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As We May Learn: Revisiting Bush

In July 1945, even before World War II ended, Vannevar Bush published an article, “As We May Think,” in The Atlantic that is considered by many IT leaders as seminal for the World Wide Web and perhaps, now, also the Semantic Web, uses of the Web that work in ways more closely resembling how the human brain works.

In re-reading this famous essay, I was again struck not only by its prescience, but, this time, by its essential limitations. For, in the end, beyond the cascade of technology imaginings, all he was talking about was a way to intelligently and efficiently sift through “the record.” The “record,” for him, was printed information, or, as we might see it now, knowledge that was already “finished.” He was really describing a faster way to find out what others had already worked on. His memex worked in the past tense.

And with this realization that Bush was merely describing the refinement of the age of print, we find the great mental puzzle facing all of education in the post-Web 2.0 era.

On the one hand, we have a wildly successful business model in higher education with tuition increasing as fast as health care costs. However, despite the success of higher education as an increasingly important, perhaps irreplaceable, cultural rite of passage, it is failing dramatically to adjust to its de-facto tools of the trade. Educators still primarily work within the mental barriers of the past tense.

Educators at all levels have not understood that learning is no longer about the past, as Bush’s memex was. It is no longer primarily about what has been said and done and described and proved, but, importantly, is about what is being said, and what is being done, and what is being described and what has not yet been proven.

Or, as Randy Bass, Assistant Provost at Georgetown said last month during the Association of American Colleges and Universities conference in Washington D. C. in January, 2010, higher education has for centuries been in the business of aggregating information, filtering that information, and then interpreting it for students. We no longer need the first step, Bass said, because information and knowledge is in process all around us. Educators now need to help students with just the last two steps, to filter and interpret this constantly evolving volcano of information by bringing them into the conversation.

To present “content,” something finished, is industrial age; to engage students in the active conversation in your field makes more sense now. Education is not about the past tense, but the present progressive (sometimes called “the continuous tense,” which is a good way to think of learning in this era).

It is more appropriate to our age not to work with answers but with questions. It is more appropriate to our age not to work with static content (read “text book”) but to help students create the content of the course. Trying to work with static content in this age invites, in fact demands, plagiarism--if you are giving students other people’s work then why shouldn’t they do the same?

If you instead help students create the content of the course, there can be no plagiarism because no one else has ever constructed your disciplinary knowledge in exactly that way: If a test question or a writing assignment asks the students to explain why Reginald or Julia made a particular comment in class yesterday, the answer is not on the Web. If you are working in the present progressive instead of in the past tense, then student answers will also be in the present progressive.

Almost certainly the shift to the present progressive instead of the past tense explains the growth of “high-impact learning experiences,” such as field work (or lab work), internships, semesters abroad, service learning, collaborative learning, experiential learning, authentic assessment, problem-based learning and many more examples. In all cases, students are acting not as repeaters of known content but as creators of new content.

The phrase, “delivery of content” is the epitaph of last century’s educational approach; “engage in discovery” is this century’s motto. When educators lament the learning styles of the young digital natives that populate their classes, it is not the students who are deviant or acting inappropriately for today’s world, but those very lamenters themselves who may still be “delivering content.” The answer to the digital divide between teacher and student is not to use technology as students do, nor is it to force them to learn in the past tense, but to meet them halfway: They work in the present progressive without disciplinary consciousness; you can work in the present progressive with disciplinary consciousness.

Educators need to change their essential process. Our methods must change because our core technology is no longer the book.

Edward Ayers, also at AAC&U in January, made an eloquent argument for the value of a powerful lecture. He’s president of the University of Richmond, an Ivy League caliber institution, where many lectures undoubtedly are powerful. I myself learned from good lectures when I was in college. A lecture combined with other high-impact learning experiences can do quite well. But a lecture every day?

Needed: A New Field of Inquiry

The irony of Bush’s 1945 article is that it marked not the beginning of a knowledge era, as many have thought for years, but the end of a knowledge era. We still have conversations around books but, as dynamic as our book-based conversations are, the books remain pretty much the same. A more appropriate conversation is to use books as only one data point in the conversation. A more appropriate conversation merges received and emerging knowledge into one text. The ground beneath our feet has shifted.

For twenty-five years, higher education has tried many ways to adapt to new media (information technology), to incorporate it into our learning/economic model, but we are still not out of the starting blocks. We have had one false start after another. On the one hand, we’ve put into place many of the technologies necessary for us to change, but on the other, we’ve used those technologies mostly to reinforce what we’ve always done (except for those exciting “high-impact learning experiences”). When I think of some uses of technology, I keep getting the image of using cars, when they first were mass-produced, to pull plows.

To help higher education change, during the first 20 years of the significant spread of technology on campus to all fields and all buildings, we created academic computing centers or offices only to find them turned to support services instead of innovation. We created centers for teaching and learning but they tend to, reasonably, just work with individual faculty members who are attempting new approaches using technology. And, in the end, despite the rare cases where programs or institutions have adapted their entire process to the emerging learning ecology, higher education in general is stuck in the static imaginings of Bush.

We lack a coherent and comprehensive way to study media and learning that would help us make wise enterprise decisions instead of the constant lurching we’ve sponsored during those 20 years. Where to turn for this new knowledge and wisdom?

The field of media studies primarily focuses on mass media and influence on society and culture. The field of education is ensconced in education as it is. Rhetoricians do study how language is evolving in new digital spaces and cultural theorists study the effect of technology on our culture. Science now questions its basic premise of starting with a hypothesis since that may be too limiting an approach given the wealth of data available out of which the hypothesis may emerge. But where is the field of media and learning that encompasses all this scattered inquiry? In particular, where are studies of media and learning since the 2004 tipping point known as “Web 2.0”? In 6 years, the world of information has exploded and, yet, if anything, interest in innovation around technology has declined. We seem to have retreated. Are we in shellshock?

Technology innovation on campuses, as many commentators have pointed out, has moved back to academic departments and programs. Since innovation around technology is once again an academic endeavor, we need theories and studies, a new conversation, about the emergent learning ecology to guide innovation. We need to be able to reflect on our own practices, not in the quantitative reporting “reflections” we do for institutional re-accreditation, but as in “month-long retreat starting with ‘what is our enterprise?’”

I was very encouraged by the conversation, formal and informal, at AAC&U in January in Washington DC. The profession is at least aware of the need for dramatic change and is even aware of the kinds of changes needed. Yet, from the perspective of someone who has taught with and theorized about technology and learning for 25 years, almost all the conversations seemed to me to limit themselves to “this is the problem and here is the data demonstrating that problem.” I was able to understand the problem as described by numerous presenters, but I kept waiting for solutions or initiatives.

We are lacking in spokespeople for, not whether IT works or not, but in what ways are our foundations altering because of the cultural spread of IT? What does it mean, as Bass said, that we should no longer be in the business of aggregating information? What does it mean that “high-impact” practices are gaining acceptance and adherents? What does it mean that the classroom is no longer “bounded” (Bass)? How does higher education address the new reality?

The field of media and learning would include subjects from educational economics to learning space design to new forms of writing, interpretation of data, and concepts of social learning. Bringing together theorists and researchers who are now working separately into a new field of media and learning (by whatever name) could help higher education make the century-long transition it must and will make.

About the Author

Trent Batson is the president and CEO of AAEEBL (, serving on behalf of the global electronic portfolio community. He was a tenured English professor before moving to information technology administration in the mid-1980s. Batson has been among the leaders in the field of educational technology for 25 years, the last 10 as an electronic portfolio expert and leader. He has worked at 7 universities but is now full-time president and CEO of AAEEBL. Batson’s ePortfolio: E-mail: [email protected]

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