What If? Special Higher Education Issue

Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris at Hybrid Pedagogy askImagine that no educational technologies had yet been invented — no chalkboards, no clickers, no textbooks, no Learning Management Systems, no Coursera MOOCs. If we could start from scratch, what would we build?”

As the image here suggests, this reminds me of the What If? Marvel comics. The ones I remember from being a kid were from the original series where the Marvel character “The Watcher,” a kind of panoptic super-being, imagines alternate universes (e.g., what if Spiderman joined the Fantastic Four? Answer: we’d have one crappy film series instead of two).

I appreciate Stommel and Morris’ question as part of a grand tradition of sci-fi speculation. How much history would have to change to get rid of all of those educational technologies?

  • If the Union had lost the Civil War, maybe there would never have been a Morrill Act. Either way it would have changed the shape of higher education. Similarly a different outcome in either of the World Wars or fighting some limited, survivable nuclear conflict in the 50s or 60s would clearly have changed things.
  • Getting away from wars, a different outcome surrounding the Civil Rights movement or the Women’s movement would have changed access to higher education.
  • In a technoscientific-industrial context, we could ask what if the US adapted more quickly to the post-industrial, information economy or never became so dependent on fossil fuels in the mid-20th century?

Of course those are all wide-ranging social changes. For the purposes of this question, I think it’s more reasonable to try to imagine changes that don’t rewrite the entirety of world history or try to eliminate nationalism, capitalism, patriarchy, etc. (even if you’d want to eliminate those things, that just seems like a different thought exercise from this what if game). I suppose you could try messing around with the beginning of the computer edTech industry in the 60s or 70s or maybe intervene in the beginnings of course management systems twenty years ago or so. But I think you’d be misidentifying the problem.

In my view, what really defines American higher education is the 19th-century decision to model ourselves after German universities. It is that decision that shaped the relationship between scholarship and teaching. From there, one could look at curricular technologies like classrooms, semesters, credit hours, general education, and majors, as well scholarly technologies like journals, laboratories, conferences, monographs, and tenure. Then there are bureaucratic-institutional technologies like departments, deans, and so on. Those are the things that continue to shape higher education and no reworking of applications or gizmos will change that.

So for example, in my own discipline of English, none of the technologies Stommel and Morris, make much of a difference. Eliminating textbooks and chalkboards would make some impact, but even then I’m sure most professors in English would be fine sitting around talking about novels or poems without writing on a chalkboard. English curriculum and pedagogy is almost entirely unchanged from its form when I was an undergrad in the 80s, so you’d hardly notice if more recent technologies were gone. I imagine most faculty in English would be relieved rather than upset if the obligation of using a course management system suddenly disappeared.

Here’s a paragraph from Latour’s Inquiry into Modes of Existence

Instead of situating the origin of an action in a self that would then focus its attention on materials in order to carry out and master an operation of manufacture in view of a goal thought out in advance, it is better to reverse the viewpoint and bring to the surface the encounter with one of those beings that teach you what you are when you are making it one of the future components of subjects (having some competence, knowing how to go about it, possessing a skill). Competence, here again, here as everywhere, follows performance rather than preceding it. In place of Homo faber, we would do better to speak of Homo fabricatus, daughters and sons of their products and their works. The author, at the outset, is only the effect of the launching from behind, of the equipment ahead. If gunshots entail, as they say, a “recoil effect,” then humanity is above all the recoil of the technological detour. (230)

In short, rather than asking what technologies should we build in order to achieve an educational mission “thought out in advance,” we might instead ask what faculty and students might we build from the media ecology that we inhabit?

There’s an interesting “What if?” issue. Of course, the technologies will continue to change. As Latour would say, they are detours, zig-zags, work-arounds. And we (i.e. human subjects) are their products. We can surely ask to take a different detour, to work around a different problem, to build new technologies. But the what if question here is “What if we understood subjectivity and learning as a recoil effect of technology?” How would that shift our orientation toward higher education?