Is this the Future of Education?

A lot of wags have spent the better part of the July 4th weekend mocking Fox News’ Glenn Beck for founding “Beck U”, an online, unaccredited university available to subscribers of his personal website. His announcement reads as follows:

School may be out for the summer, but for Glenn Beck class is just starting.

This July, while others are relaxing poolside, head back to the classroom – from the comfort of your own home. That may sound like an oxymoron but Glenn’s new academic program is only available online.

Offered exclusively to Insider Extreme subscribers, Beck University is a unique academic experience bringing together experts in the fields of religion, American history and economics. Through captivating lectures and interactive online discussions, these experts will explore the concepts of Faith, Hope and Charity and show you how they influence America’s past, her present and most importantly her future.

So don’t miss out on this amazing experience. Enroll in Beck University today by subscribing to Insider Extreme.

As a national figure, Glenn Beck alternates between revered, ridiculed, and reproached for his brand of off the wall conspiracy theorizing, most frequently aimed at progressives and a sort of mythological version of the Obama administration in which Nazis and Marxists and Black Panthers are stalking the 1950s vision of America, salivating at the prospect of initiating some kind of socialist new world order. There’s nothing particularly new or interesting about the rhetoric. We’ve seen hucksters like Beck over the generations as a part of our national political heritage. What’s different about this particular aspect of his persona is the “teacher” identity he dons when he stands before his blackboard, glasses perched on his nose just so, imparting “wisdom” to millions and millions of viewers who are searching for a champion of the mythological 1950s America, where solid Christian, white values served as the beacon for our national morality…as the story goes.

That television persona, in past generations, would likely have corralled Glenn Beck into a relatively confined space in the American discourse and would have limited his cultural significance to a select audience ready to dismiss him for whichever revival preacher of American nativism came along next with a more interesting sell. The Internet is the x-factor here in what just be a sneak peak at the (disturbing) future of education in America.

Consider this. The number of online universities and education programs has increased exponentially over the last several years. In fact, a US Department of Education study(pdf) states, ” The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.” Also from the report, “The National Center for Education Statistics (2008) estimated that the number of K-12 public school students enrolling in a technology-based distance education course grew by 65 percent in the two years from 2002-03 to 2004-05. On the basis of a more recent district survey, Picciano and Seaman (2009) estimated that more than a million K–12 students took online courses in school year 2007–08.”

Of course, the matter of accreditation figures heavily in this swelling trend, and more frequently we see existing accredited institutions of higher learning ramping up their distance, or e-learning, programs to cash in on the phenomenon. If we apply what we know about electronic technology to this situation, that electricity tends to segment and tribalize, we ought to take the idea of Beck U more seriously. Am I crazy…maybe, but…

Consider that the debate over the Internet as a source for news and information is that citizens can now be even more highly selective about the news they seek out and the framing of reality they consider as legitimate, or perhaps more appropriately, desirable. The idea is that progressives can limit themselves to a steady diet of Amy Goodman and Democracy Now!, Huffington Post, DailyKos, The Nation, Mother Jones, and Firedoglake, to name a few, or that conservatives can listen to Rush Limbaugh, watch Fox News, and engage in their ideological back and forth via the forums at Free Republic. We’ve come to accept that as one of the challenges to our national discourse and to the viability of a traditional, institutional media as well. The same conversation can be had about education and learning in light of Beck U, as it challenges the very definition of what academia means.

Harold Innis’ theory of the Monopoly of Knowledge plays an important role in this thinking and is described thus:

Those who control knowledge through the dominant media of a given society also control reality, in that they are in a position to define what knowledge is legitimate. Thus, monopolies of knowledge encourage centralization of power.

Paul Levinson suggests that “[l]iteracy probably constitutes the most significant monopoly of knowledge in human history.” (Levinson, 1997: p12) In times when only a select number of people could read or write, the knowledge conveyed in written texts remained among the literate. It was these literate people who could decide the nature of the information that they passed on to the rest of the community.

(Note: I transposed the above passage from Wikipedia in order to provide a definition prior to the illustration of the concept.)

Controlling knowledge is a peripheral issue in education, as it relates to reinforcing the dominant cultural narratives that persist in a given society, but becomes extremely important when we relate the concept to propaganda. Those who control, or who have an exclusive mastery of, a dominant communication form can define legitimacy or primacy of ideas and beliefs, and in doing so can include or exclude groups and individuals from circles of power. In totalitarian societies education most assuredly plays this role (think North Korea), but it would be considerably myopic to think that the powerful entitites that generally produce mass communication in “free societies” don’t enlist the same techniques to advance their private or public agendas. Political parties, corporations, and even individuals have become adept at propagandizing the public to the point where we ought to wonder aloud when we aren’t being propagandized, rather than when we are…

Innis says that monopolies of knowledge centralize power. I would argue that the Internet gives us the ability to centralize power around particular fractious nodes of communication influence, where the frequency of linkage to a particular node might correlate to its significance in monopolizing knowledge. Beck U may or may not ever amount to anything, but if interest groups mask propaganda in education the way Beck has here, we might see a trend emerge where the agile-minded individuals in our society, rational or otherwise, can selectively educate themselves via these nodes, collectively reinforce their vision of reality, and parade themselves to the world-at-large as “educated” citizens entitled to the status of expertise previously afforded only to those who rigorously pursued scholarship via accredited institutions.

Lest I be accused of elitism here, I always make the point to separate thinking, learning, and academia. Some of the most intelligent, rational, and profound people I know have little or no higher education at all. Some of the most irrational, crass, and vulgar people I’ve met have graduate degrees from world famous institutions. The notion that the agile-minded but irrational class of people, who might otherwise be discredited for their manipulation of reason and science, might one day find themselves a legitimized and empowering force via e-learning is a serious debate to have in light of what we already know about the profoundly tangled web of science, pseudo-science, and propaganda. The idea that we might one day be a people who care little for the accredited world of knowledge, seeking out whatever narrative furthers or supports our own worldview, is very real. We live amidst this environment on this very day. Too often we see legitimate arguments about climate change dismissed as the whining of liberal elite eggheads who are trying to control America through bigger government, for example. Equal time is given to climate change deniers where they ought be drowned out by reason and science.

Communities of people seeking legitimacy for their worldview can already find solidarity more readily than at any time in history thanks to the Internet. Adding a curriculum and a tacit accreditation for the irrational and unreasonable, in the absence of an authoritative accreditation, makes the monopoly of knowledge for the propagandist nodes of our networked society all the more powerful. Perhaps Glenn Beck’s university will simply remain an icon of ridicule, but others will surely follow with less charicatured and laughable spokespeople behind them. Once they multiply and offer a public ideological alternatives to Enlightenment institutions with pseudo-science and propaganda as their curricula, you will see a hardening of attitudes and an even greater struggle for the definition of reality than we are faced with already. These nodes will make the recent Texas School Board whitewashing of history texts look like child’s play.

Hand-wringing aside, the overall impact of this turn of events may likely be minimal, however, it represents a very real future (or present) for the definition of education and the unquestioned legitimacy afforded to those who are “educated”. Who will be the first Fox News expert to have been “educated” by Beck U. I’ll be watching.

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Shadow and Substance in America 2.0

It may be somewhat cliche in academic circles to cite American educator and philosopher John Dewey to launch any particular exploration, but I’ve always believed him to be one of the great treasures of our national heritage and a thinker largely unappreciated outside the walls of academia. His pragmatism, in combination with his brilliant mind, define the essence of great American reasoning, and so I begin this piece with his work in mind.

Dewey’s work on democracy is pinned to some very important notions of the role of communication. He had a sense of the ecological in his beliefs about our communities and their foundations in acts of communication as shared experience. In his work The Public and its Problems, Dewey explores the fits and starts of technological evolution in the early 20th century and their obvious impact on the disintegration of community as we’d known it previously. Primary to his argument, Dewey draws a connection between the system of signs and symbols that developed gradually over time to reinforce old institutions and the lack of such signs in the sped up society of the industrial era. In the end, Dewey writes that without the evolution of a congruent relationship of signs and symbols “the public will remain shadowy and formless, seeking spasmodically for itself, but seizing and holding its shadow rather than its substance…Communication alone can create a great community. Our Babel is not one of tongues but of the signs and symbols without which shared experience is impossible.”

Fast forward to Robert Putnam’s work on the decline of civic engagement and his findings that the introduction of television to a broad American audience coincides with the decline of interest in civic life. His book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community expanded on his more technical findings and gave access to these ideas about our way of life to a broader audience. Of course the details are more complex than to simply rest the entire case on television, but a good deal of the findings lean in that direction. Putnam’s work harkens back to Dewey in many respects. The ideas that he puts forth lean on the effects of home-based entertainment and a sedentary lifestyle, but a good media ecologist would also note that Dewey’s public seeks spasmodically for itself, seizing and holding its shadow, largely due to the disconnect between a consciousness rooted in the distant pixels of the television screen trying to make sense of a physical world right under our noses.

The introduction of television to American communities certainly had a negative effect on civic participation, but there are distinct cultural trends that precipitated the technological shift as well. It has been said that communication is culture, but there is also ample evidence to show that the reverse is true as well; culture is communication. No matter which angle you prefer to take on this subject, there is plenty of evidence to paint a complex picture of the interplay between technology and culture and their mutual influence. Mindich helps to broaden the discussion on this topic, but looking further back in American history we find a profound and prescient analysis of this very issue.

There was no television in 1927, when Dewey penned The Public and Its Problems, but he noted quite interestingly that the dynamic nature of modern society had a deleterious effect on public life. He wrote, “The older publics, in being local communities, largely homogenous with one another, were also, as the phrase goes, static…The newer forces have created mobile and fluctuating associational forms. The common complaints of the disintegration of family life may be placed in evidence. The movement from rural to urban assemblies is also the result and proof of this mobility. Nothing stays long put, not even the associations by which business and industry are carried on…How can a public be organized, we may ask, when literally it does not stay in place?”

As he continues, Dewey remarks that human attachment is lost in the mass production of remote markets, facilitated by electronic media, cheap printing, and modern forms of transportation. He wrote, “A glance at the situation shows that the physical and external means of collecting information in regard to what is happening in the world have far outrun the intellectual phase of inquiry and organization of its results. Telegraph, telephone, and now the radio, cheap and quick mails, the printing press, capable of swift reduplication of material at low cost, have attained a remarkable development…‘News’ signifies something which has just happened, and which is new just because it deviates from the old and regular. But its meaning depends on relation to what it imports, to what its social consequences are. This import cannot be determined unless the new is placed in relation to the old, to what has happened and been integrated into the course of events. Without coordination and consecutiveness, events are not events, but mere occurrences, intrusions; and event implies that out of which a happening proceeds.”

In many ways, all electronic media function to this effect, be it the telegraph or broadband Internet. Postman rightly pointed out in Amusing Ourselves to Death that the ability to connect distant points didn’t mean that they had anything relevant to say to one another. Hence, trivia was born on a mass scale. This effect of electronic communication is perhaps the most obvious source of our social schizophrenia, the surface layer, if you will, the skin of our postmodern disconnect with the physical world under our feet. Let me explain.

Information is, simply put, the organization of data in a way that it makes sense to a receiver. If the natural state is entropy, information is the sorting of some element in a way that reduces entropy in favor of clarity. In the case of human communication we deal in terms of language and symbols as the units of logic by which entropy is reigned in. When we consider this concept in terms of the events of the world around us, our news media have long played the role of gatekeeper, in effect providing a logic by which we understand ‘reality’ amidst the entropic state of the universe. Admittedly, this task is far too much to expect from any human made institution, and when we include schools, families, and communities in the process we only begin to make sense of a small fraction of the universe in all its glory. Still, when we follow the pragmatist model, its enough to distill our environment into the elements by which we can reasonably hold together a community around shared values, goals, and beliefs. When we introduce agenda-driven messages to the logic, be it political propaganda, commercial propaganda, or simply uninformed perspective, we pollute the delicate organization of this critical data, necessary for the functioning of community, particularly in a democracy.

Understanding Postman’s point, mentioned previously, and adding the notion of speed by which portable, high speed Internet technology operates, we can see an explosion of confusion. It’s not so much that there’s too much information, but rather too little. Remember the definition offered here. There’s too little sorting of the important messages. The differentiation between trivia, the basic tools of survival, and the extended logic necessary to thrive is lacking. The aforementioned schizophrenia can be directly associated with entropy disguised as an information revolution. Certainly, some progress is periodically made in building streams of information via applications like Google, not to mention a host of lesser known entities, but it’s not enough. It’s akin to using a sieve to gather enough water to quench one’s thirst.

As the America 2.0 project takes flight here, a number of different philosophical approaches will be introduced into the examination in hopes of tying together some important concepts and some important perspectives on who we are, what we’ve become, how we got here, and what we can do from here to make sense of it all. The intent here is, in the pragmatist tradition, to tie the conceptual and the theoretical to some process of effecting constructive change on our environment. On that note, I turn back to Dewey.

Dewey’s notion of the formation of a public depends on spontaneous groups of citizens who share the indirect consequences of a specific action. These citizens use this common interest as a basis on which they solve a problem. This is a highly dynamic process, as new interests emerge and dissolve, but the speed with which the new electronic media of his day altered the landscape of information, without regard to time or space, prevented a cohesive bond to form across a scattered and uncoordinated landscape. Dewey’s notion of the formation of a public and his observations of technology’s effect on American democracy provide an important historical vantage point from which to examine Putnam. Putnam is concerned with civic engagement and social capital. The focus of America 2.0 is the restoration of an environment in which a public can form and civic life can be revived. This means a radical redefinition of our community organization. The electronic and the physical must find a way to meet in order for a new logic to emerge. This logic is the system by which we pluck meaningful messages from entropy. It’s the logic by which we grasp the substance of our environment, all the while understanding the importance of its shadow.

In the next piece in this series, The Library as a hub for the America 2.0 community will be explored. A redefinition of libraries and their role in civic life will provide the platform upon which further exploration will be undertaken.

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America 2.0

The inaugural post here at iProgress is a statement of sorts. A redefinition of the terms of American organization. A redefinition of the relationship between citizens, community, government, power, culture, and the complex interactions and meanings associated with each. To be sure, the term ‘America 2.0’ didn’t start here, with the title of this post. If one ‘Googles’ the term it appears sporadically throughout blog posts, clever comments in various nooks and crannies of the Web, and even in a handful of mainstream articles.

What you won’t find anywhere (that I’m aware of) is any articulated vision of what an America 2.0 would look like and, in fact, what the idea means. Generally speaking, America 2.0 is a simple allusion to the idea that citizens and government interact differently as a result of Internet and social network technology. The simple notion that individuals can now communicate directly to and about the government and its institutions is the essence of America 2.0, as far as my exploration has uncovered. What I intend to pursue via this ‘borrowed’ and underdeveloped phrase is a reexamination of the relationship between Amercan community, its infrastructure, institutions, individuals, and symbolic environment. This undertaking will be conducted through a lens ground and refined by scholars and thinkers from a wide variety of disciplines, but best articulated through the tradition of media ecology and the men and women credited with providing the core structure of its philosophy.

As America 2.0 grows and evolves at iProgress, participation from readers and fellow philosophers, scholars, and citizens of all stripes will be key, for, you see, America 2.0 is not a place or a concept modeled on top-down thinking, but rather from collaborative, multi-directional, grassroots communication that typifies the media environment in which our national discourse is currently advancing fastest.

An important note about America 2.0: Nothing is more important to understand about this concept than the idea that our sense of national character, our culture and our communities, are experiencing a kind of structural schizophrenia in large part due to the contradictions found in the way we have extended ourselves into a world of digital, electronic networks that stand in stark contrast to the corporeal realities that make up the ‘natural’ world, for lack of a better term. On one hand, we’ve seen the acceleration of corporations and institutions operating in a stratosphere beyond the reach of most individuals and their relatively small claimant groups. We’ve see ourselves immersed in electronic environments which have transported our consciousnesses around the world without a care for space or time, but our ideas and beliefs have become increasingly disconnected from our bodies and the physicality of our environment, in which the importance of ‘meaning’ and ‘action’ of the greatest concern. This includes notions of fairness, morality, ethics, and a sense of empathy that is essential to our humanity. The specifics of this phenomenon are for another time and another post, but it’s important to recognize that the basis for America 2.0 must be one of structural integration where the physical world meets the conceptual and the cybernetic.

As the pioneer of the concepts discussed here at iProgress, I intend to drive the bus, so to speak, by providing some intellectual foundations for this concept. Some of the core principles and structural elements will be mine and will hopefully provide a singular coherence to the project. Input from outside sources will always be welcome and should push the project in a positive and broadly useful direction. America 2.0 is what we say it is, and the ideas will begin to crystallize here.

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