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Posted on 21. Sep, 2010 by in Criticals

The class of 2014 effectively shares a birthday with the Internet. Netscape Navigator, the first major Internet browser, was released for public consumption in 1992. The newest Yalies were still growing teeth while Netscape and Yahoo were growing roots, and by their first high school term in 2006, 57 million households in the U.S. were already broadband subscribers. That number has since grown to over 81 million, according to 2009 statistics from the OECD, which tracks Internet usage in 33 countries.

A Yale student computing survey conducted in 2007 by Information Technology Services (ITS) revealed that 80 percent of students were using the University wireless network that year, compared with just 20 percent in 2003.  2007 also marked the first year the university took interest in students’ online activity, asking about their Facebook use (78 percent were members then), their online music purchases (56.5 percent had patronized iTunes). Nationwide, trends are similar. An exhaustive report published last year by EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association devoted to IT initiatives in higher learning, found that 90 percent of the 29,000 students at American and Canadian universities surveyed used social networking sites every day, and 84 percent were downloading music or videos on a weekly basis.

Like the printing press before it, the Web marks an epistemological turning point: a moment when what we know and how we know are critically expanded and transformed. While university  authorities might once have taken a tongue-in-cheek or turn-the-other-cheek approach to today’s prevailing fads, they’re now following them closely, because the what and how of knowledge are the basis of their careers. How should a university react when the mental processing of its students is fundamentally altered, at times even replaced, by computer processing? How, and what, does one teach this new generation of savvy undergraduates?

During the 2009-2010 academic year, the Yale College Programs of Study offered 15 undergraduate courses that featured web-related topics.  But these classes are anomalies among a mostly Internet-free curriculum. However, the Internet has significantly changed the ways in which Yalies experience their education.

Online scholastic resources are ubiquitous. The Classes*v2 server is the most familiar, hosting some 1500 undergraduate and graduate courses each semester. Of the $115 million spent each year on Information Technology (IT), roughly $5.5 million goes to technological resources in teaching and learning, which covers everything from installing and distributing clickers in large lecture courses to creating downloadable virtual art museums for the Art History department.

Chuck Powell, the Senior Director of Academic Media and Technology—a subdivision of ITS—has observed markedly positive trends in digital education on campus. “The bar keeps rising every year,” he says. “Four years ago, the percentage of faculty who were using installed projectors to display media or PowerPoint in the classroom was probably around ten to twenty percent. These days, we count it at around sixty, sixty-five percent.”

Many of these faculty members, including tenured professors and the occasional Luddite Emeritus, have sought to push the envelope further than PowerPoint. One famously taught Beowulf 2.0, using student wikis to promote and expand conversation about the epic poem. Another used 3D and geo-technology to enhance the study of ancient Rome, making artifacts and historical geology pop and, in the words of Powell, “bringing that ancient subject to life.”

In this regard, Yale’s humanities departments respond more or less like the rest of the community, greeting online resources with vigor rather than vinegar. They upload their syllabi to Classes*v2 and readily communicate by email. They have vocally endorsed Yale’s digitization projects, which involve the ongoing transfer of hundreds of thousands of slides, manuscripts and news archives from the shelves of Yale’s libraries to a tagged-and-searchable online sanctuary.

Some professors, like Pericles Lewis of the English and Comparative Literature departments, have even ventured into cyberspace on their own. Lewis founded the Modernism Lab, a collaborative research site on early 20th-century writers, which hosts around 4,000 primary sources and a wiki of editable articles. He has encouraged his undergraduate classes to use the site as a research tool, which is widely praised among administrators, faculty, and ITS staff members as an exciting step for the digital humanities at Yale.

If humanists like Lewis are embracing Web-based classroom tools, it may be because these pose no direct threat to their disciplines. “The approach to studying the material may be different, but ultimately the questions at the center of it are still traditional humanistic questions,” Lewis says.

Answering those questions today might involve a six-second Google search for “Shakespeare” and “water,”  as opposed to six weeks reading the Bard’s entire oeuvre with a highlighter. Still, Lewis argues, “the scholarly work of figuring out what’s going on with a symbol still hasn’t changed very much.” In other words, the word “water” might appear 177 times in Shakespeare’s plays—that figure thanks to open-source site OpenShakespeare.org—but no algorithm on the Net will turn that number into an argument.

Online textual concordances like those found on OpenShakespeare.org are beloved by undergrads. Though it’s easy to envision their abuse (why read all of Moby Dick when you can just query “Thar she blows”?), they’re considered benign by most educators—a convenience, rather than a chance to cut corners. The intellectual activity involved in research remains the same, though computational data has the potential to energize, expand and enhance it.

Brainpower, revved up by signal strength. That’s the core idea behind Yale’s many tech exertions and expenses—that the Internet can improve what was already good to begin with. It’s also the idea that motivates Ken Panko, the manager of Yale’s Instructional Technology Group and the man responsible for turning  Lewis’ classroom vision into virtual reality.

Part of what Panko likes about tools like class blogs and wikis, he explains, is that they boost student creativity onto a level where their ideas have practical, tangible value. “When you write an academic paper and you give it to your professor, what’s the authentic value of that? Obviously you’ve learned a lot in the process of creating it, but the artifact of your knowledge isn’t useful in a way that can be shared with the rest of the world. But when you publish to a blog, you have the opportunity to show people what you’ve done.”

Panko also favors “active learning,” a buzzword among educators and technophiles. “Try to envision a model of teaching where instead of going to lectures, you get that content online,” says  Panko. “Course sessions would then involve the kind of close interaction you might get in seminars, or actual hands-on work. And the professor becomes more of a guide and mentor, rather than someone who just stands onstage and delivers content.” It would be a turning point in Web pedagogy: the moment when these tools become not just facilitators, but educators in their own right. In a way, active learning has already begun at Yale. Video recordings of lectures have been online at Open Yale Courses since 2007. The courses can’t be taken for credit and there are no discussion sections. But for undergrads who overslept and those who weren’t enrolled in the first place, the online courseware system is an important and valuable development.

Of all the ways that Yale has implemented the Internet as a teaching tool, Open Yale Courses might also be the most surprising—a bit, one might argue, like thunking down the drawbridge to the ivory tower. But professional Web innovators think that free, online courseware is a natural upshot of larger trends toward self-directed learning, international presence, and the value of knowledge as a public good.

One such innovator is Eric Jansson, Director of Labs at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE). “Networks have exposed us to an enormous amount of resources, which are increasing in sophistication all the time,” he says. “Projects like MIT’s OpenCourseWare are emblematic of this. You’re taping some of the finest undergraduate lecturers out there, and publishing that online—it creates a really incredible resource.”

But as Jansson points out, not even Web-based tools come risk-free, and Yale’s investment in these resources could eventually backfire. Thanks to open course offerings in particular and the Internet in general, Jansson says, “there’s been an explosion of this ability to manage your own education. The question is, how do you react to this institutionally? Do you let students consume this material on their own, and assume more of a guide-on-the-side model?”

These are the same questions that Yale administrators have already been asking themselves. By placing course materials online, or condoning the use of concordances, or introducing class blogs and wikis into the syllabus, Yale is fostering the very skillsets that could throw its institutional value into question. Sooner or later, someone’s going to wonder: if all this stuff is online, then why am I still sitting here?

Someone has been wondering, namely Anya Kamenetz ’02, former New Journal editor and the author of the recently published DIY U: Edupunks, Entrepreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. She writes, “Rather than layering new technologies as bells and whistles onto existing classes…courses need to be completely redesigned using information technology strategically.” If the classic liberal-arts model isn’t reformed, what Kamenetz calls “edupunk”—do-it-yourself Net-based learning—will eventually dominate the pricey, elite system that currently reigns supreme.

But how likely is “edupunk” to affect Yale and institutions with similar values and methods? Could the Internet ultimately destroy the liberal arts establishment?

Jansson, for one, believes that liberal arts education will continue to be valuable in the Internet age. “In fact, we really need more of it,” he argues. “The modern world is really telling us that we don’t need people with discrete professional skills, but people who are lifelong learners.”

Modern-day success requires rapid adaptability: to new media, new voices, new careers. In 2008, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the average job tenure was 4.1 years, a figure that suggests that if you want to join today’s workforce, you’d better keep your bags by the door and your brain fully charged.

Unlike for-profit and vocational schools, liberal arts institutions pride themselves on creating exactly that kind of flexible intellectual. “The goal is not to prepare students for any particular vocation,” says George Levesque, Yale’s Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs, “but to give them the skills to be prepared for any.” So even as the Internet alters the need for Yale’s teachers, it creates a need for the supple minds they produce.

But even if liberal arts education endures, that doesn’t mean liberal arts schools will. “One of the problems is, we’re not sure how stable the vessel for that type of education is,” says Jansson. He explains that a place like Yale is protected by its sturdy reputation and generous endowment, but smaller institutions might have to make major changes in order to survive.

While Yale students use the Internet extensively, Adam Lior Hirst ’10, a recent graduate and history major, expresses reservations about the changes brought about by new media. “Look, I’m the kind of guy who’ll get really bored during lectures, and sit there responding to emails,” he confesses, “but I think there should be a switch to turn off the Internet in classrooms.”

When asked why, Hirst offers surprising rationale for someone of his generation: Yale is a liberal arts school, not a WiFi hotspot. “The purpose of Yale seems to be to spend four years considering the best that’s ever been thought, written, said and so on,” he says. “The university should force us to do that if we can’t do it ourselves.”

Hirst points out that student proficiency or fixation does not always equal enthusiasm. We “digital natives” log on because we don’t know how not to, but just because we’re media-literate doesn’t mean we value media literacy, or seek its implementation in a classroom. In fact, by the time they reach college, many students feel quite the contrary. The Web may be a teeming information ecosystem, but a flesh-and-blood professor provides the invaluable service of organizing, prioritizing and situating that information. We can surf on our own, but how effectively can we learn on our own?

Nor is this tepid response to Web learning just a Yale phenomenon. EDUCAUSE’s 2009 report found that while 70 percent of surveyed students felt positively about the use of information technology in their courses, 60 percent wanted just a “moderate” amount, and only a few loose cannons—3.5 percent of the sample—craved an exclusively digital experience.

If Yale students aren’t lobbying for digital freedoms, then why have Yale faculty members and administration worked so hard to bring the Web into curricula? Is reframing education still an issue if student ambitions are the same as they always were? For all the Web’s purported interfacing, it looks as though something important has failed to transmit.

Maybe Yale students are just more shortsighted about their education than those who provide it. The current crop of Yale undergraduates might still bow down to the historic mystique of the Ivy League, but that doesn’t mean that future generations will feel the same way. As the Net Generation, we feel the loss of a culture that we never had in the first place.  We are not digital natives at all, but the children of digital immigrants, raised in a virtual society but molded equally by the views of our analog forbears.

An inherited sense of old-world nostalgia is what makes students pore fondly over the archived, handwritten notebooks of old Elis and wonder if they’re missing out, even though they can take the same notes on a laptop in a quarter of the time. It’s why Yale is still a tourist attraction, and why the campus bookstore can still sell Yale sweatshirts that cost more than a WiFi router.

But that nostalgia won’t last forever. Jansson’s prediction that Yale can subsist on its reputation and endowment will only hold true as long as we continue to value academic isolationism, and the idea that spending four years reading Kant in a wood-paneled wonderland still constitutes a modern education.

Eve Binder is a senior in Pierson College.

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