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Institutions for a Less Disabling Future: Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg, The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age

In their pioneering work The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age, Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg argue that institutions of higher education sit at a tipping point brought about by the advent of web 2.0 technology.

Davidson and Goldberg explore implications for higher education of the new possibilities afforded by a range of social media and digital communication technologies, claiming, essentially, that universities must actively pursue the possibilities of digital connective technology and the values of “participatory learning,” even as it means confronting difficult challenges of integrating new styles of institution with old ones. Thanks to sites like Wikipedia, Facebook, and Twitter (just to name a few immediately recognizable examples), we are now producing knowledge through perviously impossible processes of peer-to-peer, global collaboration, a knowledge-making environment that requires new definitions of literacy and learning.

Traditional institutions of higher education have been reluctant to embrace many innovations, however, often for deep seated structural reasons. For instance it is now possible to use virtual reality environments like Second Life to create large-scale collaborative learning institutions that could cross geographical and institutional borders. To allow for comparison of these seemingly incompatible conceptions of “learning institution” they posit a new model that applied to both material and virtual learning institutions: as mobilizing networks, systems sustain themselves over time and distribute resources to their participants based on agreed procedural practices.

Speaking about the range of institutional structures we employ to administer education to learners, Davidson and Goldberg argue that we must seek ways to make the flow of access to information, resources, and collaborative support more fluid and universally open. They ask,

If, at present, too many learning institutions post obstacles to the free flow of thinking, to collaborative knowledge formation, and to interactive learning almost as formidable as obstacles imposed by corporations and by governments, then how do we create free-flowing institutions? (15)

One answer the authors offer emerges as they examine the academic social networking community, the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC). As a test case, HASTAC offers unique possibilities for the future of learning institutions, but it also evidences the real difficulties involved in building and sustaining new mobilizing networks that would bring virtual and brick-and-mortar institutions together in the producing learning institutions fit for the digital age.

I believe Davidson and Goldberg’s notion of institutions as “mobilizing networks” has a number of compelling implications for disability scholars. Here I’m focusing particularly on the fifth chapter, “Institutions as Mobilizing Networks: (Or, ‘I Hate the Institution–But I love what it Did for Me’)”

It is in discussion what institutions are and how they work that the authors most specifically name disability as a relevant topic in the discussion of learning in the digital age (though race, class, and gender are mentioned quite frequently). On the one hand, the author’s initial framing of the “traditional institution” directly evokes the kind of brick-and-mortar institutions developed to house and “care for” the disabled, such as mental institutions and prisons (125). This is the model of an institution as building, as in a charity foundation or public service. Because they find this model of institution recalcitrant to digital innovation and the possibilities of participatory learning, they try to establish a definition that would support the development of new institutional arrangements demanded by the emerging field of digital learning.

By redefining institutions as “mobilizing networks,” the authors claim mobility as a dynamic capacity for change, open collaborative involvement, access to resources–a quality not evenly distributed across contemporary learning institutions. As the authors themselves put it, “institutions in and of themselves, are not intrinsically good or bad. Their utility is a function of what they enable or disable and make possible or restrict” (129).

As Davidson and Goldberg highlight the way institutions either provide access or obstacles to users, I can’t help thinking about the work of composition scholar Jay Dolmage, who has offered similar–though less digitally focused–definitions of institutions that exclude. In his essay “Mapping Composition: Inviting Disability in the Front Door,” Dolmage also draws connections between traditional institutions of higher education and public institutions for the disabled (in Disability and the Teaching of Writing: A Critical Sourcebook 2008). Dolmage observes that colleges and universities, because their institutional function involves subjecting students to challenges and judging their capacities as students, often justify practices that put high demands on students’ physical, mental, and social abilities. Dolmage employs an architectural metaphor of “steep steps” to explain this mentality–college is supposed to be a hard slog, and those who can’t make it don’t deserve to make it to the top.

Dolmage claims that before the rise of disability activism and the ADA requirements that disabled people have equal or comparable access to public institutions of higher learning, universities were designed only to serve the needs of able-bodied students and staff, and many of the “steep steps” that were justified by administrators and teachers actually disproportionally disadvantaged disabled people. Like Davidson and Goldberg, he advocates universities pursue new practices for designing and administering institutions of higher learning, ones that would remove discriminatory barriers to entrance and access by creating more adaptable, responsive, and participatory institutions.

While Dolmage is less focused on the role digital technology can play in fostering access, and Davidson and Goldberg focus less on the plight of disabled students as a particular vulnerable population, these authors clearly come together in the ways they picture the disabling effects of traditional, hierarchical, institutions of higher learning; they also share a goal of creating new institutions that would allow for improved access and inclusion for a diverse range of learners.

A second point of interest for me in their discussion of institutions as mobilizing networks is the way Davidson and Goldberg discuss the roles of specialized institutional sites within larger traditional learning institutions–sites like libraries, DH labs, and specialized institutes that serve to promote new digital methods within the larger, more conservative university system. They refer to these as “supporting sites of mobilization.”

They argue that Institutional sites like libraries, Digital Humanities labs, and digital literacy institutes function “catalysts for innovative uses of technology for pedagogy” for the university, providing access to and training in new technologies for scholarship and pedagogy while at the same time sharing information and facilitating collaboration with communities outside the institution’s physical walls. Institutional spaces like these, the author argue, serve as hubs of mobilizing energy for the university.

A quick example I’ll likely explore in a later post: I work as a communication fellow at The Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute at Baruch College. The institute provides training for faculty and students in a range of new media practices including course blogging, digital composing, digital assessment. It also provides an institutional link between the university and the corporate world through the annual symposium that brings faculty across a range of disciplines together with business professionals to forge important connections that support the interests of both Baruch and the industries the college’s students wish to enter. The institute also supports open practices in the products it develops, including the blogs@baruch platform and VOCAT, an open source application for giving instructor feedback on video projects. They draw resources from open participants and mobilize their resources throughout the broader global community.

My question: I wonder whether there’s a way to conceive of disability services offices as supporting sites of mobilization.

They certainly can be “catalysts for innovative uses of technology for pedagogy”: throughout my education, I have used these sites to access all kinds of assistive technologies: computer programs designed specifically to help students with learning disabilities (literacy support programs like Kurzweil 3000); books on tape (sometimes in conjunction with national foundations for the Blind and Dyslexic); and many technologies I’ve used somewhat off label for dyslexics, like speech-to-text composing software (Dragon Dictation). These resources tend to be prohibitively expensive for students, and mostly unknown to faculty and staff (outside of libraries). They mobilize digital literacy resources. I’ll address the problems with this idea in a moment.

DSOs might serve important mobilizing function within institutions of higher education in other ways, too. Clearly, in their charge to remove environmental and curricular impediments for students with disabilities, they foster mobility at colleges in literal ways: more people are able to move around campuses, access buildings, access course materials, and (ideally) access college degrees.

I wonder, though, about the important differences between DSOs and other digital literacy and access sponsors like libraries and DH institutes. Within DSOs, resources are distributed through a hierarchical process of administrative bureaucracy. Because their work with students raises all sorts of legal concerns about confidentiality and anti-discrimination legislation, DSOs must be exceptionally controlled in the way they facilitate mobilization of information, resources, and access. Some of their resources are open access (say, information about disability aimed at educating the local community, which is often hosted on DSO websites): these are for everyone, inside or outside of the university, and they often draw reference to disability culture and activism outside academic walls.

However, the majority of the resources available at DSOs are administered through confidential channels and provided only to a select few who have documented diagnoses of disabilities. Access to resources is almost invariably a top-down affair, where the administration sets the plan for accommodation according to legal prescription, and the faculty and student must both comply. DSOs don’t seem in a position to facilitate the kind of peer-to-peer collaborative learning networks Davidson and Goldberg advocate.

I want to close this post by speculating on a model from within the disabled community of mobilizing networks that may provide useful models for innovating the work of DSOs. Here I’m wandering into unclear terrain, where I will need to argue that one important function of these sites of mobilization Davidson and Goldberg describe to push cultural change and community building across social barriers of race, class, nation, and disability. I think here of the way she describes how community organizations like Sustainable South Bronx use participatory learning practices to promote social change and bring together a community.

I think also of the important role that online communities have played in bringing disabled people into active, collaborative community building. I can imagine particularly salient examples from the autistic or Asperger’s communities–the kinds of online sites of emerging “disability culture” Joseph Straus describes in his essay “Autism as Culture” (in Disability Studies Reader, 4th ed).  What productive analogies can be drawn between institutions of participatory learning in higher education contexts and these peer-to-peer digital networks that foster community building and group identity formation? How could similar peer-to-peer disability networking be productive in universities to sponsor new more empowering understandings of disabled identity? What part might DSOs play in facilitating this development?

I will take these questions with me as I continue my research. My next stop is Davidson’s Now You See It, which more directly addresses disability issues. Perhaps I will be able to think through these questions more there. Mark also suggested I track down any blog posts or articles she’s done on disability topics–which I’ll aim to do before she arrives for her job visit to CUNY this Friday. I look forward to talking with her in person about these and other ideas I have emerging for my experiences with her work.

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