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June 9, 2011

Expressive capability should shape education, lecturer says

“We live in amazing times,” Virginia Tech faculty member Gardner Campbell told participants in the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education’s summer institute.

Gardner Campbell

Gardner Campbell

If the assertion is true — that we are in the midst of the largest increase in expressive capability in human history — “We have an amazing rocket to ride. We’ve got an amazing engine for teaching and learning and research, for what it means to be in higher education,” said Campbell, Virginia Tech’s director of professional development and innovative initiatives, in his June 2 talk, “Beyond the Tech Churn: Faculty Development and the Digital Imagination.”

That increase in capacity is not on the scale of the revolution that followed the invention of the printing press, but rather on par with the impact of the emergence of the alphabet, Campbell argued.

“Twenty-six little characters in the English language: Infinitely malleable, infinitely recombinable, the bedrock of the way that we take what we do when we talk and encode it so that people don’t have to be at the same place at the same time to communicate,” he said.

“All science, all commentary, all learning, all education depends on this. We’re looking at a moment that, it seems to me, is as rich with possibility as the emergence of the phonetic alphabet.”

Colleagues may argue that 95 percent of what is shared online “is crap. But 95 percent is always crap. Have you looked at print?” he countered. “It’s not about the medium, it’s what you’re doing with it. And it’s always going to be a fairly low-yield operation. That’s just the way it goes.”

Why use computers?

Campbell cautioned faculty that they shouldn’t take interest in computers “because the kids are doing it,” or out of a sense of obligation.

Neither should they think that computers will make them more productive. “They will, but it’s a certain kind of productivity that’s very difficult to manage because you will open floodgates that do not have a logical closing point.

“As soon as you get down this digital path, there’s a whole world there and it is growing at an exponential rate,” he said. “The digital age unlocks a certain kind of human ingenuity and creativity and innovation that does not actually make you more productive” in terms of crossing things off a to-do list.

“It may make you more productive as a creative, imaginative human being, but now you’ll have to figure out what to do with that,” he said, arguing that growth in the digital realm is attributable to the humans behind the computers. “If we would simply turn off our ingenuity, things would be fine. But we’re in education. We want people to be ingenious,” he said.

Interactive networking

“Interactive networked computing is the invention that most closely resembles what’s inside our own minds,” he said, arguing that the reason to get interested in interactive networked computers is the purpose for which they were invented: to share the richness of human cognition.

Citing Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir (, which combines the voices and images submitted by individual singers from around the world; John Boswell’s musical remixes, which combine famed scientists’ discourse with electronic music (, and the community lipdub video of Don McLean’s “American Pie” created as a response to Newsweek’s assertion that Grand Rapids, Mich. was among America’s dying cities (, Campbell argued that the digital imagination is what brings such projects to life.

“It was the idea that made it possible,” he said.

Other examples in which creative participation plays a role include the Little Big Planet game for Sony PlayStation 3 (, which allows users to create and share their own game levels. Introduced in October 2008, by last August 3 million user-generated levels had been uploaded, Campbell said.

The game is designed to stimulate interest, engagement and creativity, he said, noting that the U.S. Department of Education recognized Little Big Planet as a way to enhance STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education because of the physics engine embedded in the game.

Another example is the enhanced online version of the president’s 2011 State of the Union address, which facilitated viewer participation and commentary in various forums.

“In an open discussion of this kind, interest is generated in some part by the fact it’s open and can go in various directions depending on how people want to express themselves. We get really worried about that in the classroom,” Campbell said, arguing that too much of school is more akin to a Skinner box. There are clear learning outcomes and assessment is easy to do, but the box itself is an impoverished learning environment, he pointed out.

“The rat steps on a pedal and is rewarded with a little pellet of food. … Many times I think to myself that each press on the pedal is like earning a credit hour. It shouldn’t be,” he lamented. “This is why [students] want to know what’s going to be on the final exam. This is why they come up to you and say ‘How long do you want the paper to be?’ They’re engaged in a pedal-pressing exercise,” Campbell said. “We talk about diploma mills, but the diploma mill of the mind is the worst: when students want that piece of paper to get it over with.”

Citing tech guru Peter Thiel’s scholarship program that pays young people “not to go to school, but to develop their ideas instead” as worst-case, he said going to school versus developing ideas shouldn’t be an either-or. “And yet there’s a lot in the way we’ve designed our schools that goes in this direction, in the middle of this digital age,” he said.

Sharing cognition

“For me the great adventure has been in going back and discovering something that I didn’t know and was never told when I was coming through school, which was that computers in an interactive network environment were invented to share the richness of human cognition. Not faster typewriters, not a place to store all your photos. All those things are important and interesting, but they were actually machines generated to enable thinking together in more effective ways.”

Campbell held up the example of an 18th-century coffeehouse as a vital and productive learning environment. “Unruly? Yes,” but from those forums came the ideas and techniques that framed the scientific revolution.

Citing the online lectures of the Khan Academy (, Campbell quoted founder Salman Khan as saying, “I teach the way I wish I was taught. The lectures are coming from me, an actual human being who is fascinated by the world around him. The concepts are conveyed as they are understood by me, not as they are written in a textbook developed by an educational bureaucracy.”

To become widely influential, those with a passion for learning and teaching must have a digital imagination, Campbell said, noting that the digital age can scale the labors of love that learners create and publish online. “It doesn’t mean a loss of rigor, it means a shift in thinking,” he argued.

Indeed, the digital realm is unruly and akin to a coffeehouse, Campbell noted. However, the more controls that are put in place with regard to the digital environment, “the more it turns into school and not shared cognition,” he said.

Awakening the digital imagination

“The idea is to help faculty and staff and students develop into digital citizens and that happens through the awakening of the digital imagination,” he said, pointing to Ben Franklin as a model of inventive curiosity “who would have felt right at home in the information revolution.”

Self taught and with no PhD, Franklin was a scientist, diplomat, writer and publisher. “He was someone who manifested the kind of integrative learning, the kind of broad lateral thinking with really great expertise in several distinct areas that we say we want our students to be,” Campbell said, noting that success in the 21st century will require similar skills. “We’re all going to have to do a lot of learning and relearning and we are going to have to go lateral.”

The digital imagination should empower freedom in thinking and learning, he said. It is a realm in which learners can self-narrate and self-curate and share what they’ve created. “These things run antithetical to what we do in higher education and in education generally,” he said.

“When the digital imagination is awakened, when we become aware of the possibilities for the sharing of cognition, a lot of interesting disruption happens. A lot of education happens out in the open.

“Students come into our schools beginning their life’s work, not getting it over with. They understand that sharing the process of learning is also part of what learning produces,” he said.

“The process and product have a sort of particle/wave interrelation. They discover that they may learn things and have ideas and questions that may have never occurred to their professor and may be of interest to people in different courses, in different schools, in different countries, of different ages.”

Awakening the digital imagination and empowering students requires a massive faculty development effort, Campbell said.

“Our digital imaginations have to be awakened as well. It’s not easy to do, but it’s incredibly rewarding and it’s actually fun.”

To view Campbell’s entire presentation, including discussion of how he promotes students’ curiosity and engagement in his classes, visit

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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