In the MacArthur Foundation Report The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age, “participatory learning” is set in opposition to a model of education that seems Victorian in all the worst senses of the word: hierarchical, driven by politics and the bottom line, and ultimately designed to privilege the ego of the instructor over the needs of students. Certainly this pedagogy of oppression, to invoke Friere’s famous essay, still needs to be exposed and combatted. The Report makes an important contribution to conceptionalizing a new wired utopics that deserves our attention and support.
That being said, here are a few points at which the Report needs a taste of its own medicine in the form of comment from the multitudes. Or at least from KimiNoGomi, a single piece of flotsam in the vast sea of binary discourse.
So: first of all, the demonization of the lecture by the proponents of collaborative learning continues to be a thorn in my virtual side. Like reading a book, attentive listening to discourse is not in and of itself an exercise in patient endurance of oppression, unless the lecturer is a bore and an idiot. Lecture is simply a one-to-many learning mode that can be combined with dialogue, writing exercises, Q&A, threaded discussion, or any number of other techniques. This may seem like a quibble, but it underscores a main point: all true learning is collaborative, prosocial, shared. The Dickensian droner is not using a bad technique, she or he is simply a bad teacher (and would be, perhaps more so, if equipped with PowerPoint). But human learning starts as one-to-one, between parent (or alloparent) and child, and this early affective relation sets the stage for the future learner’s attitude and mastery. Moreover, this early listening is hardly passive; child and adult tend to maintain a robust conversation about and around the text, and studies suggest that this back channel is where most of the learning takes place. The more chat, the better the child’s preparation for school, to the extent that the frequency of shared reading is a good predictor of future academic success. The combination of linear and non-linear learning is what works best for literacy.
Secondly, the problems raised by the emergence of what the Report terms a many-to-multitudes model of learning are the ones that were first identified by the Enlightenment theorists whose idealism the Report echoes. What the document describes is simply another locus of the public sphere, or spheres. Proponents of Enlightenment acknowledged the problem inherent in democratic politics: the need for mass education as a means of outweighing the inevitable static caused by opportunists, newbies, kooks, and trolls. The baseline of early knowledge, initially acquired face-to-face in an atmosphere of trust and mutual affection, is a species requirement for the type of shared learning between strangers and the critical dialog that the Report envisions.
In order to arrive at a digital utopia, then, we have to start with and from an earlier one, a loving dyad, both for the individual and as a society. Poorly educated, hungry, and untrusting people make bad collaborators, and any prepared student who has done group work with unwilling or incapable partners will be leery of future collaboration. Globally, current disenchantment with democracy stems not from lack of social media but from their use as one more medium through which the masses confront the continued failure of progressive ideology to take seriously simple goals like feeding the starving. If we as academics don’t nourish and nurture as social collaborators, then all our electronic idealism will simply be another dangerously alienating helping of the empty rhetoric of the privileged classes.