Langdon Winner: Building the Basics


Educom Review table of contents

 February 1999


This article was published in Educom Review, Volume 34 Number 1 1999. The copyright is copyright is shared by the author(s) and EDUCAUSE.

An EDUCAUSE publication



Langdon Winner: Building the Basics

Digital technology's role in a good education

Outspoken and widely published political theorist and Rensselaer professor Langdon Winner challenges us to focus on the basic purposes of education. Winner is the author of several books concerning the social and political issues surrounding modern technological change. He is past president of the Society for Philosophy and Technology, a former contributing editor at Rolling Stone, and a commentator for the National Public Radio program, "Living on Earth."

Educom Review: Tell us a little about Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Langdon Winner: Rensselaer is the oldest engineering college in the United States. During the past couple of decades it's been making a gradual transition to become a technological university. Right now the campus is especially proud of being ranked among the top five "wired" universities. There is a great deal of emphasis on interactive, computer-centered learning and making sure that laptops and other kinds of computing equipment are used in the classroom. There are specially designed classrooms that have students working in small clusters around tables with video displays built in so they can pass various kinds of materials around and work on them collaboratively. These developments are closely linked to the increasing use of "studio" methods in undergraduate courses. To their credit, many, many faculty at Rensselaer are doing away with massive lecture courses and engaging students in studio learning environments.

At the same time, the context in which these innovations are taking place seems to have little foundation in what one might call a novel educational philosophy. The basic standpoint of Rensselaer is really no different now from what it has been the past century, which is training technical professionals to enter the corporate world. All the infusion of information technology leaves the basic assumptions about who students are, what they will become, where they will be going, essentially unchanged.

ER: Contrast that to other institutions.

Winner: An obvious contrast is the traditional liberal arts college with its emphasis upon cultivating the whole person and teaching broader notions of citizenship. Whether or not liberal arts colleges succeed in doing that these days is an open question. But if you were to compare, let's say, an Oberlin College to Rensselaer, very often you would find Oberlin taking care to stress notions about one's role as a citizen, about the ways that education ought to prepare students not just for a job, but for a well-rounded life. Rensselaer doesn't pay enough attention to that.

ER: How do the leaders of the university see the matter?

Winner: We just went through an unfortunate episode in the history of the institution where we brought in a president whose only discernible educational philosophy was that of corporate re-engineering. The campus began to mirror what business firms in the 1990s were doing -- we downsized the staff, repackaged our product line and brought in a lot of computing technology to pep things up. But if you asked why we were doing these things, what vision of an educational experience inspired these changes, there wasn't much of an answer beyond cost-cutting and bean counting. Fortunately, the president who took us in these directions has now resigned. I'm eager to see whether the new leadership will have any positive ideas about what a technological university ought to be in the coming century. Will we simply affirm the need to serve the global corporation with fresh infusions of engineering talent and information technology? In my view that's a dreary conception of education, one that does not prepare our students for the challenges they'll be facing in the coming century.

ER: Let's pause for a minute and ask you what kinds of things you're teaching these days.

Winner: I teach in an interdisciplinary department, Science and Technology Studies, that explores questions about the social, cultural, political, and philosophical dimensions of technology and science. Much of my teaching for undergraduates tries to acquaint them with policy issues, ethical theories and historical contexts useful in thinking about their professions. For example, I'm now teaching a course, "Law, Values and Public Policy," that focuses on controversies surrounding privacy, intellectual property, environmental protection, and the like. I also teach "The Politics of Design" which tries to show how the design of technological artifacts reflects often unseen ethical and political choices.

ER: What's a good example?

Winner: Our lives are filled increasingly with architectural forms and electronic systems that curtail freedom and impose social barriers. The construction of gated communities, the insertion of surveillance cameras in public places, the use of electronic passkeys, and the spread of ingenious "security systems'' -- all of these are ways in which the design of material things expresses relationships of power and control. I try to go beyond abstract discussions about professional ethics to ask students to think about design specifics. It's an occasion for talking with students about their ideas about what a good society would be and how to achieve it.

ER: How do your students view information technology?

Winner: Many of them are extremely enthusiastic about it. Some of the most popular programs we have are ones that blend information technology with other disciplines in engineering and humanities. But I sense that for a good number of students, IT is by now an old story. Some have grown wary of what they see as an over-emphasis on computing and computer networks in their education. A poll conducted by a sociologist on campus indicated that students still value the conventional features of teaching and learning more than they do computerized environments. Students listed as important such things as caring professors, fair tests and clear assignments. On the polling question that asked about computers integrated into the classroom, students responded that they didn't find it especially valuable, but that they were getting a whole lot of it. Remember, these are science and engineering students, most of whom have grown up with computers.

When students arrive here and see what their college experience is actually about, the presence of various sorts of digital equipment in various rooms is less important than the real activities of teaching and learning. I sometimes ask students, "How valuable is it for you to create a Web page?" More often than not these days, they respond that it's a total waste of time.

ER: Is it not true that students also tend to say, "What's the value of philosophy? What's the value of archeology?"

Winner: Yes, it's always a challenge for teachers to show how these seemingly arcane subjects hold deeper rewards. I've just gotten through teaching a bunch of students in the law and public policy course a section on philosophies of and legal understandings of property. And we started off with something which I'm sure most students found rather boring at first, namely, some passages in John Locke's "Second Treatise of Government." And I said, "I want you to read this carefully. This book was written more than 300 years ago, but it's still of considerable interest and it will become evident why." Next we went on to consider case materials in intellectual property which are quite interesting and relevant to students. They easily grasped why this matters in various technical fields in which they'll likely find careers. As they read about intellectual property today, they began to notice that many of the writings would go back to this odd fellow, John Locke, and even his very odd notions about removing things from nature, and making them your "property."

In the end, what students do in studying with a teacher is to place their trust in someone who has thought carefully about a range of issues and can orient them toward principal theories, and intellectual standpoints that are applicable and practical. I hope that by the end of each term my students welcome that and feel that their trust has been well-invested. This is exactly the same trust I placed in my teachers in Berkeley. I came from a small town and felt I knew nothing. I wanted the professors to help me discover what was worth learning in the first place.

ER: Do you use technology much yourself?

Winner: Oh, yes. I've been involved with distance learning since 1981. I've never been very much impressed with it, but find it worth watching.

ER: What have you done with it?

Winner: Before it closed down, I taught courses online for the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute in La Jolla, working with Richard Farson, Andrew Feenberg and others. We started with the Apple II Plus and then went to "portable" Kaypro, and eventually to IBM machines of various kinds. It was a pioneering effort at computer conferencing that brought together people in business, government and universities for online seminars. That experience taught me that there's nothing magical about computer-mediated communication. People can be just as open or closed, friendly or rude in electronic settings as they are face-to-face. I found it disappointing that many of the participants seemed far more interested in the apparatus of networked computing than any of the substantive topics we covered.

ER: And today?

Winner: I still use e-mail to complement the discussions in my courses, although I don't require students to tune in. I also direct students to the Web when there are useful materials to consult. Since I often cover recent controversies about science and technology, the Web is often a good place to find evidence. Students can study a broad range of contrasting ideas and they don't need buy a $30 paperback book every time they turn around.

My view is that education ought to make use of the full range of equipment that's become available in the evolution of world civilization. If you are taking a yoga class, you had better have a mat to sit on. If you are in a pottery class, you should have a pottery wheel and a kiln. If you're studying chemistry, at some point you'll need an adequate laboratory. I find it odd that so many of the tools available to us are now heavily discounted because we have digital electronics. It's a strange mania. I find there is a lot of skepticism about it, and a growing number of books and articles by people who were one-time enthusiasts, who find they have to own up to the shortcomings of computers in education. Jane Healy's Failure to Connect is one of these.

ER: You mean distance learning, or in the classroom?

Winner: Both. I'm hearing a lot of skepticism and resistance as people compare what they want to do in their teaching with what they are being urged to do with digital electronics. Sometimes there's quite a gap between what they would like to accomplish and what digital technology and today's push for commercialization seem to require. There's also growing unease about the ways in which information technology is used to compel students and faculty to move in directions they find onerous. The California Educational Technology Initiative, which was to usher in a kind of digital revolution and a lot of distance learning within the California State University system sparked substantial protest by both students and professors last year. That initiative has now collapsed, although Dracula may again rise from the grave.

At the University of Washington the proposal by the governor to bring a heavy infusion of distance learning into the state university system has inspired a letter signed by several hundred faculty saying, "Not so fast!" More and more teachers are feeling that it is possible to voice skepticism, to insist that we can examine the results of various attempts and trials, and not move further without carefully weighing the benefits and costs. I try to bolster these sentiments in a satirical infomercial I've presented at several education and computing conferences, called "Introducing the Automatic Professor Machine."


Winner demonstrates the APM, the degree-granting "Automatic Professor Machine," a prop for a satirical lecture on the application of information technology

ER: Well, let me ask you this, Langdon. What if we compared it to the humble telephone?

Winner: How about television? That's a better one. No one has ever trumpeted the telephone as an educational technology. But television was heralded in much the same terms used to promote computing today. I wonder why don't we talk about the great promise of television anymore?

ER: Well, some might argue that it has completely, totally failed in education . . .

Winner: Television? Oh, absolutely.

ER: . . . but absolutely triumphed in transforming the very same kids who are being educated. It has shaped their lives in a way that formal education has not.

Winner: That's right. Much of what any teacher struggles to overcome everyday are the habits young people have absorbed as television viewers. To restore concentration, to restore the sense that certain kinds of dedicated inquiry are necessary if they are ever to achieve something like intellectual vitality -- that's a continuing challenge. Often we simply fail. But I find -- at least where I teach -- that college students are just as happy to be away from television. They realize they have a lot of real work to do and that the tube has little to offer.

ER: How would you place yourself in comparison with your colleagues at Rensselaer in terms of an attitude toward technology? Presumably there are some people who absolutely don't want anything to do with it, as well as others who just love it and want to use it everywhere. Where are you in that spectrum?

Winner: I'm probably somewhere in the middle. As I mentioned, I use e-mail and some Web pages. What I do resist is the kind of training and sort of pre-packaged, Procrustean Web tools that would have me translate the whole of courses into a sort of Web-based, so-called "interactive" mode. We're encouraged to use packages that adapt one's entire course to Web-based instruction, enabling the computer to select from a set of prepared questions to generate online quizzes, for example. I'm not really interested in that. I don't like taking what I do in a classroom, which tends to be highly individual and idiosyncratic, and turning it into a digitized, standardized template. I still use books, the blackboard, seminar tables and chairs as the main equipment that I use in the classroom. And I like every day of my teaching to contain a least one surprise.

As a response to campus computerization and the weird emphasis on what's called "instruction," I increasingly just ask my students to read and think. I tell them, "We're going to read a few books carefully; and there are not going to be all that many papers or exams. Your main work here is to reacquaint yourself with the joy of reading." And I find that in the late 1990s, that's becoming increasingly important to do. Especially at Rensselaer, students are pushed into a tight instructional mode -- here are the 13 points we are going to cover today and be sure you know these by the time you leave the room. I have to ask myself, when are these students getting any time for reflection?

ER: It sounds like your skepticism is not really about the technology but about the administrative misuse.

Winner: Well, I wonder if the two can ever be separated. Of course, what's ultimately at stake are the underlying philosophies of teaching and learning. There needs to be continuing debate about what role, if any, rapidly changing digital technology ought to play in a good education.

I'm not dogmatic in my resistance here. In fact, I'm always looking for evidence of success. Last summer I visited a wonderful place, The Ross School, on Long Island, New York. It's an independent K-12 school that's fortunate to have a wealth of resources, including the most sophisticated computing hardware I've ever seen in any educational institution. The place is bursting with servers and computerized classrooms, circular classrooms with multi-screen projection. Students can bring their laptops and display pictures for one another about the topic of the day. But what interested me about the school was not its computing power, but the fact that the curriculum focuses on cultural history. Knowledge from all the world's cultures from prehistory to the present day are presented to students as a way of learning art, science, mathematics, philosophy and religion. The curriculum was designed by the cultural historian William Irwin Thompson, a brilliant scholar who has studied the sources of human insight and inspiration from around the globe and throughout the millennia. Following his study plans, students at the school receive an amazingly rich, multi-faceted experience. Much of it is hands-on rather than flat tube. When kids in the elementary school study ancient cave painting, they do paintings of their own.

After a couple of days' visit at The Ross School, I thought, well, this is fantastic. Here is an educational philosophy organized as a detailed curriculum with a novel understanding about what students will learn and how they will benefit. All the fancy electronic equipment stands at the service of education rather than the other way around. They're not hung up on the plumbing. What I see too often in both K-12 schools and colleges is people saying, "Okay, here's a bunch of computers -- now what in the world are we going to do with them?"

ER: And you say that's wrong?

Winner: Absolutely! You know, if you have no ideas or bad ideas, why translate them into computer software or computer networks? Much of what is wrong with educational computing at present is that the programs embody deeply rooted ideas that are destructive in the larger context. If you look at commonly used educational games like Sim City and Oregon Trail, for example, you find that they re-encode what are, particularly from an ecological perspective, extremely pathological attitudes about mastery over nature and America's over-inflated sense of its place in the universe. Many of the games have gratuitous violence built into them; Math Blaster has more a lot more blasting than mathematics. All of us -- teachers, parents, administrators and students -- need to question the fundamental ideas in the software and ask whether or not we want to endorse those attitudes.

ER: Are you optimistic about the role educational technology will eventually play?

Winner: As long as there's continuing debate about the basic purposes, there's reason to be hopeful. Who are we? What are we about? What is it crucial for our students to know? What are the available means for sharing knowledge? Once one has addressed the basic questions about purpose, then one can move on to ask about instrumentation. As it stands now, those priorities are often reversed.



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