Selling the Virtual Kiss

The comments below were delivered on April 22 at the conference “CSU: The Next Fifty Years” for the panel “Instruction, Technology, and the CSU.”  These comments are in response to the tendency to believe that online learning will solve all our problems (budget and student access) in the California State University system.

First let me thank the California State University, Northridge  organizers of this event for their gracious invitation.  I would like to frame my comments on the future of technology in education within the CSU in terms of a real kiss versus a virtual reality kiss, perhaps between two avatars in Second Life.

The experience of a real kiss involves the proximity of two people.  What may be transmitted through this encounter is a sense of deep intimacy, connectedness and love or passion, depending on the two parties involved.  What happens with the  virtual reality kiss?  I’m distanced… I watch my avatar’s kiss as a vicarious voyeur. I imagine the experience indirectly.   In the same way,  I must question the quality of relationships established through the cyberspace interconnectedness of Facebook. Is the relationship of Facebook friends the same quality experience as a gathering of compatriots over a fine dinner with stimulating conversation?  Why would we not want to preserve, value, and enjoy both options?

The experience of a “real” teacher according to my definition is that of a zen master, who leads the student to a deeper understanding of him or her “self,” to a realization of his or her responsibility to others, to an epiphany about the meaning of life.  This can be done through any subject.  It is what we particularly try to do in the humanities when we are at our best in the classroom.  This is the fostering of wisdom about self and society as opposed to the simple acquisition of ‘knowledge,’ which also certainly has its place in education. Teaching wisdom is teaching an intangible as opposed to teaching to the test. Are we unknowingly abandoning our mission to foster both wisdom and knowledge through the seduction of a quick-fix virtual kiss?

Our love affair with technology is seductive. Some of us want to believe that it will solve all of our problems about student access in a budget crisis.  We can do more with less.  We can get rid of infrastructure — the commons of the university, its theatre space and physical classrooms, actual teachers — and save lots of money that way.  Others have done this already:  Phoenix Global  and Western Governors University (WGU) .  Technology can meet the challenges of an overwhelming amount of data production  and increasing student demand for ‘training.’  We can use open course curriculum and one monitor to supervise thousands of students as they pace themselves through the material at their own chosen time and place  with prompts provided along the way.  We can become just-in-time education on demand.  But can we monitor the production of wisdom and understanding, justice and a sense of equity this way? Are we being tested in our cultural moment of exhaustion and fear whether we will meekly defer our responsibility as educators to  vocational training and knowledge instruction in cyberspace? If so, we must embrace the role of the WGU monitor.  This could be done to save money and serve thousands of students who currently are being turned away from the CSU due to enrollment reduction and draconian budget cuts.  Is the virtual kiss now enough?

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,  the Lumina Foundation and other elite philanthropic luminaries have told us for years that we simply have no choice.  This is the new normal: more students, less money.  Gates has spent billions of dollars on a strategic  restructuring if the K-12 system through technology as part of the voucher/privatization movement in the bleak reality of the failed  No Child Left Behind legacy of the last Bush administration.  We laugh when the conservative school superintendent of a mid western state gets rid of teachers for the senior year of high school with the comment that lap tops for each student will be sufficient.   We have been entrained through the onslaught of anti teacher sentiment since the 1983 national report “A Nation at Risk” to believe that education has failed, that teachers resist change and should simply be replaced by technology, which can really facilitate knowledge acquisition more efficiently than a real person anyway.   The propaganda has made us believe that the virtual kiss is the only solution.   Let’s take a pause before the leap into cypberspace and online learning as the quick fix to fiscal problems and student access.  Let’s take a profound moment to reconsider what quality education may be in an alignment between the real and the virtual.  Let’s do this before we dismantle forever the very substance of what makes the CSU the great institution it has become.

2 Comments on “Selling the Virtual Kiss”

  1. It’s also in social sciences that we need extensive in-person contact in learning. For example, politics is something we best learn by interacting with one another. The intensity of conversations with speakers in the same room is what fuels interest and retention. In learning politics as in friendships, there is often no substitute for talking face-to-face.

    • Mark Wiley says:

      Certainly a virtual kiss will never be the same experience as the flesh and blood version, and along those lines, I also worry that in our push to make education efficient and economical that we are impoverishing the rich human relationships within which learning typically thrives.

      Mike Rose in his latest book, “Why School” uses a phrase that I think captures what I am getting at. In describing the support structures we need to help under-prepared and struggling students, he writes that we need to build networks of people, networks “thick with human contact,” a wonderful phrase that highlights the essential social dimensions of learning.

      We really are in a critical battle now over what it means to be “educated.” The term is highly contested and so much follows, of course, from who has control over how that term gets defined (and then implemented).

      Mike Rose has also noted that we need to re-establish the moral and civic foundations of education. This is a very important argument to make because the current arguments are solely focused on the economic advantage of getting an education and the economics of providing one. The education as “economic advantage” argument ends up re-defining all of the traditional values and purposes of education into economic ones. For example, knowledge itself has clearly become a commodity, indistinguishable from “data” and information (and who speaks of “wisdom” anymore?). Because education must be efficient, so must our acts of teaching, and teachers themselves must sacrifice teaching and support of students, work with students that is “thick with human contact,” for pedagogies of efficiency that save time and money but in which human contact is reduced.

      At what point does education, when it increasingly loses these networks thick with human contact, become something other than “education”?

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