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

You reference two different analogies which are commonly used to describe the “crisis” in higher education — that of the health care system and that of the newspaper industry. All analogies foreground some factors and mask others. What do these metaphors allow us to see or prevent us from seeing about higher education today?

I think both of those analogies involving how traditional institutions are being transformed by so-called “disruptive” technologies emphasize different aspects of the college experience, since faculty both nurture and inform students.  In the case of newspapers, technology supposedly lowers costs, while in the case of healthcare, technology (and patients’ dependence on increasingly specialized expertise) raises them.  With the rise of telemedicine and smart phone applications for health, supposedly technology can lower costs as well, but we aren’t yet seeing any reductions.

Many of the arguments both for and against technology that I deconstruct in this book rely on metaphors and logical comparisons of various kinds.  For example, Henry Eyring and Clayton Christensen go on and on about the “DNA” of innovative universities.  Anya Kamenetz has so many metaphors per page in DIY U  that I couldn’t even analyze them all.

My general rhetorical strategy tends to be to emphasize narrative rather than metaphor to persuade my audience to think critically about the instructional technology movement.  I tell stories with descriptions and plots and characters that I hope can counter some myths.    


What are some of the ways that classroom practices that claim to increase student engagement and provide opportunities for greater participation actually limit student voice and agency?

Student engagement is a buzzword often used by vendors to mean command and control.  The idea is that students are disengaged because they are multitasking with texting or web surfing, and we need to keep them busy with relevant tasks that are so demanding that they are forced to pay attention to the instructions from the podium.

The technology that I probably loathe the most is the clicker.  Certainly, these handheld response systems provide short-term behavioral rewards to students who click in the right answer promptly in large lecture halls, although I wonder if they can apply that knowledge to real world situations or retain it for a lifetime.

I will admit that really good teachers know how to use clickers as a way to stimulate discussion and explore assumptions and raise questions.  But if you have really engaged students by learning their names and recognizing their faces, you can get the same results by just asking them to raise their hands.

Certainly just giving students an identifiable serial number tied to a device that can be tracked instead doesn’t do much to reduce lecture hall anonymity.  Being surveiled is different from being validated.  At their worst clickers can push the idea that higher education is just a matter of choosing the right answer on a multiple choice quiz.


Throughout, you take a strong stance against those who want to “blow up the schools” or advocate various forms of unschooling practice. What do you see as some of the core arguments against this recurring theme in popular discourse about pedagogy which seems to want to abolish formal instruction?

I am particularly concerned about how already constrained community colleges that do an amazing job with very limited budgets could receive even fewer public dollars when taxpayer money gets diverted to service loans for distance learning at for-profit institutions or gets spent on gizmos destined for the dustbin.

I am a big advocate for community colleges.  They respond to the concerns of local citizens.  They offer courses at night.  They educate high school students and senior citizens.  They serve students planning to transfer to research universities and those needing vocational education.  I used to take a course or two at a community college every year.

James Paul Gee also makes a great argument in The Anti-Education Era about what he calls the problem of “the school of one.”  If we only have autonomous learners racking up their college credits like points in a video game from home, they may not develop the collaborative and communicative capacities needed to solve really complex problems collectively.

The Kansas Board of Regents recently imposed new restrictions on the use of social media by their faculty. How might the debate around this policy shed light on some of the fault lines you discuss in your book — particularly around assertions of academic freedom and efforts by universities to shape public perceptions?

In the book I argue that part of the reason that faculty have been slow to advocate for their students when it comes to their informal learning practices and online knowledge networks is that faculty have been much less coerced than students by administrative efforts to police their computer use.  Faculty bloggers might come under pressure for disclosing information that colleges don’t want shared, but they have been such a tiny minority that not many people took notice.  Faculty hacktivists might be threatened for acts of electronic civil disobedience, but they are an even smaller contingent.

Twitter users like David Guth at the University of Kansas, who was suspended for an anti-NRA Tweet, are also still relatively rare among academics, but faculty see Twitter being used at conferences, and they know Twitter is part of a continuum that includes Facebook, which they might use to communicate with friends and relatives, so I am hoping that the water is finally getting hot enough that the frog might finally jump out and protest in good faculty fashion.

We’ll see.  It probably depends on getting scholarly professional associations interested, which they already are to promote new forms of communication, particularly when so many academic presses producing print monographs are unsustainable.

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.