of activity. A good education is one in which students learn not only how to play their intended part in different kinds of complex activity by developing their skills, but also how to recognise the goods served by those activities, goods which give point and purpose to what they do.

A second set of questions will be elicited by the answers to the first set. Insofar as the activities in which they engage turn out not to serve genuine goods, and more especially not to serve the common goods of the family and the local political community, what is to be done. This is partly a political question, but it is also a question for individuals about their own work. Where can I find work to do that is both for my good and for the common good? Here it matters that in the market society of advanced modernity being successful involves going where the money is and this with a single-mindedness and a tunnel vision that makes it less and less easy to enjoy the success for which one has learned to lust. The metaphor of the rat race becomes increasingly appropriate and in Ireland the true emblem of the past decade is not the Celtic tiger, but the Celtic rat.

Being unsuccessful involves being where the money is not and teachers, although much better off than either the working or the unemployed poor, are sill a paradigm case of lack of success. But teachers have one great advantage over many other members of the workforce. Not only do they serve the common good, but even when either the bureaucratic or the economic constraints on their teaching deform it, or when their own defects as teachers prevent them from achieving what they should and can achieve, they generally have colleagues with whom they can enquire together how to remedy matters.

Yet this is not so for almost everyone else. Most people, if and when they have asked a first set of questions about the goods at stake in their activities, and a second set of questions about what is to be done, will find themselves badly in need of discussion and enquiry with others, so that their initial answers to the first two sets of questions may be tested against the best objections that can be brought against those answers. But, when they ask a third set of questions about the possibilities for such discussion and enquiry, they will find that our contemporary social order offers almost no opportunity for them. Our conditions of work are such and our institutions are such that there is very rarely any milieu within which, in the company of others, we can step back from the established ongoing order of things and raise questions about it sub specie boni.

Why is this? It is in part because of the phenomenon of social compartmentalisation, of the increasing extent to which each particular area of life is delimited, with its own norms and prescribed roles, so that the self is in danger of being liquidated into those roles, presenting one persona in the home, another in the workplace, a third at parties or in a bar, yet without anywhere to recollect who she or he is as a human being and to reflect upon what the point and purpose of the whole may be, so that one can better understand the parts….

So contemporary teachers have the task of educating their students, so that those students will bring to the activities of their adult life questioning attitudes that will put them at odds with the moral temper of the age and with its dominant institutions. Many of these students will become frustrated, many will be defeated. But some will find their own way and become, by the standards of the age, unintelligibly happy failures….

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The Role of University Faculty in an Age of Ubiquitous Personal Networked Computing

1961 mission statement, Arizona State College

On August 14, 2017 I was honored to be the keynote speaker at the Southwest Teaching and Learning Symposium, held at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona. My heartfelt thanks to Don Carter for the invitation, and to Don, John Doherty, and Alexandria Lewis for all they did to make my visit smooth and greatly enjoyable.

As you’ll hear from my talk, I spent some time on familiar ground, but this time newly contextualized in ways the very long title points toward. My idea, emerging from my experience as a faculty member for twenty-seven years and as an administrator for twelve of those years, is that amidst the urgent, necessary, and largely (but not entirely) beneficial emphasis on so-called “student-centered learning,” we have not considered the role of faculty as deeply or as wisely as we should.

There are many reasons for that lack. I consider some of them in my talk. At the same time, I return to what I take to be some necessary, if inconvenient truths regarding faculty, whom I consider as the heart, the sine qua non, of a university. My point is not to demean or diminish anyone at the university who is not faculty. The intelligence, hard work, and insight of a university’s staff, and their commitment to their work for the greater good, sometimes put faculty to shame. If anything, calling attention to faculty’s central role in a university may remind us of faculty’s responsibilities for being good stewards of what is best in higher education–and, sadly, also remind us of where that stewardship is overlooked, denied, ignored, or mired in endless petty disputes.

My talk at NAU starts with faculty, then, and moves to faculty roles in a university, and enlarges that focus to bring in one of the defining characteristics of contemporary life, ubiquitous personal networked computing. Like all communicative extensions (to use McLuhan’s word), ubiquitous personal networked computing empowers some insights and obscures others. I do not believe that our age guarantees any outcome–to that extent, I am neither a technological determinist nor a techno-utopian. But I do believe, very strongly, in the human potential for good, and in communicative extensions as primary and powerful agents with which to realize and propagate that potential.

So in this talk, I try to take a comprehensive view of a key aspect of contemporary higher education, one that I don’t hear about very often (and I recognize I may not know where to listen–so help me there). I think once again about points of leverage, and places to stand where that leverage might be exercised. For it is nothing less than a world we seek to move, and I continue to believe with all my heart that education is both ground and lever for that motion.

So here’s the talk.

If you’d like to follow the slides, I’ve embedded them in a pdf below:

NAU 2017 Teaching-Learning Keynote

Note that the black slide has several slides after it. I ran over time so I didn’t get to them, but they’re important and I wanted to include them here.

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“Kissing Is Awesome”

I overheard this remark by [REDACTED] and decided to remember it. I thought it might come in handy as the title for a blog post one day.

"You may kiss the bride"

“You may kiss the bride”

That’s 38 years ago. July 14, 1979. The day Alice Woodworth and I were married. That’s her father, the Reverend Robert B. Woodworth, officiating at the ceremony.

It’s always interesting and spooky, too, to look at an old picture of oneself and ask, “what was I thinking in that moment?” I remember the moment vividly, and I remember that I was thinking about a lot of things, all swirling through my head and heart. I felt there was approximately zero distance between those thoughts and the moment I was experiencing. I was in the moment, one might say, though that seems a superficial way of describing it. Awesome, however, seems apt. It’s a word with great range. Awesome is exhilarating, awesome is humbling, awesome is uncanny, awesome is a little scary, awesome is that “oceanic feeling” of oneness.

This kiss was awesome in all those ways. The first kiss of our married life. Our first deed as a married couple, out there in public, a response to the minister’s pronouncement that we were married. (And yes, right there in front of my wife’s father.) How strange, in a way, that the traditional response to “I now pronounce you” is to kiss each other. A good tradition, in my view. Awesome.

Everyone knows that the pronouncing is sealed with a kiss. Here’s comes awesome! Wait for it! Another photographer documents the moment:

"You may kiss the bride" II

“You may kiss the bride” II. Attendants from L-R: Barrie Kirby, Ellen Woodworth (sister of the bride), Walter Campbell (father of the groom, and best man) and Fred Campbell (brother of the groom). Setting: the amphitheater behind Mary Washington College.

And now, what has changed? Oh, everything. One awesome kiss marks that change. We walk together from that moment on in a new way, one that co-exists, sometimes spectacularly, sometimes confusingly, with the old ways. Alice walks, Gardner walks. No problem. We’d done that together. But now, walking with Alice, walking with Gardner, is this third thing, Alice-and-Gardner, our marriage. The wedding has concluded, and the marriage has begun.

Our marriage walks with us, now, everywhere we go. Here’s a picture of that beginning.

Three walk together

Three walk together

The three of us–Alice, Gardner, and our marriage–are still walking together, 38 years later. It’s still awesome, in all the ways I could have imagined and in all the ways I could not possibly have imagined. Getting to know each other is a mighty work-in-progress. Getting to know that third thing, our marriage, is an equally mighty work-in-progress. The marriage becomes a person in its own right, a third being that can be distinguished, but not divided, from the two separate beings who have walked together for all this time. I hadn’t expected that, though I’m sure all the elders tried to tell me. Such lessons feel like riddles or news from another land until the years clarify and expand one’s own complex locations. But I’m glad to remember that they tried anyway. It’s an elder’s job.

So here we are, two young people in love, guarded and goaded and lifted beyond ourselves by the persons we have just invited into our lives: each other, and our marriage.

Awesome.

Happy anniversary, Alice.

Love,
Gardner

 

 

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An end to the beginning: Open Learning ’17

Oh You Moon by Alan Levine

Photo by Alan Levine

Open Learning ’17‘s last official event was yesterday, as Susan Albertine, Beverly Covington, Steve Greenlaw, Amy Nelson, and I reflected on the experience from multiple perspectives. Today’s the last day of the Open Learning ’17 “week,” however, and I offer one more thought while class is still (barely) in session.

I always imagined the Open Learning ’17 experience as a course of study. To me it was an opportunity for a community to form around a series of readings, videoconferences, blog posts, tweets, and the like. Each week would take up a new topic, but all along the way there would be a crescendo, a building, learnings that would be more than a mere accumulation. We would get to something like “all the opens, connected,” or at least a first approximation thereof.

This goal could have been built into the design more conspicuously and much more effectively. My bad. Looking back, I think we should have used each Friday’s Twitter chat to connect the current week with the preceding weeks. It’s entirely possible that not enough people were plugged in to every week, consistently, to make such a chat work, On the other hand, it’s possible that such a Twitter chat would have sent a strong signal that the course of study should connect, and not simply be an occasion for a la carte involvement when one’s favorite topic was scheduled.

All of that said, each week was full of individual excellences, and I am grateful to all the directors-of-the-week (and sometimes weekS) for their imagination and dedication: Bryan Alexander, Stephanie Blackmon, Sue Erickson and Maha Bali, Amy Nelson and Shelli Fowler, Steve Greenlaw, and Laura Gogia . I deeply appreciate the time and energy contributed by everyone who took part in the videoconferences, especially Bret Eynon and Randy Bass. I’m grateful to the steering committee for their support and their wise counsel throughout the experience. And while it is no doubt a little dangerous to single anyone out, I feel I must in this instance give the MVP Award to Amy Nelson, who was all-in throughout the experience, and who represented most fully the kind of learning and participation I had imagined at the outset.

Thanks as well to AAC&U’s Susan Albertine for trusting us and cheering us on, despite or perhaps because of our persistently idiosyncratic approach. Thanks also to Beverly Covington for her patient and enthusiastic support on the state level as SCHEV’s liaison to the Faculty Collaboratives project.

And of course, a huge thank you to all the participants in Open Learning ’17, who blogged, tweeted, and gave of their time, expertise, and hearts. Your contributions convinced me the idea could work, and did work, and might work again. I’m grateful.

I don’t know where we’ll go from here. I know we plan to curate the resources generated during the semester so folks can consult specific elements very readily. We have a number of extraordinary videoconferences and interviews recorded. We have some truly inspiring and occasionally even jaw-dropping blog posts that stand as beautiful essays in our anthology of learning. We have some great Twitter chats Storified. We have several connected learning infographics and other coaching materials from our connected learning coach, Laura Gogia. These resources will live on, connected to the hub site, as long as the hub site exists.

I hope the site will continue to buzz and whir over the summer. And I hope that one day this course of study, or something akin to it, will bring us together again.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say as I continue to reflect on the experience. I should probably write a post to explain, if only from my perspective, the design of the learning experience. I should also write more about what I think was most successful and what I found most disappointing, and why.

For now, though, I’ll leave the week with another quotation from Lichtenberg’s Waste Books. My previous blog post featured a quotation from this astonishing work, a quotation that I think is one of the most urgent and important things I’ve ever posted to Gardner Writes. Maybe it’ll take a while to sink in. Be that as it may, this quotation is no less urgent and important. The words speak powerfully, if perhaps a little obliquely, to the journey of Open Learning ’17, and to at least some of what I hope this first voyage will carry into the future.

The peasant who believes the moon is no bigger than a plough wheel never reflects that at a distance of a few miles a whole church appears only as a white speck but the moon on the contrary seems always to be the same size: what prevents him from connecting these ideas, which are all presented to him distinctly? In his ordinary life he does in fact connect ideas and perhaps does so by more artificial connections than these. This reflection should make the philosopher pay heed: perhaps in some of the connections he makes he is still a peasant. We think early in life but we do not know we are thinking, any more than we know we are growing or digesting; many ordinary people never do discover it. Close observations of external things easily leads back to the point of observations, ourselves, and conversely he who is for once wholly aware of himself easily proceeds from that to observing the things around him. Be attentive, feel nothing in vain, measure and compare: this is the whole law of philosophy.

Notebook A, entry 35, in Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, The Waste Books, ed. R. J. Hollingdale. Penguin Books, 1990, rpt. New York Review Books, 2000, p. 12.

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The Waste Books, Teaching, and Learning

Lichtenberg, The Waste Books
Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s extraordinary and heartbreaking Heavenly Questions, in particular the section called “Sublimaze,” has led me to a new author–new to me, anyway: Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. Much more to say about Lichtenberg, and the associative trail I followed when he appeared (not rhizomatic, and not predictable either), but no time to say it just now. Yet I do want to copy, and share, a Lichtenberg observation I read just last night in that lovely space just before sleep. It has made quite an impression on me. Perhaps you will find it illuminating, too.

From Notebook C, entry 26, in The Waste Books, translated and with an Introduction by R. J. Hollingdale (Penguin, 1990, rpt. New York Review Books, 2000), pp. 36-37:

Herrr Capitaine-Lieutenant von Hammerstein was much in favor of instruction with apparatus. The principal argument he always put forward was that it could only be a good thing to achieve one’s objective as quickly as possible. That was virtually the only argument he had. But since the investigation of a subject, the effort involved in understanding it, is calculated to teach us to know it better from several sides and to attach it most readily to our system of thought, for people who have the ability a drawing is certainly to be preferred to a model. An increase in knowledge acquired too quickly and with too little participation on one’s own part is not very fruitful: erudition can produce foliage without bearing fruit. There are a great many shallow heads who are astonishingly knowledgeable. What we have to discover for ourselves leaves behind in our mind a pathway that can also be used on another occasion.

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Faculty and New Media Literacies

Lindellhallen, Humlab, Umea University, Sweden, Second Life

Photo by Gardner Campbell

Last week in Open Learning ’17 we began our work with Randy Bass and Bret Eynon’s book Open and Integrative: Designing Liberal Education for the New Digital Ecosystem, published in 2016 by the AAC&U. As with other things we’ve read in our openly networked course of study, we’ve been busy annotating the book with Hypothes.is. And as I was reading along and making my annotations, I found that my colleague Amy Nelson (also on the Open Learning ’17 Steering Committee) had very succinctly annotated a passage that had given me pause as well.

First, the passage from Open and Integrative:

Connected learning previews the new ecosystem where learners move easily between formal and informal contexts, connect knowledge and lived experience, and deepen learning through engagement with others. (19)

Then, Amy’s note:

Would like to see faculty incorporated into this ecosystem more explicitly. They also need to be more nimble and able to negotiate across these domains.

Exactly. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that Week 10 (topic: participatory cultures) and Weeks 11-13 (topic: liberal learning and the new digital ecosystem) of Open Learning ’17 needed to be introduced to one other, so to speak. Perhaps the juxtaposition already suggested this idea to me, but it really was Amy’s comment that helped me connect the dots.

When Bass and Eynon write about digital ecosystems, they sometimes mean the open Web and various affordances on the Web. Most of the time, however, they lean more toward “learning technologies” like eportfolios, analytics, simulations, etc. that schools build for learners, a very different kind of ecosystem that the one made possible by the Web itself. (One could also argue that ecosystems our students live in when not in school are not about the open Web either, an argument that deserves its own post, and one I will address obliquely below.) Why does this difference matter? Obviously, the word “ecosystem” implies something more than the dominance of one or two species. The word suggests something holistic, comprehensive, a system that includes of many interdependent parts in a larger network.

I’d argue that the turning point for civilization was not so much digital computing as networked digital computing. I had a small habitrail on my individual computer back in the 1980s, but it wasn’t an ecosystem. It was more along the lines of a “productivity suite.” Suites on the Mac were more interesting and truly interconnected than they were on the PC, but we’re still talking about the walled garden of an individual computer. Exciting, you bet, but not an ecosystem.

An ecosystem is complexly connected. An ecosystem supports emergent phenomena. An ecosystem is “deeply intertwingled,” to borrow Ted Nelson’s plangent phrase.

An ecosystem gives and gathers life
To and from all its members.

An ecosystem is genuinely and thoroughly participatory.

No one is only a creator.
No one is only a consumer.

So as I thought some more about Amy’s comment, I began to understand that one of my ongoing nodes of discontent with the status quo has to do with how, all too often, faculty do not themselves have the knowledge, skills, or dispositions to be members of the participatory cultures supported by the open Web. (They may also lack the knowledge, skills, or dispositions to be members of the participatory cultures supported by the contemporary university, given that the contemporary university is more likely a “multiversity,” as Clark Kerr observed half a century ago–but that’s also another post.) During a very stimulating and lovely conversation with Randy and Bret about their book, I could nevetheless hear the conversation drifting toward the opportunities and skills we would help students to enjoy and acquire. At one point toward the end of the conversation, I asked Randy Bass about the relationship between the digital ecosystems inside and outside the university. While stressing the need for “porous boundaries” between those two ecosystems, Randy articulated a laudable goal for schools trying to think about such boundaries. Randy asked schools

to think about how you’re empowering people inside a university by helping them learn how to connect outside the university, how to build networks, how to negotiate networks, how to protect themselves, how to leverage resources that they don’t yet control, how to make use of intellectual tools in combination with what might their own … facility in these digital environments for the kind of, what we could call in the Jesuit tradition, the kind of “interior freedom” that we’re trying to help students achieve…..

And as I listened to Randy and agreed with him, I couldn’t help wondering whether faculty might be a bit complacent about their own abilities in this regard. Do our faculty know how to connect outside the university, especially in the kinds of participatory cultures Jenkins describes? Do faculty know how to build and negotiate effective, mind-expanding online networks that cross institutional boundaries–or that aren’t defined by institutional boundaries at all? Do faculty know how to leverage resources they don’t control? Do faculty know how to use intellectual tools in digital environments that have little or nothing to do with school? For that matter, do faculty have the kind of  “interior freedom” Randy advocates, within these new digital ecosystems?

And a little voice in my head spoke again: why do we assume we can maintain our professional lives free of these new literacies and at the same time convey wisdom to students about their lives and literacies?

In his 2006 white paper “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century,” Henry Jenkins sounds an urgent call to action:

The social production of meaning is more than individual interpretation multiplied; it represents a qualitative difference in the ways we make sense of cultural experience, and in that sense, it represents a profound change in how we understand literacy. In such a world, youth need skills for working within social networks, for pooling knowledge within a collective intelligence, for negotiating across cultural differences that shape the governing assumptions in different communities, and for reconciling conflicting bits of data to form a coherent picture of the world around them.

We must integrate these new knowledge cultures into our schools, not only through group work but also through long-distance collaborations across different learning communities.Students should discover what it is like to contribute their own expertise to a process that involves many intelligences, a process they encounter readily in their participation in fan discussion lists or blogging. Indeed, this disparate collaboration may be the most radical element of new literacies: they enable collaboration and knowledge-sharing with large-scale communities that may never personally interact. Schools are currently still training autonomous problem-solvers, whereas as students enter the workplace, they are increasingly being asked to work in teams, drawing on different sets of expertise, and collaborating to solve problems.

Youth need those skills, now more than ever. The question then becomes whether faculty themselves have these skills in ways that can be modeled and thus meaningfully incorporated in their own pedagogies (and in their own scholarly networks as well–why not?).

These skills are not just ‘information” skills, narrowly considered. They are new media literacies.

I’ve copied Jenkins’ 2006 skill taxonomy below, with some comments. With the caveat that I do not think knowledge, skills, and dispositions can be divided, my question remains: to what extent do you have and model these skills for your students? To what extent do your colleagues have and model these skills for their students? As we consider Jenkins’ list, we may well agree that there’s a profound gap between what we say students should know and what we ourselves can, or are willing, to do as we participate in this new digital ecosystem.

As I argued in “My Computer Romance“:

We live in 2007. Faculty complaints are real and serious. In lives full of teaching, advising, reading, marking papers, writing, presenting at conferences, publishing—more demands each year—faculty do not have the time to learn these new literacies. Based on their past experience, faculty fear that whatever they do learn will likely be obsolete within a few years. If faculty are successful in learning these new forms of reading and writing and in working within them, their achievements are often not valued in the tenure and promotion process. And if faculty incorporate these new literacies into their teaching, they still may not understand how to evaluate student work within these literacies. I hear these complaints from my faculty colleagues, faculty at other U.S. colleges and universities (from liberal arts to research institutions), and faculty around the world. These are valid complaints. They must be addressed, especially by administrators who can align institutional resources to bring relief and opportunities to those faculty ready to engage with these tools. All faculty who are ready deserve a place where they too can enjoy a computer romance.

Yet faculty must move forward before the professional infrastructure is completely hospitable. Faculty can no longer afford to wait. We faculty live in 2007, and we all must be ready. These technologies are not going away. Their promise is enormous and only beginning to be realized. They are essential components of every aspect of our lives, and we owe it to ourselves and our students not only to understand them but to delight in them, to learn within them, and to share those delighted experiences of learning with our students. Only when our students see our own learning blossoming within a computer romance will they listen to us when we tell them to use these tools more wisely themselves.

Lives of curiosity, creativity, and discovery within this new digital realm await us all if we are prepared to calm our fears, share our ideas (whether or not they’re “half-baked”), and remember the excitement that called us to this place, this vocation. The computers are us. The world is our wiki.

Yes, it’s now seven years later. There may have been some incremental progress in some areas, but I fear there have been many more steps back than forward. Perhaps it is not too late to turn that around. I hope not.

And with that, here’s Jenkins’ list, with my comments in italics.

Play
— the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving
This specific form of new-media play is likely foreign to many faculty, even in their private lives. Will a generational transition address this gap, or will faculty culture continue to penalize play in favor of other, more aggressively career-focused kinds of professional activity?

Performance
— the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery
I suspect many faculty would be baffled as to why this skill might be desirable or important.

Simulation
— the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes
Perhaps less of a skill gap here, though these models are usually contained within specific course or institutional boundaries.

Appropriation
— the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content
The word “appropriation” probably isn’t the best word for this skill anymore, but the ability is still relevant and important. To take one very small example: how many faculty do you know who’ve created an animated gif, or experimented with an image macro?

Multitasking
— the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient details.
I’d say this ability badly needs another name, as much research suggests human beings are fooling themselves if they imagine they’re good multitaskers. That said, there is what I’d call a “gestalt” or “gist” or “sizing-up” ability–that ‘scanning one’s environment’ Jenkins describes–that is important, especially in networked cultures.

Distributed Cognition
— the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities
This ability is perhaps the most vital of all, especially in new-media online participatory cultures. Any mind-expanding or intellect-augmenting technology vastly broadens one’s intellectual and personal horizons. School itself should be such a tool. Books certainly have been, for centuries. To what extent do faculty experience online participatory cultures and new-media literacies as mind-expanding?

Collective Intelligence
— the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal
This is certainly the goal of a scholarly community, though it’s not always clear what goals are truly held in common, and I wonder to what extent academia is a genuinely participatory culture in the contemporary “multiversity.”

Judgment
— the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources
This ability is probably the most familiar and putatively widespread among faculty in the contemporary university, though the Sokal Hoax does give one pause in this regard.

Transmedia Navigation
— the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities
I think most faculty wouldn’t know where to start with this ability, though they might plead that they’re not film scholars, art history scholars, writing teachers, musicians, etc. Yet not being able to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities does seem to be missing a considerable opportunity in the new digital ecosystem.

Networking
— the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information
Faculty can do this in older ways, but it’s not clear to me to what extent the new media landscape has altered more conventional practices or abilities. In particulate, I wonder if faculty routinely disseminate scholarly information outside peer circles.

Negotiation
— the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.
Faculty are often skeptical about faculty in other disciplines, a very short hop across communities with fairly limited intellectual diversity. Are faculty willing to take on the diverse communities and alternative norms of Twitter? of Wikipedia? of Reddit? 

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Openly Dedicated

Poetry course dedication

When I got to college, I discovered there was a thing called intellectual history. Part of intellectual history, I also learned, was intellectual lineage: not just idea leading to idea, but thinker leading to thinker. Groups of writers interacting synchronously and asynchronously. Influences, meetings, letters, fallings-out, all of it.

This semester, it occurred to me that I might at least signal to my students that I come from someplace too, intellectually speaking. More precisely, I come from someones. I feel a great cloud of witnesses around me as I teach and as I learn. Those witnesses are intellectual parents, intellectual siblings, and in some cases, even intellectual heirs. These are the people whose work has shaped me, and who have shaped my work. In the most intimate cases, these are people with whom I’ve broken bread. People with whom I’ve fought, and cried. People who’ve believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself, people who’ve encouraged me, people who’ve intervened at key moments. People who are with me as I think and write and teach and learn.

I have always felt that the courses I design and lead, at their best, do not deliver content so much as they mingle souls, as John Donne said letters do. My students sometimes hear a few of my stories, but somehow I wanted to communicate something in a more ceremonial way. So I came up with the idea of putting a dedication on my syllabi. My wish is that students will see how precious our time together may be, and how one day we may find we have changed each other’s lives. I want them to see that courses of study are books, but not just books; assignments, but not just assignments; credit hours, but not just credit hours. I want them to understand that a course of study is more relational than transactional. I want them to understand some of the gratitude I feel.

And I’ll confess it: I want to send a letter of sorts, a communication, perhaps even an eldritch communication in some cases, to the teachers and mentors and colleagues who have sustained me and honored me with their faith and hope and love.

So this semester, my poetry course and my film course both have dedications. The words are small and may well be overlooked, even though I did explain them on the first day of class. In the end, the words may mean little to anyone but me. But I have written them, even as those I honor have helped to write and teach and love me into being. And I am content.

Reading Film course dedication

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Connected Learning: a personal epiphany

Pleiades

It happened just last Tuesday, and I’ve been reeling ever since.

I was talking with a student during an office visit. The topic of blogging came up. I’m not sure exactly how we got there, but I brought out one of my touchstones, the great “Dackolupatoni” experiment undertaken by a student at Virginia Tech just after a visit to the class by our Distinguished Innovator in Residence, Jon Udell. I could explain all that to you, but I’d really rather you just go read the student’s post (miraculously, several years later, it’s still there–thank you, VT). In a marvelously recursive description of her learning, the student blogged about, and thus enacted, her new understanding of the web’s peculiar, thrilling potential to be both noun and verb. The blog post was about the web, and because it was a blog post to the web, it also became webby itself. It webbed itself. “Dackolpatoni” thus became a small, potent, magically self-enacting instance of the very thing the student had just learned. It became, in Jon Udell’s wonderful metaphor, an “awakened grain of sand.”

The memory thrills me now now less than the experience did then. To have a student, all on her own, craft such an elegant proof of concept! There were several other electric moments in that class, but this one immediately defined a moment that continues to resonate, ever more plangently, throughout the sounding connections of this resonant web. The student’s post is as powerful a demonstration I can imagine of Jerome Bruner’s definition of understanding: “going beyond the information given.” And the going-beyond has now transcended its local context. It has gone beyond its own going beyond! The bright moment continues to expand its sphere of illumination. And the bright moment continues to light my path. So fragile and exquisite a moment, to have proven so remarkably enduring. But of course that was the reason for the student’s experiment to begin with. And the spark that became incandescent was the student’s realization that there were grounds for making that experiment. She became aware of a question to ask.

It was indeed a thrill for me, and remains so, to have been present in the moments leading up to, and away from, that particular moment. I wasn’t there for the moment of the writing, of course. I read that post after the class, after it had been written, after it had already begun to do its work. But reading it, afterwards, as it began to web, I saw something like the red shift that indicates the universe is expanding. I did not see the leap, but I saw the leaping. Spooky action at a distance. The web was the instrumentation that revealed that action, even as it inspired it and made it possible.

Thrilling as that “Dackolupatoni” experience was, it was not a new thrill for me. My experience with the Web had always been one of uncanny connections and near-mystical properties. I know they’re not really mystical properties, really I do, but I continue to marvel at, and seek to emulate and propagate, the conditions and protocols and dreams underlying the technical architecture that makes these properties possible. When I became an administrator at the University of Mary Washington, right about the time there was enormous energy around the idea of “Web 2.0,” I was fortunate to be able to gather a team that was ready and able to help faculty, staff, and students to find and make those uncanny, web-energized connections in their own work. Marvels tumbled out, and the sense of uncanny energies and possibilities seemed to increase with near-exponential intensity and frequency. Those webs kept growing, too–not that everyone understood or welcomed or even acknowledged these miracles in plain sight.

All of which brings me back to last Tuesday, and the student in my office. I had just told her the “Dackolupatoni” story as a way of describing the energy and linking I hoped students could discover (and craft, and experience) in the blogging we were doing for class. I told her about awakening grains of sand. She looked at me, paused, and thought. Then she said something close to this: “That’s a really interesting metaphor. I’d never thought about the Web that way. Posting something to the Web always seemed to me like sending a message into vast, dark, and empty interstellar space.” And all at once I could see, with newfound clarity, what I’ve been trying to share for years, even when I felt discouraged and baffled by aggressive and sometimes hostile resistance to the very idea of connected learning.

I see with renewed clarity that a core element of what I would call digital literacy, perhaps the core element is understanding the possibilities the Web holds out to us for awakening grains of sand, of “Dackolupatoni” experiments that have the weird and transformative properties of demonstrating how giving airy nothings a local habitation and a name can make us more at home, and much less alone, within the apparent infinities of our own consciousness. How human agency can scale, not by dwarfing and even consuming those around us, but by equipping us to recognize, and on this platform to demonstrate, the possibility of becoming what Donne describes as “books lying open to each other” in an environment in which it is possible, in Parker Palmer’s beautiful phrase, “to know as we are known.” Like language. Like love.

A story of two students, then, each of whom taught me crucial things. A story to help explain why “connected learning” is for me not only an aspiration, but pretty close to a redundancy. A story of how permissionless linking generates both spam and the music of the spheres. I hardly know what to say.

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A slightly belated thank you to Bryan Alexander

Bryan Alexander, 2005

Bryan at the UMW Faculty Academy, 2005. Note the aura, even then.

I should have done this Saturday, but Monday will have to do. Thanks, Bryan Alexander, for directing our week of digital literacy at Open Learning ’17. I met Bryan in January, 2004, in San Diego, at a conference of the National Learning Infrastructure Initiative, the predecessor organization to the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative. I was so inspired by Bryan’s closing talk on mobile learning that I rushed the stage afterward and secured a follow-up conversation at a local burger emporium, where I met yet another Br*an for the first time–a story for another post.

Since that time, I have been very fortunate to know Bryan as a colleague, a mentor, a teacher, and a friend. The moral is clear: be a fanboy–not that I need any encouragement.

Bryan did his work for Open Learning ’17 while doing all the other Paul Bunyan/Dan’l Webster work he does: a reading group, his writing, his ed-futures forum, his consulting, his Future Trends in Technology and Education reporting, his speaking, strenuous home-work in his Vermont redoubt, being a loving and supportive family man, and keeping up with film, music, and various gothic frisson-producing wonderments. How he made time for our Virginia Faculty Collaboratives project is a secret he shares with his clones, but we are all very grateful nonetheless.

Thanks for the week of digital literacy, Bryan. Or, as I have learned the Norwegians say, “thanks for that you are you.”

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Conceptual Frameworks: some thoughts

Photo of framework by Markus Stöber

Photo by Markus Stöber

At the end of the #OpenLearning17 week of digital literacy, hosted and herded and directed with aplomb, panache, alacrity, and insight by Bryan Alexander, I have a few thoughts on conceptual frameworks: their necessity, and why they are all too often neglected or waved away as “conceptual, not practical.”

I’ll start with a story from my experience as a teacher, one that I think many teachers have had. Because I believe that sustained, focused engagement with a text builds powers of attention, observation, and analysis that will generalize to other spheres of intellectual, social, and civic engagement, I ask my English students to write at length on a particular text, topic, etc. Because I have to give them some idea of the scope of investigation and extent of focused engagement I imagine, I will assign a page length or a word-count equivalent. That’s how a “ten page term paper” ends up being required for a class, though I don’t use those words so much anymore, as the writing is usually to the web, not to paper, and likely to be multimodal, and should NOT resemble the book-report-with-affected-authoritatively-stilted voice that students typically use in “term papers.”

I put a great deal of thought into how I describe the assignment, how I scaffold the learning experience preceding the due date, and how I explain the purpose of the assignment. I don’t assume that any single aspect of the assignment is magic, but I also don’t assume that an assignment without some specifications will automatically liberate learning. I try to balance formal requirements with a strong encouragement toward creativity, exploration, and an essayistic disposition. (I remind students that “essay” comes from the French word for “attempt.”)

You can, perhaps, sense where this is going.

The first questions, and often the most persistent questions, are about length or word count. What if it’s nine pages (or equivalent word count)? Even more heartbreaking are the questions about whether it’s okay to do eleven pages when the syllabus says ten. And so forth. Why these questions? Why the even more frequently heartbreaking questions about how many times one must blog, or post to a discussion forum, and whether one can “make up” two weeks of missed blogging by posting four times as frequently for a week or two?

My idea today is that the problem is the lack of a conceptual framework–or worse, the lack of expecting or inquiring about a conceptual framework. That is, I have one, but many of my students don’t, and they’ve learned not to expect one, inquire about one, or to build one for themselves, at least with regard to their education. Many of them find it difficult to recognize a conceptual framework when they see one, or when I try to explain one to them. School has scarred their insight.

But as heartbreaking as it is when my students focus on word count instead of why words matter, it’s even more heartbreaking–and damaging–when it happens within the university itself.

Conceptual frameworks are not things to do. Conceptual frameworks are tools for understanding, tools to think with. But it appears that we have represented education to our students and ourselves as merely, or largely, things to do. Practical things. Competencies, lists of courses, one bolus after another of “content” to be delivered–and if the content can be pushed in faster, you’ll graduate all the sooner.

Certainly one must do things. But unless the conceptual frameworks are always in view, unless they inform every thing one does, one inevitably ends up with “on time trains” that go nowhere. Or as Will Richardson put it in a recent essay, one ends up trying “to do the wrong thing right”:

One of the things I’ve come to realize in my many discussions with educators from around the globe is that there are a number of practices in our current systems of schooling that “unsettle” us, primarily because they don’t comport with what Seymour Papert calls our “stock of intuitive, empathic, common sense knowledge about learning.” But what’s also notable about those practices is that we rarely want to discuss them aloud, content instead to let them hover silently in the background of our work. We know, as I suggested a few weeks ago, that in many cases, these practices are attempting to do “the wrong thing right” rather than “do the right thing” in the first place. But we carry on regardless.

The new ACRL Information Literacy Framework strives to do the right thing, and it puts the case for its conceptual emphases very cogently:

The Framework offered here is called a framework intentionally because it is based on a cluster of interconnected core concepts, with flexible options for implementation, rather than on a set of standards or learning outcomes, or any prescriptive enumeration of skills. At the heart of this Framework are conceptual understandings that organize many other concepts and ideas about information, research, and scholarship into a coherent whole.

I know many who try to present a similar “cluster of interconnected core concepts” in our conversations about digital literacy, or education generally, but again and again I find that these efforts are obscured or smothered by a rush to “a set of standards, or learning outcomes … or prescriptive enumeration of skills” that fill our discourse, our meetings, our curricula, and worst of all, the way we present “student success” to our students and ourselves.

One big reason Open Learning ’17’s syllabus began with readings from 1945, 1962, and 1974 is that these readings are rich in conceptual frameworks, rich in ideas, rich in clusters of interconnected core concepts. If at time the readings become oblique, or indirect, or even difficult to follow, it’s not because the writers–these dreamers who imagine human ingenuity might end up being beneficial–are confused. It’s because every conceptual framework must resist the weird entropy that reduces interconnected core concepts–one might even say networked core concepts–into mere methodologies, prescriptions, to-do lists. Ten-page papers, with padding and repetition so we can all stop thinking and go home. Or so we can editorialize, argue about current hot topics, and make free, widely available versions of bad things.

Without robust conceptual frameworks, we can’t even recognize wicked problems, much less begin to work on them. And if we call rationales for easily scaled, easily managed, cheap approaches to complexity and human capacity “conceptual frameworks” or even “ideas,” then we have sold our birthrights for a mess of pottage.

I know we can do better, but I don’t know if we will.

 

 

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