Breaking Down the Rhetoric of Education Reform: An Interview with Elizabeth Losh (Part Three)

You write in the book about feminist uses and critiques of online learning technologies. What might the tradition of feminist pedagogy have to teach us about the limits of the current fascination with MOOCs?

The FemTechNet white paper emphasizes the fact that appeals for open access to education have a long history that go back to the settlement house movement, and this history continues through various cyberfeminist projects, so open education certainly didn’t begin with Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs, and feminists aren’t hostile to openness, although they do value how the embodied “live” classroom can serve as a safe space to explore uncomfortable issues.

The problems begin with the fact that the “course” part often reinforces traditional power structures, because a – usually – lone white male expert – unchallenged by any dissenting opinions and divorced from dialogue with others – transmits information as gospel to a passive audience unable really to answer back.  It’s really time travel back to the pedagogy of the nineteen fifties from before the free speech movement.  At such a “massive” scale it’s also impossible to form interpersonal relationships with students and to be accountable to their personal needs.


One of the more provocative passages here centers around Tim Gunn’s performance on Project Runway and its various online extensions. What might academics learn about the construction of their public personas by studying how Gunn has presented himself through this series?


There is a lot of talk about trying to be the “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage” in the pedagogical literature and also about project-based learning in which students need to iterate, experiment, revise, explore, deliver, and reflect.  It is hard to miss these aspects of education if you like to watch episodes of Project Runway.

It’s also the rare reality show where the hugs for a disappointed student look genuine.  I tend to like the early shows the best, from when fashion mentor Tim Gunn was still an administrator at Parsons with a much more professorial personality.

I like the fact that he displays a sense of humor – as well as empathy and high standards.  It’s a spirit that I aspire to bring to my own academic appointments, although I am a much less natty dresser.


You argue that the current fascination with badges often confuses notions of “earning” and “learning.” Why is this an important distinction to maintain? Why do you think badges have been so appealing to educators and funding organizations? How do they illustrate some of the limits of thinking about education in terms of gamification?

Assessment is always a challenge to educators, so I understand why instructors are desperate to find methods other than high-stakes testing at which so many talented students who are good at revised work fail or alternatives to the grades that serve as a source of so much conflict and so much labor in justifying grades rather than providing feedback that actually enlightens or changes behavior.  (However, as a rhetorician I actually enjoy reading grade complaints, because they tend to be quite well-written; students have a strong sense of purpose in approaching the task of writing a grade complaint.)

I argue that badges don’t necessarily get us out of the problems that we have with grades, and they work against holistic assessments that are easier for multiple audiences to interpret.  But, as they say, “never say never.”  Right now I am working with my colleague Wayne Yang on an interesting project that might involve badges.

In the book I criticize the general trend toward gamification in education, and I would also recommend the forthcoming volume from MIT Press that is edited by Sebastian Deterding on the subject.  Like many educators interested in digital media and learning, it’s irritating to see game formats adopted very superficially without much consideration about how people learn more deeply from interacting with the rule-based systems of games.

I also have a more specific gripe about emphasizing the goal of happiness rather than the goal of understanding when thinking about how games serve as a model for learning.  Games can be a very effective way to explore the procedural character of concepts like injustice, which is important in a well-rounded education, and I don’t have much patience for advocates for positive psychology who emphasize what I think are much more simple-minded and self-centered personal rewards.


In the book’s conclusion, you ask: “How can we influence the digital university to be more inclusive, generative, just, and constructive?” In many ways, this is the central theme of the book. What do you see as some approaches to digital media and learning which might satisfy those criteria?

In the final chapter I propose six general principles, so if someone wants to give a copy of the book to a university president as a not very subtle hint about how to chart a new course when it comes to instructional technology, there’s essentially an executive summary with a list of recommendations.

In general, I think that “technology” is imagined too narrowly to mean only brand new digital technologies to be used only for formal traditional instruction that need to be purchased from instructional technology vendors.  But in our Culture, Art, and Technology program, we remind students that technology can encompass many things.  After all, windows that let in light or chairs that move are also instructional technologies.

I also think that we define learning far too narrowly to focus only on objectives from courses listed in catalogues and ignore all of the other things that students learn not only in college but also in many other contexts in which people interact and communicate. In Sixth College we emphasize “experiential learning” and encourage students to learn from faculty in settings other than the classroom, such as laboratories, field sites, clinical settings, or community centers.  That’s the place for exercising all those so-called “soft skills” valued by employers that higher education can develop.

If we don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to digital technologies, experiment ethically, pay attention to failures, avoid fetishizing novelty, and most of all listen to our students, I think there is actually tons of hope for doing great work generating new knowledge together in the university setting. 

Elizabeth Losh directs the Culture, Art, and Technology program at the University of California, San Diego.  She is the author of Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes (MIT Press, 2009) and The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University (MIT Press, 2014). She is also the co-author of the comic book textbook Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013) with Jonathan Alexander.  She writes about the digital humanities, institutions as digital content-creators, the media literacy of policy makers and authority figures, and the rhetoric surrounding regulatory attempts to limit everyday user practices.