The notion of skepticism about technology in educational endeavors (see here for part 1) serves as a segue to the sharing of something I’d written two years ago to a fellow ensemble instrumentalist.
A person of multiple talents, my interlocutor is a fine instrumentalist and a devoted father. He is employed in a computer technology field, and I perceived that he was knowledgeable within that general field. More to the point, this man was substantially younger than I, and he immediately showed himself to be of a different generational mindset regarding technology. (I’d say he is something of a GenXer with Millennial leanings whereas I am an older “mutt” who has at least equal affinity with prior generations.)
To set the stage: we were riding in a carpool, and I had opened a can of worms too late—when we were almost done with our second hour-long ride, after one of the typically frustrating (for me) rehearsals. I had recently read a job posting for a college conducting/teaching position, and this one emphasized technology-based instruction more explicitly than any I had seen. It manifest the assumption that the teaching of conducting would be technology-dependent and technology-focused. No matter the credentials or general intellect of the VP or Dean who made such a determination, I will say unequivocally that the mind that conceives of an entirely online conducting degree is a mind that does not comprehend conducting. One could say the same thing about online degrees in other physically based vocations. Conducting education may be well enhanced by technologies, and even entire courses could be based on technology, but a conducting program may not legitimately be borne entirely on technological wings. The very idea of a distance-learning conducting degree program is flat-out ridiculous. Here is how the interview for a such a graduate should go: “Your master’s in conducting was an online degree? (Or, you learned how to cut hair or how to be a chef or how to counsel abused women entirely on a computer screen?) Thank you for your time. Next candidate, please.”
I would assert that distance learning scenarios will rarely if ever prove more effective than classrooms and other real-life (or should I say counter-virtual these days?) venues. I suppose some students might do fairly well studying accounting, actuarial science or literature online, but vocations based in physicality are especially dependent on real-life learning.
Back to my conversation with this trumpet-playing musician-computer-technologist. I had opened it in an admittedly biased manner, and he reacted as though I needed to be shown the light. “Technology is the way everything is heading,” he said, instructing me along these lines (I imagine) because I was than a dozen years his senior. So I reacted back, and I regretted it a bit, and I wrote him a letter a few days later. My introduction was half a page long, apologizing relationally for the tension I’d created through my timing and manner. I stand firm on the substance of the disagreement, though. Here is the non-personal portion of that letter that pertains, both philosophically and practically, to technology and education:
My basic presupposition is that, no matter how the world is heading, there are some areas that should not be given entirely over to technologically based education. These areas would include cosmetology, surgery, and conducting. The physicality of the necessary skills demands that the lion’s share of the training be hands-on with the real materials—not behind a screen, a joystick, or a set of headphones.
I also resist fight (a futile fight, I know) the apparently irresistible inclination for those in enterprise-level authority to move quickly, and often with only shallow thought, toward technology as “savior” when they don’t know what else to do. This syndrome among one institution’s administrators, I would assert, is why that institution is entertaining the idea of an entirely online conducting master’s degree. It may be cheaper to do certain things online, but that doesn’t make it wiser, and some things may not be viable at all online.
I’ve always been tech-capable and tech-involved. I like and use many technologies every day. None of this is about disavowing technology; it’s about being honest about some of its limitations. Technology can obviously be a great support, but it is not itself the content for most of us, and it does not always represent the best direction for instruction.
The point that certain education gurus and deans of instruction and vice presidents for academic affairs and provosts need to hear, and hear well, is this: technology is a tool to be used in the service of teaching students. Technology is a means, not an end; the degree to which it becomes the focus of curricula and disciplines other than technology itself is the degree to which it is being misused. Technology may be used effectively—or it may be used simply for the sake of using it, which is a futile endeavor, devoid of meaning. In a remote region (including two in which I’ve taught), there might be no other way to give a student contact with a credentialed private voice or trumpet teacher. Applied music might in those cases be taught via a Wifi connection and a tablet-sized screen, but not very effectively. Such methods are not optimal; they are concessions to geography. And conducting instruction, while it might be enhanced by a few cool technologies available these days, is also better in person. (Some readers might be interested in this account of the use of Google Glass in conducting. I have heard this very fine conductor and cutting-edge professor speak and have observed her ensemble leadership. I’ll attest to the fact that she would acknowledge that Google Glass use wasn’t quite what she’d envisioned in all respects. Note the limitations mentioned under the YouTube video image.)
Again, the very idea of an online conducting degree is as ludicrous—although obviously not as medically consequential as an online brain surgery credential. Sure, technological tools can be amazing and should be used, where possible, and where they can enhance education. Imaging technologies can be revelatory for medical students and veteran physicians, and also for conducting students, but never should those tools be the only platforms from which the skills are deployed and assimilated. In conducting, as in hair cutting and lawn care, one does the thing in real life with real people, and there are real implications in real air with real sound. One cannot learn the implications of preparatory gestures or profligate beat-division on a screen or by listening and gesturing and having a laser-based device plot and graph the gestures. Learning the discipline and skill of conducting must be directly tied to musicians (persons) and the sounds they make.
Currently, in one worker’s non-academic position, she uses a few technologies. She is limited by a backward computer technology framework and a seriously lacking application that make her a prisoner to embarrassingly outdated visuals, comatose response times, and the lack of basic functionality. This scenario nearly daily gives her frustrations. (People care about technology, including when it is bad.) When technology that should be serving the content or core process does not do what it should, or does it poorly, we should acknowledge that the emperor has no clothes! An elephant is in the room! We should also aim to estimate properly the contribution of technology to the thing, i.e., neither overestimating nor underestimating what technology does, and this point ties back to the assertion that technology must be seen as the means, not the end in itself.
I strenuously resist the notion that major, enterprise-wide decisions should be driven by shallow estimations of the worth of certain technologies—or worse, by unilateral or under-informed prognostications about various, ephemeral technologies. The programmers should be more attentive to function and to the work (and learning) of real people. The Cram flashcard app helps me learn Greek vocabulary, but its scope is limited. My GPS screen and a mobile map can be helpful, but the perspective is tiny. I’m more agile with full-size screens and keyboards, so I will nearly always choose a computer over a mobile app if both are accessible, but there is place for both. Whatever the technology under consideration, it is important not to remove (inadvertently or otherwise) functionalities that people use effectively, in favor of some cool, cutting-edge glitz that is less functional.² Do Millennials trust mobile devices and apps and internet-based financial infrastructures more than going to the bank or talking to a financial advisor. Millennials have my sympathies, and I do love the convenience of my apps for certain things, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily think young programmers or workers possess foresight or wisdom. Sometimes, technology is neither here nor there. Sometimes it’s just gadgetry without longevity or improved function.
For my part, I hope the next life begins before banks and traditional colleges fade away. More and more, colleges and universities, because of financial pressures, are moving toward part-time, adjunct instructors who teach mostly online courses on a part-time basis. It’s a cheaper way to offer courses of instruction. As long as there are more and more layers of management and administrivia, that trend will continue. I’m not a fan of the tenure idea or the process, but I do think there should be fewer managers and program directors and assistant deans, making way for more full-time faculty members who teach students around tables, in classrooms, and in studios and offices. And I am available to present to academic deans on the ridiculous enterprise of online conducting degrees! I will do this for the first five institutions who pay my expenses!
It will continue to be important for deans and provosts and academic VPs—and, dare I say it, H/R people and educators and teachers’ unions—to give prominence to education and learning, more than to technology as an end in itself.
¹ I have tended to gloss over H/R-infused boilerplate language, knowing first-hand how H/R folks can sometimes commandeer such communication vehicles as job postings from the academic departments they are supposedly serving.
² I am a witness to reversions or loss of capability in, for example, Google Drive, the editor in WordPress, AirDroid, Microsoft Word (don’t get me started about how WordPerfect was a better word processor that lost our to marketing giant Microsoft), Media Player, sound file conversion software, and even Windows Task Manager. And that’s just off the top of my head.