(Neatness has no place in education.)

My re-reading/re-viewing of Gardner Campbell‘s “Personal Cyberinfrastructure” and “No More Digital Facelifts” is juxtaposed against another activity on my calendar this week: attending a series of vendor demonstrations to determine the University’s new course management sytem.

Yesterday, I attended a 90 minute presentation by one of the most well-known CMS vendors. Here are some random thoughts I had during the presentation and afterwards (while reflecting on the experience):

  • When up against a wall, commercial vendors will co-opt the language of the open Web and citizen-created media with absolutely no concern about whether they actually understand the language. Witness, the “mashup tool.” Quote from the video behind that link: “Mashups provide a simple way to add multimedia to course without having to create it yourself.” Here’s another definition.
  • When a product has been around long enough and patterns of use have been (corporately) defined enough times, a huge chasm can grow between the perhaps initial, intended (advertised) purpose of the product and what the product actually does.
  • The “partnering” of a course management system vendor with “the global leader in interactive markting services” in order to deliver “AFFORDABLE STUDENT IDENTITY VERIFICATION” may signify the greatest, most-frightening ethical leap that higher education can take. To suggest that “the global leader in interactive marketing services” is providing this service because they simply want to do something for higher education (out of the goodness of their corporate heart) is naive, at best, and equally, frighteningly unethical, at worst. Every school that is capitalizing on this partnership should take a long, hard look at what exactly they are paying for — and what they, ultimately, are perhaps selling.
  • Every time you use the phrase “delivering content” to describe the art of teaching, a small, exceedingly cute marsupial dies.
  • Faculty who attend these presentations can’t be blamed when their questions reflect a greater concern with the “efficiencies” provided (or promised but not delivered) rather than the way in which technology can/should/will alter the practices of teaching, learning, knowing, and thinking.They have been sold a bill of goods when it comes to how we consider technology within the ecosystem of higher education. For a decade and a half, we have let companies tell us what technology can do for us rather than demanding that our larger communities engage the deeper, messier, far more profound questions about how technology can/should/will alter the practices of teaching, learning, knowing, and thinking.
  • Once you have begun to grapple with these messy and essential questions, sitting through presentations aimed at describing content delivery and administrative efficiences sucks a little more of your soul out of your being.
  • Once again, louder please: Our job is not to manage students. It is to teach them. Our job is not to manage learning. It is to build communities and spaces in which learning happens.
  • I am not an idiot. I GET that to run a University you have to figure out some way to manage the administration of a University’s practices. And I GET that technology is going to play a role in this. But can we PLEASE not pretend/suggest/pronounce that the these needs come before an investigation and engagement with the deeper, messier, far more profound questions about how technology can/should/will alter the practices of teaching, learning, knowing, and thinking.
  • The technologies you choose to frame the experience of teaching, learning, knowing, and thinking MATTER. The actual code behind these vendor solutions is forged in a corporate mindset founded on finding efficiences, delivering content, and defining patterns of practice that are, fundamentally, limiting. That code breathes itself into every corner of the system. We have to stop fooling ourselves into believing that within these coded spaces we can build something that is other than the fundamental nature of the code.
  • I am drawn to open-source technologies for my practice because I believe that the code inside these systems is forged in finding alternatives, creating experiences, and defining new patterns of practice that, recursively, turn the code into something new. I believe these values are breathed into the corners of the systems I use, too. My spaces are coded as well, but my spaces are fundamentally flexible, communal, and, yes, sometimes they are messy.
  • Ultimately, then, our conversations about technologies must grapple with our larger community’s values — and what code we think enacts these values.
  • (Neatness has no place in education.)

Meanwhile, I’m reading/viewing Gardner, and thinking about the notion of a cyberinfrastructure — and I’m asking my own students in Digital Storytelling to attempt to build this for themselves. And I realize that my desire for them to grapple with these spaces is directly related to my reflections to CMS vendors. I want them to understand the meaning of these coded spaces. I want them to realize that there are corporate, political, and social forces that inhabit this code. I want them to understand that they are not Google’s customers — they are its products. I want them to recognize that all digital systems are composed of patterns that someone has identified and codified. I want them to question those patterns and consider their own patterns — and then I want them to attempt to codify those, too. Perhaps not forever, but at least for a semester. I would like to think that they will walk away from this course with a deeper understanding of the digital spaces they inhabit, but, more importantly, I would like them to walk away with a messy set of questions that will plague them as they continue to grapple with these spaces.