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Higher Education in the Digital Age
Date Reviewed: April 23, 2015
What is the unique value of higher education? What is effective instruction? Is there a cost crisis that is threatening the value and efficacy of higher education? Can technology offer a solution? These are a few of the questions posed by William Bowen and others in Higher Education in the Digital Age. This readable and thought-provoking book consists largely of lectures delivered by Bowen at Stanford University in 2012. The discussion of these issues is expanded to include other voices of leadership in higher education, all of whom contribute responses to Bowen’s original lectures.
Bowen addresses the pressures facing university administrators who must balance all aspects of post-secondary education: cost to students, quality of education, financial support of research, and costs of personnel. The first two of three sections are lectures Bowen delivered at Stanford. The first lecture describes the economic issues facing institutions of higher education, including problems of affordability and the lack of productivity-increases in higher education compared to other industries. The second lecture implores leaders in higher education to address the dual issues of rising tuition and rising expenditures and to, at the very least, try to slow the rates of increase. His possible solutions look to technology (online or hybrid instruction) to increase productivity. In so doing, he opens up a larger discussion on what qualifies as actual learning and what costs (to quality of education and to funding for development and implementation) are acceptable.
The discussion among higher education leaders and administrators in the third section of the book is its greatest value. The discussion hits on many of the economic and societal issues Bowen brings up: the flattening of family incomes, rising tuition rates, issues of completion rates, the pros and cons of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), and issues raised by the existence of for-profit degree-granting institutions. All of the authors come from top tier research institutions: Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, and Princeton. One wonders how different the conversation would be if more publicly-funded universities, smaller liberal arts colleges, or community colleges participated in the discussion. While some of the writers acknowledge this bias and seek to qualify it by examining data from other types of institutions, their solutions (that require a large amount of funding) seem removed from the reality at other institutions.
In spite of this limitation, the authors of Higher Education ask questions that invite reflection and conversation, given the financial situation in which many institutions find themselves. What value do we offer our students? Will the drive to increase productivity take that value away? Does technology offer opportunities to improve education while also increasing productivity? Can online learning maintain what is most valuable in a liberal arts education? The solutions offered are not a total fix (by the authors’ own admission), but the dialogue initiated in Higher Education presents administrators, faculty, and staff with an opportunity to rethink and innovate traditional teaching methods.
ePedagogy in Online Learning: New Developments in Web Mediated Human Computer Interaction
Date Reviewed: March 6, 2015
This volume consists of fourteen chapters designed “to provide a useful handbook on adopting interactive Web 2.0 tools that promote effective human-computer interaction (HCI) in ePedagogical practice for education and training” (xv). Each essay presents data for the consideration of educators and administrators who are preparing to be or who are actively involved in virtual education. Primarily, the contributors explore using Web 2.0 tools such as Blackboard/Moodle, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, wikis, and blogs, but there is much more.
The chapters are divided into four sections. The first contains essays to help the reader think clearly about methodology as it relates to the continual evolution of online education. The second section consists of essays focusing on differences between synchronous (everyone must meet at the same time either in physical or virtual space) and asynchronous learning (done on one’s own time, such as watching recorded lectures or using message boards to communicate with other students). The third section focuses on how educators might measure student development in a virtual environment. The final section is the most technical with essays dedicated to the use of software and online systems.
This book does not offer quick-and-easy steps for one to follow toward successful ePedagogy. It is dense, heavily technical at points, and it requires readers to set aside time to read attentively. An educator of theological studies will have to creatively search for ways to transfer information to their own setting since none of the essays are directly related to this field.
The essays are social-scientific in nature. The testing conditions and criteria are unique to each particular essay, taking place in geopolitical regions as distinct as Australia, Canada, Indonesia, Taiwan, the United States, and Vietnam. The diversity is promising, offering encounters with a wide-array of scenarios wherein Web 2.0 tools function. On the other hand, the principles offered cannot be understood in a vacuum without reference to context.
This book may be best used as an occasional reference. In other words, it is not the type of practical book one would read through in a few sessions. The most useful part of each chapter for the casual reader may be the list of works referenced at the end of each study. These short bibliographies invite further exploration.
In summary, readers will find insightful academic essays that will assist them in their professional development as educators in a virtual context. The essays are based on data acquired through rigorous research. The uniqueness of each case study requires the reader to actively sift universals from particulars in order to determine what information may assist them in their own work, and the technical nature of the book will require non-experts to familiarize themselves with much of the vocabulary.
The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University
Date Reviewed: January 30, 2015
The War on Learning is an important contribution to public debate on new instructional technologies and the future of the university. A scholar of media history and digital rhetoric, Elizabeth Losh clarifies charged issues with her knowledge of historical context and a talent for cutting through publicity to identify the most important facts.
In her first chapter, Losh describes how Good Morning America hoped to use her as “a voice of moral outrage” in response to online videos showcasing techniques for cheating on exams (19). To their disappointment, Losh was unwilling to paint an uncomplicated “us versus them” picture of how professors and students use technology. Losh’s thesis is that both sides are engaged in an “incredibly destructive war on learning itself by emphasizing competition and conflict rather than cooperation” (26).
In her second chapter, Losh uses her teaching experiences to illuminate the “rhetoric of crisis” around the status of education in our culture (46). As a literature review which explains key moments in a conflict that is wide enough to include policing of student Internet activity and calls for the end of universities as we know them, it is here that Losh’s thesis is at its most persuasive. In the third chapter, “On Camera,” Losh explains how the online sharing of lectures turned one professor into a beloved celebrity and another into an object of ridicule. The war on learning is a costly distraction from the “digital literacy and competence in digital rhetoric” that is professionally important for both professors and students (89).
The pedagogy of distance learning is reviewed in chapter 4 with the salient observation that the online lecture “often is more likely to resemble a traffic school tutorial rather than a compelling professorial performance” (109). Chapter 5 discusses “The Rhetoric of the Open Courseware Movement” with a critique of the optimism around platforms like Coursera and edX that is nevertheless respectful of their potential. Chapter 6 examines the technological struggle over plagiarism and the rise of Turnitin as a somewhat ethically ambiguous policing tool. Chapters 7 and 8 consider the merits of gadget distribution (for example, iPods and iPads) and efforts to create educational video games respectively.
In the ninth chapter, Losh lays out six clear suggestions for making the digital university “more inclusive, generative, just, and constructive” based on “two decades in the trenches” (224). Losh argues that knowledge of the history of instructional technology and reflection on learning as process rather than product should precede elaborate plans for the digital university.
This is not a book for professors seeking a step-by-step guide for bringing technology into their classrooms. Losh, in fact, mentions that she wrote this volume with college presidents in mind (14). I recommend it to anyone wanting a broader picture of how technology might impact the future of university education. With well-chosen case studies Losh provides a crash course on the history of instructional technologies and deep reflection on their implications.