There have been numerous welcome curricular shifts in response to emerging cultural concerns over the last forty years, but no college or university has yet had the vision or courage to answer the call sounded in 1999 by the blue-ribbon Committee on Information Technology Literacy in their National Academy publication Being Fluent with Information Technology: “the committee believes that successful implementation of FITness [i.e., fluency in information technologies] instruction will require serious rethinking of the college and university curriculum.” Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, Committee on Information Technology Literacy, Being Fluent with Information Technology. Washington: National Academy Press, 1999.
This committee did not advocate another set of tacked-on requirements, but instead a curriculum in which students, faculty, and staff could awaken and exercise their digital imaginations, working together from matriculation to commencement as each new cohort appeared to explore the rich conceptual possibilities of the digital age. What John Harwood (CIO Penn State) calls “Learning 2.0” is about much more than content delivery, e-books, or articulation agreements. We need to consider a world in which we can and probably will move beyond the credit hour, course and term boundaries, and geographical location into a world in which creation and learning become synonymous. The irony is that we’ve long known that creation and learning are intimately related. We’ve had to meet challenges of access and cost by scaling up along fairly crude industrial models, turning education into an assembly line. But if the Internet has shown us anything, it’s shown us that a distributed, loosely coupled model of creation and communication networks can trigger network effects on a startling and unpredictable scale.
We should learn from the Internet itself what a learning community can be like. When a small dialogue box inviting 140 characters of commentary, an affordance introduced in 2006 called “Twitter,” can play an integral role in global events ranging from a U.S. President’s State of the Union Address (Twitter hashtag #sotu) to ongoing revolutions in the Middle East beginning with Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, we are witnessing a symbiosis of creation and learning that far outstrips any vision of academic transformation based on quadrupling class sizes and outsourcing grading and instruction to poorly-compensated adjuncts and paraprofessionals. But to understand and leverage these changes, we must attain to a far deeper understanding of the computer itself than we have yet attempted. We must understand computing the way we seek to understand language itself. We must awaken our digital imaginations. If Virginia Tech seizes this opportunity for leadership in this vital area, that leadership will demonstrate that the noble democratic vision embodied in the concept of the land-grant university is the true mother of accomplishment, and a far more sustainable and equitable engine of economic prosperity than any other vision has yet realized.
How might we begin? We might begin with a curriculum that brings students into creative, challenging contact with the history and dreams of the digital age, perhaps in a first-year experience that asks them to reflect critically on their own digital lives as well as begin to shape and share their own digital creations, both intramurally and publicly. Research into the neurobiology of learning, building on decades of educational research, has shown that students learn deeply when they are asked to narrate their learning, curate their creations within the learning environment, and share what they have curated with a wide and, when appropriate, a public audience. As students understand that they are not simply completing an assignment at a professor’s behest, but in fact beginning their life’s work, they will necessarily become more engaged and produce more authentic work reflective of their own growing interests. By making that process as public and open as possible, Virginia Tech will create and share not only educational resources, but the excitement and engagement of the Hokie educational experience itself.
In the same way, we cannot awaken students’ digital imagination without intensive development opportunities for faculty and staff that will inspire their digital imaginations as well. Much has been written about “digital natives” and “digital immigrants.” While there are significant differences in experience between an 18-year-old and mature adults who are (let us say) farther along in life’s journey, labels such as these tend to pigeonhole the young and excuse their elders from the necessity of learning this new language fluently. Faculty and staff are overworked, it’s true. Demands of teaching, research, service, and continued learning are enormous and seem only to grow as the years go by. The moral is therefore clear: a university committed to digital leadership must provide time, rewards, and recognition to encourage faculty and staff to pursue development opportunities. But there must be more. There must be a clear signal of institutional priorities from the presidential level through the various tenure and promotion committees all the way down to the departmental level. And there must be a move away from “training” and workshops into deep, authentic intellectual and experiential engagement with the conceptual frameworks underlying our digital age. Faculty respond much more readily to ideas, inquiry, and discussion than they do to “training.” The training/workshop model may get us to skills of a sort, but it leaves capabilities and especially concepts almost completely untouched. By contrast, seminars and inquiry groups begin with the conceptual framework and do their work by means of deep, playful, and creative intellectual encounters. The “deliverable” should be a whole new mind, to borrow the title of Dan Pink’s book—a changed perspective on the digital world, as well as a renewed sense of curiosity and commitment to exploring its many wonders.
And what about staff development? It should be no different than the opportunities afforded faculty. Indeed, some of the richest, most diverse, most silo-busting and collaborative seminars are those in which faculty and staff learn and grow side-by-side, establishing synergistic partnerships that can transform entire schools and build strong, enduring networks of trust, respect, and encouragement.
C. P. Snow famously wrote of the two cultures of science and the humanities, and the great and widening divide between them. In many respects, the divide is just as wide between faculty and staff. Privileges rightly reserved for each community have contributed to an unhealthy and unwise separation of each group’s vital insights from the other’s. Often staff cannot understand or easily accept the flexibility of time and focus professors enjoy, let alone such concepts as tenure or “professor emeritus.” Sadly, many professors treat staff as lackeys to do their bidding, and cannot understand or easily accept the rich and essential insights staff bring to the learning community, or the intellectual weight of organizational life. Adjunct and other non-tenure-track professors seem to fall somewhere in between–or, as many would say, through the cracks entirely. Perhaps more mixed development opportunities emphasizing imagination and intelligence among both cultures can begin to ameliorate these unfortunate divisions.