Sunday, January 25, 2009

The ethics of networked thinking in higher education 1.4.0

The internet is aplomb with student peer-to-peer communication, otherwise encompassing emergent forms of chattering, collaborating, document and file sharing, to name some. It is cyber conduct that university faculty and administration are beginning to contemplate and then worry about since most of it is happening outside their sphere of control. While some have taken these realities to predict a post-university world where the student becomes the administrator of their own customized educational experience, I focus rather on questions that deal with the adaptation or reconfiguration of the university's instructional program, under the assumption that universities are in a unique position to lend their resources, traditions and values towards a dialogue with a diverse field of emerging learning behaviors and initiatives.

An ethical question, therefore, ensues: with the internet beginning to play a much larger, more practical role in learning and intellectual production, the question begs as to how "isolated" versus "socially connected" students should be as they intellectually engage in their academic projects. For example, a typical college exam is an activity designed to be experienced in isolation. University curricula, across the board, already heavily bias individualism over collaborative intellectual work in undergraduate research and writing exercises. Even the exceptions do not necessarily defy the prevailing ethic; university sanctioned study groups ultimately contend with sharply competitive grading styles that still reinforce a personal, as opposed to collective cognitive, responsibility for the advancement of learning.

Despite this, no university in practice will conform neatly to an extreme "individualist" or "networked thinking" model of learning. This analysis first exposes the underlying, conflicting pedagogies that thrive and exchange under these exciting times of rapid technological change. For this, I will present examples of how different learning systems have come to interoperate and collide with each other in the watershed 2008-2009 academic year. What follows below is a breakdown of three primary ideas which explain the tension residing between individual and "networked thinking" pedagogies.


1. The imperative of measuring scholarly progress
2. Puritan conceptions of intellectual "laboring"
3. Notions of intellectual "ownership"

Networked Thinking's tenuous relationship with academia

Networked thinking, in its most general sense, is just one among several terms evoking the notion that people, interconnected by a platform that facilitates group forms of discussion, information sharing, deliberation, reasoning and co-constructive activities, can yield cognitive accomplishments that, in the collective, are more valuable than anything that could be accomplished through the sum of its constituent individual thinkers.

It has been researched and known with increasing conclusiveness since the 1970's that social forms of learning significantly improves students' ability to engage with and master their academic projects.[1] Learning methods that employ collective cognitive exercises have been embraced to varying extents by different universities. Almost always, these currents must be understood against the backdrop of 100 years of university instruction that supports, above all, an individualized learning and evaluative experience.[2]

This conflict of learning paradigms, which, on the one hand, forces students through a solitary obstacle course of the school's design, and on the extreme opposite end, fosters a community of independent and unfettered thinking and research, can be explained in part by the university's understanding of students' developmental needs and intellectual responsibilities throughout various stages of an academic career.

Tension #1: Measurement and Evaluation of Scholarly Progress

One of the main rationales cited for individualized learning is that such a strategy allows the academic authority figure to hold any student accountable to the "essential prerequisites" of a standardized curriculum. This student, whose performance is observed and measured, can be held back or pushed forward along a linear trajectory representative of the curriculum's learning objectives.[3] Because much of networked thinking involves distributing intellectual labor between multiple learning agents, there arises a logistical conflict when it comes time to monitor a particular student's progress since social learning clouds the boundaries of individual intellectual responsibility.

For those who cynically see the university as bending backwards to market imperatives and neoliberalism, one will find an additional explanation for the dominance of a pedagogy that curtails experimental social learning techniques. This, the critics say, because the university is doing a better job of training undergrads than educating. As the prominent internet sociologist, Clay Shirky, wryly noted in a conference talk, universities do not ask students to figure out the formula for hydrochloric acid because they need it to be discovered. Rather, he says, the university is giving students an opportunity to solve pre-fabricated problems, otherwise reflected in the term "learning by doing".[4] This intellectual sandbox pedagogy, for the most part, explains the difference between undergraduate work, which is highly programmatic and predictable and graduate level work, where students depart from such to produce ground-breaking, publishable thought.

It is no coincidence, thus, that graduate-level seminars depart from the didactive style of teaching, instead, encouraging its students to deliberate in free-flowing, social formats. The need at the graduate level for universities to compete in the marketplace of ideas, positions its students, not merely as learners, but as producers who are entrusted with higher-order cognitive tasks. Therefore, different forms of networked thinking are encouraged at the graduate level. Thus, seminars, co-authorships, colloquia, conferences, etc., are all staples of academic life beyond the bachelor's degree. Before this transition point, students are symbolically bereft of trust in their cognitive skills. If this fact is not being reflected by the fashionable moves towards pedagogies of social learning that are touted mainly within circles of educational theory, it is because in practice, the overwhelming residue of individualized learning theories lay manifest in the academic policies and syllabi of almost every American university.[5]

Tension #2: Puritan conceptions of intellectual laboring

If the first tension with networked learning relates to the practical matter of instructors needing to evaluate for student progress, then this second tension can explain a deeper, pedagogical contention that some educators may hold against collective learning practices. This same educator, incidentally, may favor learning modules that are centrally directed and supported through individualized school work. Bereiter and Scardamalia refer to this as the "Teacher A" model.[6]

In school, the greatest premium is placed upon "pure thought" activities--what individuals can do without the external support of books and notes, calculators, or other complex instruments. Although use of these tools may sometimes be permitted during school learning, they are almost always absent during testing and examination. At least implicitly then, school is an institution that values
thought that proceeds independently, without aid of physical and cognitive tools. In contrast, most mental activities outside school are engaged intimately with tools, and the resultant cognitive activity is shaped by and dependent upon the kinds of tools available.

to be continued...

Works cited

[1] Light, Richard J. 2004. Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds. Harvard University Press, May 30.

[2] John Seely Brown, and Richard P. Adler. 2008. Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail and Learning 2.0. EDUCAUSE Review 43, no. 1 (February): 16-32.

[3] Weisgerber, Robert A. 1971. Perspectives in Individualized Learning. F. E. Peacock Publishers, Inc.: p. 13

[4] Shirky, Clay. 2008. It's not information overload. It's information failure. presented at the Web 2.0 Expo, September 9, Javits Center.

[5] The excerpt below serves as an example of the individualist attitude resonating throughout policy and instructional documentation in American universities. From the Committee on Academic Conduct in the College of Arts and Sciences. 2007. Academic Honesty: Cheating and Plagiarism. University of Washington, September 4.

"Typically, students will create a detailed outline together, then write separate papers from the outline. The final papers may have different wording but share structure and important ideas. This is cheating because the students have failed to hand in something that is substantially their own work..."

[6]Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia, “An Attainable Version of High Literacy: Approaches to Teaching Higher-Order Skills in Reading and Writing,” Curriculum Inquiry 17, no. 1: 19-30.

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