Higher Education, Technology

The Media Ecology Lens

When I first moved into administrative roles in higher education, one of my mentors gave me the following advice, “don’t lose sight of your discipline.”  Last weekend, I managed to follow that advice and attend the annual conference of my discipline, media ecology. A subset (or perhaps a metaset) of the field of communication, media ecology helps me think deeply about the many forces shaping and re-shaping higher education.

For the uninitiated, media ecology grew out of Marshall McLuhan’s observation that the “medium is the message.” (See Understanding Media, 1964). From this simple turn of phrase springs a complex set of questions and scholarship that touches on every aspect of how we understand and act in the world. In my doctoral studies at New York University, Neil Postman and Christine Nystrom explicated McLuhan’s observation in reference to adulthood, education, language, politics, the sacred and the profane. From cave painting to television screens, to the binary codes that now dominate our lives, media ecologists are obsessed with how shifts in dominant media of communication shape our realities.

As provost, this obsession can be very helpful.  I regularly receive messages from various companies trying to sell me the next great gadget for student success. Since I am responsible for university outcomes (read, retention and graduation rates), I am inclined to consider these pitches, at least for a minute or two. While there may be some promising ideas in the many commercials in my inbox, I always start with the question, what kind educational environment will this gadget create?

Take, for example, the notion of student engagement.  For as long as I have been in higher education, faculty have endeavored to develop strategies that might engage  students in conversation in the classroom.  The very idea that we want conversation suggests that we are imagining an educational environment that is small enough to facilitate a robust dialogue (rather than simple questions and answers).  It also suggests that education is something other than content delivery.  Through this lens of the conversation, faculty are content experts, but their role is to draw out ideas and responses from students, ostensibly to clarify and refine understandings of the topic at hand, and ideally to discover new insights through that dialogue. 

What I have described is a seminar, ideally located in a room with a large table for students to sit around, or at least chairs that can move into circles. This kind of learning environment relies on small class sizes to allow for an authentic back and forth from all participants.  We seem to measure much of what we do against that imagined context. Yet, most of us only get to teach a small seminar now and then. The rest of the time, we are in medium sized classes (30-40 students) or even large lectures (100 or so students).  In these settings, conversations tend to shift to questions and answers, with little back and forth, not because we don’t want it, but because that is what can be accommodated with this number of students. The setting re-enforces the Q&A vs. conversation message, by putting students in rows, or if we’re lucky, moveable chairs or clusters of tables, all facing the professor.  

In this more usual environment, we then try to find paths to engagement.  We hold the ideal of the seminar in our heads and try to replicate it in some way. Each attempt has implications for the role of the professor and the goals of the course. Each attempt is different from a conversation.

Some faculty combine lectures with breakout sessions.  They introduce a topic and the move students into small groups so they converse with each other, and then they are brought back together to report out. This approach can be very effective, and it requires no expensive technology (something that is nice for my budget woes).  There are dangers of course, students stray from the topic and choose to see this as time to talk about other things. But, when discussion topics are well-structured and there is some sense of obligation to dig into the ideas (points for participation, for example), this approach can move passive listeners to active learners.

I favor this approach, but I must acknowledge that it isn’t as discovery-oriented as the seminar because the questions must all be crafted in advance.  Professors will have done their best to simulate discovery in the smaller groups and the sharing can lead to productive clarifications and imaginative ideas, but it is one step removed from the back and forth of conversation.  This approach must be more scripted.

In larger classes, some faculty are trying to employ technological solutions.  One such solution is the clicker or “student response system.” The clicker is a popular tool in large classes, letting faculty conduct mini quizzes and polls throughout the class in order to check understanding of topics and potentially develop strategies to clarify misconceptions. The most sophisticated versions of this tool allows for all kinds of data analysis on each student (attendance, right or wrong answers, skipped answers/lack of participation) and so on.  When managing a larger group of students, the clicker can push students to listen more actively, shaking them out of daydreams and confusion. Clickers can even help students who don’t usually raise their hands find a way to participate in a non-threatening way.  It isn’t a bad solution to combatting passivity and boredom in the classroom, and it can foster more inclusive participation.  However, it is in no way an environment about creating learning together. This class is about mastery of content/concepts.

Looking at these three scenarios, it is pretty clear to me that classrooms and class sizes are primary determinants of student engagement strategies. With each adjustment to the size and space, we see a change in the definition of the relationship between students and faculty, and we see a change in the overall goals of the course.  That doesn’t mean that only seminars are good learning environments. Each of these approaches has value. Indeed, sometimes students need the experience of the more structured learning environments before they can be successful participants in a seminar. But it is important to consider each size and pedagogy as part of a portfolio of learning environments at a university, always looking for the right balance of experiences.

So, what of media ecology? Well, we media ecologists tend to move from macro to micro and back to macro perspectives with great fluidity.  We might look at the structure of education in terms of interlocking systems (public, private, elite, accessible, etc.), and focus our attention to socio-political context of higher education is driving the metrics of evaluation of our successes.  We might look at physical environments and class size, as I have here, and focus our attention on the intersection of pedagogy and economics.  Or we might drill down to the impact of a particular technology (clickers) on a learning environment, examining the outcomes in terms of the conceptions of education implied.  Each of these approaches sets the boundaries of our analysis in a new place, but the common thread is this: we know that environments have implications, they are not neutral.

As the person charged with overseeing the academic programs of my university, this is the most important thing to know; environments are not neutral.  This lens shapes my decisions about technology investments, to be sure, but of much greater importance, it forces me to look at the interconnection between space, time, class sizes, schedules, and conceptions of education.  Media ecology demands that we think about the interconnections between these things, and not fall for the promises of a one-size-fits-all solution.

Most of all, media ecology reminds me to always ask two important questions in every situation in which I might want to try a new educational strategy: 1. What problem am I trying to solve? and 2. What are the potential unintended consequences of that solution? These are the questions that can keep this whole higher education enterprise honest.

 

 

 

Higher Education, Technology

Engagement and Adulthood: A contradiction?

This weekend I spent some time preparing a paper that I’ll be presenting at the Media Ecology Association Conference in Toronto next month.  The paper explores the ethical implications of using artificial intelligence (AI) in higher education.  As Provost, I am routinely bombarded with sales pitches for the latest gadgets to encourage student engagement.  Each one has a plethora of data points that suggest that it will increase student success. Each one raises concerns about the notion of adulthood.

Consider, for example, the ways in which we might employ smartphones to take attendance.  One vendor presented a simple and elegant way to set up a sensor in a classroom doorway so that. as students come in. their presence is automatically recorded in a spreadsheet for the faculty member.  As a bonus, photographs of the students can show up an a computer monitor at the teacher’s station, helping them learn their students’ names.  For students who don’t have phones, there is still the opportunity for manual entry.  Great.  Attendance tracking solved!

But the thing is, once it is turned on, students can be tracked for all sorts of things.  If a student doesn’t go to the cafeteria for a few days, an alert might come up.  If they don’t leave the dorm for a few days, an alert might come up.  If they are missing multiple classes, an alert might come up.  OK, we should be concerned about the student, but I have concerns about privacy and self-determination. While I truly wish to engage students who are starting to disappear, I’m not sure I want to do it by tracking their every move.  It’s a little creepy and I think it’s an invasion of privacy.  More importantly, it creates a relationship with students that does not encourage them to be responsible for their actions.

There are similar products being sold to advising centers to try to prompt engagement with students.  There are alerts sent to advising staff by faculty, coaches, and anyone else who might be in contact with the students, letting them know about excessive absences or other looming issues.  Part of this is fantastic.  The student experience is dispersed in higher education and this function allows us to see patterns that might be invisible without it.  An advisor can then reach out to the student and that student might respond.  Great! But then what?

You see the painful truth is that most do not respond. Are we to stand outside classrooms or doorways to find them?  Do we text and email and call multiple times to try to prompt that response?  At what point are we to say, this student is not ready to engage in this conversation, and just stop?  When do we get the message that the student is making a decision not to respond?

Then there’s the “nudge” technology, meant to prompt students to action on all sorts of things: registration, financial aid, meeting an advisor, applying for graduation.  It’s a good idea.  In the whirl of semesters, deadlines are easy to miss.  As a basic communication strategy, it seems like a helpful tool in our efforts to keep our students informed and on track.  But, when they consistently ignore these messages, what are we to do? And, more importantly, is our nudging turning into one more thing for students to tune out? All I can think of is the teacher’s voice in the old Peanuts cartoons.

As fond as I am of being a professional nag, these technologies seem to be undermining the notion of adulthood in higher education.  While I have always conceptualized our traditional aged undergraduates as beginner adults, they are adults none-the-less.  We know that they will stumble, as all adults do, but is catching them every time they fall a good idea?  Well, it’s complicated.

In fact, some of our students really do need extra support and nudges and outreach.  They come to us with no experience of the culture of higher education or they come to us with just adequate, but not stellar, high school grades. We know that these students are more likely to stumble.  These students need our thoughtful and persistent attention. But, does that attention need to be at the cost of supporting adulthood? I don’t think so.

Here’s where I am on this today.  First, we don’t need the technology to tell us who the  at-risk students are.  We have a slew of reports that have already done that.  For those students, we need a carefully constructed program of support that moves from high touch to self-determination as quickly as possible. Let’s use the large body of research that tells us the best strategies for cultivating that self-determination. Let’s leave the technology out of this one, in favor of some good old fashioned human interaction.  This program of support should help the students take control of their education, instead of relying on prompts and nudges for all the answers.

For those students who don’t need that extra support at the start, let’s be clear in our expectations and not obscure the paths to great educational experiences.  Let’s orient them to campus, help them create their plans, and then leave them alone. They can figure it out.

Some of our students will ignore our efforts no matter what we do. Some of them will end up leaving. It happens.  In fact it happened to me.  I needed time to figure out why I should be in college.  It wasn’t a lack of technology that caused this. I certainly didn’t want additional oversight from concerned professionals. I wanted to solve my own problems and make my own plans. I was a beginner adult, making my own mistakes and finding my way.