Davidson, C and Goldberg, D. (2010) The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age Chicago: The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
The book itself is an attempt at collaborative, digital publishing, with early drafts made public for comment and suggestions, using ‘a new digital tool, called CommentPress, [that] allowed readers to open a comment box for any paragraph of the text and to type in a response, and then allowed subsequent readers to add additional comments’.
The authors (academics from Duke University and the University of California at Irvine) state (p.49) that:
This book advocates institutional change because our current formal educational institutions are not taking enough advantage of the modes of digital and participatory learning available to students today.
The book is organized as follows:
1 Introduction and Overview: The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age
2 Customized and Participatory Learning
3 Our Digital Age: Implications for Learning and Its (Online) Institutions
4 FLIDA 101: A Pedagogical Allegory
5 Institutions as Mobilizing Networks
6 HASTAC: A Case Study of a Virtual Learning Institution as a Mobilizing Network
7 (In)Conclusive: Thinking the Future of Digital Thinking
Over the first three chapters the authors make a powerful argument as to why digital technology requires fundamental shifts in post-secondary teaching and institutional organization. They dissect the weakness of the current dominant paradigm of learning based on ‘lockstep national standards and standardized testing,’ and argue for learning based on collaboration, networking, and self-learning.
Chapter 4 presents a fictional scenario of a collaborative, cross-institutional, inter-disciplinary program on – guess what – ‘The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age’, delivered via Second Life, and then proceed to demonstrate why it would be impossible to implement this program in the current university context.
In Chapter 5, the authors provide a new perspective on institutions which they define as follows:
Institutions are mobilizing networks. They aggregate, coordinate, disperse, balance, and adjudicate complex flows of resources. Institutions are also social, political, and economic structures prompting a culture of their own. They embody protocols of governance and varying degrees of control over their members. Institutions validate and impose norms, practices, and beliefs, seeking to ensure orderly interchange through normative interactions…..Institutions may occupy a primary site and exercise jurisdiction over constituents. Institutional sites may be concrete or virtual, and jurisdiction may be legal or social and ideological… This working definition has been especially useful in thinking through the full implications of what a peer-to-peer institution might look like. Of key importance is its motivational premise pointing to the institution’s role as a mobilizing network.
They then give some examples of such ‘mobilizing networks’: the Urban Education Institute (a partnership between the Chicago public school system and the University of Chicago); the Sustainable South Bronx project in New York City; the Waag Society in Amsterdam, the Hayden planetarium of New York’s Museum of Natural History, plus a whole chapter on HASTAC (the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory.) ‘In all of these institutional instances, a form of learning radiates outward from traditional institutions and inward from other less-usual kinds, mobilizing and invigorating both in such creative ways that it is difficult to define the borders of one or another.’
The book ends with 10 principles for the future of learning organizations:
- horizontal structures
- from presumed authority to collective credibility
- a decentered pedagogy
- networked learning
- open source and open accessed education
- learning as connectivity and interactivity
- lifelong learning
- learning institutions as mobilizing networks
This is a publication that I approached with enormous anticipation. Indeed it does have a number of strengths, but also some very serious weaknesses.
The publication is almost a bible or primer on the importance and necessity of digital learning. There are interesting discussions around authorship, intellectual property, the dominant educational paradigm and its unsuitability for a digital age, and many other issues that are the consequence of the digital age.
None of their arguments I would disagree with, but like many such treatises, it does go on and on (200 pages of it). There is an enormous amount of repetition and preaching to the converted. At times it reads more like a political pamphlet for the net generation. In particular, it is very verbose, which I hate to say is the likely result of the additional comments and contributions from many different sources resulting from ‘opening up’ the draft for general comment.
While I would support the authors’ arguments in general, I can’t see this publication being read by those who don’t see the need for change, and if they do read it, it’s unlikely to convince them. What isn’t tackled in this publication is the difficult issue of the difference between academic knowledge and everyday knowledge. Unless that challenge is accepted, traditional academics are unlikely to buy into the forms of learning that are often associated with social media and other aspects of digital learning. (I’m not arguing that social media are inappropriate for academic learning, but the case wasn’t made here.)
What was most disappointing for me was the failure to take the ideas of digital learning and show how institutions we know as universities or colleges could change. Allegories are all very well, but not when the authors admit they would be impossible to implement in today’s university. The issue is never really addressed as to whether something we would still recognize as a university could be organized, restructured or re-designed to not just accommodate but be the very essence of digital learning. All the examples given are really partnerships between traditional institutions and non-traditional institutions. These are valuable in their own right, but do not define at least a higher education institution in the digital age. In the end, I felt the authors couldn’t really let go of the traditional institution.
In summary then, the authors provide a framework or philosophy for digital learning, which in itself is valuable, but not the architecture or the engineering that would enable institutions fully to embrace digital learning. But then, that would be a daunting task for anyone (or network).