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 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.

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.”

— 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.

— 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.

9 thoughts on “Faculty and New Media Literacies

  1. Thanks so much for this, Gardner! So much to say here, and I’m just catching up. Will spin out a post soon. Not surprisingly, I am in agreement with much of this and in empathy with 100%. Faculty do need to think seriously about how they answer these questions about Jenkins’ dispositions from your post:
    “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?”
    I would also add another: To what extent does your institution encourage or support the development of these skills for you and your students? I fear many institutions are embracing siloed technologies and digital environments — often in the name of “analytics,” accountability, and assessment. This makes it challenging for students and faculty alike to pursue more open, participatory and hospitable spaces.

  2. Your addition is right on point, Amy. And I don’t at all mean or want to let institutions off the hook for this encouragement and support. As in 2007, however, I very strongly believe that we who enjoy the waning days of tenure (heaven forfend) cannot wait for that encouragement and support. Tenure is the most extraordinary form of encouragement and support imaginable. By and large, it comes from our peers. That alone means we must proceed to develop these skills and urge their development in our colleagues as well. There is no other way to begin. My thought has always been that institutions will be embarrassed not to support extraordinary faculty-led innovation in these areas, once that innovation grows to a critical mass. Getting to that critical mass is possible, and crucial, and its support and encouragement must come from us. IMO

  3. “[O]ne 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.” This is the same point that grabbed my attention.

    We are asking faculty to develop in ways that they haven’t been trained. On top of that, the culture says (by omission) that these are not important to higher education. Right now, all we’ve done is tinkered at the margins. I’m waiting to see a university promote these to the first rank in terms of tenure, promotion and pay raises. This article from today’s Chronicle might be on point: http://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Cost-That-Holds-Back/239708?cid=at&utm_source=at&utm_medium=en&elqTrackId=cf1d7e552836441d8bfb133ffbe77ce9&elq=d7548dbbdee040d1a00a717feb2b63f7&elqaid=13414&elqat=1&elqCampaignId=5566

  4. Yes to both of you. Faculty, particularly tenured faculty, must be change-agents rather than change-objects. And institutions need to be encouraged to support the innovations and initiatives that come from the faculty. This might happen more organically at smaller institutions? I fear that in many large universities, the voices of vendors offering solutions for the entire campus are heard more loudly and have more resonance with administrators than does the voice of individual, or even a group of faculty. This doesn’t let faculty off the hook, but I do agree that we’re mainly “tinkering around the margins” rather than engaging wholeheartedly in transformation. Maybe we could develop the concept of the “unbundled professor” embedded in a more diffuse ecosystem of learners and colleagues than the one defined by a conventional bricks and mortar campus?

  5. @Amy “Maybe we could develop the concept of the ‘unbundled professor’ embedded in a more diffuse ecosystem of learners and colleagues than the one defined by a conventional bricks and mortar campus?”

    I’ve long wondered about the answer to this question. I’d use the word “distributed” instead of “diffuse,” myself, as the latter word may suggest “diluted” or “spread thin” to some folks (though I certainly take your meaning here, as I understand it!). The word “distributed,” for me, rhymes with the architecture of the Internet and the Web that rhymes with that rhyme, a world in which “distributed” can (oddly, counterintuitively) end up meaning “denser and richer and more powerful.”

    I cannot overstate the importance of that “Toward the Internet of the Mind” essay by Jean-Claude Guedon in this context (and in many others as well): it’s what I’d suggest is right on point and deeply necessary for turning the Titanic around, if that’s still possible. And @Steve, that’s one of the reasons that Chronicle article seems to me to be part of the problem, not part of the solution. If extensive faculty development resources are put to use on various tech-amplified instantiations of current practice (one of the things I tried to point out in my critique of Talbert’s Chronicle piece on learning outcomes and Bloom’s taxonomy), then we are truly doomed. We will be like the folks in Guedon’s article who allowed Elsevier and others to define Open Access in ways that end up destroying the term’s liberatory aspirations.

  6. Good conversation here, although I need to go back and read again for depth. I have similar concerns about the pressures on faculty (from contingent to full-time tenured) that prevent or discourage them (us) from developing the skills they (we) need to assist our students. I recently had cause to read some new studies of the professoriate, how it has changed since the 70s, and the picture is grim. One of the main points by Kezar and Maxey _Envisioning the Faculty_ concerns the reward structure for conventional TT faculty. For ex, there are far greater pressures to publish than ever before, across all fields and all institutions of higher ed. I’m starting to think the old three-legged stool model is outmoded. Perhaps more flexibility is needed to account for faculty interests, institutional needs? I’m still pondering, but thought I’d throw that idea out there.

  7. @Gardner: Yes to “distributed” for all the reasons you note. I just looked at Guedon’s article and find the resonances between the trajectories of Open Access and open learning disconcerting and discouraging.

  8. @Amy I’m glad you hear those resonances too, grim and disconcerting and discouraging as they are. We need people like Guedon whose conceptual frameworks are thoughtful and illuminating and thorough, for only those frameworks can keep our eyes on the prize and help ward off the forces of financial predation. All too often, however, the pressures of “operationalization” mean that no one in higher ed will take the time needed to attend to Guedon or to others like him. These are complex and difficult questions, but increasingly it seems we are in a race to the bottom for how to address them.

  9. @Meg Sorry not to have responded earlier! I had your comment in my “approve” queue–it does that with new commenters. So first, welcome!

    Now to your point. I think you’re right that the pressures on faculty have increased in variety and intensity, and I think faculty who are fortunate to have tenure have been, for whatever reasons, less vigilant about these things than they should have been. The question is why? I do think that part of the answer may be the status race fueled by a number of factors. Does every university above 10K enrollment need to be a “research university”? Clearly not, but that’s how you move up in the all-important rankings. Should “credit-hour productivity” determine budgets? I don’t think so, but then we have to be willing to have hard conversations about resources rather than easier conversations about a race to the bottom with less challenging, highly automated, scaled-up courses. In short, we have to find a way for faculty to own their universities, which means that in the near term we’ll have to find some way to work even harder now so we can have at least the hope of better outcomes for the future. The alternative is not pretty.

    Sounds like a fascinating book, by the way–and it’s now on my list. Thanks!

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