Technology, Learning, and More Wicked Problems

For anyone fascinated by the concept of wicked problems—those complex, ambiguous challenges that are not subject to easy or perfect solutions and that were a topic of discussion at the recent New Media Consortium (NMC) Future of Education summit in Austin, Texas—a book called Dancing with the Devil would seem to keep us in the right company.

Katz--Dancing_with_the_DevilWritten by Richard Katz and several of his associates for EDUCAUSE and published by Jossey-Bass in 1999, Dancing with the Devil: Information Technology and the New Competition in Higher Education is fascinating not only for the way it addresses the wicked problem of effectively incorporating technology into learning, but for how contemporary it continues to be more than 12 years after publication in a field of study that feels as if it is evolving faster than we can document that evolutionary process. The book also offers plenty of inspiration for anyone involved in learning—not just those in higher education—and can, in many ways, be a valuable resource for those involved in workplace learning and performance (staff training) programs as well as with libraries, museums, and other organizations with clear and vital roles to play in lifelong learning.

Dancing even stands out as another example of how learning expands rhizomatically in ways that are increasingly familiar to those of us exploring #etmooc, the Educational Technology and Media massive open online course (MOOC) that Alec Couros and others are currently offering. The book’s various writers anticipated, through the six essays they published in 1999, the very forms and themes of learning that #etmooc in 2013 is encouraging learners to explore: online, learner-centric/learner-driven efforts that are encouraged through well-run MOOCs; learning opportunities that are available anywhere and anytime that learners can access them;  “the need for new thinking about property rights, risk sharing, royalties, residuals, and other cost-sharing and compensation strategies” (pp. 44-45); and reminders that online learning isn’t necessarily or even inherently less costly than face-to-face learning—a valuable response to those who mistakenly promote online learning primarily as a way to reduce expenses (pp. 90-91).

Each of these rhizomatic learning tendrils can and will keep us busy for quite a while and leave us free to put as little or as much time into them as our interests and available time allow—something that becomes obvious as we read Dancing with the Devil with an eye toward how timely it remains.

James Duderstadt’s opening chapter (“Can Colleges and Universities Survive in the Information Age?”), for example, offered the prediction that “The next decade will represent a period of significant transformation for colleges and universities as we respond to the challenges of serving a changing society and a profoundly changed world (p. 1).” All we have to do is look at the expansion of online learning and the best of the MOOCs that have been developed since MOOCs were first offered in 2008 to see how prescient he was. It only requires one small additional step for us to be able to acknowledge that similar transformations are occurring are occurring in any learning venue.

etmoocHe also suggested that twenty-first century instructors would “find it necessary” to become “designers of learning experiences, processes, and environments”—something we see in settings as varied as #etmooc itself, library and museum learning offerings, and the best of workplace learning and performance (staff training) efforts. This is not to say that the transition is anywhere near complete or universally embraced—that’s why it remains part of the wicked problem we are exploring here and in gatherings including the NMC Future of Education summit last month. It’s still fairly easy to find articles asking why we rely so heavily on lectures and other long-established methods of learning facilitation in spite of evidence that many of these models are far less effective than experiential learning, flipped classrooms, and other models can be in the best of situations.

The virtual time travel that Dancing with the Devil offers is wonderfully obvious when we read the 1999 version of a few case studies Duderstadt (president emeritus and university professor of science and engineering at the University of Michigan) documents, and then revisit those studies via the websites that suggest where the University of Michigan projects are in 2013: the School of Information, the Media Union (now the James and Anne Duderstadt Center); and the Millennium Project. Further online searching leads us to yet another virtual program thriving in Michigan: Michigan Virtual University, started by the State of Michigan in 1998.

Duderstadt ends his chapter with a challenge that flows through the entire book: “Rather than an ‘age of knowledge,’ could we instead aspire to a ‘culture of learning,’ in which people are continually surrounded by, immersed in, and absorbed in learning experiences?” (p. 25)—and I suspect that efforts such as #etmooc show that we’re well on our way toward responding positively to that question and gaining a better understanding of the digital literacy skills necessary for us to function effectively and creatively in our onsite-online world.

N.B.: This is the twelfth in a series of posts responding to the assignments and explorations fostered through #etmooc.

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