TL;DR: Education must keep up with technology, and educators should help students build their own canons.
- Use current technologies to extend the classroom;
- Make technologies opaque so that they may be critiqued;
- Look to art to develop analysis and empathy;
- Help students organize information to create their own knowledge;
- Encourage deliberate affinity and eschew thoughtless identity;
- Foster a lifelong devotion to learning and participation.
In his book Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte faults today’s educational system with living in the nineteenth century. He argues that if a surgeon were taken from 100 years ago and placed in a contemporary operating theater, he would be lost, since science and technology have changed medicine so radically. The classroom, however, remains the same today as it did then, so a nineteenth-century teacher would have no trouble teaching in one of our post-2000 classrooms. Negroponte wrote this in 1992, but even with today’s computerized lecterns and “smart” boards, has the classroom really changed?
If the brick-and-mortar reality hasn’t, our digital environs have pushed the classroom beyond the physical. We no longer live solely in the physical world — much of our lives are extended into the virtual. Education must change to meet the new digital challenge and take advantage of it to rejuvenate and reinvigorate learning and teaching. Education should extend into “real life” to engage students where they live and work to show them there’s more to college than their practical goals.
Along with extending beyond the traditional classroom, teaching should also challenge the transparency of these places. Marshall McLuhan suggests that only through the critical eye of the artist may we see how media controls and directs our lives. It’s not enough to use technology to extend ourselves, but we must also be aware of the implications of these extensions. The tools of our lives must be scrutinized, not adopted thoughtlessly; in other words, teaching is about making the transparent a bit more opaque. Therefore, education should challenge, like reading a difficult novel. It should prepare students to puzzle through problems, to empathize with other life, and to appreciate the beauty in places they might not otherwise have looked. Literature is best experienced as part of a community; likewise is education. Literature allows for glimpses into the variety and subtlety of the world, and education should also reflect this heterogeneity in content and approach.
That said, the classroom must also be a safe place for taking risks, but not be a cloister. With digital technology and the ubiquity of devices, the classroom must extend beyond the traditional four walls. If students prefer to be online, then bring the classroom to them: use the network’s quotidian tools to enrich their lives in more meaningful ways. If Twitter engages them, use it for teaching.
New media encourages active participation, and education should ensure it’s deliberate. Many communities formed online are not done so through traditional means of social identity, but through affinity — shared interests that inspire passion and deeper understanding. By using these tools for higher education, students are encouraged to seek out what interests them about a subject — to find the expertise in communities that are passionate and engage with them for deeper understanding and broader insight. Digital communities also teach clarity of expression, often forcing deep thought with a limited amount of characters. Instead of killing the English language, communication online could help to strengthen it.
These digital communities by themselves are the first step. Bruce Sterling argues that educators have even a more important role in this brave new education: we must be “canon builders.” Educators have always guided students towards knowledge, but in these still nascent days of self-publication, democratization of knowledge, and social media, the is role is paramount. In an age where we are inundated with information, it’s the educator’s job to help students choose the information over the noise, synthesizing it into knowledge. In Toni Morrison‘s words: to be educated is to know what to “pass on.”
Finally, teaching less about the passing on of a certain knowledge, but about building a framework within students that encourages them to seek their own knowledge throughout their lifetimes. Teaching and learning ultimately take place within us as a lifelong passion for critical, thoughtful, and nuanced participation in culture to benefit self and community.