Practicing Digital Liberal Arts at Albion College

A key programmatic element of the Ferguson Center for Technology-Aided Teaching & Learning is the development of the Digital Liberal Arts at Albion College. Digital Liberal Arts is an array of research and pedagogical practices that explore a universe in which print is no longer the only, or even the primary medium, in which knowledge is produced or disseminated. Digital tools, techniques, and media are expanding traditional concepts of knowledge in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. With this expansion the boundary lines among the humanities, the social sciences, the arts, and the natural sciences are being redrawn; there is “Humanities” and “Digital Humanities,” instead of STEM we have STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math), in addition to physical archives there are digital archives. Redrawing, and in many cases blurring traditional discipline boundaries has the potential to:

  1. develop new forms of inquiry and knowledge production while reinvigorating old ones,
  2. develop practices that expand the scope, enhance the quality, and increase the visibility of research,
  3. expand the audience and social impact of scholarship,
  4. and, to train new scholars through hands-on, project-based learning as a complement to classic classroom-based learning.

Today’s Liberal Arts Student

Having established the nature and role of digital liberal arts, another question to explore is what does digital liberal arts mean for the student? In 2001 Mark Prensky wrote of the “digital native,” and since that time there has been much debate regarding the concept. Another term used to describe current students is “millennials,” another concept that as provoked discussion and debate. Some do not recognize the validity of either concept, some do, and others accept the utility of the concepts even if not entirely accepting either one. However, it is true that students come to higher education with experience in using digital technologies, more and more K-12 schools are adopting one-to-one computer use in schools, using various forms of mobile technology, and students expect school campus to have networking infrastructures, computer resources, and other digital technologies ready-to-hand. However, digital liberal arts is more than just enabling our students “digital habits.”

In 2000 John Seely Brown wrote “Growing Up Digitally” (Change, March/April 2000) identifying some additional characteristics of todays youth based on his observations of interns and junior staff members at Xerox PARC. These included:

“ …literacy and how it is evolving. Literacy today involves not only text, but also image and screen literacy. The ability to “read” multimedia texts and to feel comfortable with new, multiple-media genres is decidedly nontrivial… The new literacy, beyond text and image, is one of information navigation. The real literacy of tomorrow entails the ability to be your own personal reference librarian—to know how to navigate through confusing, complex information spaces and feel comfort- able doing so. “Navigation” may well be the main form of literacy for the 21st century.”

“ …learning. Most of us experienced formal learning in an authority-based, lecture-oriented school. Now, with incredible amounts of information available through the Web, we find a ‘new’ kind of learning assuming pre-eminence—learning that’s discovery based. We are constantly discovering new things as we browse through the emergent digital ‘libraries.’ Indeed, Web surfing fuses learning and entertainment, creating ‘infotainment’.”

“ …reasoning. Classically, reasoning has been concerned with the deductive and abstract. But our observation of kids working with digital media suggests bricolage to us more than abstract logic. Bricolage, a concept studied by Claude Lévi-Strauss more than a generation ago, relates to the concrete. It has to do with abilities to find something—an object, tool, document, a piece of code—and to use it to build something you deem important. Judgment is inherently critical to becoming an effective digital bricoleur. How do we make good judgments? Socially, in terms of recommendations from people we trust? Cognitively, based on rational argumentation? On the reputation of a sponsoring institution? What’s the mixture of ways and warrants that you end up using 
to decide and act? With the Web, the sheer scope and variety of resources befuddles the non-digital adult. But Web-smart kids learn to become bricoleurs.”

“ …bias toward action. It’s interesting to watch how new systems get absorbed by society; with the Web, this absorption, or learning process, by young people has been quite different from the process in times past. My generation tends not to want to try things unless or until we already know how to use them. If we don’t know how to use some appliance or software, our instinct is to reach for a manual or take a course or call up an expert. Believe me, hand a manual or suggest a course to 15 year olds and they think you are a dinosaur. They want to turn the thing on, get in there, muck around, and see what works. Today’s kids get on the Web and link, lurk, and watch how other people are doing things, then try it themselves. This tendency toward “action” brings us back into the same loop in which navigation, discovery, and judgment all come into play 
in situ. When, for example, have we lurked enough to try something ourselves? Once we fold action into the other dimensions, we necessarily shift our focus toward learning in situ with and from each other. Learning becomes situated in action; it becomes as much social as cognitive, it is concrete rather than abstract, and it becomes intertwined with judgment and exploration.”

Now, in 2014, these characteristics may seem “old hat” and known, however, the question is, “How much and how well has the traditional liberal arts addressed and adapted to these changes in our students?”

However before we rush to answer those questions, we must realize that our students and technology have continued to change. Fourteen years ago John Seely Brown described learning “as much social as cognitive, it is concrete rather than abstract, and it becomes intertwined with judgment and exploration.” Now, in 2013, he and others talk about “makers” (Hagel, Brown, and Kulasooriya, A Movement in the Making, Deloitte University Press, 2013.)

“What is new is how modern technologies, globalization, and cultural shifts are enabling and motivating individuals to participate
in making activities and removing barriers all along the value chain, from design and prototype to manufacturing to selling and distribution. With greater access to tools, training, and community, not to mention the technology- guided tools themselves that are less expensive and easier to use, the hurdles to creating are disappearing.”

There are high school students creating apps and games and selling them through iTunes and the Android Marketplace. Twelve-year girls are directing indie films. Teen journalists have become strong voices in the fashion world. Maker spaces and maker fairs have spread across the country. Students no longer sit and absorb knowledge from the speaker behind the podium; they judge, they critique, they design, they build, they fail, and they try again. What is a liberal arts education for these students?

Configuring Digital Liberal Arts

Digital Liberal Arts is the convergence of the opportunities and challenges that arise from the conjunction of “digital” with the “liberal arts”. Albion’s Ferguson Center for Technology-Aided Teaching and Learning is exploring the Digital Liberal Arts, or DLA, both as a concept and a curriculum, to help the College define the opportunities and challenges that arise from the conjunction of digital media with liberal arts teaching and scholarship

William Pannapacker, Hope College, claims that even before the advent of digital humanities, “liberal-arts colleges were moving from traditional, lecture-based courses toward a model of teachers and students as co-researchers, collaborating across disciplines and cohorts, attempting to build projects that can serve a wide range of needs, seeking support for those projects, and presenting that work at conferences and now, increasingly, online.” He goes on to state that such changes, along with the added capabilities that digital technologies provide to faculty for research and collaborations act as an “an enhancement of the core methods of an ideal liberal-arts education.” (Pannapacker, Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb. 18, 2013)

Dr. Rafael Alvardo, University of Virgina and SHANTI, outlines the following distinctive features of the digital liberal arts that place it squarely at the heart of a liberal arts education.

“First, DLA is inclu­sive of the entire arts and sci­ences spec­trum, from the human­i­ties and per­form­ing arts to the social sci­ences and the nat­ural sci­ences. When I first taught Intro­duc­tion to the Dig­i­tal Lib­eral Arts, I named it so in order to include projects going on in bio­chem­istry and the per­form­ing arts as well as those that fit the more tra­di­tional pro­file of DH[digital humanities], such as the­matic research col­lec­tions of writ­ers and his­tor­i­cal peri­ods. All of these fields are expe­ri­enc­ing changes due to the inno­v­a­tive use of tech­nol­ogy in both teach­ing and research, and all of them are par­tic­i­pat­ing in a com­mon move­ment that can­not be described as DH, even though the lat­ter is inti­mately con­nected with much of it.

Sec­ond, DLA is explic­itly res­i­den­tial and dia­log­i­cal. The main ques­tion that DLA asks of tech­nol­ogy is, how can it enhance the dia­log­i­cal process of edu­ca­tion that takes place in the class­room, lab, and stu­dio? This is in con­trast to the dig­i­tal human­i­ties, and indeed dig­i­tal schol­ar­ship as a whole, which has its heart in the edi­tion and the archive. DLA is from the out­set con­cerned with the inte­gra­tion of tech­nol­ogy into the every­day life — the sit­u­ated action — of teach­ing, learn­ing, and research in a res­i­den­tial set­ting. Thus the idea of Coursera-style MOOCs being part of the DLA is a non-starter, although dis­trib­uted and medi­ated forms of edu­ca­tion can, and I think must, become part of the lib­eral arts experience.

Third, DLA is as con­cerned with ped­a­gogy as it is with research, pur­su­ing mod­els of research and ser­vice based teach­ing that char­ac­ter­ize small lib­eral arts col­leges today. One of the prob­lems of DH, to the extent that it inher­its the cul­ture of the Research I uni­ver­sity, is that it car­ries along with it the two-tiered model that sep­a­rates tenured fac­ulty from non-tenured fac­ulty, as we see in depart­ments of lan­guage, where the for­mer study lit­er­a­ture and the lat­ter teach lan­guage. While this may be a use­ful model for larger uni­ver­si­ties, it is anath­ema to the lib­eral arts model that bal­ances teach­ing and research and which encour­ages under­grad­u­ates to be involved in research. Granted that DH has a large and vocal seg­ment of those inter­ested in ped­a­gogy — ProfHacker comes to mind — I think it is fair to say that the hard core of DH has always been aloof to teaching.” (Alvardo, on-line, Feb. 19, 2013)

While maintaining the core values and approaches of the liberal arts education Albion College needs to reshape itself to take advantage of advances in instructional and communication technologies and a thoughtful examination of the role campus-based resources can play in enhancing learning and teaching. This reshaping must be informed by the learning characteristics of today’s student as well as global context in which they are studying and working. Residential liberal arts colleges, like Albion, also have unique strengths to contribute to such a reshaping. The residential environment allows us to create a learning ecology including our curricular, extra-curricular, and residential environment along with all the campus-based resources. Courses then become elements of a larger ecology where learning and teaching occur within a nested collection of instructional resources. We can take advantage of all the advances in instructional and communication technology during class sessions and also of additional opportunities available on our campuses to engage our students with the content, processes, and issues addressed in our courses.

A learning ecology is an open, complex, adaptive system comprising elements that are dynamic and interdependent. One of the things that makes an ecology so powerful and adaptive to new environments is its diversity. Again the residential liberal arts environment — with it strong breadth requirements, undergraduate research, multiple disciplines that interact regularly across campus — is an ideal setting for creating such a learning ecology. The intimate campus setting of Albion College provides a great opportunity to integrate the digital and establish a culture that honors the fluid boundaries between the production and consumption of knowledge. It allows for and facilitates the production of knowledge wherever serious problems are being attacked and follow them to their root. Furthermore, with the a digitally enhanced approach to pedagogy and research it is easier for various experts to interact casually and to mentor or advise students. On top of this, digital technology’s great reach provides infinite access to resources beyond the region. The power of this reach comes fully into play when all the campus resources act to provide new points of view for the College’s communities of practice.