Selling the Virtual KissPosted: April 24, 2011
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.