Practices Beyond Predictions



“There’s still a lot to do, to have commitment rule education and not consumerism.” — Maxine Greene

The new year’s predictions for higher ed are out in the last week.  It’s not surprising that many of the predictions hover around technology.

I want to offer a response to a theme that recurs across many of these new years forecasts, about 2018 being the year that small colleges make a big splash in online learning.  I have no qualifications as an influencer, futurist, or fortune teller.

My response to predictions of online learning in small colleges is rooted in practice, not prediction.

Towards the end of 2017, I had the privilege of joining an ongoing open conversation on digital learning and the liberal arts at the University of Mary Washington.  This post draws directly from my presentation, “Getting proximate, going for broke: On digital learning, education, and social justice” (which is online here).  In the last stretch of the talk, I sought to bring education and social justice directly into conversation with online learning in the liberal arts.  Some of this I tweeted in the days before the talk as I prepared, steeped in the early writings of Maxine Greene (who remarkably did actually predict, in the late 60s, where we would be today with edtech). Some of this I’ve shared since.  But it seems timely now, in response to the predictions, a call to action from the work in online learning Muhlenberg.

What should we say about online learning and social justice, if we speak from commitment not consumerism?

How do we move towards an interpretation of online learning that gets proximate to the issues of inequality and injustice we need to support?

The first social justice issue is this: online learning may open the door to an unprecedented scale of commodification in higher education. This is already underway and what troubles me most is the degree to which this path appears inevitable. We need to think strategically about how together we can challenge the epistemology of efficiencies and scale that dominates the Silicon Valley inspired dreams of online learning.

We must find openings and alternatives, gathering inspiration from Maxine Greene and others to attempt to look at things as if they could be otherwise. To engage our campus leaders in looking at things as if they could be otherwise. To engage our students in looking at things as if they must be otherwise.

We cannot do this independently. As Vinny Mosco writes in his recently published book, Becoming Digital, “to rescue genuine information and communication from the black hole of commercialism requires strong intervention.”

We need to imagine collaborative models and communities of practice that cross institutional, disciplinary boundaries, so that we can work together to limit commercialism in the digital liberal arts, which is also to advocate for limiting surveillance and extraction of student data in digital learning.

We need a vision of online learning that supports democracy, equity, participation, access, well-being, over one that privileges commodification, surveillance, and consumerism.

We need a vision of online learning that values education as the practice of voice and freedom.

We need a vision of online learning rooted in our liberal arts ethos but that also extends outwards towards those for whom a liberal arts education in a small residential environment is not within reach.

We need a vision of online learning that recognizes all students as fully human, as digital citizens, and treats all students equitably, over one that conceptualizes students something even less than consumers, as data points.

We need a vision of online learning that engages pedagogies that practice the value of voice, over one that denies student voice matters.

We need, in short, a cooperative alternative to the dominant political and economic entities organizing rapidly around the production and provision of online learning.

We need to get organized around activist digital learning that aims to expand the range and possibility of digital resources available to educators and learners.

We have models for doing this in multiple areas of digital learning.  Domain of One’s Own, movements around open education, emerging alternatives to concentrated ownership and control of academic publishing.  To my colleagues in the field of media and social justice, I would say that online learning should be recognized as a leading edge of media activism in 2018.

How might we generate with all of this collective spirit an approach to online learning critically and consciously informed by a social justice orientation?

Let’s take up Maxine Greene’s invitation to educators to “take proactive rather than reactive approaches to technology and keep asking what it is for and how it can serve the needs of humankind.”

My close partner and friend in this work, Jenna Azar, keeps me focusing towards one promising path in this text message sent while traveling by train to Fredericksburg:

“What we can imagine, what is possible individually, doesn’t hold a candle to what we can imagine and grow collectively.”