On Gardner Campbell

Our first assignment involved listening to the words of two different people, but I want to dedicate a full post to the article and speech by Gardner Campbell. Ironically, I ended up agreeing with most of his points, but I still disagreed with his main argument – the most important point.

Actually, when I read the article he wrote (“A Personal Cyberinfrastructure”), I felt like I disagreed with pretty much all of it. Campbell’s argument, if I read correctly, is basically that all University courses should be like the ds106 class that I’m writing this for, with each student getting their own web domain, online identity, etc. It’s not that I think this is a bad idea, I just don’t see what good it would do. True, it would teach students the kind of digital skills that would come greatly in handy later in life, but that’s exactly what I’m taking this class for. Asking all classes to do the same would be kind of like a math teacher asking every class of every subject to include statistical analysis, or a science teacher asking all classes to have labs. Some skills have applications that reach to a variety of subjects, but that doesn’t mean they must be taught outside of their respective classes.

Campbell’s argument goes beyond that, though: he insists that the current setup, wherein students use Learning Management Systems (LMSs) like Blackboard.com is not only an inferior option, but actually detrimental; according to him, they discourage “the freedom to explore and create” among students. I find this argument outright ridiculous. They’re not discouraging anything, merely making things simpler for students, who still are totally free to learn about online tools and such on their own time, or whenever the need arises. It’s no different for bemoaning the invention of calculators for making math simpler, and thus removing the need to practice doing it by hand. It’s a fallacy as old as humanity itself. I couldn’t help but think of the printing press, which was considered heresy when it was invented because writing things by hand was just the right way of doing things. You can’t blame those monks, really – they’d spent their entire lives painstakingly writing each book one by one, and now this Gutenberg guy comes along and makes pretty much anyone able to print thousands of copies at once. They must’ve felt cheated. No doubt that when the wheel was invented, some cavemen thought of it as a cheap way to avoid exercise. The difference in Campbell’s case is that the technologies being dealt with are so new, he can frame it as wanting to take a step forward and further integrate classwork with the Internet, even though in reality it’s going backward and making things unnecessarily complicated.

Those were my thoughts after reading the essay. So imagine my surprise when, in his speech (“No Digital Facelifts”), he uses the same Gutenberg example that popped in my mind… in his favor. Actually, I warmed up to his argument a lot more thanks to his speech, even if in the end I still didn’t agree with it. I especially sympathized with his reference to LittleBigPlanet custom levels, and use of one of my favorite sayings, Sturgeon’s Law: “90% of everything is crap”. I completely agree with Campbell that the more potential innovators there are, the greater that other 10% will be. That’s why I began agreeing with his idea of a more personalized, customizable online experience… for teachers. Students are a different matter.

I also agreed with Campbell when he quoted Clay Shirky in calling the newspaper industry’s move online a “digital facelift”. However, comparing that to University classes is comparing apples to oranges. With newspapers, the very existence of the Internet itself is a subversion of the authority they once held; it allows information to be distributed by almost anyone, not just those few who control the media outlets. The newspaper industry is doomed to die out, and journalism is bound to undergo a revolution, no matter what the newspaper companies do.

The same can’t be said of education at all. In a University class, the Professor makes the rules. The Internet can’t, and won’t, change this. Students can’t innovate the experience because they have no control over it. Sure, they can help each other, and there are more online tools by students, for students than I can even begin to list. I understand the argument to give professors more freedom in how they craft their class using the web (although sadly, too many professors are too uninterested in the web as of right now for it to matter much), but students aren’t going to craft the class even if given the tools to do so.

Again, I may have interpreted Campbell’s words wrong – he does use some jargon I’m not really familiar with. But it seems to me like he has a lot of good ideas, which he then interpreted in the wrong way. All of this brings me to my most important point: what kind of a first name is “Gardner”, anyway?

No Responses to “On Gardner Campbell”

  1. Adam says:

    Let me take a stab at this–I think what Gardner’s saying here is that having their own platform encourages students to create something that has value beyond its ability to get them a good grade in a specific class. One example of how this might work is how it often ends up going in grad school–a student begins a paper for a specific class (or perhaps for their dissertation), and then once the class or grad school is done, they repurpose that paper to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. So the paper didn’t just get them a good grade in a class, it also had value to the student in giving them a starting point for something that could be published, and ostensibly it also had value for the academic community by encouraging more work to be done on a particular subject that everyone else could then learn from.

    This works for any subject. Think about math, for example. When I was studying for a class I was taking, I started blogging about the subject matter to help me study. I only did it for my own benefit–because I know from experience that writing about something helps me understand it, and because putting it out in public increases the odds that someone will give me helpful feedback, or even just get into an interesting conversation with me about it.

    But I also created value for others–to this day, the top source of Google traffic to my blog is one of those math posts I did. So studying in the specific way that I did not only helped me pass the class, it also contributed something to the world outside of that class. Anything that encourages students to help others while helping themselves has to be a good thing, right?

    What I’m not sure I buy into is the idea that students need to own and operate their own servers to do this. I do think that’s a valuable skill–and making a class which taught them how to do it required would not be a bad idea–but I don’t think that’s the important part. I think encouraging students to write and engage in conversations in a public way is the important part–and they don’t need to own their own platform to do that. They just need to own the content–meaning that any platform they do use should be equipped to let them easily export the data to any other platform.

  2. David Gurri says:

    Thanks for the response. I’m honestly still trying to make sense of what both you and Adam are trying to say. I can’t say I completely understand it. I still don’t get why each student having their own platform is important to any classes outside of ones specifically dealing with such (like my ds106 class).

  3. @David Actually, the argument I’m trying to make is that as many courses as possible should involve some kind of significant student publishing to the open web, as research shows that writing for an authentic audience outside the specific course context results in better and more thoughtful writing, which in turn leads to deeper and more memorable learning. Plus it’s more fun–always a goal for me. My other argument is also important: the learners themselves should own and manage the platform for their publishing. They shouldn’t rely on school-provided platforms. That way, they have more freedom, they learn necessary digital skills, and they have a greater personal investment in the whole thing, during college and beyond. They learn to “think like the web,” as Jon Udell puts it.

    I know the question about my name was supposed to be a funny little punch line, but it came across poorly. The answer is that “Gardner” was my late mother’s maiden name. It’s my middle name. My parents called me “Gardner” because my first name was the same as my father’s.

    @Adam Yes, you’ve got it, in my view: the name for the way captives internalize the standards and expectations of their captors is “Stockholm Syndrome,” and I think too many students (and faculty, too) have that. As for the specifics of a digital identity, don’t confuse that with having accounts on lots of web sites. What I’m talking about is owning (or renting) and operating a web server. There’s a big difference. When you operate your own web server, you can take charge of your online identity on your own site. In my view, school ought to help teach students how to do just that, as it will be a crucial skill going forward, at least for anyone who wants to be a digital citizen and not just a digital consumer. I’m older, indeed I am, but this is a new (and dangerous) idea for higher education–so far.

    Thanks to both of you for reading my essay.

  4. Adam says:

    Let me just address the main point straightaway:

    In a University class, the Professor makes the rules. The Internet can’t, and won’t, change this. Students can’t innovate the experience because they have no control over it. Sure, they can help each other, and there are more online tools by students, for students than I can even begin to list. I understand the argument to give professors more freedom in how they craft their class using the web (although sadly, too many professors are too uninterested in the web as of right now for it to matter much), but students aren’t going to craft the class even if given the tools to do so.

    I don’t think this is exactly right.

    Students are not prisoners who are trapped in professors’ classes against their will. Within a university, they get to choose which classes they sign up for. This choice gives them leverage–and while specific individuals may not have much power, the preferences of students will end up being reflected in (elective) classes to some extent because a class has to attract a minimum number of students to exist in the first place.

    And in at a larger level, students get to decide whether or not they want to go to a university/college in the first place. So even the rules of the game set by the university are subject to competition.

    What the internet does to universities is analogous to what it’s doing to newspapers to the extent that it has increased the competition that universities face, and to the extent that at least some of this competition takes a uniquely digital/online form.

    All of this is to say that students do have the tools to innovate–though odds are it won’t be the students who do the innovating, but entrepreneurs who create new tools/concepts that students test out/substitute for regular classes.

    So I do think there’s something to what Campbell says. But the specific form–getting your own domain and so forth–probably only seems novel to him because he is older and it’s still something new. But anyone young enough to be a typical student will already have an online identity of some sort. Educators can help some intellectually curious students who aren’t aware of the tools for teaching yourself, maybe.