I’m a historian, blogger and longtime AAUP member who’s delighted to have the opportunity to post here from time to time on the kinds of issues that concern Academe readers. While I started off blogging about history, I’ve spent the vast majority of my time at my home blog in the last year or so writing about education technology. The more I read about the subject, the more I realized that most faculty had no idea what was happening to their profession despite the fact that ongoing technological transitions will have a huge effect on their lives and livelihoods.
In pursuit of this self-imposed objective, I’ve read a lot of literature written by ed tech enthusiasts of all kinds. Cathy Davidson is one of the good ones. Her book, Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century, is full of tales about how she and others have tried to change teaching at all levels to reflect the learning styles that today’s students have picked up as a result of their being brought up in an Internet-infused world.
The book begins with a long anecdote that you’ve probably heard before. People in an auditorium are asked to watch a film of people bouncing a basketball around the people watching the film are then asked to count the number of passes. After the film is over, the audience is then asked if they saw the person in the gorilla suit walk by while they were counting. Most of them inevitably miss it. To Davidson, the general failure to see the gorilla stands for our twentieth century patterns of attention while the gorilla represents…well, I’m not sure what the gorilla represents, but then no metaphor is perfect.
While I was impressed with Davidson’s enthusiasm and breadth of knowledge, I kept seeing a different gorilla while reading her book that she never acknowledged. Before discussing this other gorilla, let me quote Davidson a couple of times in order to illustrate its absence from her way of thinking:
1) From p. 141: “What is impressive about all the of the extraordinary teachers I have been able to spend time with…is how they have already begun to maximize all manner of different human talents. They see ways that we have the potential, collectively, to organize our unique abilities to some end, to some accomplishment, which will elude us if we continue to hold a rigid, individualistic, and normative model of achievement.”
2) From p. 195: “If schools and workplaces create rules against practices that already shape everyday lives and everyday habits, they not only miss a tremendous opportunity but cause disruption. Aren’t they contributing to anxieties and fears about productivity and attention if they continue to rely on practices that are no longer part of our new habits? The “alienated worker” was a figure haunting the twentieth-century landscape. Are we trying to preserve that condition of alienation? If institutions of school and work fight changes that people happily have adopted in their lives, then perhaps the source of distraction isn’t technology-perhaps it is the outmoded practices required by our schools and workplaces.”
For my last example of what Davidson’s missing, I’m going to cheat and go to Davidson’s blog. This is from a post about MOOCs, those Massive Open Online Courses which everyone is talking about these days:
“Isn’t it curious (or maybe just typical) that with all the mania around MOOC’s (Massive Online Open Courseware), and all the “students today learn differently” talk, that there has been almost no conversation with students about (a) whether they would rather learn online or face to face or (b) how they learn best when they do learn online–lectures? interactives? quizzes? challenges? games? tutorials? augmented with social networks? augmented with actual study groups? New forms of assessment? If you do not include students in the conversation, you are merely replicating the hierarchical Sage-On-The-Stage model of pedagogy but on line. If students and learning are not intrinsically part of the MOOC conversation, then we’re not talking education. We’re talking $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$.”
Of course she’s right, but since when is the notion of any academic administration being primarily concerned about money the least bit novel? Davidson’s surprise here betrays her failure to consider the motives of university administrators in her approximately 300-page book. What if administrators won’t let teachers or professors sidestep outmoded practices? What if schools can’t afford or won’t spend the money needed to get the technologies that teachers want and need?
I think the freedom to innovate is the other gorilla in any discussion of classroom technology. Without that freedom (as well as the shared governance needed in order to protect it), none of the kinds of changes that Davidson advocates will ever live up to their full potential. Indeed, they might even make matters worse for students and faculty alike.