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Rethinking Education in the Digital Age

03/13/2014

At the final presentation in RISD’s 2013–14 Mapping Learning series on March 11, technology historian Cathy N. Davidson offered students, faculty and staff a lot to think about given today’s shifting educational environment.

Davidson described the advent of the Internet as a “Cambrian explosion” – the spark behind a massive amount of unpredictable and rapid change that has pushed humans far beyond all existing paradigms of communication. In fact, she likens the rise of the web with the onset of writing and the invention of the printing press.

Davidson points out that several experiments introduced during the web 2.0 era are changing our understanding of knowledge and how best to share it. For instance, the model of open-source contributions used by Wikipedia (the sixth largest site on the web) “works only in practice, not in theory, which means that we need a new paradigm to explain the world in which we live.”

The biggest problem with current models of education, Davidson says, stems from the idea that “if we can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.” Our 20th-century obsession with metrics and standardized testing contributes absolutely nothing to the success of our graduates in the real world. By comparison, Finland’s educational system – often used as an example since it produces some of the brightest, most creative graduates in the world – completely eschews standardized testing, grading and even the notion of failure in the classroom.

Davidson, a longtime professor of English and interdisciplinary studies at Duke University, is a member of the National Humanities Council, co-director of Duke’s PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge and cofounding director of the international digital learning network HASTAC. As a higher ed innovator, she encouraged the audience to embrace the fact that places like RISD provide the perfect arena for fomenting change.

In closing her talk, Davidson offered a few practical ideas for participants to think about when considering future educational paradigms. For instance, she suggests academic leaders work to model “unlearning,” find better ways to transform critical thinking into creative contribution and encourage students to lead the way. “What if, instead of trying to preserve the past,” Davidson suggests, “we begin rethinking higher education as vocational training for a productive, socially engaged life?”

The seven-part Mapping Learning: Education 2.0 series has offered much fodder for future discussion at RISD. Interim Dean of Liberal Arts Daniel Cavicchi, who organized the series with Dean of Foundation Studies Joanne Stryker, notes, “We are pleased that these events have provided opportunities for our community to come together to reflect critically about a RISD education.” Previous Mapping Learning events included a public panel on the past, present and future of art schools, a faculty discussion on critique as a pedagogical practice, a workshop on departmental assessment, a lecture by evolutionary neurobiologist Mark Changizi entitled How to Nature-Harness an Ape Brain for the Arts and a presentation by RISD faculty and staff who attended the national conference New Paradigms in Teaching and Learning sponsored by the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design.

 –Simone Solondz

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tags: digital, innovation, interdisciplinary, Literary Arts + Studies

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At RISD there's nothing unusual about suddenly finding a doorknob on a tree trunk, shown here across from Carr House,
the charming home of Student Life offices and the student-run Carr Haus Café.