Blog Post

HASTAC 2010, Grand Challenges and Global Innovations: "The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age"

This podcast interview features Cathy N. Davidson (Duke University) and David David Goldberg (UCHRI), who discuss "The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions in a Digital Age."  Their conversation focuses on how and why to reform higher education to take advantage of new ways of learning and thinking.  This important conversation considers digital literacy, digital assessment and digital communities in the 20th century classroom.  As Cathy and David show, digital tools can facilitate more complex and more collaborative ways of thinking for our students.


HASTAC members generated questions in advance of the interview and participated in a live googlewave chat during and after the conversation.  The following is more paraphrase than direct quotation; see for the video interview.


QUESTION: The White House recently asked the public via social media, what does 2oth century learning mean to you?  The same issue seems to be addressed by organizations like HASTAC, and by Cathy and David's new book The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age (2010). Why frame the conversation in terms of thinking rather than learning? 

CATHY: Education, learning, and thinking are separate things, but in many ways thinking encompasses the other two.  Moreover, thinking includes both informal online learning and formal digitally-engaged education.  The digital age offers us new ways of thinking: collective thinking, collaborative thinking, experiential thinking. 

DAVID: We tend to think about the technical aspects of learning, like reading, writing, and arithmetic; part of our goal is to broaden the purview in order to think about other modes of learning, such as judgment, reflection, etc.  We need to consider how one does things, and not just in a technical way. 

CATHY: In writing our book, we experienced this new form of collaborative digital thinking first-hand: a draft of the book was posted online, open for comment.  The final draft included feedback from readers from all around the world.  In the process of writing the book, we experienced a new kind of thinking, in which people contribute to a collective whole.

DAVID: When we think about thinking, we think of either philosophical hermits hidden in a library carrel or we think of a face-to-face mode of exchange.  What happens to the transformation of thinking itself when we think with others but at a distance, neither in the mode of solitary nor social thinking?  There are alienation effects, but there are also new innovations in how we think and learn.

QUESTION: How do we deal with multitasking, info abundance, and attention in a digital age?

CATHY: When you focus on one task, you don't notice whats going on around you.  Our attention is so selective that we edit out enormous parts of the world, including (in one famous study) a woman walking around in a gorilla suit.  New tools allow us to see new things; the disruptive tools we use can disrupt us in productive ways.  In writing this book, we were disrupted; but oftentimes, these disruptions allowed us to see new things we didn't used to see.

DAVID: New ways of seeing and thinking open things up, but you also close other things down.  People in a room together are all looking at their PDAs and mobile technologies and they are unaware of each others presence.  There is an opening up of genuinely new possibilities--but its always one step forward, one step back.

CATHY: Different people see different things.  What we need is a way to find the best way to profit from multiple points of view, because ultimately none of us can see everything all of the time. 

QUESTION: 20th century learning confronts the issue of literacy; we can't possibly teach all these things.  What is the future of literacy in our learning institutions?  

DAVID: Reading, writing, arithmetic, historical knowledge, content based knowledge some of the necessity of these items are being replaced by technology.  Content knowledge is no longer as essential as it used to be.  You can look anything up online.  The issue of knowing who and what to trust, however, becomes more important.  We're facing two shifts right now.  One shift is from knowing that to knowing how; we need to know how to find things online.  The second shift is moving, importantly, to learning about what amounts to wise judgment.  How does one differentiate between sources?  What can we trust as authoritative?  We live in a world where we are taught not to trust anything around us.  It is not easy to teach wise judgment. 

CATHY: I've been talking about 20th century literacy this week in my class, particularly in terms of multimedia collaborative projects.  The Internet is so engrained in my students thinking, that they don't see how dependant they are on it.  But someone asked, what if you tried to do this project without the Internet?  And suddenly blase students looked terrified--they didn't know how to begin to think about how to find knowledge without the Internet.  They thought they knew what they were talking about, but they didn't get it until they tried to think about a world without digital technology.  What are the sources of knowledge without the Internet? 

DAVID: The notion and nature of literacy itself is at stake here.  Literacy is the capacity to read, understand, comprehend, but it is also a self-reflexive capacity.  The failure to understand what it means to be digitally literate means you probably aren't fully digitally literate.  Until you can reflect on what digital literacy means, you can't claim to have it.  It wasn't like technology didn't exist before digital technology; it just took different forms with the digital age.  It requires a different sense of self-reflexivity about these new forms.

CATHY: Self-reflexivity is one of the reasons we formed HASTAC to being with--that's what the humanities can contribute to the digital age.  You need to have self-reflexivity about your place in the system, and humanities departments teach that kind of thinking.

QUESTION: When we have so much knowledge literally at our fingertips, what does this mean for assessment?  How do you assess literacy when you have such easy access to information?

CATHY: I'm negative about No Child Left Behind because it replaces high standards with standardization.  Standardization becomes a substitute for high standards; standardization becomes an end in itself.  But lately I've become more empathic.  How DO you measure what kids are doing?  How do you measure how well they search on the Internet?  How do you measure associative, iterative, process oriented learning, except experientially?  How do you measure how a student will apply their knowledge, or how they will succeed in the world?  There is no way to test this kind of thinking.  NCLB is less a failure than a tragic plea for help.  We all need to think about what next generation of assessment will be.  Americans test more than anyone; were the testing-est people on earth.  It's a cry for help.  What would be a better way of assessing what were learning, both in grade school and college?

DAVID: We tend to rely on outcome.  The shift from knowing what to knowing how also means a shift from assessing measurement to assessing processes.  Often, we learn as much from a process as we do from the conclusion, so we need to be able to measure that process.  The question is if we are able to use failure to solve a problem, to learn something from it, to learn a way to do better and be more successful.  Also, we tend to assess our students based on individualized testing, but how do you assess a collaborative undertaking?  Not just the outcome, but the collaborative input itself?  This is important but hard to do.  I gave my grad students an opportunity to design a collaborative project instead of writing a final paper, and they came up with a syllabus for an undergraduate course on money and the California school system.  In terms of collaborative interaction and what they got out of learning from each other, it's hard to measure but easy to see the impact.

CATHY: I know a 6th grade teacher who asks students to make what they learned that week "real."  They have to apply specific lessons, and they work together to come up with a plan.  Even for these young kids, they can apply learning and see how it plays out in society.  It would be impossible to test something like that in a multiple choice test. 

DAVID: How do you assess those kinds of contributing forms of engagement?  The very notion of contribution, adding capacity for others, expanding one's own capacity via interaction with others, is too subtle to capture with traditional forms of assessment.

QUESTION: Are we just beginning to learn how to work collaboratively? 

CATHY: We've always collaborated.  Building a model T, working at IBM, these are all collaborative.  What might be distinctive about digital collaborations is how you collaborate with people you may only know coincidentally online, and who you might only know via this online interaction.  It is a rare thing to work in a sustained way with people we know so little about.  We can't assume everyone has access to Internet or that people have common interest in solving a problem--we all come to the table with different languages, different methods, different objectives.  All that has to be negotiated online.  We're just learning what that means.  The Internet was invented by a small group of scientists, but the whole point of the World Wide Web was to have lots of control over your own space and very little control over the big picture.  The free form of the Internet has always been both its strength and its weakness.  We'll be groping with this forever.  We'll always have to find process-oriented ways of finding solutions with disparate contributors.

DAVID: Collaboration means laboring together to a common end.  The common end is a bigger issue than the labor.  Assessment has assumed that the end produced is what you assess; whereas, collaboration is really about working things out together in a way that is mutually and coherently productive.  In the humanities, we tend to repress the kind of collaboration that goes into producing the traditional form of an article or book.  But if you read the acknowledgements page in any book, it includes a very long list of librarians, parents, dogs who have contributed to the process.  What this demonstrates is that even in an individualized discipline, like the humanities, there is considerable collaboration in the input, even if there is less collaboration in the output.  The understanding of the formative nature of that early collaboration is a stepping stone to understanding the new forms of collaboration.  These new forms of collaboration have an interesting way of dealing with problems: someone has a problem to solve, and they put out a notice; they might get 10 responses, and those people become a collaborative network to help resolve the problem.  It becomes problem driven, thematically driven, challenge driven.  Networks form in or around these transforming sets of problems over time, and this is a very different mode of production than solitary work in the silence of a lab. 

CATHY: The Mozilla Manifesto is one remarkable example of a collaborative constitution, and it directly addresses the trust relations and implied institutional relations that emerge from these spontaneous or voluntaristic problem-solving communities.  In my class, I ask my students to compare this document to Hobbes, Hume, Haitian revolutionary documents and the US Declarations of Independence.  What terms are involved in all these documents?  The Mozilla Manifesto authors are really the collaborative philosophers of our time.

QUESTION: The White House response to 20th century learning emphasizes three items:  create, collaborate, communicate.  When I think about collaboration in a traditional classroom setting, I have a hard time figuring out what the learning institution looks like that will support the kind of thinking you're talking about.  What is the role of an institution to support this kind of thinking?

DAVID: Institutions like universities and schools can't continue to work in their traditional modes anymore.  Institutions should mobilize people into various kinds of organizational relations to produce new forms of thinking.  I'm writing about the politics of walls; they're crumbling, reshaping themselves in new ways in the face of these challenges.  The classroom looks different; it is more virtual.  Second Life becomes an extension, a supplement to the classroom, or maybe even the first-order classroom.  These engagements between virtual/material, local/global, here and now/there and then change things radically.  Thinking, like production, is going on 24/7.  You turn off your computer, but someone somewhere is working, and you wake up and your project has changed.  Institutional life has to respond to challenges or they'll become obsolete.

CATHY: You list create, collaborate and communicate, but critique is the missing item.  Critique of and in an institution is part of what makes it an institution.  There is more heterogeneity in an institution than you'd think, and a clash of heterogeneities is what creates change.  It's harder to change a structure than individual habits/behaviors; the structures of institutions inherently resist change in order to preserve stability.  But the forms of critique are in the institutions themselves.

QUESTION: We talk about new ways of thinking based on the kinds of changes that these new technologies have made possible.  Should students be allowed to bring technology into the classroom? 

CATHY: I can't imagine going into a classroom and telling students they can't bring computers.  I often have them do funny things--we built something with computers, physically, to discuss the materiality of computers: their environmental impact, durability, brand naming, cost all the physical affordances when they're turned off and become lumps of machinery.  Or, I ask them a question and let them look online and compare what they've found in order to start discussion.

DAVID: It's about the self-reflexivity that's crucial to literacy.  Technological media are a medium of production, a medium of exchange, a medium of knowledge they shape and enable the sharing of these things.  They inform, by which I mean they both form and provide knowledge content. Forms of media have a temporality; they close off certain possibilities as they open others.  There is a moment in the classroom to disable the technology, just as there is a time to use it.  We can shape how our students engage with technology in a way that enables us to pursue the aims of the class.  It just depends on what the class is.

CATHY: I have a friend who teachers a computer literacy and attention class, and this teacher begins the first day of class by asking students to close their computer, close their phone, and close their eyes.  After they sit there for five minutes, they realize how little they are uninterrupted.  This experience gives new freshness to opening their computer, opening their phone, and opening their eyes.



During and following the interview, a googlewave chat allowed audience members to discuss the conversation.  I have included a few highlights from that discussion below:

One way I've begun to find a way past screen-induced passivity in the physical classroom is to ask students using laptops to engage in a parallel discussion of our classroom topics via twitter or meebo, a parallel conversation I share onscreen with the class during discussion breaks or pauses.



I also like the parallel discussion method but some students find that difficult so it seems as if one thing that the present era makes explicit is something we have long known: that there are many different styles of learning and attention. I personally can barely sit through a lecture. And in my original field of literature, the method is to stand up and read, word for word, the paper you have written and for every one person who does that with some consideration that there is an audience there are 100 who think we are not there and, frankly, I tune out (without even a mobile phone), too. So the point is attention is variable but, as with all cognition, we focus on what is different from our pattern rather than going back to the baseline of asking "what is attention anyway?"



Thanks, Cathy and David, for an engaging and thoughtful talk. I'm especially interested in what you were both saying about the physicality/materiality of the computer itself within the classroom; the laptop, in particular. Of course, much has been written and discussed about the effects of internet use on the attention spans of the (so-called) "digital natives". I'm not opposed in general to laptop use in class, mostly because it seems inevitable, and there are so many valid pedagogical goals that we can best meet with computers in the classroom. Yet there does seem to be a sort of passivity that comes over some of my students when they begin to interact with their screens...perhaps a result of the passivity they've learned from contact with other types of screens (television, film). I'd love to hear what you or others have to say about keeping computer use in class lively, direct, positive and useful--busting out of that passive viewing mode they are often lulled into.



Thanks for writing. Actually I'm in conversation with someone who is doing a study of attention not as we perceive it among younger people but as they perceive it and they find themselves paying far LESS attention, in her survey work, when they are listening (and bored) versus when they feel they are using media to keep them alert. This parallels research in the 1980s with truck drivers, life guards, and others having trouble with high boredom jobs that require instant reflexes. The solution then: talk radio! I'm being a bit facetious but not much. The passive staring faces, though, is an issue and I'm not sure how to get around that except that I ask my students to be Google Jockeys and am constantly doing a patter where I will say, someone Google that and tell us what you find, so I make the affordance of the computer part of the thought process in the class.





We've had a century of training in the discrete separation of what does or does not constitute attention to task that makes us divide up "work" and "not work" and "attention" and "not attention" that aren't anything like "natural"--that is not how a new born sees the world and it is tremendously various from culture to culture. But capitalism and the assembly line and the work place are all requiring of a certain kind of attention and we have perfected institutions of education and work that, for a hundred years, trained us to a particular way of seeing. The modern office building is the same. So now we are seeing tremendous variations in this way of seeing but we do not have corresponding institutional change. So we feel and perceive and pay attention to the disparity without realizing that there are many other things we could be paying attention to. Difference is what gets our goat and thus gets our attention.



Wondering though whether you're saying that we need to revise our views perhaps of what constitutes "paying attention" in the classroom or other institutional settings? Of what "full" or "good" attention is?



Because that makes a lot of sense to me, just instinctively...someone sitting in on one of my classes recently remarked afterward about how strange it was to see all those laptops open with pages of notes, the course web site, AND e-mail and other nonsense going on. And I stopped to think, should I be bothered by this? Because I'm almost always, or often, very happy with my students' work.



I think we need to revise our idea of attention everywhere where we feel agitated, out of step, or where we're beating ourselves up about not doing a good job, that we're multitasking and not doing well at it and so forth. Whenever we feel like we're failing or that our students are, then I wish a gigantic emoticon came up to smile peacefully and remind us that we are in a transitional moment when lots of our reflexes now have to be thought and rethought.




Biographical information about the speakers, cited from the session googlewave (!w%252BpJcfy7ZkZ7):

Cathy N. Davidson's work for the last decade has focused on the role of technology in the twenty-first century. In 2002, she co-founded HASTAC and currently administers the annual HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition, part of the $50 million MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning Initiative. Her MacArthur research (with another HASTAC co-founder David David Goldberg) will be published as The Future of Learning by MIT Press in 2009, and Davidson blogs regularly as Cat in the Stack at Davidson served as Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke and helped create Duke's Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. Her next book, The Rewired Brain: The Deep Structure of Thinking in the Information Age is forthcoming from Viking Press. Davidson is the author or editor of some eighteen books on wide-ranging topics including technology, the history of reading and writing, literary studies, travel, Japan, Native American writing, electronic publishing, and the future of learning in a digital age. Her Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America (Oxford UP) is a widely-praised study of mass literacy and the rise of American democracy. She is currently the Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English and the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University.

David Theo Goldberg, Ph.D., is the Director of the University of California Humanities Research Institute, the University of California system-wide research facility for the human sciences and Davidretical research in the arts. He also holds faculty appointments as Professor of Comparative Literature and Criminology, Law and Society at UC Irvine, and is a Fellow of the UCI Critical Davidry Institute. Professor Goldberg's work ranges over issues of political Davidry, race and racism, ethics, law and society, critical Davidry, cultural studies and, increasingly, digital humanities. Together with Cathy Davidson of Duke University, he founded the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC) to promote partnerships between the human sciences, arts, social sciences and technology and supercomputing interests for advancing research, teaching and public outreach. Currently, with Mimi Ito he is leading the building of the MacArthur-UCHRI Research Hub in Digital Media and Learning at UC Irvine, an on-site and virtual research facility designed to promote field-building in the area.





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