New Media Technologies and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: A Brief Introduction to this Issue of Academic Commons

by Randy Bass, Georgetown University

A Bridge to Know-ware
Higher education traditionally has found few systematic ways to build and share knowledge about teaching and learning. It is not surprising then that there has been relatively little interaction between those most interested in new technologies and those invested in the scholarship on teaching and learning. Of course there are examples where the two communities intersect, sometimes for robust conversations. Yet much of this talk stays at the level of individual experimentation and focuses on teaching and classroom practice, with very little attention paid to learning. For whatever reason, the quantity and quality of those conversations are far less that we might hope, given the social impact of new technologies and the growing urgency of conversations around active learning, accountability, and assessment.

So, how do we make any headway in a landscape where applied knowledge about learning is inchoate, where forms of learning are expanding in ways higher education is poorly situated to accommodate, and the technological contexts are shifting rapidly and radically? We need, in short, to merge a culture of inquiry into teaching and learning with a culture of experimentation around new media technologies. Our ability to make the best use of any technologies to improve education hinges ultimately on the reciprocal capacities to bring our powers of inquiry to bear on educational technologies, as well as to bring the power of new technologies to bear on our methods of inquiry and our representation of knowledge about teaching practice.

Slowing Down and Looking at Learning
In this issue of Academic Commons we take up these questions by looking at the possibilities for building knowledge around teaching and learning in a rapidly changing technological landscape. Through articles, case studies, interviews and roundtables, the January 2009 issue of Academic Commons explores the continuity of learning issues from Web 1.0 to 2.0 technologies, from online discussion tools, hypertext and multimedia authoring to emergent forms of electronic portfolios, blogs, social networking tools, and virtual reality environments. We take these up in the context of a dual challenge: to understand better the changing nature of learning in new media environments and the potential of new media environments to make learning–and faculty insights into teaching–visible and usable.
The issue opens with a bundled set of essays that form a synoptic case study of the Visible Knowledge Project (VKP), a five-year project looking at the impact of technology on learning, primarily in the humanities, through the lens of the scholarship of teaching and learning.  These case studies explore the ways that faculty inquiring into their students’ learning deepened and complicated their understanding of technology-enhanced teaching. Out of these classroom-based insights emerged a set of findings that constitute a research framework, clustering especially around three broad areas:

  1. Learning for adaptive expertise: the role of new media in making visible the thinking processes intrinsic to the development of expert-like abilities and dispositions in novice learners;
  2. Embodied learning: the impact of new media technologies on the expansion of learning strategies that engage affective as well as cognitive dimensions, renewed forms of creativity and the sensory experience of new media, and the importance of identity and experience as the foundation of intellectual engagement; and
  3. Socially Situated learning: the role of social dimensions of new media in creating conditions for authentic engagement and high impact learning.

These broad areas of learning provide a bridge from earlier technology innovation to current new media technologies. They also serve as a way of seeing the capacities of new social media in light of the learning issues intrinsic to disciplinary and interdisciplinary ways of knowing. In this sense, they provide a framework for understanding this period of transformation as one (as Michael Wesch puts it in this issue) where we are shifting from “teaching subjects to subjectivities.” This expansive conception of learning challenges us then not to cope with technological change, but shifts that are essentially social and intellectual. As Michael Wesch puts it in his commentary on the meaning of these changes, “Nothing good will come of these technologies if we do not first confront the crisis of significance and bring relevance back into education.  In some ways these technologies act as magnifiers. If we fail to address the crisis of significance, the technologies will only magnify the problem by allowing students to tune out more easily and completely.”

The six additional vision pieces in this issue all provide different lenses onto this transformation. Two pieces–one by Kathleen Yancey and another that is the transcript of the closing session at the ePortfolio conference at LaGuardia Community College in April 2008–look specifically at the current practices and potential of ePortfolios to provide a site that both serves the needs of students to represent themselves and their learning through an integrative digital space as well as the needs of institutions to find better ways to understand the progress of student learning and intellectual development. A key element in this transformation is shifting the unit of analysis from the learner in a single course to the learner over time, inside and outside the classroom. What does this shift imply for the ways we understand learning and development? If we accept this new learning paradigm, what kinds of accommodations do we need to make in our approaches to the curriculum, the classroom, the role of faculty, and the empowerment of learners?

Other pieces in this issue consider similar shifts. For example, in a sampling excerpt from their book Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education Through Open Technology, Toru Iiyoshi and M. S. Vijay Kumar look at the potential of “open content, opening technology and open knowledge” to transform higher education. “We must develop not only the technical capability but also the intellectual capacity for transforming tacit pedagogical knowledge into commonly usable and visible knowledge: by providing incentives for faculty to use (and contribute to) open education goods, and by looking beyond institutional boundaries to connect a variety of settings and open source entrepreneurs” (Iiyoshi and Kumar, coming in February).

Confronting our Biases
Yet, it seems all too clear that higher education is mostly unprepared to make the most of this new potentiality–of open education and an expansive conception of learning. Gathering and sharing knowledge about educational effectiveness is tricky in an environment in which we rush on to the “next new thing,” as new media pedagogies (as with other emergent pedagogies) often lead to forms of learning that do not neatly fit into traditional frameworks of disciplinary learning and cognitive and critical skills. These new forms of learning–including emotional and affective dimensions, capacities for risk-taking and uncertainty, creativity and invention, blurred boundaries between personal and public expression, or the importance of self-identity to the development of disciplinary understanding, etc.–traditionally have been invisible in higher education. As Bret Eynon and I point out in our synthesis essay for the Visible Knowledge Project, “when the invisible becomes visible it is often disruptive,” although usually in productive and generative ways.
That theme of generative disruption runs throughout all of these pieces in this issue, none more than in Cathy Davidson’s interview about “participatory learning and the new humanities,” where her celebration of the potential for “Humanities 2.0” is counter balanced by entrenched reluctance to rethink basic practices in our fields, especially around the ways we recognize expertise, collaboration, and creativity. As Davidson puts it (in ways that could speak for most of the authors here),

I guess part of me just doesn’t understand why this isn’t the most exciting time for all of us in our profession and why we aren’t figuring out ways that we can use this to bolster our mission in the world, our methods in the world, our reach in the world, our understanding of what we do and what we have to offer our students in the world? It just feels like we’re in an age where we educators should be the thought leaders and so many of us are futzing around the edges, and I don’t get it.

In this issue of Academic Commons we take the disconnection between experimentation with new media technologies and conversations about learning as a presenting symptom of what Davidson calls “futzing around the edges.” That is, we can only futz because we do not have a vocabulary or a tradition for engaging with learning in meaningful communal ways. In this environment it is especially important to flank classroom-based inquiry with institutional learning, where we can put into practice wide-scale views of learning outcomes as textured as those of faculty who look at learning in their own classrooms. Many of the pieces in this issue provide a starting point for these connections, whether looking at the best institutional practices around electronic portfolios (see Roundtable), or the aspirations of a national project developing flexible rubrics for evaluating the intellectual work of students over time and through diverse intellectual products (“Can We Bridge an Expansive View of Student Learning with Institutional Learning? The VALUE Project Thinks we Can, and Here’s How,” an interview with Terry Rhodes, coming in February), or the visionary specifications for a flexible repository for the scholarship of teaching and learning, linking local expertise to collective wisdom (Tom Carey, John Rakestraw, and Jennifer Meta Robinson, “Expanding the Teaching Commons in Web 2.0: A New Vision for a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Repository,” coming in February).

From the local to the virtual, from classroom innovation to “opening up education,” this issue of Academic Commons seeks to make a modest contribution to these questions and our collective endeavor toward addressing them. What binds these case studies and vision pieces together are the aggregated bonds of the three dimensions of learning emerging from the VKP framework: expertise, embodiment, and the social. If we could bridge our incipient sense of meaning for these dimensions in student learning with the full social embodiment of our collective expertise as educators, then we would indeed have a bridge to the future.

Acknowledgements: In putting together this issue I want to thank the supervising editors, Mike Roy and John Ottenhoff for the invitation and opportunity. I also want to thank Lisa Gates, managing editor of AC for her infinite patience and skill in working with such complicated and multi-faceted content. Many thanks to Pat Hutchings of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, for her support through the years, and especially her reading of the synthesis essay for this volume. I also want to thank my longtime collaborator, Bret Eynon, for his intellectual and spiritual companionship throughout the process; many thanks also to current and former colleagues at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS) and the Visible Knowledge Project who worked on dimensions of this issue, especially Theresa Schlafly, Susannah McGowan, Eddie Maloney, John Rakestraw. -RB

Return to Table of Contents for the January 2009 Issue of Academic Commons

In addition to the articles listed in the Table of Contents, the following are forthcoming:

  • Opening Up Education: The Remix, by Toru Iiyoshi and Vijay Kumar. Excerpts from the book Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge, editors Toru Iiyoshi and M.S. Vijay Kumar (Coming in February)
  • Tom Carey, John Rakestraw, and Jennifer Meta Robinson, Expanding the Teaching Commons in Web 2.0: A New Vision for a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Repository (Coming in February)
  • Can We Bridge an Expansive View of Student Learning with Institutional Learning? The VALUE Project Thinks we Can, and Here’s How, an Interview with Terry Rhodes  (Coming in February)