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Ready for Anything with Internet Technology? Aim High.

A Q&A with Gardner Campbell

The Internet has been there to help us through these recent weeks, when virtually all colleges and universities have been impelled to conduct academic and business processes online for our health and safety amid the hazards of COVID-19.

Dedicated IT professionals scurried to assist teaching faculty, from those who already 'have it covered' to others who had been trying to ignore online opportunities for years. It will be a while before we're able to reflect on how we've coped. But a persistent question has emerged already: Are we really able to carry on the best values of higher education through our online presence?

Gardner Campbell, an associate professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University and a recognized analyst and visionary in technology for education, considers the question.

online learning

"Especially as we rely on Internet technologies in times of crisis, we need to focus on values." — Gardner Campbell

Mary Grush: During this time when institutions really must function primarily online, is higher education stepping up to the plate, not only in business processes, but also to maintain and promote our higher values? — Is my word "values" too vague or superficial to be useful here?

Gardner Campbell: Higher education has not only the opportunity, but also the responsibility to uphold what you are calling "values." And I don't think that word is empty, trivial, or superficial, at all.

Like any word, it can become a cliche, or be used for certain kinds of agendas, but ask any moral philosopher: The word "values" is a crucial word. Because in our lives we make choices, and those choices are inevitably based on values. When we make our choices, it's best if we are making them with as full an understanding as possible of why we are making those choices.

Grush: Is this something to consider in the context of how higher education sustains itself through this pandemic?

Campbell: Absolutely. In an ordinary time, these kinds of considerations — our core values — can seem very lofty or be taken for granted. In a time like the one we are living in right now, they seem, to me, to be absolutely fundamental and strategic.

We tend to put off thinking about these fundamental values. There's always a long list of tactical objectives. There's always a set of tasks and chores to tend to. But when the tasks drive the mission instead of the other way around, that's when the institution loses its way. And sadly, that's too often been the case with higher education and networked computing.

But in our response to COVID-19, we can't put off thinking about our values in the context of surviving the current crisis. We are forced to act fast. So what were "academic" or "philosophical" questions raised by pesky people in the meeting room have suddenly — in the time it took for the novel coronavirus to cross over into our regions — become critical and time-sensitive value decisions that profoundly shape our everyday lives in the arena of teaching and learning.

I think about higher education as representing certain values, not just because we are in a position to do so given our privileged stations in an academic world, but because of our obligation to live up to those privileges; our obligation to society.

Grush: What are some of those values, if you chose to make a list?

Campbell: Higher education has always stood for certain values that I think are very important: Integrity is at the top of the list, along with truthfulness; openness; rigor; care; diligence; and an attempt to make the work we do as error-free, as thoughtful, as honest, and as authentic as we can.

We can get into endless debates about any or all of those words, but I think that most academics would agree with that notion of integrity topping the list. In higher education we hope to share a kind of unity of purpose and approach — a type of honesty and transparency about the work that we do.

That's what peer review is about; that's what being in a college is about, where faculty all work together — sometimes at odds with each other, to be sure, but also capable of coming together to produce a whole that's greater than the sum of the parts.

We are always concerned that the work that we do should not be cheap, it should not be disposable, and in some way, it should add something beneficial to civilization. It should contribute to equitable opportunities for human flourishing.

Grush: And so, by keeping integrity at the top of the list, are we led to many other values from there?

Campbell: Yes. And that central principle of integrity is one that we are privileged to uphold. We are in a position to lead the way with the intellectual record of the species. And we are charged with responsibility and stewardship of all those values — that's essential to our profession.

Grush: What are some of the implications of our use of the Internet in higher education, especially in a time of crisis like we have now?

Campbell: A question comes to us, of where the academy stands in relation to a global, light-speed telecommunications network with the potential, realized more and more every day, of reaching a substantial proportion of the human beings on this planet. The Internet has the capability to do, on a global scale, what communications platforms are designed to do: bring us together across barriers of time and space, barriers of language, barriers of ability and disability, of identity and context and culture… to give us a place where we can meet and begin, in new ways, to learn from each other and create together.

Grush: And to maintain higher education's cherished values while taking advantage of this technology for keeping afloat in a crisis?

Campbell: Yes. What the Internet has represented for me, for my students and colleagues, and for the world as a whole over the years, is an extraordinary opportunity to get to that central value of integrity, and to work together for the betterment of humankind and the planet we share.

And we all know about the ugly and destructive side of the Internet: surveillance capitalism, weaponized disinformation, predatory behavior on a new and newly destructive scale. We acknowledge there is difficult and contentious work to be done to mitigate these dangers. We fear that some harms may well be irreparable.

There have been people experimenting with open education for decades, but still, on a global Internet scale, they remain a determined minority, subject to well-meaning but ultimately narrow thinking by others who feel the need for control.

Yet the Internet retains the vision of an open society, of freedoms that are easily abused but just as easily destroyed—destroyed in the name of values such as security, ease of use, sustainability, and others. Good and important values, to be sure, but they must be realized within the framework of an open society. And where would higher education be in a scenario of threatened Internet freedoms? Obsessed with certain types of closed learning environments? And rather than entering an open Internet experience, would our students face an online environment that mirrors their physical lockdown? Or can we at last begin to think creatively about living, working, and communicating across multiple platforms, some of them closed, some of them open, within an essentially and gloriously multimodal Internet?

There have been people experimenting with open education for decades, but still, on a global Internet scale, they remain a determined minority, subject to well-meaning but ultimately narrow thinking by others who feel the need for control. So, our precious and amazing Internet is always in peril — and in any crisis, our responsibility as educators and stewards is heightened.

You could say: We have a moment here. We could avoid the usual, extend our creativity into the digital realm anew, learn one thing we might have been too shy or proud to try to learn before. Along with the necessary and beneficial hunkering down, we might consider a few tentative, caring steps toward renewing the Web. The opportunities are endless: online annotation with Hypothes.is — the patient and revelatory work in Wikipedia led by Wiki Education — or perhaps even hanging out one's professional digital "shingle" by at last securing a domain name and some server space for oneself. It's easier than ever to record and edit video and audio. One can even reinforce the day's learning with an appropriate virtual background in Zoom. In fact, in my introductory film class this semester, I pick an interesting scene from the movie we're studying, and use it for my virtual background — putting myself into the world of the film as I lead my students through that world. And they can do it too.

None of these things will necessarily work. Any of them may work. Success in teaching, as in most areas of life, depends on many variables. But the spirit of the best of the Internet, the values of collaboration, openness, trust, and courageous creativity can and should inform all the work we do in this environment. Now's the time to uphold those values, and to renew them during a difficult but, I hope, instructive time.

Grush: So even as we rely on our Internet technologies to keep our institutions on track through the disruption of the pandemic, we need to focus on the higher values of what we do?

Campbell: Especially as we rely on Internet technologies in times of crisis, we need to focus on values. And always, always: Aim high. Our students deserve no less.

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