Part 1 of a discussion with Bryan Alexander about current and future trends in digital education
Bryan Alexander is something of a paradox. He’s a professor of English focused on high-tech tends, a futurist chopping his own winter firewood in rural Vermont, a man who can imagine the 18th-century printer, artist and poet William Blake wielding a copy of Flash Player today.
His job hints at these paradoxes. As a senior fellow for the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (or NITLE – pronounced like “nightly”), Dr. Alexander helps a large network of liberal arts colleges and universities accomplish something that doesn’t always come naturally to them: integrate today’s fast-changing digital technologies into the pedagogical processes of institutions whose intimate, small-scale teaching approaches often date back over 2,000 years to the age of Socrates.
Having attended a liberal arts college myself, I can imagine how challenging Alexander’s job must sometimes be. My undergraduate education, for example, was a decidedly low-tech affair, requiring only a few books and chairs, a provocative professor and a willingness among young people to do what they tend to do best: passionately absorb new information, discuss and debate.
So, in an age of massive open online courses (MOOCs), learning management systems, ebooks and smartphones, how can experts such as Alexander help liberal arts institutions adjust? How can the experts, in fact, help shape the debate over how the whole education system should evolve in the digital age? Alexander was filled with data and ideas, as can be seen in the following highlights from our interview.
On Today’s Evolving Digital Humanities
Alexander is, of course, a believer in the potential benefits of digital tools. He argues that “to openly wed” such technologies with the historical objectives of the humanities makes sense. He referred to this as “digital humanities” and “humanities by other means.” In regard to literature and writing, for example, he noted that instructors must recognize how new media and technologies have changed these disciplines — and then engage with those changes in knowledgeable ways.
Think about how some of the 18th and 19th century great writers would respond to the modern age. “Imagine the people,” he said, “who wrote for journals such as The Tatler or The Adventurer — what natural bloggers they’d be. Or look at serial authors such as Dickens and see how social media would really be a natural fit for them. It’s a fun game to play.”
The power of social media and other technologies is not lost on many fans of great literature. Alexander pointed out that “a group of [Jane] Austin fanatics wrote a novel-length Austin fan-fiction using Twitter. So they built a website to hold their work and they used Twitter to shape it sentence by sentence.”
On Leveraging Technology at Liberal Arts Institutions
Today’s liberal arts colleges tend to use digital technologies to support their academic goals in four different ways. First, they use such technologies to enhance their existing IT infrastructures, from computer banks to fiber optics lines.
Second, they use those technologies to support “academic computing,” which involves one-on-one support for individual faculty members. For instance, there may be a biology professor who wants to use a technique such as digital storytelling to teach more effectively.
A third key area of usage is in libraries. Libraries tend to exist in a space somewhere between academic computing and infrastructure support. Libraries not only provide part of the IT infrastructure but also have a unique tradition of service and support. Sometimes they are a force for teaching information literacy and sometimes the house new types of learning spaces, such as experimental labs and classrooms.
A fourth area includes the technologies that pioneering faculty members are exploring on their own. Some of these faculty members are “early adopters” of technology and are intrinsically fascinated by it. They often see or establish close connections between their work and their technology.
These early adopters will — as one IT department put it to Alexander — sometimes “go rogue.” One of his former colleagues, for example, “ran a virtual world server under his desk.” He added, “Early adopters don’t often get enough press or publicity, but they are really an important engine [for technology innovation] at liberal arts colleges.”
On Resistance to Technological Change
There are many reasons for such resistance to technological change on campuses. Alexander said that because older professors are more likely to be tenured, a type of “gerontocracy” can sometimes set in. “We have one problem of an aging and tenured professoria who is in control of hiring and tenured promotion so they can ‘dig in’ in some ways,” Alexander stated. “We can generalize about generations in all kinds of ways, but study after study has shown there’s a correlation between youth and adoption of technology.”
Another driver of resistance is that many faculty members see their first professional identity as being their profession and their second as their college or university. He explains, “That means that they look to their discipline for clues about using technology. And many professional associations tend to be actively resistant to technology, or just are uninterested in it.”
Active resistance is sometimes due to the fact that many faculty members belong to or otherwise support small scholarly societies which, in turn, owe their financial interests to print journals and paid subscriptions. “They see themselves as threatened by open access,” noted Alexander, a fact that “might make them a little resistant to technology.”
A third factor is that the Great Recession put colleges and universities under enormous financial pressures. Therefore, spending money on more technology often seems like a low priority in academia.
A fourth factor — one that’s specific to liberal arts institutions — is that they “pride themselves on a face-to-face tradition of education, one based on intimate contact between students and faculty members.” Therefore, liberal arts colleges have tended to resist trends such as distance learning.
A fifth factor, also specific to liberal arts colleges, is that they tend to exist as small communities set out of the way in rural settings. They may cherish this relative isolation and self-sufficiency, said Alexander, but this can also work against them, reducing their awareness of — and growing their resistance to — technology-mediated forces sweeping the educational landscape. — Mark Vickers
This is end of Part 1 of a three-part series. Next Up: On the History, Hype and Backlash Against MOOCs
Note: Image of Socrates and students from Wikimedia Commons