Apple’s AcademiX 2009--the Closing and Opening Of University Minds
“…in order to learn men must for a little while withdraw from action, must seek some quiet place of remove from the bustle of affairs, where their thoughts may run clear and tranquil, and the heats of business be for the time put off….”
--Woodrow Wilson in "Princeton for the Nation's Service"
In this recessionary economy, our university travel budgets have been slashed. So it was gratifying that Apple has been sponsoring a series of free regional conferences entitled AcademiX 2009 that reduce travel expenses to near zero. The latest one was held at the University of Utah in late April. Not surprisingly, a fair number of the sessions were devoted to iTunes-U and Apple’s Podcast Producer technologies that, as Apple describes them, are “democratizing” the creation of video content. In spite of Apple’s product promotion (a forgivable offense given that the conference was paid for by Apple), some of the presenters gave genuinely edifying talks. These provoked attendees to reflect deeply on how to further the missions of the university as we confront the challenges and opportunities that are posed by more open systems, more end-user generated content, crowdsourcing, Youtube, and all the other technological changes that fall under the umbrella of Web 2.0.
The first presenters to grapple with these issues were Paul Hammond (Director of Rutgers’ Digital Initiatives) and Richard Miller (chair of Rutgers’ English Department). Standing in front of a screen that streamed one apocalyptic image after another, Hammond and Miller addressed the major theme of the conference: “If we don’t re-imagine the university around Web 2.0, we will be outdated.” This means adapting to emerging audio and video production techniques which have enabled a much broader swath of the population to share their own points of view. In responding to these developments, Rutgers has begun to teach English composition in new ways. Instead of working exclusively with text-based communication, the new composition curriculum invites students to communicate using sound, imagery and text. When it comes time to compose, Hammond and Miller ask their student to not only open Word, but Final Cut Pro, Podcast producer, or any other multimedia tools the students are willing to learn. For Hammond and Miller the integration of these new tools into the curriculum was not an option but a necessity if the humanities were to continue teaching students effectively in a Web 2.0 world. Their message was to start using these tools or risk casting the humanities into irrelevance.
Since a lot of the technologies Hammond and Miller discussed are made by Apple, it’s tempting to caricature their presentation as a glorified Apple sales pitch. But if one listened closely, it was clear that the presenters were delivering a nobler and more nuanced message. During the presentation, Miller had said that the university needed to be a space for deliberation, meditation and curiosity. But when I asked whether this space was more likely to be created by composing with the new media or with text, Hammond and Miller refused to privilege Apple’s technologies. To be sure, they were teaching composition in new ways. But as English professors, they still harbored an affection and faith in old-fashioned reading and writing. As Miller put it, “Text is a technology for advancing complex insights [and] writing is a technology that increases humans' capacity to think.” And while Miller and Hammond were teaching the new forms of composition, this didn’t mean that Rutgers was casting the old forms aside. For Hammond and Miller, a university that is constructively responding to a Web 2.0 world needs to teach students how to be literate with Web 2.0 technologies. But it would be dangerous to privilege these technologies without giving proper consideration to the virtues of the older medium. Learning how to read and write fosters vital cognitive faculties. If these same faculties aren’t developed by Web 2.0 literacies then leaving everything else aside and rushing headlong toward a Web 2.0 future is hardly a prudent move.
The salience of Hammond and Miller’s stress on reflective spaces was carried forward (albeit in a different language) by Adam Gazzaley in a presentation entitled “The Role of Apple Technology in Brain Imaging Studies of Attention.” As the director of UCSF’s Neuroscience Imaging Center, Gazzaley researches how our ability to memorize is affected by external stimuli. The best memorizers are able to shut out external stimuli at appropriate moments, effectively giving their brains a space in which to memorize.
To study this, Gazzaley uses advanced MRI machines and Apple hardware to graphically display test subjects' brains in the process of performing memorization tasks. When test subjects are attempting to memorize, their frontal lobes become very active. Gazzaley made his points by showing a number of images that had been taken with his suite of Apple tools. But his ideas gained additional clarity when he compared the frontal lobe to a bouncer that only lets in particular types of people into a club. The frontal lobe is a bouncer of sorts, only instead of bouncing people it bounces information. The best learners and memorizers are the people who have the most active bouncers in their brains.
Unfortunately, as we age our bouncing capacities decline. As a result, we memorize less well because we are less able to shut out external stimuli. Given the gloomy neurological picture, Gazzaley professed interest in using his research to mitigate aging’s adverse effects on cognition. Whether through pharmacology or through brain exercises, Gazzaley hoped to find answers that could help people continue learning even as they age.
For Gazzaley, it’s older people who have trouble concentrating and shutting out the data deluge long enough to create a quiet space in which they can learn something new. This group, in Gazzaley’s view, are the most likely victims of a data overload. But in academe the focus is reversed. We worry about attention deficit disorders in our students and whether the deluge of information technologies (and information) creeping into the classroom are corrupting cognition. We worry less about turning the older population into multi-taskers and more about how help young people keep their focus.
The most compelling part of Gazzaley’s presentation was the way it was framed and the way the framing at turns complemented and challenged Hammond and Miller’s message. When Gazzaley moved beyond a description of his research findings and began to talk about what motivated him, he spoke of his interest in helping people pay greater attention and learn more effectively. And as a neuroscientist he saw the problem in biological terms; to learn better we need to figure out how to catalyze more activity in our frontal lobes. Hammond and Miller shared this concern but expressed it in a slightly different language. For them the problem was described as the challenge of helping students develop a “sense of interiority” and a “space for meditation.” Moreover both sets of presenters envisioned using their activities at Rutgers or at UCSF to help people achieve this space.
But their perception of Web
2.0 and who might be harmed by its ancillary effects differed. As
a result, the tacit prescriptions and worries that develop out of their
presentations differ as well. Hammond and Miller celebrated Web 2.0.
But they ultimately acknowledged that it might adversely impact the
development of reflective spaces if the critical faculties that are
developed by reading and writing aren’t taught to college students.
In contrast, Gazzaley took Web 2.0 at face value; he did not explicitly
voice worries about the end of reading, or about creating a quieter
and calmer external environment that might throttle the distractions
of the data deluge. And his worries seemed more directed at adults
then at youth. (For example, during a lunchtime conversation someone
likened Web 2.0 to the proliferation of tabs that we see in a modern
browser. Rather than simply asking people to close a few of these tabs,
Gazzaley seemed more interested in figuring out why adults have a harder
time managing as many of these tabs than young people do. ) As a neurologist, he was interested
in helping people develop the internal neurological dispositions whether
through medication or through brain exercises that would filter out
the worst distractions of Web 2.0.
Gazzaley’s tendency to take Web 2.0 youth as they are, rather than as they should be, was carried forward in the last presentation by David Wiley, professor of Instructional Psychology and Technology at Brigham Young University. His talk was titled “What's Next: Forecasting the Post-LMS Era.” As a long-time and eminent advocate for more open education, Wiley hopes that much of online education will venture out from behind the login of the traditional learning management system (LMS) and into a more public sphere. Wiley, who purposely hasn’t taught in a traditional LMS in at least five years, suggests that there are two primary (and many ancillary) benefits in teaching this way. First, students and teachers can avail themselves of better collaboration tools that have become readily available on the Web. Second, there’s an incentive to produce better teaching material and better homework because, suddenly, the public has become our audience. In keeping with the visuals (if not the text) of Michael Wesch’s video “A Vision of Students Today,” the walls of the closed classroom seem to imprison rather than enlarge learning. While this argument has a lot of currency today and has significant merits, it glosses over the virtues that are inherent in traditional and more bounded ways of learning. As Gazzaley pointed out, there are many cognitive merits in being able in many learning situations to selectively close down one’s senses. And Hammond and Miller alluded to the same idea when they spoke fondly of just sitting down with a book in a quiet setting as a way of developing the meditative and reflective spaces in which very important forms of learning thrive. While I don’t think Wiley would dismiss the virtues in these ways of learning or thinking, his interest in making the university look into the future means that the learning spaces embodied in the cloister and the carrel, and the ascetic spirit laboring in a narrow discipline are largely absent from his vision of university life.At the Apple conference these quieter and more ascetic ways of learning were not always in evidence (even if the conference was perceived by some attendees as the perfect spare, low-budget event to be attending in a recession). But occasionally glimmers of these ideals would shine through; in Hammond and Miller’s celebration of reading and writing, and in Gazzaley’s observation that learning and memorizing often happen best when we close down and focus cognition on a few important things. As in many technology gatherings, Apple had assembled a group of people who spoke urgently of the university’s need to adapt to radically changing social and technical circumstances. So often in these gatherings the virtues of past university traditions are caricatured or, even more dangerously, forgotten altogether. It is a tribute to Apple that the company assembled a group of presenters who did not always fall victim to this trope. They seemed to realize that in embracing the future we need also to take with us the best habits from our past. In celebrating the technologies which open up the university to the world, we also need to remember the virtues inherent in reading and writing and older campus technologies like the library and the study carrel, which temporarily close off the world and make for a place of quiet and remove.