Thinking through technology & learning: Bass’s Engines of Inquiry

The imaginary/conceptual “game of perfect information” holds that, with the right setup computers can satisfy all our informational needs. When the language of this game enters into the conversation about technology and education, the conversation goes awry. According to Bass, when attempting to discern the impact of technology on learning we must consider: (a) how teaching/learning is a complex process that occurs and builds knowledge over time and (b) how learning contexts must be analyzed ecologically with the understanding that learning does not happen in one place, one way, via one device or method.

Before considering technology, instructors may need to take a step back and ask basic questions about their own teaching. From these considerations, we can ask: “what aspects of good teaching, and contexts of good learning, do particular technologies serve well?” Rather than engaging with technology as an add-on to our pedagogy, technology can act as a medium for our own pedagogical goals and aspirations. According to Bass, as scholars, our questions drive our desire to learn and this also holds true for students who often engage and learn the most when they are driven by questions that interest them. Questioning our motivations to learn and our pedagogy allows us to better assess the role that technology can play in facilitating and energizing our students’ engines of inquiry.

According to Bass, technology can help facilitate 6 aspects of quality learning: distributive learning, authentic tasks, dialogic learning, public accountability, and reflective and critical thinking. With increased access to information, responsibility for knowledge creation can be distributed. Students are able to deeply engage with rich, diverse, and expansive resources via tech platforms and digital mediums. Technologies can open up lines of communication, leveling discussion and participation, making it less high stakes and more democratic. Digital spaces allow for small group interaction, collaborative writing, and active reading where students can go at their own pace and draw their own connections (which they could later share with others in the space). Often some or all of these spaces are public; students can be held accountable and often take their work more seriously. And often, if instructors desire that their students begin to think reflectively and critically, they must begin by reflecting and considering their own teaching structures and habits.

Integrating technology into a course may reshape overall course structure, requiring a reconsideration of location, course architecture, and assessment possibilities. Courses have always had multiple learning spaces; in the past these have typically been defined as the classroom and elsewhere. Thoughtfully integrating technology into pedagogy requires a re-imagining and deeper conceptualization of ‘elsewhere’. Technologies can allow instructors to choose and define these new engagement spaces and promote quality learning in these spaces. Technology can coherently and easily connect these spaces and foster deeper engagement and communication. Connecting these spaces may provide students with a better understanding of how different aspect of the course come together and technologies can help connect concepts, integrate new viewpoints and resources, and allow students to develop their own constructive projects connected to the course.

Reimagining the course structure rests on the assumption that the “course” should be an independent unit with specific goals. But if reimagining the structure and practice of courses, why stop there? Course, disciplinary, and institutional boundaries often divide people, ideas, and applicable skills. When re-thinking pedagogy and how technology can support our teaching, it might be fruitful to use the intersection between tech and pedagogy to rethink how higher education functions to produce a well-rounded, proficient graduate.

Which begs the question, in 2015, how do we define the well-rounded, proficient graduate? A person who can get a job? A person who has transferable skills? A digitally literate person? Someone who has found a passion? Fights for a cause? Our answers to these questions are both ideological and pedagogical. If our main goal in teaching is to help our students get a job, do we only reinforce the capitalistic structures that often oppress and dominate the very students we teach? Can certain pedagogies allow us to prepare our students for the workforce while also providing them with the vision and tools to resist oppressive and dominant forces?

Reading Bass, at some points I wondered if his view of technology was too utopian. For example, yes, technology can help level communication and open up dialogue. But, I have also encountered students who resist any type of online discussion or engagement. And, yes, public accountability can be beneficial but it also can put students at risk if they hold radical views or feel pressured to conform to the status quo. However, in the end, I think this is where Bass’s question regarding how technologies can serve good teaching becomes most salient. How do we choose the technologies that best support our pedagogy? What questions can we ask ourselves to be sure that the technology works with our pedagogical needs and goals? And, if attempting to break down arbitrary disciplinary and institutional boundaries, what types of knowledge and skills would we our students to develop in order to have coherent experiences across various courses?

One thought on “Thinking through technology & learning: Bass’s Engines of Inquiry

  1. Anna Alexis Larsson

    Thank you, Laurie, for your thoughts on the Bass text. In reference to his utopianism, Bass occasionally falls into the groove of what I think of as a mainstream, un-nuanced discourse on the affordances of (digital, computer) technology. The complications you unpack in reference to opening up dialogue are on point. Discussion forums and other digital publishing platforms for students/classes are not neutral territories. In some ways this is great. For example, some of my students need to have their writing published in the classroom as a push to get them to be concerned about clarity and substance. Without blogs, discussion posts, etc., the most likely platform for publishing is the humble (and ecologically destructive) photocopy. However, I don’t know if there’s a “systemic” difference between these things. It’s still a tool for (more or less) the same set of relations. It’s easier, at present, to annotate a printed page, and this facilitates class discussion. It makes it inefficient to publish everyone, so students don’t all come to class expecting their provisional drafts to be picked apart by everyone. When it is their turn it can be an encouragement: “we all think your writing is worth looking at.”

    aurie, you bring up the concern that the digital dialogue can add extra pressure to conform or, conversely, to feel further isolated or estranged for holding and voicing non-conformist views. For sure. In a less overtly political context, I will share the conformist concerns my students express in my classes. Students grapple with this in the writing classroom in the form of their circle of imaginary critics built on the ideologies of writing their previous instructors promoted, but in the form, as well, of a rigid construct of writing evaluation. That is, students frequently voice their concern that instructors’ evaluations of their writing have been entirely “subjective,” and therefore unpredictable, with the unreachable goal of mind-reading for approval looming over the realities of students’ rhetorical decisions.

    I will offer another example in reference to the concerns you voiced about “open dialogue and communication,” which I generally, here, interpret to be “digital publishing platforms.” Students who already feel the stakes of their writing to be too high, those who bring all kinds of emotional baggage to the class about what kind of writer they’ve been encouraged to identify as or how exhausting it is to write, can find the publishing imperative of posting online–even if only to fellow classmates–too crippling. These students can easily, then, “check out,” and write quick, almost flippant missives in place of the assignment. I don’t think this is because they don’t care, even when they might say they don’t care. Rather, students make decisions about the economy of their time and energy, and the ruse of a “low-stakes” weekly assignment for students who haven’t had enough low-stakes writing opportunities becomes very high-pressure when it is going to be published. A lot of my colleagues assign this kind of thing, and so do I. As it becomes increasingly common, the low-stakes digital publishing imperative will probably disabuse students of the expectation–and the relief–that their writing will be, for better or (mostly) for worse, just between the student and the instructor. This is maybe stating the obvious, but consider how it might effect student writing in the long term to be always also considering their audience in an academic setting. I’m going to leave the conclusions I draw for later discussion. In a longitudinal view, I maintain, this seeming add-on tool of digital publishing in courses indeed has a systemic effect.

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