For week 2’s assignment of the open course on digital storytelling I’m taking (ds106), we’ve been asked to read Gardner Campbell’s 2009 article, “A Personal Cyberinfrastructure,” and to view his presentation on the topic at the 2009 Open Education Conference called “No More Digital Facelifts: Thinking the Unthinkable About Open Educational Experiences.”
The term “digital facelift” was Clay Shirky’s description of the way newspapers first dealt with the challenge of creating online news portals and the problem of widespread redistribution of online content, i.e., by assuming that all the old print models and forms could be ported to the online world. The term also can be applied to the initial creation of elearning websites, as many did the same thing—essentially taking print versions of instructional materials and copying these onto a web page. Similarly, the early development of mlearning was (and perhaps, still is) characterized by attempts to repurpose elearning courses on mobile devices. The digital facelift approach is the equivalent of digital botox; it creates inflexible, inexpressive facades.
Technology as a game changer for learning
Railing against this approach and the idea that technology is just an educational “accessory,” gilding an already perfectly adequate lily, Campbell argues that we should instead be re-envisioning our notions of education to take advantage of the affordances of technology. He cites Marshall McLuhan who stated that
Any technology gradually creates a totally new human environment. Environments are not passive wrappings but active processes. . . . The ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.
In other words, as we learn to use technology it becomes an integral part of our way of seeing the world, expressing our vision of the world, and our vision of the world changes because of it. This recursive effect means that learners can use technology to amplify critical metacognitive skills of:
Campbell’s prescription for education
Campbell’s view is that as learning facilitators, we should be setting learners on quests to create their own “personal cyberinfrastructures.” As learners ourselves, we should be continually stretching ourselves in our attempts to own our understanding of the tools that will allow us to be the most creative. We should look upon these tools with a sense of wonder as they allow us to “create strange correspondences and grand harmonies.”
Practically speaking, according to Campbell, a critical digital literacy for learners is to be able to buy their own domain and set up their own website. Template website creation tools, such as Google sites or Weebly, while useful as “training wheels,” ultimately won’t cut it because learners won’t be able to fully own how their content will finally appear, and therefore, will be limited in their modes of self-expression.
A necessary corollary to this idea, is that in order to model these skills, instructors themselves will need to develop these competencies and to share their own experiences. Campbell views website creation as a hallmark of digital fluency in the 21st century for both learners and instructors.
Does Gardner’s prescription mean that teachers should be their own IT departments?
So, should teachers/instructors/learning facilitators feel as if they are inferior if they don’t have basic programming skills? An additional question might be what’s the point of having an IT department if you are going to assume the role of a programmer? Are you required to be a jack or jill-of-all-trades when you’re part of a larger organization?
And what about learners who have no desire to create online? Requiring a personal cyberinfrastructure seems to place a premium on technology that fits into a specific mold. Isn’t a marvel of new technology the ability to create mashups from existing structures (including templates)? Isn’t a bit of anarchy a hallmark of creativity?
Gardner himself admits the value of IT departments and I would argue that some of Gardner’s statements are meant to be polarizing. Perhaps he’s reacting to the jaded sentiment of those who meet every new tech tool with a sniff of disapproval and a requirement for the equivalent of clinical trials before even considering its adoption.
However, I’d urge that both camps meet each other half way on this one. I think it comes back to that old cliché, which I’ll mangle a bit, that knowledge is the power to create. I do agree that giving learners (and teachers) the power to create can bring passion and fire back to education. My take home for educators/trainers/learners is to find that passion however you can and continue to strive to use all the tools you can access to amplify that sense of passion.
However, I disagree with Campbell’s assessment that we shouldn’t be daunted by issues of time given that technology’s “gold” (see the YouTube video for this analogy). Time is also gold and precious and something to be reckoned with. We do have to allocate our time and resources and our passions to achieving learning goals wisely. But it is a waste of time to feel daunted by anxieties about learning something new. We’re always going to be novices at something; we just have to keep moving forward and allow the process itself to fill us with a sense of wonder.
What works for me
Personally, as a freelancer, I believe that I needed to learn HTML and CSS in order to be competitive and agile in creating elearning solutions. I continue to upgrade my Flash skills though I’m not a programmer by any means. But more than viewing this as a survival skill, I have to say I continue to learn new software applications and technology platforms because of a sense of curiosity and a desire to translate what I imagine into something concrete, useful, and beautiful at the same time. It’s a continuing learning experience. At the same time, although I have my own website, I don’t use a self-hosted blog, because I don’t need to and a non-self-hosted WordPress blog still allows me many creative ways of expressing myself. However, my personal inclinations and circumstances are unique to me and not a prescription.
This is where I see Gardner’s article and talk as taking a bit of a wrong turn. Perhaps in reacting to his perceptions of entrenched forces, his solutions appear equally entrenched in certainty. You can’t expect someone to love tech in the same way that you do or to view your version of optimal solutions as the way to do things. You’re more likely to cause people to recoil in horror. However, polarizing articles are good ways of getting us to examine our own positions and to find the middle ground that works for our own personal situations and the situations that our learners face.
Campbell, G. (2009). A Personal Cyberinfrastructure. EDUCAUSE Review, 44(5), 58–59. Retrieved from http://www.educause.edu/EDUCAUSE+Review/EDUCAUSEReviewMagazineVolume44/APersonalCyberinfrastructure/178431.
McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 5th printing. New York: McGraw Hill.
Shirky, C. (2009). Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable. Retrieved from http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2009/03/newspapers-and-thinking-the-unthinkable/