Digital Wisdom in the Time of Coronavirus Disease 2019

Digital Wisdom in the Time of Coronavirus Disease 2019 March 15, 2020

Last year the three of us who contribute to this site published an essay on the digital transformation of higher education. The goal of that paper was to present a framework for thinking about how colleges and universities—especially faith-based institutions, such as ours—may develop goal-oriented formative practices as they integrate digital technologies into teaching and research.

This is what we wrote over two years ago:

Institutions of higher education are hastily updating material technologies for digital education and digital scholarship, but our formative technologies—our practices for cultivating wisdom for a digital age—are most in need of an upgrade. This involves much more than digital skills and literacy … The great challenge and opportunity before all of us in higher education concerns the epistemological and ethical formation of people who will have a certain type of relationship with [new information and communication technologies]. Within the context of Christian higher education, the need to integrate new ICTs into our individual and institutional lives well and wisely—as we consider what technologies are doing to us and what we will do with them—is of utmost significance if we are committed to the cultivation of competence, character, and wisdom.

Our institution, Seattle Pacific University, is located not too far from the first large transmission cluster of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) identified in the United States. An earlier case had been identified in the area in January, but the first death in the greater Seattle area was recorded on February 28. At that time our educational technology team was in the midst of planning for a faculty in-service program on online learning design, but they quickly shifted their planning to prepare all faculty for online instruction. On March 6, we were among the first universities to announce that we would complete our current quarter online. On March 12, we announced that our next quarter would be online as well.

Now we’re in the midst of managing this significant transition. Fortunately, after years of investing in an educational technology stack and creating a department focused on instructional design (ID), we have human and technological resources to prepare and support faculty as they explore digital alternatives to face-to-face educational experiences.

There is a spectrum of online instruction that ranges from basic remote instruction at one end to well-designed online instruction on the other. For finishing up a term with a few remaining weeks, remote instruction typically is sufficient. But preparing for a whole term online requires a move towards ID.

There are good models for online instruction, and plenty of quality and open resources. The most important point to realize is that good online instruction requires rethinking how instructors are present (e.g., providing early and frequent feedback), how students interact with content (i.e., not through long video lectures), and how to cultivate community in a virtual place (e.g., through group discussions). I’m not an ID expert, but I’ve learned some simple and helpful things over the years to improve the digitally mediated relationships I have with my online students. I’ve also learned how to transfer ID strategies into my face-to-face classes.

ID is often used in conjunction with backward design—i.e., beginning with the end in view, such as learning outcomes or standards. More holistically, the entire educational enterprise can be approached from the perspective of backward design: What sort of people do we hope to form? Those goals or ends—our whole telos—should govern the adoption and adaptation of technology.

So the first part of our framework concerns defining a shared telos. For Christian higher education, that involves individuals and institutions participating in new creation—the transformation of all things. It also includes more common goals, such as disciplinary and ethical competencies as well as preparing for wok and civic life. All of these have a technological dimension to them. Students need to understand critically, and ethically use, new and emerging technologies to participate in our changing world. But how do we select and shape appropriate technologies and practices?

The second part of our framework examines our technological assumptions, knowledge, dispositions, and practices. This involves a critical reading or exegesis of cultural claims or narratives, such as “technology is just a tool or neural” or “technological change is inevitable or deterministic.” These claims need to be analyzed critically.

The first claim is rather familiar and problematic. It often takes the form of something like, “Swords don’t kill people, people kill people.” Yes, people kill people—and people design swords with which to kill people. The sword inherits the intention of its designer, which shapes the sword that participates in the action of the one who wields it. The sword on my shelf may seem innocent enough by itself, but why does Isaiah imagine a time when swords shall be beaten into plowshares?

The sword on my shelf

On the other hand, surrendering to apparent or actual technological autonomy is also problematic. We are responsible for our artifacts—even the artificial agents to which we increasingly transfer many of our responsibilities. If we understand how others’ views of and assumptions about technology influence designer’s intentions, as well as our use of their creations, we may discover that these technological teleologies are not aligned with our desired telos. We may find ourselves distracted from our own goals and captive, in both thought and action, to others’ ends.

This leads to the third part of our framework, which focuses on developing counter-formational practices and rituals related to technology. Drawing from different spiritual disciplines, we provide a number of examples in our paper that can help redirect attention and agency toward the ends we’re seeking. Some of these alternative “liturgies” involve technology and some do not; each is rooted in ancient formative wisdom. The point is to cultivate our own robust practices that resist competing teleological practices so that we may realize our intended telos.

When the modern university emerged, it integrated new formative practices with new print technologies to cultivate and form a particular type of person—one whose attention and agency were focused on certain disciplinary ends. (See Chad Wellmon’s excellent Organizing Enlightenment: Information Overload and the Invention of the Modern Research University [Johns Hopkins, 2015] for more about this history.)

For many decades now, institutions of higher education have been updating missions and material technologies for a digital world being shaped by new ICTs. With the current pandemic, technological adaptation is accelerating and many worry about leaving behind and losing the best of what higher education has been. But this is another technological narrative that needs to be critiqued. Our emerging information and technological environment is rapidly changing us and our world, and educators need to be shaping it actively. Our goals, our critiques of our technological culture, and our new formative practices will enable us to become and cultivate people of digital wisdom—people who are able not only to manage technological challenges but also to use technology wisely to create a new and better world.

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