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The War on Learning: An Interview with Elizabeth Losh

The War on Learning: An Interview with Elizabeth Losh

Elizabeth Losh’s 2014 The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University has met with considerable critical acclaim, and is both co-winner of the 2014 Donald McGannon Award for Social and Ethical Relevance in Communication Technology Research and winner the 2016 CCCC Outstanding Book Award. Losh’s text takes aim at mistaken assumptions about, and reductive approaches to, the role(s) of digital technology in the college classroom. As its title suggests, The War on Learning takes as its focus rhetorics and narratives that represent present-day college education as a generational/technological battlefield—the grounds where something like a digital war is being waged between educators and their students. Interrogating a diverse set of technologies—including lecture videos, podcasting, open courseware, and plagiarism-detection software—Losh troubles this vision of education. Ultimately, her work suggests that the stakes, dangers, and opportunities of the digital university are more complex (and more interesting) than traditional narratives often allow for.

The War on Learning accomplishes the difficult task of a) being accessible enough for those only now entering the longstanding conversation about technology in/and education, while also b) offering new and nuanced perspectives that promise to benefit even those who might think of themselves as “veterans” in the “war” Losh outlines and troubles. As a researcher and instructor committed to better understanding the histories and uses of digital technologies (particularly in and around education), I found this book to be a helpful corrective to the kinds of binary framings that too often characterize our conversations about technology. (“Technology will save us!” “Technology will destroy us!”) Losh shows that in one form or another, digital technology is already a lived part of our experience as instructors, just as digital technology is—in some form—a part of our students’ lives. The digital university is already our reality. The task we find set before us is to understand what this reality means, and to determine—as ethically and conscientiously as possible—how we should respond to it. Losh’s book is an important contribution to these projects.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Losh about The War on Learning.


Here is that interview:

[NOTE: Hyperlinks and brackets added by the interviewer.]

Reflecting on your background both as an educator and as someone who writes critically about questions of education, what texts or events have been the most influential in shaping your beliefs, commitments, or practices regarding education?

I think that one important formative experience that I had was that I taught college composition for many years, and later became a writing program administrator. I was the Writing Director for the Humanities Core Course at UC Irvine for over a decade. That was a really formative experience for me, because—like many people—I thought that people learned to write by error correction, and that people learned to write by being told what was right and being corrected when they did something wrong. And I think one thing that I learned from serving as an administrator in a higher education setting is that this is not the best form of feedback to provide—that corrective feedback often doesn’t really change behavior. And so what you see is, instructors spending huge amounts of time, providing all of this written commentary on student work, and students often just look at the grade and then disregard the rest of the work, and just sort of put it behind them. So, one of the things that it got me thinking about was, “How do people learn to write?” And the great thing about being part of Writing Studies and the Composition/Rhetoric community is that you have the opportunity to learn from all this research that’s been done.

So first, like many people, I encountered Mina Shaughnessy’s work—her best known book is Errors and Expectations—and Shaughnessy was very critical of the error correction model, because one of the things she noticed is that people actually correct the things they see as mistakes with different rationales. So locating how the mistake is constituted is actually really complicated, and involves a lot of knowledge about context, and a lot of awareness of tacit knowledge practices. And I also read books like Richard Haswell’s Gaining Ground in College Writing. He’s looking at this famous study that was done at Dartmouth, where they discovered that student writers actually got worse after freshman composition, instead of better. I mean, they did well in freshman composition, and then when they didn’t have writing courses anymore, they stopped working on their writing. Haswell was interested in the question of how students learn to adapt to different kinds of situations and how they write for different audiences for different purposes and under different forms of duress. And so, it helped me really think about how learning to write was really something that was shaped by audiences and purposes and participation. And when you’re thinking about how learning happens through participation, that’s a really different paradigm.

Of course, now there’s a lot research about what’s called “situated learning,” and I cite the work of Lave and Wenger in the book—they were two researchers who traveled around the world, looking at how people learned to do things, and they studied all kinds of things. They studied butchers, midwives, quartermasters, and tailors—all these different groups—trying to figure out, how do people learn things? How does it work? And does the traditional apprenticeship model actually rely on explicit instruction, or is it really more that people observe, they participate, they figure out the norms of a particular kind of (what they [Lave and Wenger] call) “community of practice”? So I have all these experiences thinking about writing programs. And at the same time, in the university, something called “the digital humanities” was being born. So I started presenting at digital humanities conferences at different kinds of international venues starting around 1999, so I guess I’ve been at it for a while.  And as this transformation was happening, where digital scholarship was suddenly something that had to be assessed, and evaluated, and peer-reviewed, and developed, even though it was incredibly technology- and knowledge-intensive, that I found myself gravitating toward these interdisciplinary research groups, like the Digital Media + Learning group, to think more about these questions of how people learn to do things through participation, and how people gain—just as they gain writing literacy and kind of traditional literacy through participation, they also gain certain kinds of technological literacy or code literacy or procedural literacy through participation. So that’s where I encountered the work of people like Mimi [Mizuko] Ito, and that was really transformative for me.


In many ways, your work in The War on Learning seems to call into question some of the terms and narratives we typically rely on when describing the university, and the roles of digital and computing media within that space. What are some terms or concepts you would like to see more widely adopted, abandoned, or critiqued? Why?

I think one of the problems is that too much of the decision making about instructional technology is being driven by vendors. It’s being driven by commercial entities, and often university researchers aren’t really being consulted when it comes to adopting new technologies in classrooms. But I think one problem is that the vendor rhetoric wants to oversimplify—really wants to turn how we think about instructional technology into a sales pitch. And it think what’s hard is that right now we’re actually living in incredibly messy times where there are mostly these provisional practices as people are negotiating new habits of attention, new ways of interacting, new roads of research, new kinds of publication, and things are likely to go wrong. Because whenever you have multiple parties trying to figure out new norms, there are exciting possibilities but there are also spectacular disasters that could happen. I tend to be very suspicious of people who are either cyber-dystopians or cyber-utopians.

So some of the terms I hate the most—on my list of “Most Loathed Terms”—are, I hate the term “digital native.” And part of why I hate the term “digital native” is that it borrows from all this language from the colonizing experience in ways that are pretty problematic. And so what it means to be “native” versus what it means to be “immigrant” is always going to have all kinds of problematic political implications. It also just is fundamentally untrue in a variety of ways, because college-aged student aren’t necessary fluent with new technologies. And if they’re given this label, they’re essentially told, “Oh, you don’t need help. You don’t need instruction. You don’t need mentorship. You’re already able to kind of magically do it.” And actually, as we have these user-friendly publishing platforms, sometimes students have less knowledge about things like, how to do simple programming, how to understand how an algorithm works, what are the constraints of a particular platform…. These kinds of technological questions get left out. So that’s one term I hate.

I also hate “millennial.” This is something I share with Siva Vaidhyanathan. I think that talking about a “digital generation,” as often is done, seems short-sighted, because it’s not that descriptive, when we have really diverse student populations who might have access to many different kinds of computing technology. We might have students who primarily depend on mobile phones for access to data networks, we might have students who have a whole suite of things. They have access to a laptop, which is a mark of a certain kind of socioeconomic privilege…. So I think I’m just uncomfortable with terms that involve making too many assumptions, and also I think that those generalizations get us into a kind of long history that we’ve already had about moral panics about use and media that I would argue goes all the way back to Plato and Aristotle. And certainly when we look at things like the comics panic of the 1950s, we might see some of the same hyperbolic concerns about moral decay that we’re hearing about with digital media.


Whether it’s in the form of classroom clicker quizzes or plagiarism detection programs, assessment technologies appear to play an important role in the digital initiatives that increasingly define the university classroom. In your estimation, what are the greatest promises and perils of present day assessment technologies in the college classroom?

I think there are many problems with using things like clickers…there’s an obvious problem in depending on clickers (and plagiarism detection software), in that students are not stupid and they know how to subvert the technologies. So I’ve written a lot about the creativity I see in how students cheat or subvert. I think the more serious problem is that if we’re designing education just to get good assessments, then we aren’t necessarily designing education that is really as substantive and as meaningful to students as it should be. I do agree with people like Kathleen Blake Yancey, who comes out of this intersection of Writing Studies and Digital Studies, that it’s important to think about reflection and how students understand their own learning—have a certain amount of meta-cognition about what they’ve learned. I think that’s really important in assessment. I think that it’s important also to think about how groups assess each other. So I think some of Cathy Davidson’s experiments with peer assessments are interesting. Although I also see that these things can go wrong pretty easily, and that students do have some desire for an expert in the classroom. They often don’t want a completely level playing field, because they want to feel like their tuition dollars have gone to support someone who has expertise that they can benefit from and who will provide mentorship and support, rather than have they [the teachers], just sort of say, “Hey! Discuss amongst yourselves….”


One final question. If readers of The War on Learning were to continue the work you’ve started, what are some questions you would like for them to ask? Stated differently, what are some areas you would like to see investigated further?

I think the most important areas to be investigated further have to do with this question—so, at the end of the book, I have a list of 6 principles for ways to move forward and use peer-reviewed research in ways that are a little more sophisticated than the rhetoric that’s currently out there about instructional technology. I think one of the things that’s important on that list of principles is the one about using the same technologies as your students. And I think that there’s a lot of interesting work to be done in having that work in both directions. So, in other words, a lot of what I talk about is, “How do we use mobile phones in the classroom? How do we use Wikipedia in the classroom?” So how do we use the things that students are using, and make them into research tools? How do we help students understand the norms of research and participate meaningfully in creating knowledge by extending the range of the tools that they’re already using.

But I also think the flip side is really important, which is, “How can we get students also using more of the tools of scientists or policy makers…?” I mean, there are very sophisticated tools in universities, and unfortunately, only small, elite populations of students often get those because of a lack of mentored research experiences. Faculty have a tendency to separate research and teaching. … Students aren’t just the objects of research, but can be the participants in meaningful ways, and in ways that allow them to actually ask the research question, rather than just have the faculty member do it. So rather than sort of separate research and teaching, how can we bring in our students as researchers?

So I think particularly in this time, when often public universities are under attack…right now, I’m teaching this course that’s cross-listed with Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s studies, and that’s a field that’s been viewed particularly suspiciously by governors and state legislators who are worried about the utility of courses they feel are more “politically correct” than vocationally useful. And I think that, in this case, we’re showing how the research university creates knowledge that the whole community benefits from, and how students are a part of that process I think is particularly important. 


[Biographical Note: Elizabeth Losh is Associate Professor of English and American Studies. She is also a member of the HASTAC's steering committee. The War on Learning is available in hardcover, eBook, and Kindle, and can be previewed here.]


1 comment

Liz and James, this is a wonderful interview and it is getting spread around a lot on Twitter.  Really engaged.  Liz, congratulations on such a fabulous book and on its awards and recognition. 


One small correction I want to make:  I never have students object to my student-centered peer review as a free for all where they have paid tuition and now don't benefit from expertise.  I scaffold it extensively and teach them the tools to becoming an expert.  Learning how to give and receive feedback is a key skill that engineers, artists, architects, and coders learn but rarely do we teach it to actual managers--and almost never in the humanities, social sciences, and narrative fields.  My students learn this, and read about evaluation, methods of analysis, what feedback is, how formative feedback helps, hermeneutic theories, connectivist and quantum computing and data mining as forms of machine-generated feedback, and the differences between machine and human feedback. 

Often the end product is public--like the book my students wrote together on peer learning, which has had over 30,000 unique viewers to its various parts: ... The end of the book includes the badging rubrics the students invented as well as the actual contracts for contract grading.