What if disrupting education isn’t such a hot idea after all?

28 11 2011

Perhaps the most annoying aspect of the Clayton Christensen interview I linked to last Monday, was the explicit comparison between techno-skeptical teachers and Luddites. I’m not sure that I’ve ever read anything edtech-related that was quite this smug:

In the early 19th century, British textile artisans protested the Industrial Revolution with the anti-technology “Luddite movement.” They believed mechanized looms would replace them and make their jobs obsolete. They were right.

Automation in the 19th century was the disruptive equivalent of high-speed digital technology today, which is replacing jobs in the manufacturing and service sectors at astonishing speeds. Self-checkout counters at the grocery store, complete with laser scanners to read bar codes, are starting to replace human cashiers. On the road, the advent of EZPass and other computerized toll machines are replacing human tollbooth collectors. The rise of online education could effectively render terrible teachers redundant, while bolstering the careers of talented educators. There’s a word for this; it’s progress.

But what if it isn’t?

What if education suffers when the technology of pedagogy changes? We can all agree that that’s within the realm of possibility, right? This issue seems especially relevant for online education in its current underdeveloped, often poorly-administered form. Why can’t we wait for online education 2.0 rather than embrace the current extremely rudimentary product that most colleges offer? Besides, who says teachers who don’t embrace every disruptive technology that comes down the pike are necessarily Luddites? Why not accept the ones we like and reject the ones we don’t? After all, it seems as if for every wonderful innovation like Zotero, there’s a Courseload out there too.

Writing at Tenured Radical, Judith C. Brown offers what I think is a pretty good rule for telling the difference between a good edtech innovation and a bad one:

The key to the success of incorporating digital approaches is to know when and how to use them for pedagogical purposes rather than simply to lower costs.

Teachers and professors are undoubtedly in the best position to tell one from the other. Unfortunately, since online education in America is primarily about lowering costs, they don’t exactly get consulted very often. It’s gotten so bad that even Anya Kamenetz, who I have had absolutely nothing nice to say about previously, can write:

Personally, I’d like to see more university presidents making faculty their partners, not adversaries, in the transformation process.

Does that make her a Luddite too? If some administrators actually listened to this advice, educational technology disruption might be a little less…ummmmm…disruptive. Unfortunately this whole line of argument is really just titling at windmills, because the educational disrupters aren’t interested in education. They’re interested in money.

But what about administrators who facilitate this kind senseless disturbance? They already have money. What they’re interested in is power. As Thomas Pynchon explained in reference to the relevance of the Luddites to the modern world in 1984:

The word “Luddite” continues to be applied with contempt to anyone with doubts about technology, especially the nuclear kind. Luddites today are no longer faced with human factory owners and vulnerable machines. As well-known President and unintentional Luddite D.D. Eisenhower prophesied when he left office, there is now a permanent power establishment of admirals, generals and corporate CEO’s, up against whom us average poor bastards are completely outclassed, although Ike didn’t put it quite that way. We are all supposed to keep tranquil and allow it to go on, even though, because of the data revolution, it becomes every day less possible to fool any of the people any of the time.

That’s why campus police have pepper spray. The only disruptions allowed on campus are in the classroom, as long as the faculty and the students aren’t the ones doing the disrupting.

Hacking the research paper assignment.

25 05 2010

I’ve had this idea kicking around my head for a while now. Thanks to Dan Cohen for giving me the incentive to actually write this up and get feedback before I give it a try myself.

Have you ever seen Iron Chef America? It’s a kind-of game show on the Food Network based on a similar Japanese show where two chefs duel it out inside a two-kitchen “stadium” making different dishes based on the same “secret ingredient.” Suppose we turn the chefs into historians and the ingredient into a research topic and maybe turn the competitive element into collaboration…

For those of us who teach at universities with small libraries, Google Books has been a Godsend. Instead of waiting weeks for books to arrive, our students can have access to a practically limitless supply of primary sources from the best libraries around the world at their fingertips. Those primary sources are even searchable (yet perhaps still advisable) to teach them how to skim.

Granted, due to copyright restrictions, the vast majority of sources that Google makes available in full view mode are from before 1923. However, as most of American history pre-dates 1923, that shouldn’t bother most of us. Indeed, the problem I face if I turn students loose on Google Books or Gale’s database of nineteenth century newspapers or the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America site of newspapers around the nation is that they have too much information rather than too little.

In an age where so many fantastic primary sources are available on the computer, it is the height of stupidity to privilege written secondary sources over the stuff that historians have been using to write history forever. Nevertheless, to me, information overload is the biggest problem with research paper assignments in the digital age. And despite the ready availability of excellent books, time is always a problem with today’s college students.

So suppose we guide students through the information that’s out there and see what they make of it. The contestants on Iron Chef America submit shopping lists based on potential mystery ingredients. Suppose we do the students’ shopping for them. What would that look like?

The mystery ingredient – oh, sorry – the mystery topic is:

The Progressive Movement.

What principles united the most important strands of the Progressive Movement at the turn of the twentieth century? Which one was most important and why?

Rather than just set students loose on the library or even their computers, here are the only sources that they’re allowed to use:

1. Ida Tarbell, The History of the Standard Oil Company.

2. Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull House.

3. Lincoln Steffens, The Shame of the Cities. [Interestingly enough, this one isn’t on Google Books in full view format and I wonder why. Luckily, it’s elsewhere.]

4. W.E.B DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk.

5. Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography.

As much as I like primary sources, it strikes me that there should be at least one historiographic piece thrown into a question like this for general guidance. Luckily, Reviews in American History is on J-Store. So here’s a classic:

6. Daniel T. Rodgers, “In Search of Progressivism,” Reviews in American History 10 (Dec. 1982): 113-32.

[Obviously this one is subscription only.]

7. 8. and 9. Might be particular newspaper articles coming from Chronicling America.

While still recognizably a research paper, the fact that students have equal access to each source at the same time allows for interesting twists on the traditional research paper assignment. For example, you could assign everyone to discuss the reading in teams. You can compare and contrast the uses of particular sources in each paper once they’re done, thereby illustrating how historians interpret the same sources differently. And since the only time they’d need is the time to read the books (as opposed to waiting for them to arrive) , I can imagine doing this research exercise more than once during the semester.

Now I just have to wait for a class where I can try this. Which sources might you use for this assignment in a course on American Slavery? That’s what I’m teaching this fall. I guess if I had any sense I would have used that for my example here, but the sources for Progressivism just came to me faster.

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