Friday, May 23, 2008


Quarterly I receive a very nice (print) publication from Educause, rather unimaginatively entitled "Educause Quarterly". Quarterly I read this very nice (print) publication, and every quarter it gives me heartburn and makes my teeth itch. More or less at random, I'm choosing exerpts from an article from the latest, which like countless others before it speaks to the importance of new technology in education.

The article is about a "seismic shift", which brings me to my first complaint: these people are interested in change only when it is seismic. By which you, gentle reader, should understand means "changes upon which the author, who positively must get published this semester, has chosen to fasten." Incremental change interests them not at all because, well, one doesn't get published when one writes about small change.

The article skates on the thin ice of "Web 2.0", which the author uses to set up a standard School of Education dialectic between the old and the new. In this case the author chose the phrases "Classical knowledge" and "Web 2.0 knowledge" and this leads me to my second complaint: the inability to find much of anything good in the education system as it existed prior to, oh say, last week. This same education system that gave us [insert endless list of intellectual titans here] is presented as a penniless waif so bereft of merit that it resembles a cartoon character. Let me inflict upon you some example statements.

"In the Classical perspective, 'knowledge' consists of accurate interrelationships among facts, based on unbiased research that produces compelling evidence about systemic causes.... In the Classical view of knowledge, there is only one correct, unambiguous interpretation of factual interrelationships."

This is nonsense so nonsensical as to cause this reader to stop dead in his tracks. No scientist would ever say such a foolish thing. No social scientist would even begin to form the thought. Facts? I don't know about you, dear reader, but my experience of higher education was focused on the challenging of facts and on holding that every interpretation has ambiguity within it. This fellow has created a cartoon character so that he can go on to accuse it of being two-dimensional. (I pass in silence over the redundancy of "interrelationships" ... oh, all right, not entirely in silence, but at least in parentheses)

But wait, as the voice on TV says, there's more. For, the silly statement is merely predicate to the silly conclusion. To wit: "In Classical education, the content and skills that experts feel every person should know are presented as factual 'truth' compiled in curriculum standards and assessed with high-stakes tests."

Yes, by all means, let us have only tests where little is at stake. That aside, I'm hard-pressed to figure out how a skill is presented as factual truth. Content, yes; but a skill? Never mind. The author is by now hounding after its true prey and mere comprehensibility is about to become the victim of friendly fire. Here come the indictments of the "... Classical view of knowledge, expertise, and learning." (which, being uttered in the same breath, are the same? are different?)

"Curriculum standards ... stem from disciplinary experts' determination of what students should learn." (I remind the reader that this is said as a Bad Thing)
"Presentational/assimilative pedagogies [I believe he means lectures] convey 'truth' from content experts to students, who learn by listening."
"Students who have mastered large amounts of factual material and are fluent in academic skills are believed to be well prepared for a successful, prosperous, fulfilling life."

Good heavens. If the above were true, we should be in bad shape indeed. Happily, the above is pure silliness. I have never told my students that learning history would make them successful, prosperous or fulfilled. I do expect them to listen when I talk, I confess it. I even expect them to learn from what they hear. I never for an instant expect that this is the *only* place they will learn, though, and I rather resent being portrayed in this way. Any history teacher knows (to speak only for my own discipline) that the place where students learn history is in the term paper; that is, they learn history by *writing* history. The rest is merely supplemental.

Inevitably, these authors must then trot out the virtuous alternatives of "Web 2.0 knowledge" -- the Three Gracies to settle the Three Furies. Herewith:

"Curriculum includes considerable variation from one community to another ... based on the types of content and skills valued within a particular geographic or online subculture."
"Active learning pedagogies emphasize constructivist and situated teaching approaches that scaffold students' co-creation of knowledge."
"Assessment is based on sophisticated performances showing students' participation in peer review."

It's a hard choice, but I think #2 is my favorite. I have to confess that at this point, YrsTruly is at a loss for words. If the above are virtues, I'm unable to grasp them; they swirl away from my reach like smoke. I certainly cannot come up with anything that would help a student understand the Reformation.

And so to a final complaint: the heedless insult. Not content with dissing the system that produced him, the Seer must also bash his peers.

"...the response of most educators is to ignore or dismiss this epistemological clash." (wake me up when you hear the sound of clashing) "Many faculty force students to turn off electronic devices in the classroom; instead, students could be using search tools to bring in current information and events related to the class discussion." True, they could. Most will simply IM their friends or work on another class' homework. Even if they did "bring in" information, what the devil does that mean? Will they raise their hand every time their RSS feed updates? or twitter everyone else in the room? Moreover, not everything is relevant. There's not a lot of late-breaking news on the Reformation. Does the author really think an 80-person chat room is an ideal learning environment?

"Some faculty ban the use of online sources and deride the validity of any perspective that does not come from a disciplinary scholar." I'll do my own deriding, thank you. I agree: any teacher who derides sources before the students ought to have his hand slapped. Our job is to get students to question, to come to their own conclusions; deriding a source removes that burden. That there are bad teachers is an eternal truth (note the lack of quotes); one cannot derive from this the conclusion that most teachers are bad nor that the educational premises of academia are faulty.

And then the coup de grace: "This refusal to acknowledge the weaknesses of the Classical perspective and the strengths of Web 2.0 epistemologies is as ill-advised as completely abandoning Classical epistemology for Web 2.0 meaning-making."

I'll give you a moment to recover.

First, I protest: Web 2.0 gets multiple epistemologies whereas Classical gets only one. Unfair! We (I presume I'm lumped in with the Classicists) take a back seat to no one in epistemology-making (not to be confused with meaning-making, though the reader may be pardoned for confusion on the point). Second, I protest again: the punch line is punchless. Going to one extreme is as bad as going to the other extreme. Is this the best he can manage? After all the name-calling, I was really hoping for something epochal -- a jeremiad, at the least.

Frankly, dear reader, after all of this, YrsTruly is fair worn out. It's exhausting, wading through nonsense. I do not single out this one article. "Educause Quarterly" comes out with multiple articles every issue and has for years. They all trumpet the latest development as being Clearly The Future, and they all wish to blast everything prior into the past. It's rather a surprise to find there is an entire publication in which it is possible repeatedly to cry wolf.

I feel better, though. I've used Web 2.0 technology to vent, and isn't that one of its greatest virtues? Or at least most frequent uses? I'll toddle off now. And please, most sincerely, dear reader, if you should happen to see me attempting to scaffold students' co-creation of knowledge ... please, just shoot me.