Addressing “The War on Learning”

I’m always interested in technology critics who are accomplished users of the tools they criticize. Elizabeth Losh, director of Academic Programs, Sixth College at UC San Diego, teaches digital rhetoric, digital journalism, and software studies, and she was one of the organizers of a MOOC, FemTechNet, so she is neither opposed to nor unfamiliar with the uses of digital media in education.

Losh is concerned, however, about what she perceives as an attack by educators on the kinds of informal learning young people engage in today — and an attack by education reformers on the human heart of teaching, in their pursuit of efficient, cost-effective, quantifiable, test-score-raising “solutions.”

“University professors are focusing on MOOCs and clickers and iPads instead of on how people actually get to know each other through digital learning environments and how they learn, often informally,” she says. “Students today may learn about Immanuel Kant from a professor lecturing, but they are also going to learn about Kant by looking him up on Wikipedia and having conversations about Kant with people online — and that is part of learning, as well.”

Losh’s recent book, “The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University,” details her views — friendly toward technology in appropriate pedagogical contexts, critical and even skeptical about the way technologies are being sold to and used in educational institutions. She’s also critical about the way some professors use digital media.

Clickers, for example. Interviewed by Henry Jenkins about her book, Losh said: “The technology that I probably loathe the most is the clicker.  Certainly, these handheld response systems provide short-term behavioral rewards to students who click in the right answer promptly in large lecture halls, although I wonder if they can apply that knowledge to real world situations or retain it for a lifetime. I will admit that really good teachers know how to use clickers as a way to stimulate discussion and explore assumptions and raise questions.  But if you have really engaged students by learning their names and recognizing their faces, you can get the same results by just asking them to raise their hands. Certainly, just giving students an identifiable serial number tied to a device that can be tracked instead doesn’t do much to reduce lecture hall anonymity.  Being surveilled is different from being validated.  At their worst, clickers can push the idea that higher education is just a matter of choosing the right answer on a multiple choice quiz. “

When I talked to Losh recently, she elaborated on the pitfalls of educational technology or online pedagogy that relies too heavily on the part of knowledge acquisition that can be attained by the isolated learner in digestible chunks: “Many tend to want to use technology for command and control — how do we capture students’ attention, how do we break learning down into a series of discrete and measurable objectives — and the problem is that students don’t often retain knowledge that they learn in tiny bits. They retain knowledge that they can integrate with their life experience. They retain knowledge that has a more meaningful arc for them. I think it’s important to get away from this idea of the autonomous learner reaching particular benchmarks in isolation and think about how we learn socially in ways that integrate with our entire lives and ways we can apply theory to practice, because if we aren’t actually using our knowledge or sharing our knowledge with other people, it doesn’t necessarily become part of who we are. When students take those online quizzes, it’s sort of like taking one of those traffic school tutorials. They just remember material long enough to take the summative test at the end. That’s what we’re trying to do with undergraduate education — turn it into traffic school.”

One part of the technology-triggered conflict in the classroom that Losh examines is the assumption that young people come into the class with a fluency in digital media. “A lot of evidence is being presented by social science researchers such as Eszter Hargittai, Sonia Livingstone, and Mimi Ito that shows there is a range of competencies among young people when it comes to technology. Sometimes, the consumer model of interaction with consumer electronics encourages a lack of curiosity about how things actually work. Questions about how technologies work are hard to ask when they are too prepackaged. I teach a computer language called Processing that was created for artists and has a low barrier to entry. My young students are often reluctant to admit how little they know about how to write a computer program because they feel they are supposed to have this knowledge that they don’t actually have. They are ashamed and embarrassed. So, you have to create environments where people feel safe, are comfortable noodling around with programming, and where failure is OK. I’m so tired of how instructional technology gets sold with narratives of success. ‘You want to introduce product X into your institution because it will magically produce all these forms of success.’ I think we need to pay attention to failure. Failure is important. It’s how we move forward and beyond conflict.” 

One of the things that more mechanical approaches to online learning leave out is the role of feelings.  “I think the most important thing for the teacher is being attentive to questions of affect,” Losh said. “There’s a tendency to think that our students’ emotions don’t matter, but actually, how people feel about a particular educational interaction is really, really important. It doesn’t really matter if you are using the latest technology. What matters is are you paying attention to how your students are feeling about their relationship with you and what they are getting out of the class.”

In my own experience, I have found that asking my students how they are feeling about the ways I am requiring them to use media is a good way to both demonstrate listening and responsiveness on my part and, at the same time, to invite conversations about how they feel about their use of social media. I ask them to converse in forums, for example. After a couple weeks, I ask them how they feel about it. Often (but not always), the students will say that they would prefer a private Facebook group. So I create a private Facebook group, even though — as I point out — Facebook doesn’t do threaded conversations very well. Whatever we lose in social media affordances by switching from what I consider to be a superior online message board, we gain in the students’ sense that how they feel and what they think matters.

See my video interview with Losh above, Henry Jenkins three-part interview with Losh, and her book for much more of her informed critical thinking about education reform, informal learning, and the human aspects of technology in the classroom.

Banner image credit: DML Research Hub