Is New Media Incompatable with Schooling?: An Interview with Rich Halverson (Part One)

This week, I want to use my blog to call attention to a provocative recent book, Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: The Digital Revolution and Schooling in America. The authors of the book are Allen Collins, formerly co-director of the U.S. Department of Education's Center for Technology in Education, and Rich Halverson, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is co-founder of the Games, Learning and Society group. I have gotten to know Halverson through the Games, Learning, and Society conference, where I will be speaking this summer, so I was curious to look at this book when it came out. Given its authors, it's no surprise that the book is well informed about contemporary debates surrounding new media and education, and like the best books that have come out in the past year or so (including those by Sonia Livingstone and S. Craig Watkins, which I have profiled here), it strives to balance between the inflated hopes of early digital advocates and the inflated fears of those who would lock technology out of the classroom.

The authors offer sage new proposals for how we might deal with the apparent tensions and incompatabilities between education as it has been conducted in this country and the new media landscape as it is lived beyond the schoolhouse gates. But the real surprise and strength of the book is the ways they are able to situate the contemporary moment of media transition in relation to the several hundred year history of American education. In doing so, we avoid the breathless sense of the "unprecidented" or "Inevitable" consequences of new media and we also avoid the sense that things have always been this way and are thus not subject to change. They show how American education's processes, policies, and structures shifted over time in response to, for example, the industrial revolution and thus give us a context for imagining the gradual yet decisive transformation of schooling which will grow out of our current moment.

I was lucky enough to get Richard Halverson to agree to an interview about the book, which I will be running over the next two installments. Much of the interview focuses on the historical insights and how they contribute to putting the present into a greater perspective.

My father used to have the expression, "never let schooling get in the way of your education." You make a similar distinction across the book. In what ways is schooling getting in the way of more informal kinds of learning today and why?

Your dad's expression was really the state of the art once upon a time! The rise of institutional schooling in the 20th century- from preK to lifelong learning - can be seen as an effort to permanently weld schooling to learning. Beginning in the early 1900s, schools rooted in formal learning environments expanded to incorporate most areas informal learning as well (consider widely available classes on knitting, oenophilia and game design). On the other side, if you didn't go to a class from a recognized institution, if you didn't have some sort of certificate/credit statement of completing, then by the mid 20th century people came to question the legitimacy of your learning. This double-movement of expansion and legitimation came to define learning in terms of schooling.

The digital media era began to call this definition into question. The inertia of maturing institutions meant that early design decisions got locked in place, and it became more difficult for schools to change core assumptions. Digital media provides a path to personalizing and customizing learning that is often at odds with the batch processing model of, especially, K-12 schooling. This has meant that digitally literate young people have come to understand that there are at least two living channels for learning - 1) an institutional channel, and 2) a peer-driven, interest-driven, and unregulated digital media channel. The bifurcation of learning experiences for young people is bound to call the institutional identification of schooling and learning into question in the coming years. We don't yet know the consequences of how this shift will play out, but unless schools figure out how to adapt to digital media our children may end up hearing their fathers say "remember when we went to school for an education?"

You open the book with the provocative statement, "There are deep incompatibilities between technology and schooling." Explain. Are these incompatibilities insurmountable? If so, what is going to change -- schooling or technology?

Our statement about the incompatibilities of schooling and technology was stated with a historical perspective in mind. There was a time, in the early 20th century, when schools were developed in concert with the most innovative technological advances. Schools grew up around the mass publication and dissemination of texts and the widespread availability of writing tools. More importantly, schools took full advantage of cutting-edge bureaucratic technologies. Although we now look back in horror at the eagerness with which early schools adopted industrial production and efficiency models, these then-innovative ideas provided important organizational techniques for delivering services at the scale required for the successful implementation of public schooling. It is difficult for us to remember just how daunting the task of mass schooling was for early school designers, who grew up with personalized pedagogies, one-room schoolhouses and agricultural-based school calendars. Early public schools took full advantage of cutting-edge technologies to gain quick and sure foothold in the American psyche.

Schools that emerged at the advent of the 21st century were, in a sense, victims of the success of the prior generation's technology, and found it very difficult to adapt to new models of information production and exchange sparked by the Internet. Technological developments later in the century, such as computing and digital media, provided a level of individualization that ran directly counter to the mass-production technologies from earlier in the century. The new information technologies that have been easiest to adapt to prior industrial models, such as standardized testing, have made the most headway into established school practices. The technologies that called on schools to alter the basic classroom relationships between teaching, learning and curriculum have met with the most difficulty. The conclusion we want to draw is that schooling and technology are not necessarily opposed, but instead are necessarily related. When considered over time, we can see the effects of institutional resistance are a consequence of the embrace of prior technologies, rather than a simple opposition of stodgy old schools to hot new technologies.

Our current educational system emerged gradually overtime in response to the pressures of the industrial revolution. What parallels can we draw between the ways the current structure took shape and the prospects of transforming education to reflect the information/knowledge revolution your book describes?

We propose that the "seeds of a new system" are already emerging as pieces of an alternative approach to education. Home schooling, for example, provides a technologically-driven alternative to institutional schooling. Distance education and your idea of participatory cultures organized around a transmedia complex provide powerful alternative visions for education. The main difference between the eras is that the 1800s system seeds such as kindergarten, common schools, textbooks and land-grant universities, converged in an era without a monolithic institution already in place. It is a much different problem to define than to redefine an institution.

We feel that digital media will continue to spark alternative forms of learning environments and to push for change in traditional learning institutions. We must not underestimate the tenacity of our collective belief in the transformative power of education. Without a civil religion, common belief in education is as close as Americans come to a common creed. If we come to feel that digital media need to be a core aspect of the learning experience of our youth, then we will re-make our institutions accordingly. As a culture, though, we seem to carry ambiguous feelings about the value of digital media for learning. For every advocate who extols the potential of media production, programming, game design or social networking, concerned citizens highlight the dangers of porn, digital bullying, appropriate use policies, child predation and, of course, GTA. This split in the perception of the value of digital media and culture may, in the mean time, create a new kind of digital divide along cultural, rather than demographic, lines. Further, locating these alternative, digital-based approaches to learning outside of public education means that families with the interest and wherewithal will access new forms of learning will, and those who won't or can't will not.

Allan Collins is Professor Emeritus of education and social policy at

Northwestern University and formerly co-director of the U.S. Department

of Education's Center for Technology in Education.

Richard Halverson is an associate professor of educational leadership

and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is

co-founder of the Games, Learning and Society group.