The digital humanities vs. cyber clown college.

10 07 2012

Other than the good guys winning (at least temporarily), the best thing to come out of the University of Virginia debacle has got to be the emergence of Siva Vaidhyanathan as a major force in higher ed commentary. My bet is that he didn’t have 6,000+ Twitter followers before his campus went crazy. When it did, enough people read his opinions and said to themselves, “Wow, this guy is good!,” that they now all keep coming back for more.

If you know what I’m talking about then you’ve probably read this post about MOOCs already, but it sure does bear repeating:

The delivery of course content is not the same as education. And training students to perform technical tasks, such as doing basic equations in calculus, is not the same as education. Teachers get this, of course. So do students.

Besides this nice clear argument, what makes this piece so much more valuable than the standard edtech analysis is his decision to seek out other expert opinions so that he could better distinguish what MOOCs can and cannot do.

To do that, Vaidhyanathan got feedback from GMU’s Dan Cohen, who’s head of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. As I’m sure most of you know already, CHNM is right in the middle of the digital humanities revolution, a multi-disciplinary technological transformation that I have no problem with at all. To me, this quote is everything you need to know about the effect of technology on higher education all in one place:

“We have been working on synthesizing digital media and technology into the classroom and research for two decades and understand how complex it is, and how you can’t just throw a student into a digital environment,” Cohen wrote to me in an e-mail. “We’re trying to do much more than reproducing lectures and quizzes online; we are trying to use the medium to enable new kinds of interpretation and scholarly interaction. So MOOCs seem like a huge step backward.”

Unless, of course, you’re primarily interested in cutting costs.

When it comes to DH, I don’t know enough to speak with authority but I do know just enough to be dangerous. Still, I think Cohen’s distinction between reproducing old ways of doing things and developing new ones is incredibly important. Digital humanities research allows scholars to see history in new ways because they can do things with data that they couldn’t do without the Internet and the powerful computers that keep it running. Teaching students with digital humanities tools (like wikis, to give a very basic example) allows professors to convey historical information and concepts in new ways too.

I support this kind of thing in theory and in practice because it is a professor-centered vision in which faculty can pick the tools they want to use at their discretion based on their particular pedagogical objectives. Administration-initiated online education and MOOCs designed to cater to the lowest common denominator are anything but that.

Blackboard (which is still the Devil) gives you all its bells and whistles whether you want them or not. Like textbooks of all kinds, every LMS reinvents itself every two years in order to justify hefty licensing fees, not because their platform needed to be reinvented. What the professor wants to do has to take a backseat to what the tech services department is capable of helping you facilitate or whether your university even has a license to run a given program on its servers. Lastly, as Leslie pointed out the other day, you might not even own the rights to your own work if you put it up on your university’s LMS. You will never have that problem in a professor-centered world.

So why isn’t the edtech world more professor-centered? Certainly, one size fits all is cheaper and more convenient. Spend less money at the front of the house and the back of the house gets to keep more of the proceeds for itself. But I think it’s more than that. While people like the folks at the Center for History and New Media are asking themselves “How can we use technology to improve education?,” people like Bill Gates and Helen Dragas are asking themselves “How can we use technology to show those elitist professors who’s boss?” Our tools are their clubs.

I became a college professor because most jobs are inherently alienating, yet no workday is ever the same when I’m teaching or doing research. Used well, online tools can make my job even more interesting than usual. Used badly or for the wrong reasons and I have a lifetime appointment as a tender of machines at a cyber clown college, assuming I have any job left at all.

If the forces of permanent austerity are pulling American higher education inexorably towards a clown college future, and I think they are, then the fate faced by faculty everywhere depends entirely upon how hard we professors decide to push back.

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