Is the Digital World Too Ephemeral?

Give me hardcopy!
Give me hardcopy!

W.J. Astore

A concern I have about the new borderless digital world is its ephemeral nature.  Even though I keep a blog and write a lot online, I still prefer books and hardcopy.  I clip newspaper articles.  I file them away and then occasionally resuscitate them and use them in class when I teach.

Hardcopy has a sense of permanence to it.  A certain heft.  Whereas our new digital world, as powerful as it is for instant access and personal customization, seems much more ephemeral to me.

I know similar complaints have been made throughout history.  The proliferation of books was deplored as leading to the decline of visual memory skills.  Television was equated with the end of civilization, with the medium becoming the message.

Perhaps what I’m truly lamenting is the slow decline of context, together with the erosion of deep memory.  The digital world we increasingly inhabit seems to encourage an ephemeral outlook in which history just becomes one damn thing after another.

To switch metaphorical images, the dynamism and flash of the digital world is much like a landscape with lots of beautiful shiny leaves and glistening flowers to attract our attention.

Yet, at least in our minds, the landscape is rootless.  Our gaze is enraptured, our minds are intrigued, but the moment is fleeting, and we fail to act.  We fail to act because we are entertained without being nurtured.

Let’s take smartphones, for example.  With their instant access to data, they seem to make us very smart indeed.  But access to knowledge (data recall) isn’t intelligence.  There’s simply no substitute for deep-seated intellectual curiosity and the desire to learn.

Smart phones are useful tools — a gateway to a dynamic digital world. But they’re not making us any smarter.  Perhaps they’re helping us to connect certain dots a little faster.  But are we connecting them in the right way?  And are they the right dots to connect?

Those are questions that smartphones can’t answer.  Those are questions that require deep, contextual, thinking.  And group discussion. Think Socrates and his followers, debating and discoursing. And acting.

Sometimes it’s best to disconnect from the matrix, find a quiet place for reflection, sink down some roots, and hit the books.  Then find other informed people and bounce your ideas off them.  Collisions of minds in informed discourse. Competing ideas feed the completing of actions for the common good.

As the Moody Blues might say, it’s a question of balance. The astral planes of the digital world can open new vistas, but let’s not forget the need to return to earth and get things done.

Of MOOCs and Technology: Why True Education Is Not Content Delivery

Robin Williams in "Dead Poets Society"
Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society”

W.J. Astore

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are one of those “pedagogical practices that are current and relevant to the new generation of learners,” to use a description featured prominently in promotional literature. Sure sounds trendy, doesn’t it? But education is not simply about content delivery. Education is about inspiration. It’s about lighting a fire in the mind (and maybe the belly too). Call me skeptical, but I don’t think a MOOC can do that.

OK, I haven’t tried a MOOC, but I have experienced distance learning. As a military officer, I took ACSC (Air Command and Staff College) by “correspondence.” The Air Force sent me the books and study materials, I did the reading and studying — and learned absolutely nothing. Why? First you memorized content, then you took multiple-choice tests to measure your “mastery” of that content. I passed with flying colors — and retained nothing.

As a professor I’ve also advised a graduate student via distance learning. It was an adequate experience for the both of us, but we never met. The mentoring experience was impoverished. I felt little connection to the student, and I’d wager he felt little connection to me.

Distance learning and MOOCs reduce education to content delivery. And it requires an exceptional student to get the most out of them. When I query my students in class about on-line courses, most of them are ambivalent or opposed to them. When they favor them, they say things like: “It was easy to skate by” or “I took it only because it fit my work schedule.”

To be blunt, administrators are looking for ways to reduce costs, and on-line learning is being pushed for that very reason. No classrooms needed. Little or no cost for electricity, facilities, classroom materials and the like. Combine cost-cutting imperatives with growing privatization of education and you have a recipe for education delivered as a commodity driven by the profit motive.

What’s wrong with that, you say? Nothing. Just say “goodbye” to any radical or even fresh ideas being pushed by profit-driven vendors.

Even as we’re overvaluing MOOCs and distance learning, we’re overhyping glitzy technology in the classroom. When it’s appropriate, I use technology in the classroom, but not because I’m trying to be trendy, i.e. not because I think Twitter or Tablets or other gimmicks and gizmos are how you “connect” with today’s students.

Indeed, exactly because my students are perpetually staring at screens, I often use an old-school approach of engaging them in class with vivid stories and amusing anecdotes and open-ended discussion.

Today’s students don’t need more technology; they don’t need more PowerPoint and computer-based learning platforms. What they need are enthusiastic and talented and creative teachers and professors who see education not as a job but as a calling.

I bet every person reading this remembers a teacher or professor who truly inspired you. And I bet he or she did so without glitzy technology and without genuflecting before “current pedagogical practices.”

My father was fond of saying, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” Give me passion in the classroom. Give me a teacher who throws off sparks, and students with combustible minds. Give me that, and I’ll show you true education.

An Addendum: After writing this, I came across a Northeastern University survey featured at the Chronicle for Higher Education that addressed MOOCs, among other issues.  This is what the survey found:

“Slightly more than half of the respondents believe that MOOCs will fundamentally transform how students are taught, but just 27 percent think the online classes are of the same quality as traditional, in-person education. And yet more than half of the respondents predicted that in five to seven years an online education would be seen as of equal quality to a traditional one.”

So whatever I think about MOOCs, I think it’s fair to say that they are here to stay, and that their influence and reach will continue to grow.

Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and The Contrary Perspective and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.