Using Disruption to Stay on Course (for Liberal Education)

January 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

AACU-logo_largeThis afternoon I’m teaching a workshop called “Using Disruption to Stay on Course (for Liberal Education)” at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). I’ve posted materials for this workshop to my blog, linked from the page called Using Disruption.  My basic premise for the workshop is that, although technological changes are disrupting higher education, colleges and universities can find ways to adapt these disruptions to the service of liberal education.  In the workshop I’ll share some models of colleges who have done just that, ask the participants to reflect on disruption at their own campus, set up breakout discussions of individual disruptions in the context of liberal education, and then we’ll work as a group to develop some recommendations. 

Disruptive Technologies

When it came time to choose my list of disruptions, I had a bit of trouble.  Here’s what I finally came up with:

  • Online education
  • Information explosion
  • Participatory culture
  • Globally networked world
  • Gaming
  • Digital workflow and practice

In many ways, I think I could just say that the internet is the disruptive technology here, but I wanted to break it out.  The disruptive applications of the internet include online education, with the recently most disruptive application being the MOOC.  To prepare for the workshop, I suggested that  participants read Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn, “Online Education as an Agent of Transformation” in The New York Times.  This article lays out Christensen’s concept of disruptive innovation and how he sees it at work in the higher education market.

Choosing among the MOOC literature was another challenge.  It seems like there is a new MOOC article every day in the Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed.  I heard a speaker at the 2014 MLA convention refer to the conversation about MOOCs as the “discourse of fear,” which I find to be a very apt description.  One of the goals for my workshop is to turn that fear into productive action.  I finally chose Jeffrey Selingo’s excellent article, “Innovation in 2014: Welcome to the Evolution” from The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Selingo gives a nice summary of the MOOC trajectory from the apogee of 2012, named the “year of the MOOC” by the New York Times to the nadir of Sebastian Thrun calling MOOCs “a lousy product”.  Dispensing with the hype cycle, Selingo points to innovative approaches that address these disruptions:

Take a pilot project by a group of liberal-arts colleges in the West. Led by Dominican University of California, the institutions—including Whitman, Mills, and Whittier Colleges, and the University of Puget Sound—want to merge MOOC-based instruction with so-called high-impact practices like service learning, research with faculty members, and capstone projects that are a cornerstone of residential learning and have been shown to improve student learning. (Selingo, 2014)

This is the kind of productive reaction to disruptive forces that I would like to advocate–liberal arts institutions adapting disruptive developments to the service of liberal education.

Changing Model of the Knowledge Economy

Liberal education today must happen in a new context shaped by the explosion in information made available over the internet.  The combination of openness and digital information networks is changing the model of the knowledge economy from one of scarcity to one of abundance. This change is particularly challenging for higher education because our system is made up of institutions created to control knowledge.   Yes, we create it, but we also reserve the privilege of saying who is allowed to create it.  We give them degrees to validate their expertise.  Yes, we disseminate knowledge, but we set the terms of that dissemination.  You must come to our campus, you must attend our courses to to receive that knowledge.  Yes, we preserve knowledge, but we hold it in libraries and in books.  If you don’t have access to them–if you don’t have a library card, if you can’t afford the book–then you don’t have access to our knowledge.  Ironically, this model of controlling knowledge is actually far better than the previous model where it died with the thinker unless it was passed on to his individual students or written down–by hand–in a scroll.  We have a system of scholarly communication in place–articulated by scholarly societies, by universities, by scholarly publication and conferences aimed at expanding the scholarly conversation to generate ever more knowledge.

Now, however, that system for controlling knowledge is being trumped by a new system in which knowledge is created, shared, recreated, and remixed over digital networks.  Clay Shirky lays out a vision for the impact of that new system in “Does the Internet Make You Smarter?” from the Wall Street Journal. This essay was another of my suggested pre-workshop readings.  Shirky’s essay points to his 2010 book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, which gives a vision for positive creativity and production on the internet.  In Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, Henry Jenkins calls various results of this phenomenon participatory cultures:

A participatory culture is a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices.  A participatory culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created). (Jenkins, 3)

Global NetworkIn such a context, how do we control knowledge?  We don’t.  Instead, we must help our students learn how to assess, curate, and mashup knowledge.   We can no longer rely on the textbook, library holdings, or the professor as the arbiter of what counts as valid knowledge because so much is openly available online.  Rather than lamenting that loss, we need to proactively help our students learn how to be active participants in this knowledge economy.  They must learn how to communicate and create collaboratively across global information and social networks.  We are producing citizens of a globally networked world.  These are the essential learning outcomes of liberal education in a participatory culture.

New Models of Learning and Working

All of the changes I’ve described above are hard to negotiate because they are still in progress.  Selingo rightly referred to this process as “evolution” rather than revolution.  Institutions of higher education are conservative by nature, so we have even more trouble with that evolution.  Both in my work at NITLE and as Director of Instructional and Emerging Technology at St. Edward’s University, I find myself as an advocate near the front of that evolution.  I advocate by collecting and pointing to models of how it could be different.  I’ll share many of these models in today’s workshop, but you’ll also find them in many previous blog posts, especially in previous presentations.

This mission also underlies a project I began in collaboration with Matt Gold, Kathy Harris, and Jentery Sayers at the 2012 MLA Annual Convention, which is now called, Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities: Models,  Keywords, and Prototypes (forthcoming).  In this born-digital project, we will work with curators to collect, classify, and annotate pedagogical artifacts that exemplify digital pedagogy, that is, pedagogy adapted to the changes I describe above.  These artifacts are models for those who want to make those changes, but they are also prototypes–first attempts to test a concept or process.  We hope that users will  take these prototypes, build on them, then share their results back to our collection.  One principle of organization for the collection will be by keyword–terms that combine to help define digital pedagogy and articulate the discourse about this heterogeneous practice.  I suspect that my set of keywords differs from yours and, in fact, for me differs  on any given day depending on the models I will address.  Last December, for example, I gave a presentation at Washington and Lee University, where I concluded by listing the keywords that applied to the models I had cited. The ultimate service of this collection is to map the way forward in a landscape that is changing around us.

Learning  in a Changing Landscape: A Gaming Approach

Without such signposts we easily become disoriented because of the constant change.  As professional educators, I think our disorientation is worse because we are used to being able to systematize knowledge and then pass it on.  We are confident that we can have a pretty full understanding of a subject area.  That is what our PhDs mean.  When confronted with an unfamiliar discipline, we at least know how to go about learning it.  In a constantly changing world, however, we can’t find a systematized definition of this knowledge domain because it is being redefined around us, and we haven’t hit a stable point from which to define it.  The change is not complete.

For example, take digital reading practice.  I’d like to say that you can get an iPad and set yourself the task of transitioning to doing all of your reading digitally.  Your first task would be to find the best reading app.  Unfortunately, it is not so easy.  First of all, not everything is available digitally.  Secondly, what is available comes in many different formats–pdfs, ebooks in multiple formats, online texts, material scanned from print as either OCR or image, etc.  If you read actively like I do, with highlighting and annotation, you will need to find multiple ways to take those actions and to preserve them.  (I’ve blogged about this challenge more than once.) There is no one perfect tool.  Sigh. Confronted with this multifarious ecosystem, sometimes it’s just easier to read in print.  This is a perfect example of why it is so easy to get disoriented.  The digital reading system has yet to be perfectly created or defined.  We haven’t reached a standard like we did with the print codex.

Contextual Help in Candy CrushWhen confronted with such a knowledge domain in transition a more fruitful approach to learning might be taken from the world of gaming.  Games teach us as we play; we get just in time learning in the form of directions, like the Candy Crush avatar telling us the goal of the level, and in the form of experience, like seeing all that chocolate grow to take over the screen.  Learning from experience we hopefully improve our performance when we get to the next level. Games are also good at motivation; we are rewarded with points and can level up.  We get the satisfaction of passing a level we had previously failed.  Games break knowledge up into digestible chunks which we learn by doing. (You can read more about the learning model of games in James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.)  This experience of figuring something out from the middle and learning what you need to learn as you do it is exactly the situation we are faced with in higher education today.  So, we turn to the others playing the game to see what they’ve tried to get past this level.  Then we share our experience with still others.  Together, we can figure this out.  My recommendation for dealing with disruption, then, is to look for models, try out some prototypes, and keep playing.

Works Cited

Christensen, Clayton M., and Michael B. Horn. “Online Education as an Agent of Transformation.” The New York Times, November 1, 2013, sec. Education / Education Life.

Gee, James Paul. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. New York: Palgrave, 2003.
Jenkins, Henry. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Reports on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009.
Selingo, Jeffrey. “Innovation in 2014: Welcome to the Evolution.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 13, 2014.

Shirky, Clay. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Penguin, 2010.

Shirky, Clay. “Does the Internet Make You Smarter?” Wall Street Journal, June 4, 2010, sec. The Saturday Essay.


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