Miraculous Together

The practice of education, online.

GUEST COLUMN | by Alison Leigh Brown

CREDIT NAUOver the last fifteen years I have taught a course on technology and its relationships to values. My students read Freud, Foucault, Haraway and assorted articles. I try to use the broadest definition of technology that I can without reducing it to ad hoc tools. No matter how broad of a definition of technology I start with, students quickly divide into two camps. There are those who think that technology chips away at value systems and those who think that technology is largely beneficial. Those in the second camp admit that technology can have negative effects but they are quick to argue that it can only be technology that will save technology’s problems.

As technology evolves, it opens doors for us to go forward to the future on the shoulders of the past, as we have always done.

By the end of the semester, most of the students have moved more toward the center. They read articles and books, discuss movies and plays, dissect novels together and shed some prejudices, learn some theories and cobble together a new perspective on technology and its discontents. They might come to see that it was utopian to think that technology can undo all its dangers. They learn to shed the assumption that there is some pristine natural state of human valuing they could return to if technology would stay put and keep its cogs and widgets away from their minds. They practice critical thinking applying it to text and conversation. They learn together and change their minds. They don’t abandon their core values but return to them with new appreciation.

Since I have taught exclusively online for ten years, for the second two thirds of my experience with this course, I inevitably end up discussing the technologies that make it possible for students to opine and argue about technology’s advantages and disadvantages and to do so at our convenience across vast geographical spaces. Here again students find themselves in that ambiguous space of placing absolute values on technology. Technology is wonderful; it makes it possible for these conversations to occur. Technology is horrible; it takes away intimacy and ruins domestic and civil life. Again students come to the middle slowly, re-reading the passage from Freud where he reminds them that yes, technology gives us the ship that takes our child across the world from us but gives us the telegraph that allows us to communicate with that child across space.

I have been thinking about these electronic conversations as I have worked with faculty and student services professionals to build a new technologically-based program. The online, self-paced Personalized Learning (PL) program at Northern Arizona University is competency-based, which lets students take the portions of a degree when they want, as quickly or leisurely as they wish, and to test out of materials they already know – all thanks to recent developments in technology. Students can begin their degrees any day of the year. They need avail themselves of no paper goods—everything is electronically delivered. It’s technological Nirvana.

One could shudder at such a program. How will they interact with each other and their professors? How will they become socialized in the arts of conversation and leadership? How will they overcome the alienation and loneliness of the anonymous Web? One could exult at the freedom of technology which is solving its own problems. A university where no one has to drive or demolish vast forests! A classroom which opens itself up to the world! An efficient solution to the bureaucracies of labyrinthine ivory halls!

Reality lies in the middle. The technology is value neutral—it solves the riddle of higher education: how to educate more students with less money. Our responsibility as educators is to remain constant to the goals of higher education—to produce autodidacts, persons who feel their freedom and understand its limitations, who know how to learn and crave it, and who can take that illusive skill we call critical thinking and apply it to social, political and ethical problems. Any educator serving today works with technology in one form or other. As technology evolves, it opens doors for us to go forward to the future on the shoulders of the past, as we have always done. It’s not the technology—it’s the march toward autonomy and wisdom.

Technology is as good or as bad as the people who use it. An online course can be as terrible as that course you had as an undergraduate where the professor read sotto voce from decades-old notes, or as exciting as the one where the professor read out loud from Orlando opening up previously unimagined possibilities for living. What makes a good educational experience is some miraculous coming together of curious minds, engaging content, and an aim toward mutual improvement. The repetition of this practice, the practice of critical thinking, makes us better suited toward lives we can order for ourselves.

Alison Leigh Brown, Ph.D., is Associate Vice President, Extended Campuses at Northern Arizona University (NAU). She serves as Chief Academic Officer for NAU’s Personalized Learning program, which offers competency-based, online bachelor’s degrees in Computer Information Technology, Liberal Arts and Small Business Administration. She is also Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies.

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