Director’s Column: Innovate—But Don’t Forget Your Compass

By David Scobey, Director, Bringing Theory to Practice

A few years ago, as dean at The New School, I started a fellowship program for adult undergraduates.  The Fellows took a design seminar with me, focused on innovating our bachelor’s program to meet the needs of nontraditional students, and they served as peer leaders in implementing their ideas. It was a remarkable teaching experience. 

One of those Fellows, whom I’ll call Andy, was an online student in the Midwest. He identified as disabled; he attended the seminar by Skype and communicated by text, with a cartoon avatar as his thumbnail. It took Andy about a week to cure me of the well-meaning condescension that had me worried about “onboarding” a disabled student whose voice and face I couldn’t directly experience. He was warm, funny, smart, and utterly present. He used text deftly to contribute to the discussion. He was a skilled collaborator, writer, and media maker. And over the course of the year, he offered me an informal tutorial in online pedagogy and assistive technology: sending an upgrade to the classroom mic, for instance, or suggesting that we launch Skype early each week so that onsite and online students might socialize informally. I learned much from him.

But what was the lesson? It’s tempting to see this story as proof of the enabling power of new technologies, a tale of digital innovation enlarging our capacity for inclusive teaching and learning. Yet I’d suggest the opposite. This is a story of personal agency and shared values enabling the inclusiveness of technology. Educational purpose drove technical practice, not the other way around.

If we’ve gleaned anything from this era of technological change, it is that innovation yields radically contradictory possibilities. The same set of tools and practices that assisted Andy (and through him, the whole seminar)—digital networks, platforms for multimedia collaboration, the use of avatars and constructed identities—has also enabled the epidemic of harassment and trolling in online public culture. The same data-monitoring apps that point advisors toward languishing students can be used to “nudge” those students to set workforce needs ahead of their own aspirations. Innovations always underdetermine the uses to which they can be put. So the key question, for me, isn’t how emerging technologies will reshape higher education. It’s how our values and goals ought to shape our embrace of the new. Innovation opens up myriad pathways. The compass we bring helps to guide the routes we take.

Andy’s story underscores some of the core values and goals with which I’d aim to engage technological innovation. And not coincidentally, the values and goals of Bringing Theory to Practice offer much the same answer. We ought to privilege tools and technical practices that work to empower students (most of all those at risk of being marginalized or silenced); to thicken relationships among students, teachers, and mentors; to foster community and collaboration, connecting students across barriers of time, space, and social difference; and to integrate students’ learning with the whole of their emotional, family, community, and work lives. Conversely, we ought to resist (or at least skeptically inspect) innovations that work to attenuate students’ relationships with teachers and peers, to reinforce inequalities of access and voice, to silo and accelerate training in isolation from reflective learning, or to subordinate student aspirations to the needs and efficiencies of others (whether academic institutions, the government, or employers). These guidelines seem to me as salient for the health-tech student in a community-college simulation lab as for the history major researching her senior thesis online.

It’s clear, I suppose, why Andy’s story seems so exemplary to me: he used new technologies to make an innovative peer-leadership program even more inclusive and creative. Nor will it be surprising that I’m drawn to competency-based curricula that deepen teacher-student consultation—but am dead set against direct assessment programs that validate competencies based on teacherless exercises. Or that I’m deeply worried about the use of data analytics to algorithmically classify which degrees a student is “ready” to pursue—thereby reproducing social inequities of access. Or that I fear the isolationism of much online learning, the kind that gets canonized in advertising imagery of the solitary parent before her computer screen, late at night in the kitchen.

You may disagree with these particular value judgments, but it is imperative that educators make them. We are living through a Copernican moment of turmoil, risk, and creative flux, a moment in which it can be difficult to distinguish between a guiding light and a shiny object. It will take time, exploration, and ongoing conversation to discern which paths will advance the needs of students and the purposes of higher education, and which will stymie them. In the meantime, I think, the old Facebook maxim— “move fast and break things”—had it wrong. Let’s move forward, compass in hand, and make things.