Higher Education and the New Media RealityAs a cultural anthropologist and researcher in the modern discipline of digital ethnography, Michael Wesch likes to ask the big, complex questions: How do we find meaning and significance in the digital age? How is technology affecting society and culture? How are social media changing teaching and learning practices? But as a teacher, an associate professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, he likes to ask his students one small, simple question at the start of each year.
"I ask, How many of you do not actually like school?" he said. "Almost invariably almost half raise their hands. Then I vary the question slightly. I ask, How many of you do not like learning? And I get no hands. These are people who like learning, but they don't like it to be institutionally created for them. Clearly something's wrong here."
Wesch delivered the keynote opener for the seventh annual Campus Technology Conference Tuesday before a packed ballroom in the Seaport World Trade Center in Boston, MA.
"Talk to any futurist, and he'll tell you that we're headed toward ubiquitous computing, ubiquitous communication, ubiquitous information at unlimited speed about everything, everywhere, from anywhere on all kinds of devices," he said. "They disagree on how we'll get there, but everyone agrees we're going there, and that means that it's now ridiculously easy ... to connect, organize, share, collaborate, and publish with anybody to anybody in the world."
It such a world, Wesch concluded, traditional classrooms are out of place. "It strikes me now that we have to move from knowledgeable--that is just knowing a bunch of stuff--to being actually knowledge-able--that's being able to find, sort, analyze, criticize, and ultimately create new information and knowledge," he said.
Being "knowledge-able," he added, is also about recognizing that while we're using these tools, the tools might be changing us.
During his presentation ("From Knowledgeable to Knowledge-Able: New Learning Environments for New Media Environments"), he talked about the impact of digital media and technologies on higher education and shared some of the personal experiences that led him to his current field of study.
Before turning his attention to the effects of social media and digital technology on global society, Wesch spent two years studying the implications of writing on a remote indigenous culture in the rain forest of Papua New Guinea. Wesch found himself for the first time in a society that was not mediated.
"I was reborn, so to speak," he said. "It was terrible but also wonderful to have that opportunity to grow up again in a different culture. In that process, the thing that struck me the most was just how mediated I had been in my first American life--late '80s, early '90s--the MTV era and the beginning of the info-era. All of those things were so important to me as I was shaping my identity, and now here, there was none of that. I really got a sense for the first time of what it means to be mediated, and I started studying what it means to live in a mediated world."
Wesch described how the remote village that inspired his future research became mediated right before his eyes.
"New media came in in the form of writing--in particular, census books and law books from the government," he explained. "This was the first census ever done in the village."
The results were dramatic, even devastating, he said. Villages were rearranged--essentially destroyed--in neat rows with numbers to match the census book. Disputes that were once handled easily and openly among villagers were now handled in courtrooms.
"We have to recognize in our society that the new media we see in our environment are not just news means of communication, not just tools," he said. "Media change what can be said, how it can be said, who can say it, who can hear it, and what messages will count as information and knowledge."
Because media ultimately shape how we connect with one another, he said, they're actually mediating relationships.
"When media change, our relationships change, and our culture changes," he said.
And so do our colleges and universities. Our students are being bombarded with images and information--which is not a new insight, Wesch acknowledged, but the common response that we need to teach critical thinking is just the beginning of a solution, he said.
"If we stop at critical thinking, we haven't gone far enough," he said. "In this environment, critical thinking helps you filter the things that are coming at you, but you also need skills [to help you] find and sort information."
Wesch shared a number of clips to illustrate the evolution of new media from something that is consumed to one side of a conversation, and the possibilities these changes present for students and educators, including the turning-point 2006 "Free Hugs" YouTube video. He went on to discuss the importance of teaching "multimedia fluency" with examples of satirically dubbed news clips and the "culture jamming" activities of the Yes Men and promoted the concept of author Gardner Campbell called "meta-media fluency."
"Whether you believe that students need to become great global citizens, entrepreneurs, or whatever it might be, they have to understand this stuff," he said. "They need to be able to navigate and use all of these different technologies fluently."
Wesch made a big splash in 2007 when a video he created to launch KSU's Digital Ethnography Working Group became a YouTube sensation. "The Machine is Us/ing Us" was released to the video publishing site Jan. 31 of that year. Within a month, the little video created in Wesch's basement in St. George, KS had been seen more than 1.7 million people, translated into about five languages, and shown to large audiences at major conferences on six continents. To date, the video has been viewed nearly 9 million times and translated into more than 10 languages.
Wesch is a researcher but also an active developer of innovative teaching techniques, including the World Simulation Project, which is the centerpiece of KSU's Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course. On his Mediated Cultures Web site, Wesch describes the project as "a radical experiment in learning, created in a fit of frustration with the large lecture hall format which seems inevitable in a classroom of 200-400 students."
Wesch said he worries that we're becoming an "eyes down" society of the smart phone-focused and that our technology might be sapping our capacity for empathy. He recalled a moment during his New Guinea study to illustrate what he means:
"We stand at a crossroads right now," Wesch said. "One of the roads doesn't go to a very happy place. We're starting to realize that, while all of this [technology] seems to promise new possibility for freedom, we're also seeing new forms of control emerge. We see new possibility for community, new types of connections. And we also see people using these technologies to isolate themselves more and more. These tools can help to create a richer, more engaged democracy. But they can also become the ultimate tools of distraction."
"We can no longer blame the media," he added. "This world is no more or less than what we make of it. And we as educators have a double responsibility at this moment to, not only make of this what we want it to be, but to create students who can make something better of all this."
John K. Waters is a freelance journalist and author based in Palo Alto, CA.