“The revolution will be tweeted,” I write as I begin this reflection. And the part of me that cares about writing that’s fresh and cliche-free wonders immediately how many such knowing titles and turns of phrase have been used to sum up the seismic changes wrought by digital technology in our lives. Fifteen minutes of fame consumed in byte-sized chunks–upload, download, all around the town load! Neologisms collide with cliches, a perfect analogy for the way the familiar is mashed together with the strange in our digital age.
Oscar Berg writes, “The concept of social networks is of course not a new thing. Social networks are the very core of being human…” But just as the industrial revolution disrupted this same social reality of human interaction in enormous and irrevocable ways, so too, our digital revolution is shaking things up. And nowhere is that shake up more destabilizing than in education.
I am an early and imperfect adopter where educational technology is concerned. As an educator with over 25 years experience, I see the potential in so many digital innovations, yet I enact their limitations time after time in practice. I began my life as a student in the age of typewriters and was nearly through with my undergraduate career before I bought my first personal computer–a Kaypro II. One of my first teaching jobs was as an adjunct faculty member at Drexel University, during its run as the first institution of higher ed to require its freshmen to arrive for school in September with an Apple Macintosh.
I received a number of papers in Old English font that year, and I can say that this did not strike me as much of a step forward. Other technological developments since the mid-1980s have impressed both with their possibilities and their concomitant liabilities. Listservs at first fascinated me, and then overwhelmed me. My iPad has contributed to extraordinary breadth in my reading, at the expense of the depth I once gleaned from the sustained experience of reading one book after another. I’ve started five MOOCs and finished none. I’ve taken several online courses that I was unable to complete. In the throes of an infatuation with the idea of a personal learning network, I set up an RSS feed of selected blogs that I found–almost immediately–I had no time to read. Devices litter my life like snapshots of old flames. My sweet and tender bag phone. Sony eBook, mon amour! First generation Kindle–oh, the plans we made! Thanks for the memory cards! And the cords. So many cords.
But I’m still a believer, and I can see all around me that there is a digital consciousness that is changing how we think, work, and understand. I’m game to try things, and despite the uneven results I’ve had on the digital front, I do…
So when a panel discussion was organized at the school where I currently serve as upper school director, and we were asked to “tweet the discussion,” if we had a Twitter account, I thought I would give that a try. Grant Lichtman, an advocate for innovation in independent schools would be the moderator, and three distinguished panelists from the world of higher education would hold forth: Lorne Buchman, Melany Hunt, and Steve Koblick.
Lorne Buchman is the president of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. His background is in theatre, and he has served as a faculty member and administrator at UC Berkeley, California College of the Arts, and Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center.
Melany Hunt is a professor and vice provost at California Institute of Technology. Her research is in liquid-solid flows, booming sand dunes, and granular flows. She is one of two vice provosts at Caltech, in which capacity her “responsibilities include overseeing sponsored research policies, proposal authorizations and research compliance, campus libraries, and various councils and programs.”
Steve Koblik has been the president of the Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens since 2001. Before that, he was the president of Reed College for nine years, and he had administrative and academic posts at Scripps College and Pomona College in Claremont, CA. His background is in history, focusing especially on diplomatic history and World War II Europe.
“Tweeting” an event like this is not actually the same as having listened to it and absorbed it. Under ordinary circumstances, I would have taken extensive notes on what was said, and I would be able to quote some of it verbatim. I would be able to summarize for a patient reader the nuances each speaker’s ideas and arguments. I was trained that way from secondary school on, at schools that people who know education in the US have heard of.
But I was tweeting. If listening to a lecture or series of remarks is a linear, end-point-oriented exercise, tweeting is about ricochets. In an environment where people are thinking and responding in this way, it seems to me, the authority of the speaker is diminished–an obvious insight in some respects–as is the speaker’s control of meaning. People are continually appropriating ideas–both central and peripheral to the argument–and decontextualizing them.
So when Steve Koblik proclaims that there is a crisis in the humanities, I hear Mandy Rice-Davies saying, “Well he would say that, wouldn’t he?” And I go Googling off on a vector of keywords–crisis, humanities, enrollment, etc. Back in the 20th century, I would have noted that smart-alecky association, continued listening, and dutifully recorded the dimensions and implications of this crisis. Instead, a short while later, when Koblik mentions the Common Core State Standards in terms that suggest they are The Next Great Threat to Education, I conflate this idea with this crisis in the humanities that may or may not exist.
And the upshot is that this Tuesday, we will be discussing the Common Core State Standards in a divisional department chairs meeting–not because they are a formless menace, but because I have learned in my search engine-driven perambulations that most of the standardized tests our students take for college admissions are to be aligned with them by 2014-2015.
I don’t know whether I got the message that Steve Koblik intended, and I’m not sure that I agree with it fully on its face. But this is also, possibly, a confession on my part that I did not look the message squarely in its face. It has been refracted to me through a series of lenses interposed by my digital tools. I am still undecided as to whether that refraction is a bad or good–or maybe just a different–thing.
Grant Lichtman provides an apt summary of the panel discussion, and the full Twitter commentary may be viewed by searching #pasadena13. The evolution will be tweeted, posted, uploaded, and cached. And like so many such processes, it will be a long time before we have a perspective broad enough to understand it fully.