​Do the Technophobes and Technophiles Both Need a ‘New Education’?

EdSurge Podcast

​Do the Technophobes and Technophiles Both Need a ‘New Education’?

By Sydney Johnson     Sep 5, 2017

​Do the Technophobes and Technophiles Both Need a ‘New Education’?

Sometimes it's hard to imagine change—especially when it comes to a 150-year-old system, such as higher education in the United States. But much of the system we see and experience today was designed, and perhaps it can be again. At least, that's what professor Cathy Davidson writes in her latest book, “The New Education.”

As director of the futures initiative at CUNY's Graduate Center, Davidson studies and thinks a lot about cultural history and technology. In the book, she outlines several ways that higher education as we know it was blueprinted and built. But even more, she argues for why an education overhaul should happen again, especially in the digital era.

EdSurge spoke with Davidson about the book and why she thinks a revision in higher ed is necessary, and how that’s tied to the increasing presence of technology and automation in institutions—and changing economic demands.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can listen to a complete version below, or on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher).

EdSurge: Throughout the book you tend to to put things into a historical context. I want our listeners to get a sense of what you mean by The New Education and how that came about from a man named Charles Eliot.

Davidson: In 1869, a major attention-grabbing article appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. It was by Charles Eliot and described everything that was wrong with the contemporary elite system of higher education in America—the Puritan college that had persisted from the 17th century onto 1869. It basically is answering a question: “What should I do with my boy?” It says, “he's not cut out to be a minister or teacher and the education you have at Harvard is just for those things and it doesn't prepare him for this new industrial world we're living in, in 1869.”

Well, that essay was called The New Education and it was so important that Harvard hired this young man—he was only 34. He was the youngest president in Harvard's history, and during that time he worked with many other of his peers on turning the Puritan college into the modern American research university. If I list all the things that he either came up with or used in this new system, I wouldn't have to define a single one because they're everything that we have today: professional schools, graduate schools, majors and minors, distribution requirements, admission exams, selectivity.

So specifically at this moment in technological innovation, what do you think makes us in need of a ‘new education’ again?

You can be a taxi driver and think, “how can they disappear my job,” and then suddenly you have driverless cars and Uber and your livelihood goes out the window. That's been true of journalists. The law profession has changed. Almost every profession has been changed in a very, very dramatic way in the last 20 years. Some of them have disappeared. New ones have come into being, and all of them have been changed. How we interact with each other in social life has changed. Our education system still has many of the features that Elliot designed for a different precise historical moment.

But there are so many different education models—for-profit, non-profit, small colleges, community colleges. What about the idea that it's been evolving this whole time? The current system probably doesn't look a lot like what Charles Eliot had designed.

Yes, there are many universities, and they've all been evolving. What has been slower to evolve are the hyper-structures under which universities exist. The big ones are credentialing, accreditation, and grading. It's remarkable to me that every day it seems there's some new rating system in America, and one system will say, “Stanford and Harvard are number one and two.” The place like where I teach now, City University of New York, will be way at the bottom of the list because we're not producing students who are making a million dollars or who had perfect SAT scores.

What's important about that is that we somehow think we can make one-size-fits-all in a ranking system. I mean, why should CUNY be even judged against Harvard? We live in a very complex society with many different ways of entry and many different skills that we all need. Why are SAT stats so important? Why is selectivity rather than inclusion what we consider important? Why is a major grounds for accreditation rather than the ability to mix majors in a way that better suits the world we live in, more than any of the traditional majors that were designed 40, 50, 60, 70 or 80 years ago?

It's almost like you're making the argument not necessarily for the new education but new educations, plural.

Exactly. Actually, I believe the new education is a multifarious education that recognizes many different kinds of intelligence, many different kinds of skills.

If there is one quintessential feature of late 19th-century education, it puts the credential—the output, the productivity, the measurable result—as the end product of education. I'm saying, in student-centered education, graduation is the beginning not the ending. What you really should be training students for is not to graduate cum laude, it's so they lead a productive life. You're training them not for their first job but for the disaster that may happen when their first job is in a career that suddenly disappears. How do you train people for a world where things are changing so fast no one quite knows what's happening?

In the book you speak to those who are turned off by technology and those who are overly excited. But for the people who are convinced at least that there's a use for technology in the classroom are willing to try, what advice do you have for trying to thread that needle?

I give many workshops every year for people in that situation. Not people who are the technophobes, for whom anything having to do with technology's terrifying or horrible. And not for the people who say, oh yeah, we're gonna technologize everything. I do a series of exercises where the only technology is machine-made paper and machine-made pencils. I show what difference there is between one way communication, a professor standing in front of the room or on a screen, and a more “inventory” technology, where every student in the classroom responds to some kind of prompt, discusses it with another student, and then presents that to the group or on something like a collaborative Google Doc.

What's different about that is it rearranges the relationships of knowledge producer and knowledge consumer in the classroom. The person has to learn that this works, and they're not being irresponsible or lazy. It tends to take every bit as much work, but it's a different relationship with power. That’s technology 101.

It's also about learning what the terms of agreement are for any technology they use. I have my students do Google Docs, then I have them write what they think are the terms of agreement are, and then I have them go look at the terms of agreement for Google and make a comparison. So, they're learning not only how to use technology but also how to think about technology critically, and what those issues of privacy and security are, not just in their classroom but in every aspect of their lives.

You have these two chapters, one about technophobes and technophiles, and it seems like you kind of straddle the two. Is that true?

On a personal level, I'm kind of geek. I'm also dyslexic. So there's simple things that I find difficult. At the same time I'm extremely skeptical of simply thinking technology solves a learning problem. I read an article recently by one of the educators at Google who said, “why should my daughter learn differential equations anymore when she could just put that into a box on Google and get an answer?” Well, she's not getting an answer, she is getting an answer, but she's not learning how to think like a mathematician.

The one thing, almost definitionally, is that learning is not automatic. If something is automatic, it's habit. You're not learning from your habits, habits are efficient precisely because you don't have to think about them. Everything about learning is the opposite of automation. So, I'm very ambivalent about educational technology because so much of it was almost bought frantically in order to seem like people were modern and not necessarily used with intelligence and care.

In the book you say companies must start from within higher education. What do you mean by that? Is that something that could be risky for someone who's trying to preserve a liberal-arts education?

I don't necessarily mean the companies start within [a college], but rather the needs, the desires, the outlining of what would be a good product. I think it's very important that higher education takes those things seriously, and it not just be the IT people at a university that are making those decisions. That it be actual students and faculty that are involved in thinking through: Is this a technology that works for us? What is our responsibility to and from this technology? How should it be deployed and in what ways should it be deployed? That's different than actually being responsible for making the technology. It's more being a responsible user.

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