Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Lives of Others

One of the remarkable things about Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg's The Future of Learning Institutions in the Digital Age is its willingness to tackle the "mythology of technology that its virtues, vitality, and values are 'free'" (5). In a time in which "institution" can seem a dirty word, they repeat the importance of "institutional support" several times and emphasize the fact that digital learning requires labor, capital, material resources, and organizational structures aimed at sustainability. Unlike manifestos that reject institutional frameworks, the authors remind readers that "our traditional institutions" in higher education are notable for their "endurance and stability." However, Davidson and Goldberg describes how the book also served as a novel "writing exercise" that challenged conventional academic publishing norms, like many of the projects at the Institute for the Future of the Book, because it was vetted through a process of online comments facilitated by the Commentpress digital toolset. I found myself very sympathetic to the mix of innovation and pragmatism that the pedagogical philosophy of this book represents.

Nonetheless, after a rapid and enthusiastic reading The Future of Learning Institutions in the Digital Age, I was left with two possible criticisms.

First, although this book claims that its "primary focus is higher education," it was remarkably light on specifics. Given the tendency of philanthropic institutions only to fund K-12 initiatives that focus on what I have described as the "exoticism of the young," I was looking forward to a monograph that addressed the culture of college campuses, where academic scholarship and new social computing practices have had a particularly contentious relationship. I will confess that some of this attention to the subject on my part is also self-interested. My new book project, Early Adopters: The Instructional Technology Movement and the Myth of the Digital Generation, focuses on the higher education scenarios that I began writing about in conjunction with a talk at Berkeley's Center for Studies in Higher Education, when I first wrote about how knowledge paradigms and information paradigms differ. Furthermore, I've promised to write about local experiments with "interdisciplinary pedagogy" in which Southern California as a site for "regional advantage, to use AnnaLee Saxenian's term, for the upcoming DAC conference. Unfortunately, their "Portfolio of Virtual Learning Institutions: Models, Experiments, and Examples to Learn and Build On" contained almost no examples of work done for college credit. The Gamelab Institute of Play, Quest to Learn, the New York City Museum School, and the School of the Future in Philadelphia.

Second, I found myself thinking about the "others" mentioned in a passage about the transformation of "modes of organization, structures of knowledge, and the relationships between and among groups of students, faculty, and others across campus or around the world" (14). I noticed that these "others" were largely constituted as off-campus others, who might be "strangers" who could "remain anonymous" (16) as they participate in life-long learning, contribute to wikis, serve as audiences for faculty blogs, and enter into symbiotic information-exchange relationships with those on campus remotely. Yet one of the challenges to digital learning in higher education is precisely the fact that these "others" are often not far away. They are librarians, instructional technology specialists, and other members of non-tenure-track academic underclasses, who contribute much to initiatives for digital learning but are further marginalized by existing reward systems. Among friends and colleagues in the region, this last group includes book authors, bloggers, and editors who have influenced my own work.

As Clark Kerr once said, the university really is a "multiversity." It's easy for bomb-throwing guest columnists like Mark C. Taylor to say that we should "End the University as We Know It" by terminating tenure and dissolving departments. What's harder to determine is how digital culture can make campuses both better environments for learning and more just workplaces for those who never received the privileges that Taylor wants to end.

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