College Teaching and Digital Enhancements

Recently while reading  Cathy Davidson and David Theo Goldberg’s article “The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age” I read  a sharp criticism about the viability of digital enhancements to teaching.  Davidson and Goldberg’s future book extols the virtues of a digital future which allows students to be educated in a way that spurs their independence, curiosity, and connection with the world.  I will discuss their argument in a future post.  Right now I want to address one of the criticisms of their view on Amazon.com by Kevin Nenstiehl (here).

Though some students love learning enough to be self-motivated, they are not the majority. Many, if not most, regard classes, even within their majors, as a nuisance. I would love it if my students had enough ambition to undertake the kind of team tasks Davidson and Goldberg describe, but anybody who has taught more than one or two semesters knows that if you get three students per class who don’t need to be prodded, you are one lucky cuss.

In other words most college students would not be interested in the new educational opportunities offered by those who evangelize for the use of digital educational enhancements. While my experiences hardly constitute a scientific sample they are instructive. I taught for thirty years at one of the most highly selective liberal arts colleges in the country. In that environment the number of self-motivated students who took advantages of opportunities to pursue independent interests, learn collaboratively, and use different learning methods, was quite high.  Colleagues who came to my school from other colleges remarked about how much better our students were than those at their former institutions. Colleagues at other institutions often complained about students at their schools in much the way Prof. Nenstiehl does. My son has attended two private universities and his complaints about his peers also find them to lack the self motivation, interest in learning for learning’s sake, and preparation to take advantage of any digital enhancements to courses.

Does this mean that the people who will take take advantage of the utopian virtues of digital learning that Davidson, Goldberg and many others have extolled will only be the students at the elite, highly selective institutions?  Are we seeing a class division of those who will get and use digital enhancements in their education or at least a division between the digital haves and have-nots? To answer this we need to understand the causes of student disinterest in what the digital progressives have in mind.  There is unquestionably a crisis in American schools in which we are not producing as many as we of the students who could take advantage of the digital age in education.  This crisis is much more complex than the proponents of No Child Left Behind have acknowledged and their educational reforms don’t address it at all. Standardized testing, calls for teacher accountability for student failure and restricting school funding are fixes that don’t get at the problems and won’t fix education. Wide income disparities, unequal educational funding, teacher unions and the misallocation of our best teachers are just some of the issues not addressed. There are students who rationally choose to look at college education only for how it will affect their material well being. There is also an anti-intellectualism in America (as Richard Hofstadter explained long ago) that mitigates against the students who Davidson and Goldberg believe will take advantage of their proposed changes in education.  The “digital natives and Gen-Y’ers” not withstanding, the issue is not only who is prepared for the digital age in education but who is interested in having it.

In short the digital education reforms that Davidson and Goldberg want to see at the tertiary level will only happen if we find a way to prepare more students for them at the K-12 levels. How can we do that and how likely are we to see it happen? First of all the cost for doing it has to come down and it has to be distributed at more schools.  As with any technical innovation it has to be accompanied by training in not only how to use new equipment but in how that equipment can be used to enhance a teacher in the classroom. Some of that educational exploration is already happening among teachers who are both forward looking, concerned about their students and willing to give of their time to develop techniques or communicate them to others. These teachers have to be enlisted and listened to and part of any change in the schools. The reward structure has to be revamped so that rewards are given for more than student success on standardized tests. Release time has to be financed so that they have the opportunity to develop new methods.

How likely is this to happen?  Given the current debate about education not very likely. The shrill volume, hysteria, political in-fighting and personal stakes involved hamper rational discussion of the real issues and the grabbing at what appear to be solutions when they are not.  But as the Africans say “No condition is forever.”  One day if we continue to say it, if we continue to develop new ideas, if we continue to work at it, someday we may be heard.

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