CumInCAD is a Cumulative Index about publications in Computer Aided Architectural Design
supported by the sibling associations ACADIA, CAADRIA, eCAADe, SIGraDi, ASCAAD and CAAD futures

authors Gal, Shahaf
year 1992
title Computers and Design Activities: Their Mediating Role in Engineering Education
source Sociomedia, ed. Edward Barret. MIT Press
summary Sociomedia: With all the new words used to describe electronic communication (multimedia, hypertext, cyberspace, etc.), do we need another one? Edward Barrett thinks we do; hence, he coins the term "sociomedia." It is meant to displace a computing economy in which technicity is hypostasized over sociality. Sociomedia, a compilation of twenty-five articles on the theory, design and practice of educational multimedia and hypermedia, attempts to re-value the communicational face of computing. Value, of course, is "ultimately a social construct." As such, it has everything to do with knowledge, power, education and technology. The projects discussed in this book represent the leading edge of electronic knowledge production in academia (not to mention major funding) and are determining the future of educational media. For these reasons, Sociomedia warrants close inspection. Barrett's introduction sets the tone. For him, designing computer media involves hardwiring a mechanism for the social construction of knowledge (1). He links computing to a process of social and communicative interactivity for constructing and desseminating knowledge. Through a mechanistic mapping of the university as hypercontext (a huge network that includes classrooms as well as services and offices), Barrett models intellectual work in such a way as to avoid "limiting definitions of human nature or human development." Education, then, can remain "where it should be--in the human domain (public and private) of sharing ideas and information through the medium of language." By leaving education in a virtual realm (where we can continue to disagree about its meaning and execution), it remains viral, mutating and contaminating in an intellectually healthy way. He concludes that his mechanistic model, by means of its reductionist approach, preserves value (7). This "value" is the social construction of knowledge. While I support the social orientation of Barrett's argument, discussions of value are related to power. I am not referring to the traditional teacher-student power structure that is supposedly dismantled through cooperative and constructivist learning strategies. The power to be reckoned with in the educational arena is foundational, that which (pre)determines value and the circulation of knowledge. "Since each of you reading this paragraph has a different perspective on the meaning of 'education' or 'learning,' and on the processes involved in 'getting an education,' think of the hybris in trying to capture education in a programmable function, in a displayable object, in a 'teaching machine'" (7). Actually, we must think about that hybris because it is, precisely, what informs teaching machines. Moreover, the basic epistemological premises that give rise to such productions are too often assumed. In the case of instructional design, the episteme of cognitive sciences are often taken for granted. It is ironic that many of the "postmodernists" who support electronic hypertextuality seem to have missed Jacques Derrida's and Michel Foucault's "deconstructions" of the epistemology underpinning cognitive sciences (if not of epistemology itself). Perhaps it is the glitz of the technology that blinds some users (qua developers) to the belief systems operating beneath the surface. Barrett is not guilty of reactionary thinking or politics; he is, in fact, quite in line with much American deconstructive and postmodern thinking. The problem arises in that he leaves open the definitions of "education," "learning" and "getting an education." One cannot engage in the production of new knowledge without orienting its design, production and dissemination, and without negotiating with others' orientations, especially where largescale funding is involved. Notions of human nature and development are structural, even infrastructural, whatever the medium of the teaching machine. Although he addresses some dynamics of power, money and politics when he talks about the recession and its effects on the conference, they are readily visible dynamics of power (3-4). Where does the critical factor of value determination, of power, of who gets what and why, get mapped onto a mechanistic model of learning institutions? Perhaps a mapping of contributors' institutions, of the funding sources for the projects showcased and for participation in the conference, and of the disciplines receiving funding for these sorts of projects would help visualize the configurations of power operative in the rising field of educational multimedia. Questions of power and money notwithstanding, Barrett's introduction sets the social and textual thematics for the collection of essays. His stress on interactivity, on communal knowledge production, on the society of texts, and on media producers and users is carried foward through the other essays, two of which I will discuss. Section I of the book, "Perspectives...," highlights the foundations, uses and possible consequences of multimedia and hypertextuality. The second essay in this section, "Is There a Class in This Text?," plays on the robust exchange surrounding Stanley Fish's book, Is There a Text in This Class?, which presents an attack on authority in reading. The author, John Slatin, has introduced electronic hypertextuality and interaction into his courses. His article maps the transformations in "the content and nature of work, and the workplace itself"-- which, in this case, is not industry but an English poetry class (25). Slatin discovered an increase of productive and cooperative learning in his electronically- mediated classroom. For him, creating knowledge in the electronic classroom involves interaction between students, instructors and course materials through the medium of interactive written discourse. These interactions lead to a new and persistent understanding of the course materials and of the participants' relation to the materials and to one another. The work of the course is to build relationships that, in my view, constitute not only the meaning of individual poems, but poetry itself. The class carries out its work in the continual and usually interactive production of text (31). While I applaud his strategies which dismantle traditional hierarchical structures in academia, the evidence does not convince me that the students know enough to ask important questions or to form a self-directing, learning community. Stanley Fish has not relinquished professing, though he, too, espouses the indeterminancy of the sign. By the fourth week of his course, Slatin's input is, by his own reckoning, reduced to 4% (39). In the transcript of the "controversial" Week 6 exchange on Gertrude Stein--the most disliked poet they were discussing at the time (40)--we see the blind leading the blind. One student parodies Stein for three lines and sums up his input with "I like it." Another, finds Stein's poetry "almost completey [sic] lacking in emotion or any artistic merit" (emphasis added). On what grounds has this student become an arbiter of "artistic merit"? Another student, after admitting being "lost" during the Wallace Steven discussion, talks of having more "respect for Stevens' work than Stein's" and adds that Stein's poetry lacks "conceptual significance[, s]omething which people of varied opinion can intelligently discuss without feeling like total dimwits...." This student has progressed from admitted incomprehension of Stevens' work to imposing her (groundless) respect for his work over Stein's. Then, she exposes her real dislike for Stein's poetry: that she (the student) missed the "conceptual significance" and hence cannot, being a person "of varied opinion," intelligently discuss it "without feeling like [a] total dimwit." Slatin's comment is frightening: "...by this point in the semester students have come to feel increasingly free to challenge the instructor" (41). The students that I have cited are neither thinking critically nor are their preconceptions challenged by student-governed interaction. Thanks to the class format, one student feels self-righteous in her ignorance, and empowered to censure. I believe strongly in student empowerment in the classroom, but only once students have accrued enough knowledge to make informed judgments. Admittedly, Slatin's essay presents only partial data (there are six hundred pages of course transcripts!); still, I wonder how much valuable knowledge and metaknowledge was gained by the students. I also question the extent to which authority and professorial dictature were addressed in this course format. The power structures that make it possible for a college to require such a course, and the choice of texts and pedagogy, were not "on the table." The traditional professorial position may have been displaced, but what took its place?--the authority of consensus with its unidentifiable strong arm, and the faceless reign of software design? Despite Slatin's claim that the students learned about the learning process, there is no evidence (in the article) that the students considered where their attitudes came from, how consensus operates in the construction of knowledge, how power is established and what relationship they have to bureaucratic insitutions. How do we, as teaching professionals, negotiate a balance between an enlightened despotism in education and student-created knowledge? Slatin, and other authors in this book, bring this fundamental question to the fore. There is no definitive answer because the factors involved are ultimately social, and hence, always shifting and reconfiguring. Slatin ends his article with the caveat that computerization can bring about greater estrangement between students, faculty and administration through greater regimentation and control. Of course, it can also "distribute authority and power more widely" (50). Power or authority without a specific face, however, is not necessarily good or just. Shahaf Gal's "Computers and Design Activities: Their Mediating Role in Engineering Education" is found in the second half of the volume, and does not allow for a theory/praxis dichotomy. Gal recounts a brief history of engineering education up to the introduction of Growltiger (GT), a computer-assisted learning aid for design. He demonstrates GT's potential to impact the learning of engineering design by tracking its use by four students in a bridge-building contest. What his text demonstrates clearly is that computers are "inscribing and imaging devices" that add another viewpoint to an on-going dialogue between student, teacher, earlier coursework, and other teaching/learning tools. The less proficient students made a serious error by relying too heavily on the technology, or treating it as a "blueprint provider." They "interacted with GT in a way that trusted the data to represent reality. They did not see their interaction with GT as a negotiation between two knowledge systems" (495). Students who were more thoroughly informed in engineering discourses knew to use the technology as one voice among others--they knew enough not simply to accept the input of the computer as authoritative. The less-advanced students learned a valuable lesson from the competition itself: the fact that their designs were not able to hold up under pressure (literally) brought the fact of their insufficient knowledge crashing down on them (and their bridges). They also had, post factum, several other designs to study, especially the winning one. Although competition and comparison are not good pedagogical strategies for everyone (in this case the competitors had volunteered), at some point what we think we know has to be challenged within the society of discourses to which it belongs. Students need critique in order to learn to push their learning into auto-critique. This is what is lacking in Slatin's discussion and in the writings of other avatars of constructivist, collaborative and computer-mediated pedagogies. Obviously there are differences between instrumental types of knowledge acquisition and discoursive knowledge accumulation. Indeed, I do not promote the teaching of reading, thinking and writing as "skills" per se (then again, Gal's teaching of design is quite discursive, if not dialogic). Nevertheless, the "soft" sciences might benefit from "bridge-building" competitions or the re-institution of some forms of agonia. Not everything agonistic is inhuman agony--the joy of confronting or creating a sound argument supported by defensible evidence, for example. Students need to know that soundbites are not sound arguments despite predictions that electronic writing will be aphoristic rather than periodic. Just because writing and learning can be conceived of hypertextually does not mean that rigor goes the way of the dinosaur. Rigor and hypertextuality are not mutually incompatible. Nor is rigorous thinking and hard intellectual work unpleasurable, although American anti-intellectualism, especially in the mass media, would make it so. At a time when the spurious dogmatics of a Rush Limbaugh and Holocaust revisionist historians circulate "aphoristically" in cyberspace, and at a time when knowledge is becoming increasingly textualized, the role of critical thinking in education will ultimately determine the value(s) of socially constructed knowledge. This volume affords the reader an opportunity to reconsider knowledge, power, and new communications technologies with respect to social dynamics and power relationships.
series other
references Content-type: text/plain
last changed 2003/04/23 13:14
HOMELOGIN (you are user _anon_849190 from group guest) Works Powered by SciX Open Publishing Services 1.002