Luke Waltzer’s recent post on educational technology and digital humanities brings up some important points that needed to be articulated. It seemed to me that educational technology was being subsumed by the idea of digital humanities, which is something that didn’t sit too comfortably with me given I’m not a Ph.D. and we all know the only difference postsecondary institutions cannot tolerate when it comes to tenure is a diversity of degrees. What I have enjoyed about edtech is that it allowed me to thrive despite the degree, and also provided a freedom that was not so rigidly defined by a field, area, or discipline. For the last several years I helped constitute the field, because so few really cared to. Simply rolling with the punches, testing out possibilities, and writing about the process openly was all it took. But what Luke brings to the fore, and makes all too clear for me is that edtech seemed constantly embraced with the crisis that faces higher ed. A crisis of resources, funding, and the ghettoization of academic labor more generally. On top of that there was a sense in edtech that if you could reinvent the means of delivery and sharing with open source publishing platforms, you could start to challenge and problematize some of the larger issues in higher ed that are made all too apparent with systems like BlackBoard. Luke illustrates this beautifully:
Blackboard is itself an embodiment of the university culture that Neary and Winn rightly find so troubling: students cycle through a system that structurally, aesthetically and rhetorically reinforces the notions that education is consumption, the faculty member is a content provider, the classroom is hierarchical, and learning is closed. Less and less though do we have to convince listeners that open source publishing platforms and the many flowers they’ve allowed to bloom can create exciting possibilities in and beyond the classroom; we can show them link after model after link after model after link.
And it seems that through a critique of course management systems and LMSs, we could enter a larger discussion about the university, open education, sharing, teaching, etc. And while not necessarily experts on any or all of these things, the playing field seemed level. Opportunity to converse and dialogue about all these issues seemed ripe. What’s more, the question of empowering students through their space and online identity was made not only possible, but rather easy with these new publishing paradigms. What we started to realize is that a few motley edtechs could try and manifest a real and meaningful break from the institutional drug addiction that was the LMS, providing a new conceptual space to imagine teaching, learning, publishing, and even playing—devoid of any one idea of scholarship as a top-down approach.
In fact, being in educational technology gave me the opportunity to approach the idea of scholarship a bit differently. I learned how to present differently, publish differently (namely to my blog—often and regular sharing my work freely), and think differently about how I, as instructional technologist, was more than just staff (or maybe staff as somehow always already less is the issue more generally ), I was a thinker in my own right. But being a thinker didn’t necessarily mean I should have to reproduce the same “proof” of my value as a professor at UMW. Why should I? I’m not a professor, I’m something else. But the recent move to theorize alternative academic careers (ed tech being one of them) suggests that we very well may need to meet the same standards as professors, and in many ways become them without the same benefits of tenure, autonomy, and built-in pay grades. What’s alarming about this to me is that the idea of alternative academic careers as a movement (#altac for short on twitter) is a direct result of the disinvestment of higher ed, and the disappearance of jobs in the humanities more generally. So, by creating the idea of #altac, we reinforce a traditional approach to how we do our work, and as we all know, it ultimately re-inscribes the same realities of answerability for those of us outside of the sacred sphere of tenure. So, in short, it demands the same work and production out of this emerging breed of hybrid, administrative (often contract labor—like myself) which given the nature of the market will lead to many of the same demands on this new field as there are on professors currently, with none of the security. A popular trend for the neo-liberal university, get more for less. And what makes it even worse, the vision is being consecrated in the name of creating a new field of discourse rather than preserving the vestiges of an established one.
Fact is, I really do believe that the market will make my position that much less valuable in the near future. The more educational technology, and all the other #altac careers, becomes overly professionalized, the more we’ll find that we are working in a more controlled field with fewer options and an eroding sense of freedom. I guess it’s the natural flow of capital, especially given the fact that grad schools are still producing Ph.D.s by the boatloads even though well paying jobs in academia are fewer and further between. All of which brings me to my last point, and one Luke delineates brilliantly—while the humanities are worse off than ever financially (SUNY Albany to cut its language, classics, and theatre departments?) there is actually a fair amount of “legitimacy, funding, and visibility” for the digital humanities right now. And what’s more, there are even a few tenure-track jobs! Which is great for the field, but seems to distort the state of the humanities within the academy more broadly. How can the digital humanities exist outside of the crumbling infrastructure of funding and support for humanities that abounds in the U.S. right now?
I don’t know, I’m with Luke, this is a hard issue, and almost impossible to separate myself from personally. I too want to see something more than a new manifestation of the old university in digital clothes, but at the same time the push for reform and change from within seems to be the most anemic of all approaches. And as much as I want to side with open education, and the approach of OERs and open content, I see the problems abound there as well (but I’ll save that for another post). What I want to see is some real experimentation outside the order of academies and institutions. A networked approach to learning and sharing that is centered around empowerment of the learner through learning. This can’t be impossible, there has to be a way at this that is different. More and more I think an approach to deschooling, or unschooling, my wife and I are currently working on (or not depending how you look at it) may be one way to think through my confusion, because frankly I’m tired of arguing and fighting with digital humanists and OER folks. Let them do their thing, there is no crime in that and there are great things happening in both fields I’m sure. What is clear to me is that I need to find another way, and Luke’s frame makes for a powerful and poignant snapshot of where we are in the ed tech movement, and where we need to go. And Stephen Downes’s recent post in the Huffington Post points out this direction rather clearly:
But if we focus our attention on the needs of learners, all learners, they are not served either by cutting the system to the barest of bare bones or handing of the reins over to the private sector. There is no secret sauce or pixie dust that will repair an unsustainable system. If we want to ensure that learning is provided to all, we need to rethink the basic premises of the education system.
I think this is right, and one way at this is doing it personally through my own attempt to rethink how my kids should be “educated,” and how these new technologies and peer-to-peer pedagogies (both local and distributed) might help us rethink the basic premises of the education system. I understand this is a privilege, but I also understand it’s one that comes with both a certain amount of sacrifice and honest interest in what could be a real alternative. A sense of wonder that is not predefined by expectations and the refusal to acquiesce to mediocrity in public education at the expense of possibilities—all the while recognizing how vital a solid public alternative is, and must be, for any pretense to democracy—the great lie underlying the American educational system right now.