Friday, February 19, 2010

Last Bastions

At the Digital Media and Learning Conference, I was pleased to have assembled the cast of "Last Bastions: The Promise and Problems of Digital Learning in Higher Education" which showcased the work being done in California in connection with a nascent Digital Higher Ed initiative to bring new pedagogical philosophies along with new instructional technologies to college campuses in the region.

We opened our potentially controversial session with Diane Harley, who leads the Center for Studies in Higher Education and who has recently authored an exhaustive report on "Assessing the Future Landscape of Scholarly Communication," which I have summarized here. Harley's Mellon-funded report paints a very different picture from the more optimistic MacArthur vision of young scholars transforming institutions as they take up digital tools by cataloging all the ways that universities continue to value professional privacy, print publication, intellectual property, and traditional methods.

Harley argued that it was important to remember that there were "many kinds of students" involved in higher education and many degree and certificate granting sites of learning. Even in the context of the kind of research university where the DML conference was being held, the "big, competitive world of science" dictated cultural conservatism when it came to digital media and learning. She also thought that it was important for DML attendees to acknowledge that digital media and learning too often was translated into distance education. With discussion taking place about the possibility of the University of California system offering an entirely online BA degree, the debate about "what parts can be done online" might lead to what could be "a second class degree."

Holly Willis of the Institute for Multimedia Literacy at the University of Southern California talked about how Harley's findings presented a "grave disappointment" to her group, but she argued that there were promising trends in the field that merited attention from institutional stakeholders. In particular, Willis's emphasis was on pedagogical theory rather than on new gadgets, which included work done by the New London Group that focused on "rhetoric, design, and ethics" in its work on "multiliteracies." For inspiration, Willis pointed audience members to the October 2009 AIGA conference Make/Think for a way to think about the "new liberal arts" curriculum. (I have to add that our current theme in the Humanities Core Course, which was launched in 2007, is "Thinking Making Doing.)

In the age of pervasive computing, information visualization, and somatic literacies, Willis argued that it was important not to merely generate a "longer and longer list of literacies. Instead, she suggested that Alex Galloway's metaphor of the algorithm or Noah Wardrip-Fruin's conception of expression that linked authoring to analyzing advanced the scholarly conversation much more than naive assertions about the "power of gaming" had a few years ago. She also pointed to the work of Jeff Watson with ARGs or alternate reality games as being about pedagogy not gadgetry or faddism. Although time was short, Willis also squeezed in time to show a few student projects, which included R-Shief by Leila Sakr and Jen Stein's Million Story Building. She also discussed how students at the IML were also developing promising iPhone apps to support sophisticated forms of digital media and learning. She also argued that in helping students develop their "readily and rich virtual lives" in "new writing spaces," she argued that a number of the most interesting initiatives were writing oriented and that groups like the Conference on College Composition and Communication, Computers and Writing, and the American Library Association had often led the way.

Todd Presner then explained how what had started as a "flash-based textbook to understand the city of Berlin," Hypermedia Berlin, evolved into the multi-campus interdisciplinary Hypercities project. According to Presner, Hypercities connects "cultural history with cultural georgraphy" by animating, modeling, and mapping historical layers of the record of urban environments. This has involved intensive collaboration with architects and urban historians and the incorporation of GIS technologies that have fostered further collaborations all over the world. Presner is also expanding some of the conventions of academic by thinking about possibilities for publishing peer-reviewed KML files keyed to Google mapping software, which have been submitted to UC Press. As Presner explained, these are much more than "Wikipedia pages," because they are "sophisticated geo-temporal arguments."

Presner also showed projects from the group's featured collections, including a mobile project involving Historic Filipinotown, which was installed on Nokia tablets and deployed in an actual jeepney that was designed to raise "consciousness of a landscape that had been erased." Presner described the "hypercity" as being like Ted Nelson’s hypertext, so that many connections could be made between dates, places, and cultural objects. As an example he pointed out how the 11th of February in Iran, which was also the date of the 1979 protests against the Ayatollah, had particular kinds of cultural resonance. He noted how one of the featured collections, Election Protests in Iran, created by Xarene Eskandar now included 1100 objects. Such projects expand the notion of what digital curation is and invite cross-disciplinary analysis in a symbology not bound by polygons, because these geotemporal creations are more than research papers, because they can actually be exported in fully developed digital environments. Presner claimed that this project offers new ways for "thinking about the staging of an argument" and the criteria for judging it. As an exemplary case, he showcased the work of Phil Ethington and his 13,000 year history of Los Angeles that included many regional regimes and an 18 ft map in his "Ghost Metropolis."

Lev Manovich finished out the session by explaining the importance of teaching students "to read and write in the medium," as new interfaces are created post-Alan Kay. We live, Manovich asserted, in "a data society," not just an "information society," in which scholars must ask "what does it mean to be literate?" Especially when "teaching, researching, and writing about visual culture" in is important to go beyond existing tools for visualization, such as Many Eyes, which in many ways date to the late 18th century as "vector primitives." He explained how tools now available for medical imaging and brain imagery could be turned on cultural texts like the film Man with a Movie Camera. In his example of TIME magazine covers he showed how oppositions between photograph/drawing, person/idea, whites/people of color, and men/women could be depicted in a system in which 400,000 pixels proved to be not enough, so the classes were able to use the largest visualization system of 315,000,000 mega-pixels, 80 monitors, and 20 PCs to explore relationships very quickly. He closed with a video of Ph.D. candidate William Huber demonstrating how 100 hours of game play could be visualized. You can check out information about Cultural Analytics, see some of their visualizations, watch a demo, or browse their papers and presentations.

Slides from my talk, in which I explain what I see as ten trends in digital learning in higher education are here, and I have listed the trends as follows:

Playable Simulations
Procedural Literacy
Object-Oriented Ontology
Database Mash-Ups
Network Epistemologies
Information Aesthetics
Tactical Media
Software Studies
Critical Information Studies
Digital Rhetorics

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