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Cathy N. Davidson: The fourth great information revolution

We’re good at learning from authority, but how do we learn to question authority? That’s an invaluable skill in this collaborative, Internet age, says a professor of interdisciplinary studies.

February 16, 2010

Educational institutions should make major changes in response to a communications revolution brought on by the Internet age, said Cathy N. Davidson, the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Ruth F. Devarney Professor of English at Duke University. She suggested that the way we prescribe to students what they should know might not be what they need to know or what they want to know.

Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory and of the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke. She earned her doctorate in American literature from the State University of New York at Binghamton.

Davidson is on the Board of Advisors to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative.  In 2009, Davidson collaborated with David Theo Goldberg on the book “The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age.”

For videos of Davidson talking about this issue, go to Duke on Demand.

Q: Why is it important that institutions of higher learning adapt to the digital age?

In the last 10 years, social media have significantly changed the way we live. If somebody had predicted the future in 1995 they might have predicted the technology but they never would have predicted that human interactions on the most simple -- and complex -- levels would change as much as they have. If I have a sore throat, before I call my doctor I Google or go to Wikipedia to find out about sore throats. People might even go to a site where Joe Schmo is talking about his sore throat.

Now, instead of going to authorities, I am willing to trust the opinions of non-experts I don’t even know. That’s a different experience of human nature than we had before the Internet, before social networking. This is the world that we’re living in, and as educators we need to take that seriously.

Q: In “The Future of Thinking,” you say that collaborative network learning alters how we think about learning institutions. What do you mean by that?

Let’s start with the one that educators were banning from the classrooms: Wikipedia. [What] if you had asked educators 15 years ago to imagine that anybody in the world could contribute to knowledge online for free…anyone could read it for free? It could be in every language in the world. People would edit each other’s work and the best librarians would say it was pretty darn accurate and far more globally inclusive than any of our most refereed sources.

People would have said that’s the most implausible science fiction fantasy ever.

A half-billion people a month use Wikipedia. The goal is to make all the world’s knowledge free to all the world’s people. It is not there yet, but it is a lot closer than anything else we’ve produced. That is collaborative learning at its most global. The fact that something like Wikipedia exists means I have to look at human nature differently.

Social scientists and humanists love to define what makes us human. I think it is learning. Not only learning but also our desire to contribute what we know. If I know about tiddlywinks or tap dancing or some other specialized subject, my desire to communicate that knowledge is one of the definitional features about being human.

Old ideas of evolution were based on a crude notion of survival of the fittest and the conviction that competition is what makes us great. The Internet makes us rethink that. It makes us think collaboration and not competition, and it’s interesting to see the spate of new books on cooperation and empathy and community. What if natural selection is based on cooperation, not competition? That’s a major paradigm shift for educators.

Q: Yet the premise that you have an authority imparting knowledge to less-learned students is at the core of most educational institutions. How do you change that?

Starting from the mid-19th century, we began to focus on educational specialization. Over the 20th century, we developed majors and minors, tracks and professional education in schools. We’ve developed that form of education pretty well.

[However,] in the Internet age there is a world of other skills at which we don’t do a good job. How do we teach 11-year-olds what on Google is worth considering and what is nonsense? We’re good at learning from authority, but how do we learn to question authority? That’s a huge skill in a collaborative, Internet age.

I don’t know any course, K through 20, that teaches you how to evaluate what counts as learning when you lack the specialized learning to make that evaluation. In other words, what is the process by which you think through credibility? On the Internet we know mobs are not always smart. Crowds are not always wise. How do you learn that? How do you teach kids that sense of “I’m skeptical here,” or “I want to get another point of view?” And how do you teach it not so they discount the ideas of others but so they know what is trustworthy so they can collaborate with others?

We have great methods for testing. Have you memorized? How well have you learned? Have you learned this methodology? Can you replicate it? We do that just fine. It is mostly standardized testing, often multiple-choice testing. These [methods] don’t serve you at all on the Internet.

On the Internet, you browse through lots of information and constantly synthesize that information into a generalization about the world. It is a complicated process and not everyone does it well or in the same way. No one teaches it. These are skills that we know are cognitively enhancing for both children and the elderly.

Q: How do we expand to other ways of learning in an era of belt-tightening, when everything feels like a zero-sum game?

There are many ways. At a conference recently, some professors from the University of Melbourne in Australia told me that their students have a major and three-quarters of their courses are going to be in that major. Those courses are going to be prescribed. The only rule about the other one-quarter courses is they can’t be in any of those prescribed fields. Now everyone at the University of Melbourne is astonished because, as in schools in the United States, most of their students are social science majors geared toward business, but what elective courses do they want to take? Arts classes, literature classes and languages.

There has to be some rebalancing of the universities because humanities and arts courses that are now considered frivolous are what students want to take. That may require a reallocation of resources. It might turn out cheaper if one-quarter of everything we did was geared toward an expansive, exploratory way of thinking instead of a prescriptive way of thinking. We might not be getting it right. The way we prescribe to students what they should know might not be what they need to know or what they want to know.

Q: Your report presents an exciting vision of collaboration and adapting to circumstances, but what does that mean on the ground? How does it work?

One thing it means on the university level is that more of our classes have to try different learning models. They can’t all be students sitting in rows listening to one professor. More classes have to be lab-like in atmosphere. They have to be much more conversational. They have to focus more on students not just hearing one interpretation but aligning that interpretation against other interpretations.

I keep hearing that in this time of [financial] constraint there is going to be less team teaching. There needs to be more team teaching that is more multidisciplinary; instead of one expert addressing a problem, people with different points of view have to look at the problem. The problems that students deal with are in general far too complex for any one discipline or any one point of view. You have to give students the tools for synthesizing information.

One of my favorite classes is on evolution, taught by [Duke professors] Priscilla Wald and Robert Cook-Deegan. An English teacher and a genomicist working together.

Priscilla, the English teacher, did a close reading of the opening passages of Darwin’s treatise. She said, “This isn’t just empirical science; he’s using metaphors here.” Robert, the genomicist, had read that opening many times but suddenly was seeing it differently, noting how Darwin is talking in anthropomorphic terms. Once you’re talking in anthropomorphic terms, this is already a worldview. It is not just empirical science. It is not just observation. It is a worldview.

Similarly, Priscilla may not know everything about the science and policy of genomics but when Robert introduces a specific case to the class, about, for example, a legal argument involving gene patenting and free speech, she’s able to understand that case within the large context of the Constitution and also of human rights.

What the students see are two people with enormous respect for one another, who have radically different bodies of knowledge, figuring out how to communicate together, figuring out what each has to contribute to the conversation. That’s happening in a classroom but it is also the mode of the Internet at its best. And that’s the skill we want to teach. It doesn’t have to cost more, but we have to think very creatively about what kinds of cognitive skills are most needed now to address highly complex questions in a collaborative way.

Q: As compared with an individual, how does an institution respond to a world that’s changing under its anthropomorphized feet?

That’s harder. Individuals have changed far more than many of our institutions, yet some institutions have changed hugely. Who would have thought a grassroots movement organized quite centrally could elect a president? That a social organization -- the Democratic Party and the Obama campaign in this case -- figured out a way to get to your doorbell and my doorbell through our email inboxes, and did it effectively in a personal way. It was an interesting combination of face-to-face and virtual data gathering. That’s an institution that changed effectively in a way that people would have thought impossible five years ago.

Other institutions are changing in ways that are catastrophic. Newspapers, for example. Are we going to lose newspapers or journalism -- or both?

Some institutions have made huge changes. Others are making changes kicking and screaming. Sadly, the institution of education is among the most recalcitrant, the slowest to change.

When we started HASTAC in 2002, there was not a single school of education that taught a single course having to do with the Internet. You’re teaching kids who at 6 years old were playing Pokémon online with their friends. That means they were learning a 9-year-old’s vocabulary. They were learning all kinds of cognitive skills. They were learning design. They were learning elementary computer code and it was interwoven with their social lives. Learning and fun were interwoven together, yet we could not find a school of education anywhere in the country that had the word Internet in a course title.

We’re supposed to be preparing students not for our life, but for their life. We’re not. It is a tragedy.

Q: On the other hand, these institutions of higher learning are hugely successful with a long tradition, and for good reason. I mean if you’re going to have heart surgery, you don’t want Joe Schmo from the Internet.

Absolutely.

Q: You want the person who has been crushed under the boot heel of his very highly trained mentor or teacher.

Actually, I’m not at all sure that “crushing under the boot heel” is the best way to train a surgeon, but certainly I want my surgeon skilled and competent.

Q: How do you retain what’s been successful and make changes at the same time?

In one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, he talks about the abominable record of Korean Airlines that had several crashes in a row. They found out it was because the pilot and the co-pilot maintained the traditional status distinctions of Korean society. The pilot was always the older. The co-pilot was the younger. In a crisis, there was no way the co-pilot could serve the pilot function as a backup, because it was impolite and disrespectful for him to speak up and contradict a person more senior than he, even if that person was a pilot making a tragic miscalculation. Korean Airlines flipped the social hierarchy and made the younger person the pilot and the senior person the co-pilot. Now the airline has an impeccable safety record. The younger person is charged with driving the plane correctly; if something goes wrong the senior person intervenes. The senior person has no problem correcting the junior.

In that example, it wasn’t technology that changed and made a better solution, but understanding cultural rules of communication. That’s another one of those Internet requirements. We might have even better heart surgeons if our hierarchical, boot-camp method of training could be infused with some cultural rearrangements of power and hierarchy, with possibilities for correction built into the training methods.

Q: How do you keep this kind of freewheeling, collaborative atmosphere but still maintain standards?

If I believed there was a one-to-one correlation between power within a field and merit within a field, I’d be more worried. Since I don’t believe that’s the case, I’m not really worried about declining standards. People want a certain standard of excellence. It might be more the “American Idol” version of excellence where we’re not talking about pop singer versus the greatest opera singer in the world but about two pop singers. I am not an “American Idol” fan, incidentally, but it may turn out that the popular vote is not so different from the other vote.

Q: In the report you give an example about amateur astronomers versus professional astronomers…

This is an example John Seely Brown talks about. First of all, the world of professional astronomers is pretty small and the sky is vast. If all the eyes that are interested in the heavens are contributing, you’re going to learn things that are different than if just professional astronomers are commenting on what they see in the heavens. However, among those who are commenting are people who believe in Martians and aliens and are going to give you crackpot observations; it was hard for the astronomical profession to figure out what to do. Do we gain more or do we lose more? They finally decided they would gain more and it in fact has been the case.

If I’m in an airport, I’m a geek enough that one thing I do is go to Galaxy Zoo and identify a few foreign objects for the Sloan Digital Sky survey. I find it relaxing and even thrilling to be able to name the features of a celestial object or two that goes into some database. That example is particularly interesting because the people who know the least see better than the people who know the most. The people who know the most tend to connect the dots, so they see what they think they’re going to see. People who come with fresh and untrained eyes are able to see things in a different way and, if enough people who are untrained see things in a different way than the professional astronomers, then the professionals have to rethink some of their assumptions and new science happens.

Q: How do you know that the changes are not going to just throw out what has been so valuable in this tradition of higher education?

Even that you said that suggests a tension that’s always true of education. Some things change and some things don’t. I read recently that in the early 1900s when every American wanted to see silent movies suddenly anyone who could play three notes on a piano had a job playing in the local movie theater. As soon as talkies came in, thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of silent-movie piano players were out of business. Were all of them great pianists? No. But there is always going to be some loss.

If The New York Times goes under tomorrow, will I be devastated? Absolutely. That would be a terrible loss. There always is with any kind of change; vaudeville dwindled after movies became popular. There always is some loss and sometimes that’s very sad. What we’ve seen in the last 10 years is one of the biggest changes in the relations between communication, interaction and human content that the world has ever seen.

Robert Darnton, the great historian of the book, says there have only been four monumental information ages in human history where the entire way that people communicate information changed: one, 4,000 B.C. Sumeria with the invention of writing; two, 10th century China and 15th century Europe with the invention of moveable type; three, the late 18th and early 19th century with the invention of mass printing -- mass printing brought along with it mass literature (newspapers, public education and libraries.)

With the Internet and the World Wide Web, with its open access structure and its rearrangements of production and consumption of information, and where “search” is a far more important term than “broadcast,” we’re at the fourth great information revolution in human history. It is the fastest. It is the most global. It is the most massively disruptive of existing patterns of any of the four. Things that happened in 100 years or in thousands of years have happened in basically 20 years with Tim Berners-Lee inventing the World Wide Web.

Technically the 40th birthday of the Internet was [in 2009.] But, in practical and realistic terms, it’s really a little over a decade since the desktop was right there, everywhere, and suddenly your desktop was connected to my desktop and to Duke’s desktop and to desktops all around the world. That’s a revelation. That’s an information revolution.