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 a full decade after I wrote those words. 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.
— 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?
— 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.
— 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.
— 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?
— 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.
— 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?
— 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.”
— 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.
— 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.
— 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.
— 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?
EDIT: I fixed the math error above. 2017 is a decade after 2007. That’s easy math, of course, so I can only guess that I was trying to resist the full weight of the true span of time. A decade later, and we’re worse off in many respects. That of course includes another decade of my own work in these areas. I continue to wonder why higher ed fights off new learning in a classic kind of host-vs.-graft disease. I’m currently reading a very sobering account of the Open Access movement that speaks to this very question. But yes, a decade. Thanks to Mark Corbett Wilson for pointing out my math error.