Douglas C. MacLeod

It is rare to read an academic work written with such soulful passion and perspective that it virtually borders on being a bluntly honest diatribe. Many of these sorts of texts are now seemingly being written by professors, teachers, independent scholars, or op-ed writers who are seriously concerned with the deterioration of America’s education system. Possibly, that decline stems from shifting democratic ideals; from federal and state standardization practices; from the relatively new corporate mentality that has systematically worked its way into our institutions of knowledge; or from ineffective pedagogues lecturing in outdated brick-and-mortar high schools and colleges around the country. 

In the case of The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University, Elizabeth Losh, director of the Culture, Art, and Technology Program at Sixth College at the University of California, San Diego, attempts to make culpable “leaders in higher education” who believe that current “digital learning initiatives” are innovative and novel godsends, rather than carry-overs from “print culture” and “existing institutional conventions of higher education” and, who are also blissfully ignorant to the fact that these “original” technologies should be scrutinized, because they are presently experimental and virtually untested. Losh wants to point out to her reader that the perception of the “old school” mentality is quickly being eradicated and blindly replaced by “new school” initiatives, because of this need for students to unrealistically move forward at lightning speed in a globalized society. Yet, these initiatives have not been properly researched or pondered over for various reasons. 

The War on Learning in a way develops into 300 or so pages of an intricate response to a most fundamental and essential question: Who wins and who loses when it comes to this hasty incorporation of new “learning sciences” that have been thrust upon our most impressionable and digitally-savvy students? Losh proves that there is truly no easy answer to this question, and to provide one would do the discussion an injustice. Students, faculty members, administrators, institution board members, and all the way up to and including the world’s population, ultimately would be affected by these technological changes; and that affect, although not completely destroying traditional modes of education, will certainly allow all those involved to question and deconstruct the entire process (which, from this writer’s perspective, may need to be done anyway). The war on learning, in some ways, has already begun and this war starts with technology. 

Losh points out in her first chapter, “What They Learn in College,” that this war is not being fought between “the digital generation” and technologically aloof teachers, as perceived by those on the outside looking at YouTube video posts of college professors screaming at their hapless, innocent students. Instead this polarization is perpetuated by the perception that “ideological constructs” like that of “the digital generation” exist. And, sometimes those YouTube videos are staged and need not be taken seriously. This skewed and falsified perception is “incredibly destructive” because it emphasizes “competition and conflict rather than cooperation.” In her second chapter, “The War on Learning,” Losh extends this argument by touching upon the idea that universities and colleges have now become capitalistic ventures, and students are just “consumers” and “producers” of “web-based content,” rather than learning and changing beings willing to become more educated. By placing students at that sort of distance, and by viewing them as instigators, conspirators, or citizen journalists out to film any pedagogical injustices, ultimately leads to all kinds of in-fighting. By allowing this to continue, administrators expose themselves as having a “fear” of “losing control in an era of viral video and Internet memes.” They deflect those issues onto people who are trying their best to provide quality education and those trying to go to school during an awkward time of a massive modification in the educational universe. These modifications include such variances as filmed lectures like that of “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch (“On Camera: The Baked Professor Makes His Debut”); reality television programs and podcasts (“From Reality TV to the Research University: Coursecasting and Pedagogical Dreams”); open courseware like that of MOOC’s (“The Rhetoric of the Open Courseware Movement”); plagiarism software like TurnitIn (“Honor Coding: Plagiarism Software and Educational Opportunism”); mass “distributions of handheld digital services” (“Toy Problem: Education as Product”); and, gamification (“The Play’s the Thing: Games and Virtual Worlds in Higher Education”). Ultimately, what gets lost in this sort of scenario (the digitizing of our higher education system) is the expression of viewpoints and the possibility of consensus along with the opportunity for civil discourse and subjects that matter in academic environments. 

At the end of Losh’s text, in her chapter entitled “Gaining Ground in the Digital University,” she suggests “six relatively simple principles that could guide effective pedagogy and decision-making.” These include faculty and students using the same tools; a recognition that all technologies, young and old, matter; a joyous state of being is more productive and beneficial; an understanding that all these issues are quite serious; a realization that the novelty has worn off; and finally, and most importantly, “The Golden Rule should dictate decisions about instructional technology.” If these principles are adhered to in the new digital academic landscape (and outside of it), according to Losh, these technologies can help all make “sense of the world and of each other” and appreciate “the imperfect character of our knowledge.” No longer would we have to worry about the treating of education as what Losh calls “edutainment,” which “infantilizes intellectual work and trivializes the ambitions of their families by making it sound as if young people have only come to campus to have fun” or to be “happy” as opposed to “wise.” Instead, administrators and faculty would create a positive and fertile learning environment for all genders, races, sexual orientations, educational levels, cultures, etc.; and, in due course, achieve their goals: to educate and to retain.

The War on Learning is not an undemanding text to read. Losh is attempting to expose the many inconsistencies associated with the digital learning process, and in doing so, sometimes her language is candid but brusque. One thinks specifically of her discussion on Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” where she appreciates his ability as a “rhetorician,” but then claims that “the main subject matter of the lecture is Pausch himself” and in “the real world, faculty members at the podium who indulge in this kind of egocentric behavior on a continuing basis would likely receive very poor evaluations from students wanting to understand the specifics of material that exists in a more general frame of reference defined by objective facts.” Agreed, Pausch’s last lecture is unlike any conventional lecture a student would encounter in the classroom, and it more than likely would have gotten him in trouble with administrators; however, one must take into account the intent was not so much to make “the case for the need for academic knowledge,” but rather to tell about his story and his journey, to promote the idea that with aggressive hard-work and diligence, a person can accomplish his or her goals. Rather than be a figurehead of filmed lecturing, he was looking to create a legacy, which may be self-serving; but, it is also somewhat part of the human condition. More warranted is her quarrel against Mark Bauerlein and his somewhat condescending work entitled The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, where she claims the writer “comes off as a prohibitionist and a puritan, eager to forbid people’s everyday digital practices.” Unlike Bauerlein, Losh believes that “some Internet practices can serve as correctives to teen conformity and consumerism,” and that social networking platforms like Facebook or Twitter are not completely void of any educational value and that, if used properly, the students can indeed learn something from these mediated sites.

The War on Learning, ultimately, is a complex, challenging, and intricately researched piece of scholarship that (with rapid-fire consistency) summarizes, analyzes, and deconstructs what she believes to be reliable but imperfect academic works written by intellectuals associated with the study of the digital university. With that being said, Losh’s text, although somewhat cynical and ostentatiously sophisticated, can be influential in gaining a better understanding of the learning sciences which are truly still in their beginning stages.

Douglas C. MacLeod, Jr. is an Assistant Professor of Composition and Communications at SUNY Cobbleskill. He has published in Film and History, Scope, The Journal of American Studies of Turkey, and The Common Good: a SUNY Plattsburgh Journal on Teaching and Learning. He focuses on around mass media, mainly film and composition.