Adolescents: Canaries in the Social Coal Mine

According to psychologist Jean Twenge of San Diego State University, the “self-esteem movement” and new media are a combination that threatens to undermine the American social fabric. Twenge is the lead author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before, a study that has gotten a lot of attention this week. A team of researchers led by Twenge used what’s called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory to measure changes in the level of self-regard in over 16,000 college students since the early 1980s. The NPI asks students 40 questions, including “If I ruled the world, it would be a better place,” “I think I am a special person” and “I can live my life any way I want to.” From 1982-2006, the results of NPI inquiries suggest that American college students have become much more narcissistic.

I haven’t read the study, nor, really, do I plan to. As I learned in one of my first graduate school courses, it’s much easier to criticize a book you haven’t read than one you have. I have though read a lot of the reporting on the study this week, and while I think there may be something to the notion that Americans have become more self-involved, I wouldn’t put it on the younger generation (narcissistic link: they need help to consume critically), I wouldn’t date it to the 1980s (thank you, Dr. Freud), and I certainly wouldn’t accept on its face Twenge’s simplistic notion that “current technology fuels the increase in narcissism. By its very name, MySpace encourages attention-seeking, as does YouTube.” That is only one of the things these sites do, and to disaggregate that from the other processes at work is to miss the forest for a tree.

Here’s a link to an interview with Twenge, and a response by a certified Generation Me’er (I thought they were Generation Y?). I think the second interview complicates the first a bit. These things are certainly worth talking about, but I don’t think they’re worth getting overwrought about. Kinda like these developments:

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One note that may, in fact, contradict what I’ve just written: the AP story on this quoted a young woman from University of Vermont saying most of her contemporaries are politically active and not very self-centered. If a reporter has to go to UVM to get that perspective, maybe we are in trouble.

Where We’ve Been, and Where Are We Going?

I saw a couple of interesting videos on YouTube in the past day. The first–”Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us”–was produced by Prof. Michael Wesch and the Digital Ethnography working group he leads at Kansas State. This video tells the history of how we got to Web 2.0, and what it means for the way we communicate and think.

The second–”Epic 2014″–was produced by Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson while they were fellows at the Poynter Institute in 2004, and is described as a “future history of the media.” This piece gives a brief history of the corporatization of the web, and projects forward to a time when new media has brushed traditional media, such as the New York Times, into the dustbin of history.

These videos have a lot in common, most of all that they place us in the middle of a revolution that has changed the rules of communication. The first video revels in the promise of this evolution towards connectedness, while the second provacatively envisions a Philip K. Dickian (or Dickensian) future where every human is his/her own editor and where machines write news stories; it argues we may be overconnected in the future. Still, a central truth runs through these pieces; that is, Web 2.0 challenges and threatens to upend traditional notions of authority.

Has what it means to “read critically” changed, or is it just the texts that have changed? We’ve devoted much energy here to discussing how these new rules have affected the academy. If the future as envisioned in the second video is plausible, should colleges be responsible for explicitly integrating some form of media studies into their core curricula?

I think that we need fundamental changes in primary education (and I’m hardly the only one!). New generations of students approach this world organically, and not often in a critical or discerning matter. By the time they get to college, their stance towards media is already developed. How should society educate them into this environment? And what implications for nation, community, and citizenship does this new connectedness have? A crucial starting point, I believe, is to find ways to level the digital divide in K-12 education. Any new education policy that emphasizes equality of opportunity must begin with that. I’m not particularly hopeful on that front, for historical reasons.

These videos taken together remind us that technological progress, especially as it relates to connectedness, is distinct from social progress. We should welcome Web 2.0, but we should also realize and respond to the implications of its ascendency. We should use the tools to teach, but we should also teach about what it means to use the tools.

Blogging the CUNY IT Conference

The CUNY IT Conference has grown significantly since its inception five years ago, from a few hundred attendees at the first conference to well over a thousand this past Friday. Seemingly, every IT person from within CUNY attended, lol (did you ever notice that when “lol” is used, most often nothing funny has preceded it?).

The conference is an interesting convergence of the separate areas of IT at CUNY, with attendees ranging from registrars to systems administrators to instructional designers to, yikes, historians. I attended three panel discussions, in addition to the keynote address, and each event raised important questions about the state of information technology in higher education, generally, and at CUNY specifically. In anticipation of questions and discussion that I hope will come, I’m dividing reviews of each panel into their own posts below. My apologies for taking over the top of the blog, but there was a lot that I found interesting and thus a lot to share.

The CUNY IT Conference: The CUNY Online Baccalaureate

The first panel was a presentation of the work of the CUNY Online Baccalaureate Program. This was likely the most highly attended session at the conference, and also the most densely populated panel (I believe there were thirty-seven presenters limited to forty-five seconds each… or at least it seemed that way). The speed of the presentation and the minimum time allowed for questions made it difficult to come to any conclusions about the program. The presenters also, more than once, positioned their experiences as “one-hundred eighty degrees” different from one another concerning this pedagogical conundrum or that, so it seems that the faculty teaching in the program also haven’t yet reached any synthesized conclusions. That, I suppose, is to be expected from something so young and experimental. Each course in the program, which offers a degree in Communication and Culture, is taught entirely online through Blackboard and Learning Objects, Inc. extensions to it. While some of the faculty felt that Blackboard did a fine job of facilitating their classes, others felt stifled by the software and its proprietary logic, and have looked for outside solutions.

The short presentations combined with the Blackboard wall between the public and the program make it difficult for me to assess exactly how effective the online instruction is. The faculty do seem to feel as though they are teaching and reaching many of their students… this, it seems to me, is the most you can really hope for from a program that’s taught entirely online. Clearly, there are a lot of talented faculty involved in the program and a lot of resources invested, so it seems likely to me that a lot of good work is happening. Hopefully, we’ll hear more about the CUNY Online BA in the future.

No faculty member really wants to teach a course entirely online, but I do feel that this program allows students to complete a degree who, due to work and family commitments, might otherwise find it impossible. The program fits well within the CUNY mission of providing affordable, quality higher education for the diverse population of the city and, judging from what I saw, the instruction is rigorous and demanding. In this case, technology is entirely responsible for making it possible.

The most astounding factoid to come out of this session was the claim made, privately to me, that there hasn’t been a single instance where a student has needed technical aid, because the program orientation covered every possible potential problem. I have a hard time believing this, but if it’s true, that must have been the Best Orientation Ever.

The CUNY IT Conference: The Keynote Address

The keynote at the CUNY IT Conference was an enjoyable presentation from Chuck Dziuban, the Principal Investigator of the Distributed Learning Impact Evaluation and Professor of Educational Foundations at the University of Central Florida. Dziuban theorizes the emergence of new teaching technologies, and has a boatload of data to back up his conclusions. As a historian who fancies himself rigid, I’m no great fan of explaining historical developments through the concept of “generations,” though I have to admit I found Dziuban’s research that broke down satisfaction with online learning practices by age intriguing. The most interesting conclusion, to me, was that the younger a student, the less likely they are to be satisfied with what their faculty are doing in online courses. Since most college faculty are older, this very fact calls into question the ways that faculty evaluate their own online teaching, and illuminates the challenge we have going forward in designing online teaching tools that intimately connect with students. We keep getting older, while the students stay the same age. To download Dziuban’s Powerpoint, chock-full-of-stats, click here.

The CUNY IT Conference: Making Multimedia History

Chuck Dziuban did a fine job, but as theory values the abstract over the concrete, his talk provoked thought more than it suggested actual, real uses of technology in the classroom. The second panel session I attended was a group of CUNY historians who designed online teaching modules as part of the “Investigating US History” project. The modules consist of scalable research projects that employ primary sources available via the Web. Students are directed to examine a series of historical documents—say, lithographs and advertisements related to the slave trade, or audio tapes of Lyndon Johnson’s conversations in the White House– and then to write responses, on a course Blackboard site, to the prompts of faculty members.

The historians involved in the project are top-notch, and both the scholarship directing the modules and the design of the site are strong. I was struck, however, by how methodologically similar the pedagogic process of these modules was to the ways in which primary sources have been mobilized in the teaching of history for years. The Web has drastically improved access to primary sources, and the success of these modules lies in how faculty have framed the sources for students and directed their exploration. The site harnesses the Web’s speed and ease of information exchange for high-level history teaching. In this case, new technologies have expanded what can be done in the classroom without significantly altering the processes of teaching and learning.

It seems to me that the next generation of technological teaching tools—the products of Web 2.0, which enable increased interactivity– may pose a challenge to traditional pedagogies. While I haven’t seen inside the Blackboard sites to the fruits of the “Investigating History” modules, they seem to work on the same tracks that the teaching of history has for some time. That is, a scholar/teacher provides materials and background for students to work through with guidance; as students do, they learn about the past and about participating in the historical project. These are sound pedagogical goals for any history course.

In other disciplines, blogs and wikis have upended traditional teaching methods and goals by empowering students with more accessible means to produce and disseminate knowledge. In the teaching of history, such empowering elements of the Web have been employed in this project to reinforce and strengthen one traditional model (while also enabling more robust discussions of visual culture due to the increased accessibility of images). Historians like those who presented at the conference sense that the future of teaching history lie in using technology to more vividly open up the worlds of the past to their students. It will be interesting to see if new technologies continue to reinforce traditional methods of teaching history, or if they challenge those methods. One example of how they might is here.

The CUNY IT Conference: Notes Towards an Open (Source) University

Finally, and fittingly, the last session I attended featured Famed Friend of the Institute James Groom, who offered his “Notes Towards an Open (Source) University.” Prof. Groom’s views have been well-represented on this blog, and though I urged him to rename his talk “Waging War on the Proprietary-Software University,” his diplomatic disposition clung to the more affirmative appellation. Groom’s presentation asked, in a way, why pay lots of dough for something mediocre when you can get something fantabulous for free? He presented and discussed a few cutting edge open source course management systems, showed how certain packages can be modified for use in the classroom, and asked the very important questions: why aren’t more folks exploring this stuff at a place like CUNY, and why is open source so underrepresented at this conference? The answer, it seems, was hinted at by one of the items raffled off at the close of the conference… Blackboard provided tee-shirts for the raffle! Drupal, WordPress, and Sakai ask not what they can do for you, but what you can do for (and with) them. Who knew the open source movement was so selfish?

(note: A few audience members were flabbergasted when the gentleman who followed James Groom, Florian Lengyel, Assistant Director for Research Computing at the CUNY Graduate Center, showed us that open source has recently become a more significant presence at the Graduate Center. See here.)

The Aesthetics of the Virtual Learning Space

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the aesthetics of the virtual space, and how it can impact the amounts and types of traffic to an online learning tool. What got me thinking about this was my attempt to answer the question of how weblogs used as instructional tools were different than “learning management systems” like Blackboard and WebCT. Blackboard, like the course blogs I advocate, can easily transfer a wide-array of file types, and allows for participant discussion (though in a significantly less flexible manner than blogs). If the primary benefit of the blog over Blackboard as an instructional tool lay in its malleability to the purpose of a teacher, then I would say that running a close second in terms of a separating difference is the aesthetic potential of a blog over a Blackboard site. And, obviously, those two points are related.

I’ve seen some good Blackboard sites in the past, and have used it myself effectively in the teaching of the American history survey. I’ve never, however, heard any faculty member or any student say “what a great Blackboard site! Wow!” Instructional blogs that I’ve seen in circulation, however, have “wowed” frequently. This is likely not a newsflash to anyone with experience using these technologies.

The “wow” factor, on the surface, seems to have little pedagogical value, and it’s vulnerable to accusations of the elevation of style over substance. But I don’t think it should be completely discounted as an element of our efforts to bring students to our material through online teaching tools. Creating an inviting virtual space, with a logic and an aesthetic that flow from the purpose and materials of the course, can help students see that space as an extension of the learning that is happening concurrently in the classroom. It can help them feel a sense of belonging and a sense of ownership, and can help them feel that they are participating in something unique. I can’t help but believe that this feeling translates to the way that students approach the material and the assignments on the site. I’ve seen it work well and not so well, and I look forward to exploring it more in my teaching. Blackboard’s aesthetic, with its heinous buttons and familiar logic, tends to generalize online learning. It’s much more likely to produce a “duh” than a “wow.”

I don’t want to open a war on Blackboard here, because I do think it can be effective as a teaching tool, and it’s certainly easier to master than a blog. I just want to drive home the point that we are dealing with spaces here, and virtual though they may be, how they look and act impacts the way we teach in them and the ways that students learn in them. When we’re in the classroom, there are different methods we can use to engage students: mastery of the material, ability to spin a tale, and asking probing and demanding questions are a few that come to mind. Those methods are still available to us in the virtual space, to be sure, but face-to-face contact is not. Just as the personality of the teacher is an important element of his or her ability to engage a class, so too is the personality of an online teaching space. This personality is developed through an attention to aesthetics.