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Strategic Directions | Feature

Self-Directed Learning: Exploring the Digital Opportunity

A Q&A with Gardner Campbell

Following up on a Q&A article published two weeks ago, about how institutions can be informed by their digital opportunities, futurist, highly regarded education thought leader, and Virginia Commonwealth University associate professor of English W. Gardner Campbell considers why we should explore our digital opportunities for self-directed learning. [Photo, below: Students examine 3D printing technologies at a Makerspace expo at VCU. Courtesy Gardner Campbell.]

"What does a learner need to pursue in any given course of study, and who determines that? The specific challenge to formal learning is finding ways to develop a richer sense of these needs within the learners themselves — this is essential for what we call self-directed learning.”  — Gardner Campbell

Mary Grush: Long term, will self-directed learning play an increasing role in student learning? Will self-directed learning programs eventually lessen the role of the institution, the curriculum, or the faculty in the direction of student learning?

Gardner Campbell: First, I do think that there needs to be an emphatic role for self-directed learning.

There will always be an impulse toward self-directed learning, and part of my job as a teacher is to amplify, and make even more effective, the students' disposition toward it, as well as point them toward more opportunities for self-directed learning.

But then we come to the second part of my answer, which is that while self-directed learning may establish a kind of ecosystem of its own, it's not an ecosystem in which learning will necessarily live up to its potential. And it's not an ecosystem that will necessarily bring forward considerations of what it means to be an individual in a community, who works for the common good.

So at some point, self-directed learning, which is now an absolutely vital concept in higher learning, has to be considered as part of a larger conceptual framework. The larger framework incorporates the institution, the curriculum, and the faculty that you asked about.

That larger framework should stress the role of expert-directed study and expert-facilitated encounters, especially in opportunities for self-directed learning.

Grush: How much impact might that have? Will this be significantly different from what we've been seeing for years? Or will self-directed learning and these new, expert-facilitated encounters you talk about allow us to "reinvent the university"? Will this type of framework help bring about the fundamental changes we keep hearing about in discussions of higher learning?

Campbell: Yes, at least in one sense: Students will have to be in touch with many different experts, especially those who disagree with each other. That's what will allow us to "re-invent the university". This is more radical and dramatic, I think, than it sounds on the surface — ultimately something very different from what we have today.

Grush: But is it going to be difficult for institutions to focus on that? Won't they just tend to support traditional, established teacher-learner models?

Campbell: The university, which already has become what Clark Kerr calls the "multiversity", may at first find it difficult to keep a focus on this core, essential activity of bringing learners into contact with a wide variety of experts who can offer different modes of learning experiences. You'd be right to ask: How will the institution facilitate a sense of just how big the world is and what the opportunities might be for learners to pursue?

This is one place where an exploration of our digital opportunities is badly needed.

Grush: What about the notion of rigor? Does there need to be some kind of balance between the learner's perception of what they need to pursue and the guidance of the institution and the faculty?

Campbell: That's a good question, but the answer may still be need to be drawn from the learner: What does a learner need to pursue in any given course of study, and who determines that? The specific challenge to formal learning is finding ways to develop a richer sense of these needs within the learners themselves — this is essential for what we call self-directed learning.

The learner, upon entering what we have as our classic four-year undergraduate program, may have some sense of what he or she needs, but that sense will probably be incomplete. It will usually be undeveloped, but if the environment fosters a sense of curiosity and intellectual excitement, there will be a kind of awakening for the student. And that light-bulb moment in itself is an important part of the adventure of the college experience.

The bottom line: Expert-directed study and expert-facilitated encounters will be a crucial part of the conceptual framework in which we find self-directed learning.

Grush: Don't most students already have that awakening you just spoke of, when they begin their college careers?

Campbell: Yes, of course, in many cases. In my own case, it was a primary part of the experience: being awakened to needs and desires that, at that point in my intellectual progress, I had no idea about. Before I entered the college environment, there was no way for me to encounter all this… where else would I find a place where all of these areas of expertise would be gathered together for me to experience? It is something that is uniquely valuable and present in a college or a university. The challenge now is to include rich digital opportunities within that awakening, and to make that light-bulb moment of essential insight available to every student in higher learning, not just those lucky enough to attend the most prestigious universities.  

Grush: It's really not a simple task to offer a self-directed learning program, is it?

Campbell: It comes with difficulties on many different levels. For example, offering self-directed learning means that sometimes we will prescribe things for the learner because we want to awaken a sense of possibility — but to the learner it may simply look like some kind of requirement to get out of the way. We also know that students who come from disadvantaged circumstances have a harder time with self-directed learning in many cases.

Grush: Then what do you do?

Campbell: Don't give up. Engage the student even more. They have a lot to offer us, too: The big question for me is, how do we bring the learner into our wider conversation about mission, conceptual frameworks, and the digital opportunities we now have to facilitate this very important aspect of the learner's awakening?

You and I talked about this conversation — especially including the student in discussions of mission, conceptual frameworks, and digital opportunities — extensively in our recent Q&A article. This conversation with students is what will help us eventually get to that balance you asked about, between the learner's perception of what they need to pursue and the guidance of the institution and faculty.

Grush: What is it like, though, to try to facilitate a really useful conversation on that level? What are some of the obstacles that might stall the conversation?

Campbell: There are some enormous obstacles, including the movement toward what I view as excessively rigid or over-prescribed so-called "pathways" through the curriculum. There are increasing pressures to declare your major when you matriculate. And then there are a few seemingly small or apparently superficial things that are so entrenched that you just can't move past them. It breaks my heart to be in a meeting as I was just last week, where new course titles were being proposed as ways of generating interest and conversation as students think about what courses to take. And, the discussion finally boiled down to, "Well, the titles can be no more than 30 characters anyway, if they are going to work in Banner." That's not a digital opportunity; that's a digital catastrophe.

This is the crossroads where operational and managerial concerns within higher learning collide directly with mission and values.

For me, mission and values must take precedence. To make any kind of progress in these important conversations, we have to think about the digital world in a different way, one that is not driven by vendors who are simply trying to solve all of our operational problems — the only problems they are aware of.

So, the 30-character issue is just one example of how solutions proposed from that type of perspective can cause greater, intractable problems.

This is what has resulted when we haven’t thought carefully about our digital opportunities early on — there are plenty of other examples. 

Grush: You'd think people would be lined up to discuss digital opportunities the minute they see a glimmer on the horizon. Why aren't there more discussions about digital opportunities on campus?

Campbell: There is so little curiosity about the idea of the computer or the Web within faculty development efforts. This is what you'll find on many campuses, nationally. It feels like, over the years, we just skipped that part somehow, and regarded computing and networks as utilities, as "tools" only.

I realize that digital opportunities can be challenging to think about, but they are present in the world we live in and the world we choose to participate in — the world we seek to have our students prepared to participate in, in a meaningful and fulfilling way. 

Grush: Is there something in particular you wish you could change immediately — a change that might help remove barriers to the conversations you’d hope for?

Campbell: There has just got to be a way to get beyond thinking of IT as a set of services and 30-character limitations! There has to be a way to get together — faculty, technology leadership and strategists, and students — on campus and think about our digital opportunities in a much richer and more robust way.

Grush: Is there a better way to facilitate conversations — maybe you could facilitate a conversation about digital opportunities by drawing on a specific technology that might help communication?

Campbell: I've always said that one of the ways we could do just that is to pay more attention to participatory culture on the Internet, the kinds of cultures Mimi Ito and Henry Jenkins have written on (e.g., using social media or blogging to start our conversations). But those efforts continue to be dwarfed by our bigger concerns about mission and purpose. In fact, I'm afraid we don't really have a foundation yet that would support clear and meaningful conversations.

Grush: Meanwhile, are there efforts underway to find ways to begin these conversations, even just to make a modest start?

Campbell: Nothing that would seem to be a way to take the conversation as far as it needs to go. And I don't know how we will do this eventually, but I do believe that we must.

Grush: What have you tried, yourself, to explore digital opportunities in your own practice?

Campbell: I have, for decades now, been working on ways to understand digital opportunity more richly myself, and to foster learning opportunities for my colleagues that would empower all of us to think more richly about digital opportunities as a community.

My two ways forward have been: first, to read extensively and try to get a broad sense of what some options for conceptual frameworks could be, while thinking about what some of the best questions to ask could be; and second, to try different things in my own practice as a professor.

I'm always looking for that Archimedean point of leverage, because I have seen in my work with my own students, that there are moments that call us to ourselves, if you will. These moments represent deep insight. The opportunity then, is to discover how to propel more, and greater kinds of learning from that insight.

Grush: What was some of your most productive reading?

Campbell: The reading that has been most influential for me, initially, was about the kinds of conceptual frameworks people had very early in the development of computers, where they were thinking about the computer as a communications device — a medium that had certain properties that we really had never seen before.

People who are familiar with me, know the reading list well: starting with Vannevar Bush, and up through Marshall McLuhan, and Adele Goldberg, Alan Kay, Ted Nelson, Brewster Kahle… and Doug Engelbart was one of my great shining stars. I generated an entire syllabus including these thinkers, over the years. [Photo, above: Brewster Kahle at the Internet Archive. Courtesy Gardner Campbell.]

Grush: Did you translate that reading into specific things to try in your classroom?

Campbell: I looked hard at several, specific points of practice within a classroom or course. Then I picked a compelling task and asked, "What if we changed — or added — just this one thing?" What would happen if that represented a decisive and really useful intervention?

Another way to put all that is: What if we have an encounter with a real digital opportunity? We need to discover the genuine ones.

Grush: What is a "real" digital opportunity?

Campbell: A real digital opportunity is one that presents the learner with an entirely new medium, a metamedium within a global light-speed telecommunications network. An opportunity to help weave the Web through narrating, curating, and sharing one's thoughts. An opportunity to create meaning through hyperlinking, a skill my younger students appear not to have anymore.

So, my work led me to identify things within the learning ecosystem that I could examine in this context.

Grush: What is perhaps your best, or favorite, example?

Campbell: Blogging. It requires certain habits of mind and public exposure, and it takes true advantage of the Web. My endeavors with student blogging have led me to think long and hard, over a period of years, about the open Web — some of my inquiries are actually just now coming into better focus.

Grush: What are a few of the questions you are asking yourself?

Campbell: I'm very interested in how valuable and productive a medium is: Does it promote certain kinds of recreated content? Does it incorporate readily available elements from emojis to animated GIFs, or subreddit discussions? What are people likely to do out there on the Web when they are trying to express themselves effectively? And, how can I conceptualize all that and fold it into my teaching and learning practice?

I have been trying to promote these questions to colleagues, too: What should we be reading and thinking about, and, what things might we tinker with?

The questions to keep in mind through all of this are: Are we reading things that are truly enriching our thinking and opening up conversations about our digital opportunities? Are we trying the things that are the most interesting in our experiments and pilot projects? We may not be there yet — but we should not abandon our efforts, and we should develop a sense of urgency about staying with it.

I'm on the record as saying that we had chance to think about our digital opportunities way back in the 1990s, when the early Web was starting its evolution. But, what most institutions did was simply to treat the Web as a utility for delivering content — as if that was the primary mission of the university. Well, that took the pressure off their having to understand the Web, but it also basically removed the opportunity at most institutions for colleagues to try to understand the Web deeply. I think this did great harm.

If we really want to consider the question of the digital opportunity of the Web now, we are going to have to retrace our steps and figure out how to get more involvement from everyone in higher learning — to get these very smart people thinking about, and tinkering with, the possibilities of the open Web.

We will need to do some strategic thinking about where and how to engage, but I don't want to leave out of that strategy the fundamental obligation that we have to be curious about the idea of computing and to engage in serious and adventurous ways as we explore the potential of the open Web.

Grush: How does all this circle back to our original question about self-directed learning? Has your work provided you with insight into self-directed learning?

Campbell: Absolutely. Self-directed learning is fertile ground for a fresh examination of digital opportunities. There are several other prime areas, of course: Libraries play a huge role in the investigations I'm talking about. And the way we think about scholarly communication is an area where we can raise consciousness about digital opportunities — simply because we urgently need to find ways to accommodate the rapidly expanding scope of scholarly communications and research materials. The list of areas to explore goes on, and on.

And while I don't think we need a complete overturning of all scholarly or pedagogical practice, we do need to identify the key interventions, and wean ourselves away from an automated, faux-personalized approach to "content delivery." We need to find a way past the FTE horse-trading that all too often cripples innovation in curriculum.  If we explore our digital opportunities with greater determination and greater wisdom, our efforts will ultimately add up to tremendous impact, both for self-directed learning programs and more generally, pedagogy, faculty development, research support — the list goes on — allowing us to take the fullest possible advantage of the unprecedented communications environment we have before us.

[Editor's note: Photos by and courtesy of Gardner Campbell. See also the Q&A article, "Informing the Mission for Institutions of Higher Learning," our interview with Dr. Campbell two weeks ago.]

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