What's Happening to College Education in the Digital Era?

by Catherine Ramsdell

20 August 2014

From MOOCs to Second Life to chairs that move, Elizabeth Losh discusses all things technological in The War on Learning.
cover art

The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University

Elizabeth Losh

(MIT Press)
US: May 2014

One of my favorite columns of the summer is Beloit College’s annual The Mindset List, which reflects “the world view of entering first year [college] students.” The list for the class of 2015 notes “Members of this year’s freshman class, most of them born in 1993, are the first generation to grow up taking the word ‘online’ for granted and for whom crossing the digital divide has redefined research, original sources and access to information, changing the central experiences and methods in their lives.”

The list for the class of 2017 (this year’s list) calls incoming first year students “digital natives” and further notes “The use of smart phones in class may indicate they are reading the assignment they should have read last night, or they may be recording every minute of their college experience… or they may be texting the person next to them.”
Thoughts like this should make clear why there are so many discussion forums and LinkedIn groups about teaching in the digital age. It’s brought about terms like cyberplagiarism, gamification, and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) (and a slew of other acronyms). It’s also why educators/authors have started penning books like Elizabeth Losh’s The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University.

Losh is the director of the Culture, Art, and Technology Program at Sixth College at the University of California, San Diego, and teaches classes like Digital Poetics. In The War on Learning, Losh examines different technologies—from email to YouTube to smart phones to virtual realities—along with some cultural phenomena (including reality television) and specifically looks at how colleges, universities, and individuals have used these things successfully and where they have failed. And while Losh may dislike the term digital native used in Beloit’s Mind List for 2017, the differences in technological aptitude play an important part not only in the success/failure ratio but also in the war itself.

Early on Losh explains the “war” aspect of the title: “This book explores the assumption that digital media deeply divide students and teachers and that a once covert war between ‘us’ and ‘them’ has turned into an open battle between ‘our’ technologies and ‘their’ technologies.” Faculty are armed with “course management systems, online quizzes, wireless clickers, Internet access to PowerPoint slides and podcasts, and plagiarism detection software.” Students have their weapons of choice, too: smart phones, social media sites, laptops, and MP3 players. 

And like most wars, this one has an element of senselessness. Losh contends that both sides “appear to be conducting an incredibly destructive war on learning itself by emphasizing competition and conflict rather than cooperation.” 

If this isn’t enough, colleges also seem to be under attack from the general public, which questions whether a college education is still necessary in today’s job market, and which voices concerns about rising tuition costs and “rapidly changing career paths.” And we haven’t even gotten to the tenure debate.

To be truthful, it seems like there’s enough about the “war” to fill an entire book, but Losh (primarily) moves on to other subjects by the third chapter. Here (and in later chapters), she looks at numerous examples, including some from her own classes such as having students Tweet during a lecture, her use of podcasts in a creative writing class, and holding class in Second Life.

Other examples, or mini cases, include an examination of Ted Talks, a look at Tim Gunn’s (of Project Runway fame) podcast series, and a feminist examination of MOOCs. She notes the search results of Googling “angry professor” and adds to the acronym base by using terms like DOCC (Distributed Open Collaborative Courses).

Losh includes stories from professors who don’t think college students should be able to access the internet during class and from those who are creating programs to help faculty members make better videos and podcasts. She also cautions against using a technology simply because it’s new and reminds us that things like email, moveable chairs, and white boards were once “new” technologies.

Losh is careful to present multiple points of view and quotes numerous studies and experts. Some of the information, such as the discussion related to Turnitin (plagiarism detection software), may seem familiar, but overall the result is a thoughtful (and relatively dense) examination of college education in the digital era. While much can and should be taken from this, Losh pulls everything together and closes the book with six suggested rules; some of which may be easier to follow than others.

Of particular note is the idea that “one of the realities of being a faculty member in the contemporary world is that one never stops being a student.” As previously mentioned, Losh includes numerous examples of how faculty, programs, and institutions are using digital technologies. Granted, many of the digital activities, assignments, and pedagogical strategies didn’t (at best) go as planned and (at worst) were dismal failures, but still it seems like the most certain way to fail is to change nothing at all and to pretend that colleges exist in some type of a pre-internet bubble.

The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University


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