Harsh Realities About Virtual Ones

Colleges need to question their rush to the latest technological wonders and focus more on students, writes Michael Bugeja.

March 11, 2008

Since the 1990s, educators have been focusing on access to Internet as a means of engagement, concerned about the digital divide; now that the divide has been bridged, we are concerned about access to education.

Cause and effect here correlate.

Rising costs of a college degree at our wireless colleges and universities have resulted in increasing public scrutiny, student debt and budget models based on marketing rather than pedagogical concepts. Academe’s insatiable investment in virtual worlds, social networks and other consumer applications is a benchmark of how far we will go and how much money we will spend in the name of engagement.

In the past decade we have seen consumer technology used as delivery system, then as content in the classroom and finally as classroom, building and campus itself, and in every case, pedagogy changed to accommodate the application and the interface, adding courses to the curricula and fees to tuition.

In the past two years, tuition has spiked about 12 percent at most four-year institutions. Room and board rates have been rising on average 5 percent annually over the same time period. Driving these rates is an engagement industry, largely corporate, relying on wireless campuses to vend their virtual products and on teaching excellence centers to advertise their brands in the name of engagement.

The marketing strategy is stupefyingly rhetorical. Few administrators bother to explicate “engagement,” a generic term whose synonym has come to mean “retention” -- the only factor that matters in funding formulas. The student pays tuition here rather than elsewhere or not at all.

While the generic meaning of engagement is “to occupy the attention or efforts of a person or persons,” according to my unabridged Random House Dictionary, the specific meaning relates to business, as in “to secure for aid, use, or employment, etc., hire” and “to bind, as by pledge, promise, contract, or oath; make liable.”

We are outsourcing our environment when we invest in virtual worlds and social networks, and their vendors bind us by service terms that make our institutions liable.

Moreover, these corporations and the public relations agencies that represent them (often “engaging” early adopters to promote their brand) have schooled academics in advertising basics, which contain two messages, manifest and latent, as in: Purchase this toothpaste (manifest). Get the girl or guy (latent). Adapted to academe, the advertisement plays as follows: Purchase this virtual-life game (manifest). Get engaged (latent).

Advertisements also include endorsements, as in “a recent dental association survey found that 3 of 4 dentists prefer this brand over another.” In academe, any use of the word “engagement” suggests an endorsement by the National Survey on Student Engagement, whose philosophy gauges the quality of institutions by activities that give meaning and value to collegiate life.

Those activities, I contend, have proliferated technologically beyond the intent but nevertheless in the name of NSSE whose four-page survey contains only four of some one hundred questions related to technology … or, should I say, technostalgia:

  • [Have you] used an electronic medium (listserv, chat group, Internet, instant messaging, etc.) to discuss or complete an assignment?
  • [Have you] used e-mail to communicate with an instructor?
  • [To what extent does your institution emphasize] using computers in academic work?
  • [To what extent has your experience at this institution contributed to your knowledge, skills and personal development in] using computer and information technology?

I coded the NSSE 2007 College Student Report, eliminating questions on demographics, and found 23 related to interpersonal contact, 11 to critical thinking, 9 to reading and writing, 6 to commitment or work ethic, 6 to financial and other support, 5 to diversity, and 20 on a range of topics from commuting to learning communities. (Some questions contained elements of two or more categories, as in how often students included diverse perspectives in their discussions and writing assignments.)

Certainly, you might code the questions differently than I and argue that technology factors heavily now in discussions with professors or sessions with academic advisers, deleting those from interpersonal contact and adding them to technology; but keep in mind that this survey dates back to 2000 with the intent behind questions suggested by distinct terminology such as “electronic medium” to discuss an assignment or “e-mail” to communicate with a professor.

Students not only use electronic media to discuss or complete an assignment; they have become the assignment in virtual worlds as avatars and check e-mail out of boredom as well as text each other, download music, visit social networks and make online purchases in wireless classrooms during lecture.

Attempting to engage today’s students, we have embraced consumer technologies on the flawed assumption that students want to learn through the same devices that amuse and distract them.

My own profession, journalism, abandoned its constitutional responsibility to inform the electorate using these very same technologies, with this result: The public interest now is what interests the public. Media moguls embrace that notion to engage their audience, giving us a steady diet of news about Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and American Idol augmented by outsourced war and foreign correspondence with unremitting follow-ups about school violence, beautiful women gone missing, athlete and celebrity scandals, and health reporting that plays to the advertising base and is cheaper than investigative journalism.

Meanwhile the news media and the engagement industry overlook the recessional tsunami as well as such impending crises as oil depletion, global warming, pandemics, poverty and any number of other disasters for which the emerging generation is generally ill prepared.

Suppose, just for a moment, that we have reached the tipping point on engagement and, like the news media, are resorting increasingly to entertainment to hold the attention of a distracted, multitasking audience. Seemingly oblivious to this possibility, colleges and universities continue to invest in for-profit virtual realities with more than 100 institutions with a presence in Second Life and hundreds more campus libraries using social networks.

A University of Michigan study found that students overwhelmingly do not want to communicate with librarians on Facebook or MySpace. One library blogger put the study into crisp perspective: “One question found that by and large the respondents use social networking sites, but the majority (76%) would not respond to a library presence on Facebook or MySpace, either because existing methods of contact were sufficient or because these tools are social networks and not places for library invaders.”

I am more concerned about the long-term effect of virtual realities. Current students have been reared on simulated experience from interactive toys to video games. If they want to learn what it feels to be a rock star, they don’t have to dedicate years playing guitar or drums before live audiences, a humbling experience that inspires commitment; they buy “Rock Band” for Xbox and then go on to other things.

Virtual realities simulate just about anything a student can imagine, from sex to science. Geologists have complained to me that the emerging generation no longer sees the need to observe nature. They would rather observe virtual nature because field trips can be scheduled on demand without the inconvenience of rock climbing and inclement weather. Horticulturalists are concerned about the same thing, reminding students that their discipline differs from agronomy and requires relationships with real rather than virtual plants. Veterinarians have consulted with me when students abandon pets and neglect horses at greater rates due to lack of time spent with addictive digital gadgets.

Since 1999 my research has focused on the interpersonal divide, or how people neglect others because of their obsession with all things virtual. However, now we are seeing that divide widen concerning our relationship with nature, plants and domesticated animals, all of which require human flora and fauna interaction.

We should drive home the point that simulation is not a replacement for real-world activities but should prepare learners for them. We need empirical assessment on Second Life in this matter. If the data suggest that the application encourages real-life participation over time and across disciplines, then it is a useful mechanism for NSSE-like engagement. However, if as I suspect, simulation is a substitute for the real thing, then Second Life is just a video game without a goal or, as one university president informed me after viewing a demonstration of it, “engagement for engagement’s sake.”

It is incumbent upon us to be candid with constituents about the cost of technology which, in the end, may re-establish a new digital divide -- those who can afford the high-tech classroom on a residential campus and those who cannot.

Administrators concerned about rising tuition are realizing that falling retention rates are associated as much with financial burden as classroom engagement. Those costs include human resource hours and faculty tutorials to facilitate the new technology in addition to learning curves of each new device or application, entailing purchase of new computers with software licenses and video-gaming graphic cards able to sustain virtual-life software, upgraded bandwidth and more IT support and staff hires. Often on top of this we are introducing students to yet another application programmed for corporate revenue generation, adding to student debt, which begins in high school now because of credit cards.

The more we do in higher education, the more our budgets seem bottomless to others. The public generally left us alone when our agendas were less expansive and tuition, less expensive. Unless we revisit the unintended outcomes of engagement, legislators will mandate more testing, access and accountability, altering pedagogy in the process.

There is a greater irony involving pedagogy, associated with technological proliferation. Many university presidents and provosts are on record believing that business models do not apply to our academic mission but are unwittingly underwriting Second Life, Facebook, Twitter and G-Mail, among other applications.

Those models perpetuate rampant consumerism, undermining standards that have endured for decades, if not centuries, emphasizing commitment rather than engagement so as to prepare learners for the challenges that await them in the real rather than virtual world.


Michael Bugeja is director of the Greenlee School at Iowa State University. He is the author of Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age and Living Ethics Across Media Platforms, both by Oxford University Press. This essay is based on a presentation he made in February at the annual meeting of the American Council on Education.


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