Must Digital Divide?

Changing the ways we learn with technology can deepen inequality. Does it have to?

June 16, 2016

I attended a great conference last weekend on digital scholarship in liberal arts colleges – largely but not exclusively attended by librarians and archivists. It was a perfect combination of small size and great presenters. I am not all that au fait with the tools of the digital trade, but I played with some of them while, at the back of my mind, pondering  thought-provoking ideas from Jennifer Vinopal’s opening talk about the values that get entangled in data practices and what we can do to be mindful of our biases. It was a good foundation from which to start. She talked about the political choices that influence data structures and algorithms and the ways meaning changes when messages to a specific audience are intercepted and broadcast to be filtered through a completely different sensibility, which is why digitizing a counter-culture magazine from pre-Internet days can be handy for historians but devastatingly invasive for people who were among friends but now are stripped bare in public. Good stuff to think about.

I took notes on a number of nifty tools and classroom ideas and ways to think about library-faculty collaborations, but here are two meta-ideas that applied to all of the sessions one way or another.

Thought One: It’s instructive to be in a student’s position when learning about technology. There were times when I was lost, or got distracted when other lost people were getting help and I started poking around while I waited and couldn’t find my way back, or when I wondered why what was on my screen didn’t look at all like what the teacher was projecting, or when I was embarrassed to ask how to do something that apparently is so obvious everyone else had it figured out.

Flipping it around, I wondered about how much energy it can take to learn something that’s not intellectually challenging but unfamiliar. One of my favorite sessions involved drawing on pieces of paper. I closed my laptop, picked up a pen, and thought to myself “I’m terrible at this.” But draw I did, and it was strangely relaxing. I never fell behind. My paper never vanished abruptly. Nobody needed help because they weren’t sure which command would help them make their line curve. It was hard to make us stop drawing, and then it was hard to get us to stop talking, but the cool thing was that we weren’t learning about drawing or pens or how paper works, we were learning how to plan digital scholarship collaborations. Which made me think about how my other workshop sessions were about how to help students think about data and history and economics, but often in the foreground was “how do I enlarge this thing? Which drop-down list was I supposed to use, again?”

There’s always some tug between learning "how to" and learning about ideas. How to read a scholarly argument critically has to be learned even if it’s what’s in the argument that matters. How to write one has to be practiced, and the conventions for using sources . . . well, it all takes time, and that can crowd out the mental energy to understand the important stuff. Figuring out what we really want students to learn and how to strike the right balance between learning how and learning what is tricky.

That said, I could see ways that “what” could be powerfully experienced with some of these tools. Students can use these tools to uncover the “what” from datasets or primary sources or map coordinates. An economics professor who uses Tableau in a 100-level course showed how using data visualization to test hypotheses forced students to think about economics more deeply than if they studied a textbook and took tests. But it means teaching differently and taking some of the predigested “what” out of the syllabus to make room for inquiry and invention (and getting lost and becoming frustrated on the way).

Thought Two: Libraries and archives are finding different ways to fold this kind of tool-using and teaching support into their work, and while there’s no standard way in which this work fits into organizations, this enfolding can do something it isn’t meant to do: introduce conflict over power relationships. Within organizations, there is a cool-factor with technology that may reward younger (and often more likely to be male) new hires with resources and status while others are expected to keep existing programs running with no credit and less help. The reverse of that is equally true: new people are often expected to Do All the Things and take all the risk while their colleagues are not required to learn any of the tech the new position supports. It’s basically a resource and glory allocation dilemma and it doesn’t bring out the best in organizations. The same holds true among the faculty in the disciplines: those who embrace new teaching that requires technology feel unsupported and those who don’t feel underappreciated and pretty soon people are throwing terms like “luddite” and “neoliberal tool” around when they could be teaching. In some ways, this issue is felt more keenly in large organizations that have the funding to create new specialized units or positions. In small ones, librarians who already have multiple responsibilities have to fold it in.

Another related dilemma: the gulf between liberal arts colleges with large endowments and those that are primarily tuition-driven is growing (and don’t tell me the poor ones should just die a natural death, already. There’s nothing natural about wealth attracting wealth, and it’s a shame if a uniquely American form of higher education becomes a boutique luxury good for nobody but the elite and their wards.) It can be frustrating for the poorer cousins to hear about the cool stuff you could be doing for your students and faculty with free open-source tools. Sometimes that first sibilant shifts as you hear it from “could” to “should.” That’s like hearing you owe it to your family to make healthy organic food choices when your reality is that getting to a grocery store that carries affordable fruits and vegetables takes two bus transfers and you’re working three jobs, so you feel both ashamed and frustrated as you go down to the corner and spend too much for food that’s not very good.

One Plus Two Equals . . . There are two different ways this kind of inequality could play out. We could see a bifurcation: students who go to well-endowed schools will get the opportunity to learn how to create their own understanding of concepts guided by faculty who have the time and resources to set up conditions for that kind of tool-using inquiry while students who go to the other schools will experience technology as subjects, prodded and measured and profiled by profitable ed-tech that seems strangely attractive to the very schools that can’t find the money to hire permanent staff. Those students will be given canned meaning that will be duly measured as they are prepared for the workforce (which actually could use thoughtful, creative, tool-using graduates, but hey, education policy doesn't run on logic).

The other possibility is that in a few years we’ll roll our eyes at the phrase “digital scholarship” and “digital humanities” because of course it’s digital. What else could it be? Remember when we spoke of the “electronic library”? Yeah, that’s kind of embarrassing now (even though some idiots still get excited about the phrase “bookless library,” as if that’s an innovation). We’ll still have inequality, but it won’t divide us in kind. Large organizations will sort out how they put positions together and those of us who are Bartholomew Cubbins librarians will simply be restyling our hat collection - this is what learning looks like this season? I like it! – rather than resigning themselves to this kind of learning being only for the elite. Our libraries were always smaller; our toolboxes will be, too - but we can still make sure our students have experience building things. 

We don’t get to choose whether learning will be digital or not anymore. What we do have to decide is what kind of learning matters – and who gets to have it?   


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