Tag Archives: nicholas carr

To Read Well on Screens, Change Your Mindset

15 Mar

I’ve written the following post to accompany (and extend) my talk on “Cultivating a Digital Reading Mindset in First-Year Composition” that I’ll be giving this Friday at the 2017 Conference on College Composition and Communication in Portland, Oregon (Session I.38).

While I’m primarily directing this toward an audience of college instructors, I hope that teachers at all levels—as well as anyone interested in the differences between print and screen reading and how to become better at the latter—will find something useful in it. 

To find your way to any of the sources cited below, as well as to a number of other articles, studies, and books on this subject, I encourage you to visit this annotated bibliography of sources on digital reading that is available on the websites of UC Berkeley’s College Writing Programs and UCB’s Center for Teaching and Learning.  (P.S. Thanks to Jason B. Jones of Trinity College for this shout on the ProfHacker blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education.)

Facing the Screen Honestly

My appeal to you today depends, in part, on how you feel about reading on screens and how you approach that subject with your students, especially those students who are early in their college careers:

Are you one who asks (or allows) your students to read many, or most, of the texts for your course in digital form, both on- and offline?

Or do you tend to require your students to read most, or perhaps all, of the texts for your course in printed form?

If you are in the first group, I ask you to consider how much time you spend in your class explicitly addressing the practice of reading on screens. If the answer to that question is little to none, or if you don’t see a significant difference between reading on screens and reading in print, I’d ask you to reconsider those positions.

If you’re in the second group, and you focus largely on reading in print with little focus on reading on screens, I’d ask that you reconsider that position as well.

Our students, and we, are reading more and more texts—for school, for work, for pleasure—on screens, and so it behooves us as teachers to squarely face that reality. At the risk of sounding overdramatic, I believe our students’ futures and our country’s future depend on us doing so.

“A Place of Apprehension Rather Than Comprehension”

One of the preeminent scholars on reading, Maryanne Wolf, the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, puts it well when she says of our understanding of digital reading: “We’re in a place of apprehension rather than comprehension” (qtd. in Konnikova). Indeed, though there continues to be much study of both digital and print reading, there has also been considerable anxiety about the decline of print and the effects that impaired reading could have on each of us and on our society as a whole, especially as most of us dive deeper into real-time, ever-shifting experiments on the effects of digital devices.

In his book, The Gutenberg Elegies, published in 1994 at the dawn of the Internet era, Sven Birkerts noted “some of the kinds of developments we might watch for as our ‘proto-electronic’ era yields to an all-electronic future,” each of which anticipates troubling aspects of our situation two decades later: 

  1. Language erosion
  2. Flattening of historical perspectives
  3. The waning of the private self (128-130)

Warnings like Birkerts’ are worth paying attention to. Also, as we know, when any new medium gains traction, anxieties—some well-founded, some not—tend to abound, whether we’re talking about previous debates over the effects of television in the 20th Century; or the growing popularity of novels, newspapers, and magazines in the 19th; or even further back to Socrates worrying in Plato’s Phaedrus that if writing were to replace the oral tradition, it would “implant forgetfulness in [men’s] souls.”

In our present era, these anxieties sometimes break down into a kind of computer binary where we’re faced with an unsatisfactory choice between either print or digital texts. I’ll turn to an excerpt from a 2012 speech at the Nashville library by Margaret Atwood, she of the brilliant dystopian novels (and pithy tweets), for a useful challenge to that binary:


Margaret Atwood (Source: Poetry Foundation)

In [reading texts in] short form, [digital tools offer the virtues of] speed and ubiquity for small narrative bites. [Then in] long form, people split into three groups:

Number one: ‘I wouldn’t read online if you held a gun to my head.’

Number three: ‘You’re a troglodyte and live in a cave unless you tear up all your paper books and do nothing but read online.’

And most people are in the middle, and they say, ‘We want both.’ “ 

Right? So, given that reality, what’s a teacher of reading to do?

What We “Know”:

Differences in Print and Screen Reading

Now, reading on screens can mean a lot of different things, and there are a whole series of questions to take into account as we evaluate the differences between print and screen reading:

–Are we online or offline?

–What kind of device are we using, and how are we using it?

–Is the WiFi (and the possibility of distracting notifications) on or off?

–Is the screen backlit or does it employ the e-ink of an e-reader?

–What kind of text are we talking about: a lengthy novel that is native to print? A PDF of an academic article? An online article (like this one) full of hyperlinks and, perhaps, ringed by advertisements?

And so forth and so on. These are important distinctions, and I’ll try to make clear below which types of screen reading situations I’m referring to. Also, the multifarious ways of reading on screens point to just how complex an issue this is.

(And all of this is to say nothing of the rich new possibilities for reading, whether for critical reading or for pleasure, offered by digital texts, a subject that is beyond the scope of my argument here. Among the many, many things that have been written about that richness and about the comparisons of print and digital reading in this regard, I recommend taking a look at the following articles by N. Katherine Hayles and Paul LaFarge.)

However, after acknowledging those complications (and benefits!) of screen reading, there are some generalizations we can make.

Words Onscreen

(Source: Amazon)

Among the most comprehensive books on this subject is Naomi Baron’s Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, which covers the history of the development of reading, details multiple studies on the subject, examines the screen and print reading landscape, and, importantly, includes her own surveys of student attitudes towards reading in the two media (more on those attitudes in a moment).

Early in her book, Baron notes the following:

“For over two decades, psychologists and reading specialists have been comparing how we read on screens versus in print. Studies have probed everything from proofreading skills and reading speed to comprehension and eye movement. Nearly all recent investigations are reporting essentially no differences” (12).

However, as Baron points out later in her book (and as she elaborated in a subsequent email exchange with me), these findings rely on laboratory conditions directly comparing screen and print reading that don’t fully capture the way we tend to read: “The investigations involve relatively brief readings followed by some version of comprehension or memory questions. What we don’t have—but sorely need—are data on what happens when people are asked to do close reading of continuous text….onscreen versus in print” (171).

However, if we consider our typical, everyday practices alongside the findings of other studies of screen reading—particularly of the way we tend to read on devices with connections to the Internet—I think we can agree that there are some strong indications that when we’re reading on most digital devices (think computers and smart phones especially) as compared to reading in print we tend to:

–be more easily distracted

–experience eye fatigue from back-lit screens

–be less inclined to read deeply than we might in print

–have less memory of and less comprehension of what we read

–have a harder time getting a holistic sense of the text

–have a lower tolerance for longer texts [reflected in the text-speak acronym TL;DR (Too long; didn’t read)]

Certainly this is the reporting of a substantial majority my own students, whom I ask every semester to reflect on the way they read in different media, and this tracks with the surveys of students both in the U.S. and abroad that Naomi Baron has conducted and reports in her book. In the work they do for school, students tend to associate reading in print with better learning outcomes.

Same Skills, Different Medium? Not Exactly

The question arises whether we need to continue to teach traditional literacies associated with print and then help students transfer those skills to the digital realm OR whether we ought to focus on cultivating the different kinds of literacies that reading on screens requires. The research of Julie Coiro of the University of Rhode Island suggests that the answer to both halves of that question is likely “Yes.”

For instance, the findings of one 2011 study that she conducted of the online reading comprehension of a group of seventh graders “support other research that suggests the processes skilled readers use to comprehend online text are both similar to and more complex than what previous research suggests is required to comprehend offline informational text” (Coiro 370). At the same time, the study also found positive correlations between offline and online reading comprehension. 

Coiro also saw indications that students needed to have proficiency in newer, online reading skills (e.g. online searching, web page evaluation, negotiation of hyperlinks, etc.) before they could apply some of the skills traditionally associated with successful reading of printed text. Further, the results of the study indicated that “topic-specific prior knowledge” was important to successful reading comprehension for those students who had less skill in online reading, while this prior knowledge was less significant to the reading comprehension of students who had “average or high levels of online reading skills” (Coiro 374).

Coiro is assiduous in listing a series of qualifications for these findings, noting that there are a variety of possible interpretations, and that competency in “online reading” can mean a great many things dependent on the task and the assessment; she calls for further research. However, Coiro’s careful work is among the studies suggesting that students likely need distinct training in how to navigate, say, a book versus a web site in order for the critical reading skills applied to the former to be used fruitfully in the latter.

As Coiro has said elsewhere, “In reading on paper, you may have to monitor yourself once, to actually pick up the book….On the Internet, that monitoring and self-regulation cycle happens again and again” (qtd. in Konnikova). Teaching our students (and, again, ourselves) how to be better self-regulators is crucial to our success as screen readers—especially when we’re online.

Attitude and Belief as Self-Fulfilling Prophesy

As I said above, when I survey my students about the way they read for school and for pleasure, their replies track pretty closely with what Baron has found in the surveys of college students that she has conducted. When they read on screens, students tend to like:

–the convenience of being able to search within a text more easily and the ability to look up clarifying information online while they read;

–the portability and perceived environmental friendliness of digital texts (the latter is a debate for another time);

–and the lower economic cost compared to print.

Meanwhile, they tend to report that when they read printed texts, they:

–are more likely to re-read and to understand the text;

–have an easier time taking notes;

–are better able to focus;

–and are less likely to try to multitask.

Based on these pretty common reports by students, this would seem to indicate that they have found they perform demonstrably better as readers in school settings when they read in print. But is it so?

Last spring, I asked a group of 33 students in my reading and composition courses to complete a relatively simple assignment. I had them read Nicholas Carr’s 2008 article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (Later expanded into his 2010 book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.) I told them they could read the online version on The Atlantic’s web site, download the PDF via academic databases, or print out the article in either form, according to their preference. I then asked them to write a two- to three-page summary of the article, followed by a one-page response with their initial assessments of Carr’s arguments. Once they turned in the final draft, I also asked them to tell me in what form they had read the article and what they noticed about the way they read as they worked on the assignment.

Of the 33 students, 13 immediately printed the article and worked with that version, 11 read it entirely online, and the other 9 students did some mixture of online, PDF, or print reading that made it tougher to discern which medium they had used most prominently. Once I had graded the assignment, I looked at the scores of the purely online and print readers, and here’s what emerged:

Of the 13 who printed the article, the average grade on the paper was about a B-minus. (This group tended to include my weaker readers and writers.)

Of the 11 who read Carr’s article online, the average grade was an A-minus. (This group generally included the stronger readers and writers, as the grades would indicate.)

While acknowledging that this sample size isn’t remotely statistically significant, I find this result intriguing and wondered at the time how things had turned out this way—both what dictated the students’ choices of medium as well as how the respective groups performed on the assignment.

The Shallows

(Source: NPR)

A number of studies of students’ ways of approaching digital and paper texts provide a partial explanation of what may be going on.

In a study of Israeli college students, cognitive scientists Rakefet Ackerman and Morris Goldsmith compared the way the students performed on multiple-choice tests after reading two short texts:  one printed and one a Microsoft Word file on a computer screen. In one experiment, the students were given a fixed amount of time to study, and performed about the same in their reading comprehension of the two types of texts. In a second experiment in which the students decided for themselves how long to study, the students performed much better on the test connected to reading on paper than they did on the test of their on-screen reading.

Ackerman and Goldsmith suggest that these results potentially point less to differences in the two media used for reading than they do to the metacognitive processes being employed by the students. In short, if readers perceive that screen reading can be employed for “effortful learning” in much the same way as they tend to perceive reading in print, then they may be able to self-regulate their reading as effectively on screen as they do on paper, at least so far as simple text (as opposed to hypertext) reading is concerned.

Bringing effort, or not, is partly down to mindset, of course. In a 2001 study that Baron briefly references in her book, a group of college students was examined to see how they performed when they read printed texts “for study purposes or for entertainment.” Unsurprisingly, “Students reading in study mode were better at making inferences, generating paraphrases, and remembering the text’s content” (Baron 161). This makes perfect sense. Now if we consider that students use their laptops not only for work but also for gaming or to watch funny YouTube channels or to video chat with friends, and that they turn to their smart phones all the time for Snapchatting, Instragramming, texting and the like, we can easily see the association between these devices and entertainment, an enticing potential distraction that is ever present when the student turns to those same devices to try to read in more than a cursory way. To engage in the effortful work of reading, that constant self-monitoring that Coiro speaks of comes into play.

A 2015 study conducted by German researcher Johannes Naumann helps further this point. Naumann examined the data from a 2009 OECD PISA Digital Reading Assessment of over 29,000 high school students from 17 different countries. He examined how students navigated through hyperlinked pages to complete various information-seeking tasks, some of which required that students visit only one or a few pages in order to be successful and some of which required the negotiation of multiple pages.

Those students who were more accustomed to seeking information online had more success at navigating and at completing the tasks successfully and efficiently (i.e. not spending a lot of time clicking irrelevant links) than did those who were accustomed to using online spaces mostly as places for social engagement. These differences in success were more pronounced the more difficult the task became. Further, the students with greater print reading skill tended to perform better on these assessments.

His findings suggest the importance of both experience with navigating online text for more than social purposes and to the importance of having a mindset of “information engagement” for a student to have greater likelihood of success as a strong online reader. (For more on these and other studies, see the annotated bibliography I mentioned at the beginning of this post.)

And Now a Word from a Successful Online Reader

A final note on that assignment I asked my own students to do last year. One of my students provided a glimpse of some of what might have been going on for her and the other successful online readers in my class in the reflection she wrote afterward:

“I ended up reading [Carr’s article] online….I read during my research…that we can condition our mind not to be affected by the fact that we are reading online. In a sense, that if we approach…[what] we are reading [in this way], we can get as much out of it as if we [were] read[ing it] in print. So I wanted to try. I told myself that I was [going to] focus on the reading, and read it as if I was doing so in print so that I [could write] an accurate summary….”

After talking about her process a bit, she went on:

“It took me much longer just to plot…[Carr’s] main ideas, and even when I thought I had them, I still had to go back to the article continuously. I did not make annotations [on the text itself], which I [always] do [when I read] in print. But it was interesting to see…what changed when I approach[ed] an online article with the mindset that I [was] reading it [as if it were in] print. I definitely know now that no matter what, reading [in print works] better for me when doing assignments [like this one].”

That’s the kind of self-awareness I’d love all of our students to generate: not that they must read in one or the other medium to achieve a certain result, but to recognize their own best practices and to read mindfully, no matter the medium.

You’ll be completely unsurprised to learn that she earned an A on her paper.

Suggested Steps for Helping Students to Read Well on Screens

“Enough already! What do I do now?” you fellow teachers of critical reading may be wondering. I’m wondering too. The best approach to reading on screens is hardly a settled question, and will no doubt continue to change as the technology shifts around us. However, I do have a few suggestions, and would love to hear yours too.

First, I direct you to the aforementioned pages on this subject that my Berkeley colleague, Donnett Flash, and I put together. Also, here’s a quick (and evolving) handout (Read Well On Screens and Prosper) I’ve been giving to all my students, and a quicker list version I’ve given to fellow faculty: (Digital Reading Suggestions for Teachers).

For my purposes today, however, I’ll emphasize a few things:

*Help students to cultivate a screen reading mindset that they’ve got to bring effort, and effort of particular types, to be able to read successfully on digital devices. Perhaps most prominent among these practices is that they need to reduce distractions as much as possible and resist the medium’s associations with speed, efficiency, TL;DR, and entertainment. Power browsing, skimming, scrolling, and reading for gist are useful but they aren’t everything, and neither should they be the only thing.

*Create self-reflective screen reading assignments that will help students to be more self-aware and to identify their own best practices.

*Think carefully about how you’ll employ digital readings in and outside the classroom. Particularly with younger readers, do not substitute digital readings for print if you don’t plan on addressing the differences between them.

*Discuss, model, and reinforce screen reading skills explicitly.

*Identify and advocate for new technologies and practices that will deepen screen reading skills. And then tell me what they are.

*Learn from your students. Students are already discovering the technologies and approaches that help them to concentrate when they’re in “study mode.” Many of my own students employ ad blockers when they are online, or use applications like Be Focused Pro and Self Control to prevent themselves from getting distracted. They are mindful of how they need to arrange themselves physically—and how far away certain of their devices need to be—to be able to read well. Keep a record of these technologies and practices, and mark the best ones.

Reading is Fundamental:  Toward Democratization and not Gentrification

I hardly have to preach to you, the converted, on the virtues of reading generally and the importance of helping students to read well on screens in particular, but I’m going to do it anyway.

We’ve all seen students coming into our classrooms with different, sometimes radically different, levels of preparation for college-level reading and writing. This often maps onto larger societal divisions between the haves and have-nots:  those who come from wealthier communities with better equipped schools and those who do not; those who have long training and practice at reading and those who do not; those who have better access to and familiarity with digital technologies and those who do not. College is a place where we try to help close these gaps and reduce the inequality that plagues our country.

Focusing on reading well is ever more important now in a time of rising inequality, of difficulty at discerning real news from fake, and of divisiveness in a political landscape in which empathy is on the decline and misunderstanding is ascendant.

Teaching students of all backgrounds to read well on screens is a democratizing practice. It ensures that such pursuits—and the benefits that flow from them—don’t turn reading into a gentrified activity whose advantages are available only to a privileged few as we spend more and more of our time reading (and talking and watching and living) on screens, cordoned off in shrinking electronic worlds of our own making.

In this same vein, I’ll let the novelist Caleb Crain have the last word here as he reminds us of what is at stake:

“[T]he N.E.A. reports that readers are more likely than non-readers to play sports, exercise, visit art museums, attend theatre, paint, go to music events, take photographs…volunteer….[and] vote. Perhaps readers venture so readily outside because what they experience in solitude gives them confidence. Perhaps reading is a prototype of independence….Such a habit might be quite dangerous for a democracy to lose.”


Works Cited

One more time: For an annotated bibliography about these and other sources on digital/screen reading, I direct you here. In the meantime, here’s where to find the sources discussed in this post.

Ackerman, R., & Goldsmith, M. “Metacognitive regulation of text learning: On screen versus on paper.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 17:1 (2011), 18-32. Web.

Atwood, Margaret. Nashville Public Library Literary Award Winner 2012. Video. You Tube. Nashville Library. 4 Nov. 2012. Web.

Baron, Naomi. Words Onscreen:  The Fate of Reading in a Digital World. New York:  Oxford UP, 2015. Print.

Birkerts, Sven. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994. Print.

Carr, Nicholas. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Atlantic. The Atlantic. 1 July 2008. Web.

—. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. New York: Norton, 2010. Print.

Coiro, Julie. “Predicting Reading Comprehension on the Internet:  Contributions of Offline Reading Skills, Online Reading Skills, and Prior Knowledge.” Journal of Literacy Research 43.4 (2011):  352-392.  Sage Publications. Web.

Crain, Caleb. “Twilight of the Books.” The New Yorker. 24 Dec. 2007. Web.

Hayles, N. Katherine. “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine.” ADE Bulletin. 150 (2010): 62-79. nkhayles.com. Web.

Konnikova, Maria. “Being a Better Online reader.” The New Yorker. Newyorker.com 16 July 2014. Web. 

La Farge, Paul. “The Deep Space of Digital Reading.” Nautilus. nautil.us. 7 Jan 2016. Web.

Naumann, Johannes. “A Model of Online Reading Engagement:  Linking engagement, navigation, and performance in digital reading.” Computers in Human Behavior. 53 (2015):  263-277.

Wolf, Maryanne.  Proust and the Squid. New York:  Harper Collins, 2007. Print.



Will the Revolution Be Monetized? — Week 2 of the Scottish #EDCMOOC

7 Feb

How we feel about technology is, in part, wrapped up in questions of financing.  Or, in the modern parlance, monetizing.

Will I get paid?

What will it cost me?

In this video, we see Microsoft present a dialogue-free vision of a Utopian future in which technology increasingly connects us, giving us more useful information and generally making our lives and work more efficient and convenient:

Then in this short film, we see a different, dystopian vision of a future technology (and company) called “Sight”:

In the first video, we have a company with a lot to gain from technology’s proliferation. Microsoft has monetized its products extensively, and looks to do more of the same; it is well positioned to do so.

In the second video, we have a corporation as invading privacy and individual authenticity in more disturbing ways.  (It hits at least one of the common themes of science fiction marked by Annalee Newitz:  “the privacy apocalypse.”)  Naturally, the money-making company and its representative, the creepy man, are the baddies here.  The individual–the woman thinking she’s out on a regular (if highly technologized) blind date–is the victim.  She doesn’t stand to make money from the transaction.  She stands to gain, or lose, a potential boyfriend. And maybe her dignity.

A Formula for Measuring Utopian Levels

Perhaps there is a partial formula here that could express our levels of optimism or pessimism about the advance of the digital revolution.  I’ll call it the Technological Utopianism Rate.

TU = $/ax

Here, TU (your Technological Utopianism Rate, which expresses your level of positive, hopeful feelings about technology)…

…is a function of $ (the amount of money you stand to make from technology or digital environments)…

…divided by ax (on a scale of 1-100, your relative anxiety level about the personal or societal destabilizing effects of technology).

So let’s say you were a Microsoft executive making $200,000, and you had an anxiety level about technology of 10.  Your TU would be 20,000 (with upward adjustments according to what opportunities for venture capital investment or start-up company potential or salary increases you anticipate.)

In contrast, let’s say you were, oh, a fusty old teacher whose salary was paid by a local school district, with no particular prospects or inclinations to earn money in a digital space (for your teaching or other services) except for your dividends from your retirement account’s investments in Microsoft.  Let’s say that the latter amounts to $1,000, and also that you had a technological anxiety level of 71.  Your TU would be about 14.  This could go lower, even to zero, should your job be made redundant by advances in technology.

The examples and the formula oversimplify the case, but it’s certainly reasonable to say that the more economic stability or gains you stand to make from it, the more enthusiastic you’ll be about technology.

The Revolution Comes to Higher Ed

Now, picking up with that teacher and his ilk, let’s map this equation onto higher education. As Clay Shirky and Nicholas Carr note in their contrasting discussions of MOOCs–Shirky embracing them, Carr advising skepticism–universities and colleges (including UC Berkeley, where I work) are anxious about what online learning means for them.  Will higher education be the next industry to be radically changed?  Depending on which individual at which university you’re talking to, the TU level is lower or higher, but in effect, the aggregated TU is currently at or near zero for most institutions, because the numerator in the equation is zero.  The digital revolution in higher education has not been monetized.  At least not for the schools or their teachers, by and large.

As Shirky and others argue, this may be a good thing.  Traditional higher education is expensive, they note, and is getting more so; it benefits a limited audience; and the effectiveness of its methods of educating undergraduates is suspect.  Universities are overdue for some major changes.  Surely, the logic goes, there is a better,  more efficient, more cost-effective, more widely accessible way of providing education by leveraging technology.   Well-designed MOOCs, offered for free or for minimal cost, accessible to anyone with an Internet connection, might be one such answer.

Three questions to tease out here.  Two of them (and they’re important ones that both Shirky and Carr engage with) I’ll put to the side for now:  first, what changes does higher education need to undergo to revitalize itself and better serve its mission to educate students?  Second, might MOOCs offer an education as good or better than what a typical student might get in a series of university classrooms?

Let’s assume for the moment that MOOCs potentially could offer many of the same benefits, and ask the obvious money question:  who is going to pay for them?

Are the esteemed lecturers from the University of Edinburgh who are facilitating the MOOC I’m currently taking on e-learning and digital cultures being paid by someone other than their home institution?  Clearly their research interests dovetail with the content of the course, so they are getting some benefit from designing the course and helping guide us 41,000 “students” through it, even if they’re doing it pro bono.  But if they were to offer this or other MOOCs in the future, would they be paid?  Would the U of Edinburgh pay them to subsidize the education of us 41,000 free riders?  Or would the instructors primarily rely on what Jerry Brown, the Governor of California, has called “psychic income” for sustenance?

It’s not sustainable.  If good teachers aren’t paid a living wage, if we students don’t pay something, or if the public doesn’t subsidize that free/affordable education, then MOOCs, whatever their virtues, will wither or else be run by hacks looking to make a buck.  It’s the hacks who worry me.

In his brilliant critique of Shirky’s commentary on MOOCs, Aaron Bady notes the ongoing dis-investment in public education here in the U.S.  He also writes:

“Since there is a lot of unmet desire for education out there, and since that desire is glad to have the thing it wants when it finds it for free, it seems all to the good that students can find courses for free.  But while we should ask questions about why venture capitalists are investing so heavily in educational philanthropy, we also need to think more carefully about why there is so much unmet desire in the first place, and why so many people want education without, apparently, being able to pay for it.  Why hasn’t that desire already found a way to become demand, such that it must wait until Silicon Valley venture capitalists show up, benevolently bearing the future in their arms?”

The venture capitalists are there, as Bady notes, because with the gaps in public investment in higher education they see an opportunity to “speculate.”  They see the potential for the revolution in online education to be monetized.  And they want to be in a position to collect if the cash starts to flow.

In Which the Bank Teaches Us a Lesson

There once was a young man, just out of college, looking for a job during a recession.  He searched and searched, and one day, the public relations department of a major bank pulled his resume out of a pile and offered him a job as a writer.  The young man wasn’t too keen on working at a bank, but a job was a job in those recessionary times, and so he took it.  The pay was quite good.

They spoke a different language, these bankers.  They spoke of “leverage” and “cash flow” and returns on equity and investment.  The young man listened, and learned the language.  He wrote their press releases and brochures, he wrote speeches and jokes for the CEO to tell at luncheons.

In public statements and interviews, the CEO was constantly noting his laser-like focus on serving the bank’s shareholders.  Not the customers or the employees–of course the bank was serving those.  But his primary focus was on increasing the value of the shareholders’ investment.  At the time, the naive young man found this a little weird.  Sure banks want to generate profits, he thought, and shareholders are technically the owners, but isn’t the idea to balance a desire for a profitable business with good service to customers and good jobs for hardworking employees?  Well, yes, but only if it serves the bottom line:  driving up that stock price, increasing the market capitalization of the company, for those shareholders.

The bank was about increasing profits at all costs.  The bank demanded logic of the following sort that the young man was once asked to explain to any journalist who cared to call:  “Yes, the bank is raising fees on checking accounts, but only so we can better serve our customers.”

“What the hell do you mean?” the young man imagined reporters asking.  And he supposed there was a certain kind of logic to it:  if the bank collected more fees from its customers, it would have more funds with which it could potentially hire more employees to work in the call centers, who could take more phone calls from those customers who would otherwise have been kept on hold waiting for an explanation of why their fees were going up.  See?  Doesn’t the bank have its customers’ best interests at heart?

You could almost believe you weren’t being spun if the dizziness stopped for long enough.

The young man, of course, was me, and I share this recollection because I find it instructive.  A bank is not a university–its purposes and functions are different.  But in looking at a bank–a kind of meta-monitizer with a relentless focus on profit–we see something to be cautious of in education.

A school doesn’t need to focus on profit in the same way that bank did (and still does), but it does need to operate in a way that is economically sustainable for both teachers and students and the larger community.  MOOCs as they’re currently structured are not sustainable, no matter how engaging they are (as this MOOC has been) or how poorly run they are, which is why some in academia take a look at them and see a future dystopia in higher ed.

If we can find a way to make them sustainable, and not merely monetizable in the Silicon Valley sense of the word, then maybe, just maybe, we might end up with a useful supplement to university instruction that could help foster a higher higher education that all of us presumably want.

In the meantime, I’ve got a high-fee checking account that might be right up your alley.

“I would prefer not to”: On Engelbart’s “Augmenting Human Intellect”

23 Feb

I feel the need to re-read Douglas Engelbart’s “Augmenting Human Intellect” to more fully digest both what he is saying and its implications. Pressed for time, I fear I read it too much with what Nicholas Carr refers to in his book, The Shallows, as “The Juggler’s Brain”–skimming rather than deeply engaging. However, I’ll do my best here to employ the inadequacies of the “symbol structure” of the English language to consider some aspects of his text.

Specifically, I’d like to think a little bit about this passage from part III:

“Conceptually speaking, however, an argument is not a serial affair. It is sequential, I grant you, because some statements have to follow others, but this doesn’t imply that its nature is necessarily serial. We usually string Statement B after Statement A, with Statements C, D, E, F, and so on following in that order–this is a serial structuring of our symbols. Perhaps each statement logically followed from all those which preceded it on the serial list, and if so, then the conceptual structuring would also be serial in nature, and it would be nicely matched for us by the symbol structuring.

“But a more typical case might find A to be an independent statement, B dependent upon A, C and D independent, E depending upon D and B, E dependent upon C, and F dependent upon A, D, and E. See, sequential but not serial? A conceptual network but not a conceptual chain. The old paper and pencil methods of manipulating symbols just weren’t very adaptable to making and using symbol structures to match the ways we make and use conceptual structures. With the new symbol-manipulating methods here, we have terrific flexibility for matching the two, and boy, it really pays off in the way you can tie into your work” (103).

As one who has for years taught his students how to read and to write arguments in a sequential and serial fashion by using the symbol structure of language to construct an essay, I find this passage and Englebart’s subsequent discussion of it both interesting and troubling.

In some respects, the serial way of organizing an argument is indeed limiting. In the linear mode of writing to which we are accustomed, various links, antecedents, and overlapping chains of thought can only be alluded to, or cast as an aside, or left out entirely, or else we risk losing our readers. To capture a subject in all of its complexity, the advantages of a “conceptual network” of overlapping linkages and chains quickly become apparent, as Englebart notes.

So then what happens if we augment our intellect by using a computer’s considerable power and memory to track these links and call up quick associations and chains of thought so that we can, theoretically, see the conceptual structures more clearly than we could through the older (written, linear, symbol-structured) mode of argument?

The old concern arises: that the complexity of mapping and tracking these structures in this manner, and the ease of accessing those structures on our computers, causes us to cede the act of thinking to our machines. We risk losing track of the threads. Perhaps we begin to make (more serious versions of) mistakes like one made by one of my very bright students a few weeks ago, when he looked up material on-line about E.M. Forster and then noted that he’d gotten the information from Forster’s biographer, Howard’s End.

In brief, we might risk inverting Englebart’s construction, where the “problem solver” isn’t the human being but is instead the computer, and we, not the computer, are the “clerks.” And at what point might we, like Herman Melville’s famous clerk, Bartleby,  when faced with the need to think for ourselves, simply say: “I would prefer not to.”