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Seamus Carey, Ph.D. Headshot

College Learning and the Digital Age

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COLLEGE STUDENT COMPUTER
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For anyone who has fallen out of good physical condition after having been physically fit, the thought of getting back into shape can be a constantly nagging refrain. In response, we sometimes set goals and deadlines but they rarely get us going. Looking for a spark, we might buy some new workout clothes, or sneakers, or download some new music promising ourselves that the tunes will motivate us. But something more fundamental than the external trimmings has to change to go from a sedentary life to a consistently active life. This change requires an existential shift and just what causes such a shift can be difficult to identify.

At a recent faculty meeting to discuss a digital learning initiative we call SHUsquare, the conversation led me to think of digital tools and outlets for college learning as analogous to the clothes, music and goals of the person who merely thinks about getting in shape. I say that as the person who initiated SHUsquare, a virtual public square that brings together the ideals of the agora in Ancient Greece with 21st-century technology to create a platform for students to participate in their community guided by intellectual ideas and content. As a complement to our first-year writing seminars, SHUsquare extends conversations beyond classrooms so that students can interact across the campus and beyond.

But pedagogical tools, digital or otherwise, are only effective if understood and used as a complement to the essential elements of learning, which is not in the technology itself. Most students endure their educational experience. They don't love it. Just like the unfit person who requires an existential shift in order to pursue a healthy life of exercise, the student who lacks the self-motivation to learn will become a good reader and writer only when he undergoes a change that results in a real interest or passion for learning. External trimmings and innovative tools can help, but ultimately, learning is an internal process that requires sincere interest, agency, and effort on the part of the student.

This is why many students look to college as an opportunity to experience learning in a new way. Rather than being talked at and asked to memorize information to be regurgitated on state mandated exams, they look to be challenged, to think, create, discover and explore. Ideally, they gravitate towards an area of study that animates something in their personality that needs to grow and express itself. But for most students, this type of engagement is new, and it requires a shift from passive to active learning. It demands that they inquire deeply, care about more than a grade, and take pride in what they say, write, and do.

Given the need for this shift in college students, digital learning presents both a danger and an opportunity. The danger of the digital world is that it closes students off from the shift that is required if students are to become serious learners. The allure of quick-moving screens and information carries the potential for ever-present diversions and distractions As such, digital media holds the potential to distract students from facing the deep questions or deep concerns of human life that induce existential shifts. It may interfere with learning rather than accelerate or enhance it. In contrast, a life of learning is often the human response to questions of meaning and purpose. The perennial questions of "why do we exist," or "am I doing the right thing," or "does it matter if I'm doing the right thing" are often at the root of a shift leads us to take life and learning more seriously.

In developing SHUsquare, I saw an opportunity to use digital learning intentionally to expand substantive conversations beyond the classroom and to foster community around intellectual activity and ideas. Being a part of such conversations and communities has traditionally been an important reason for living on a college campus. SHUsquare enhances and expands conversations about substantive questions, but it would be a mistake to think that technology can supplant these questions or, by itself, inspire students to deepen their engagement with them. This is clear in the simple fact that not every seminar or every SHUsquare user is successful in generating a student shift from passive learners waiting to memorize facts to passionate learners who take pride in their work and have the initiative to do more than the minimum requirements. So what initiates this shift?

Effective teachers ignite the latent passion for learning that students bring with them to kindergarten but often lose by the time they get to college. There are many ways to be an effective teacher, but almost all excellent teachers are authentic. Authentic teachers are animated by what they do. Their subject matter excites and sustains their passion for inquiry, thinking, and exploration. The authentic teacher manifests joy that comes from discovery and creativity. This joy is an expression of love for what she does and for her subject matter, and it is infectious. A great teacher who exudes the joy and passion that accompanies authenticity establishes genuine relationships with students and invites them to open up to the unfamiliar. She guides students past the fear of leaving behind the familiar to grow towards self-transformation. She inspires the pursuit of new possibilities and sparks self-reflection and the contemplation of questions of meaning. Within this context, digital tools can be powerful aids for learning. Without it, these tools are analogous to the workout clothes of the sedentary person who only wishes he were physically fit, but lacks the inspiration to get there.

This all may seem obvious. But given the hope, expectations, and resources that are being placed in digital learning by college administrators and Wall Street investors, as well as observers and critics of higher education, it is worth a reminder. The promise of digital learning is found in its potential to expand upon what is essential and foundational in the learning process, not in replacing it. We will always need authentic teachers to induce an existential shift in students to become active and serious learners. Master teachers induce this shift through face-to-face relationships in which they seize upon looks of curiosity, puzzlement, and frustration. They use silent pauses, dramatic gazes, and humor to demonstrate their understanding of the student's experience and to animate a text or a theory. These subtle exchanges ultimately guide students to engage the perennial human questions of meaning and self-understanding. To overlook this element of the educational process is like asking students to get in shape by wearing different clothes.