Saturday, August 18, 2012


Planned Obsolescence in Academe

The phrase "planned obsolescence" entered our vocabulary as a critique of business practices that forced the purchase of new products through the things we owned but broke, often because they were built to break after a too short period of time, which then fostered "conspicuous waste". It is wonderful phrase in the richness of its nuances and interesting to apply to higher education and its graduates. Here's another meaning. In a rapidly changing culture, if you plan not to change, if you choose to avoid environmental scanning as to how things are different and where competition is emerging then you have also created your own "planned obsolescence". The reasons for not changing are many, including: fear, insufficient capacity or general slackness. There are interesting levels to this problem, but where the "front burner" academic issue of open access publishing directly impacts a tiny fraction of our culture, academics, the more "back burner" issue of new literacy has far more profound implication for our entire culture.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, is author of the book titled Planned Obsolescence. She also holds the position titled Scholarly Communication, created in 2011, within a national organization, the Modern Language Association. In her blog site by similar name, she writes convincingly in the post on Giving It Away, of the challenges and opportunities of the open access movement with its gold (open access journals) and green (institutional repositories) standards. 
The issue of open access journals though is the tip of the iceberg; the larger issue is the range of expressive media we use within those open access journals. For the vast majority, it's still text from a word processor. It is then a bit ironic for the paragons of text literacy to find that, while fluent with text, their Net culture has almost overnight turned on them, redefining them as largely illiterate, a transition with which the earliest members of academe, Socrates and Plato, were most familiar. So, let me be really clear. You are probably illiterate. That is, if you are sufficiently Web enabled to be reading this and if you apply your high standards of the media of text to other standard forms of digital composition, then the odds are high that the graph of your various competencies to compose with the forms of communication routinely read/viewed/heard on the Web is most certainly heavily tilted towards illiteracy and to some degree, functional illiteracy. Yes, this includes me as well. But as the image of the digital palette communicates, these new media are just the more visible tip of the iceberg, as image, audio, video, 2d animation, 3d animation, sensor and robotics compositions and a wide range of interactive compositions are also commonly viewed and/or used. A highly focused treatment of this range can be found in the merging ejournal from the North Carolina Middle School Association, Literacy and Composition in the Digital Age.

It would logical to parse the discussion of literacy and reply in protest.  "Literacy is about "reading" or input, about understanding and comprehension. There is no media that we do not Understand at a fairly high level." Perhaps. That debate must be saved for a later time. But academe has always made compositional literacy, writing, the higher standard. Those who would lead a culture must be able to initiate and create the expression of ideas in the common tools of the age. And yet. Even though though excellent tools for composition in still image and video on all operating systems and audio (on a Mac) are given away freely within the operating systems of the computers we are given by our institutions, we don't know them with any degree of familiarity that compares with our skills in expressing ideas textually. When they are available to be used within our Blackboards and Moodles, we seldom use them, integrate them or assign their composition within our instructional schemes. In the meantime, as one example in one media, YouTube viewing is rapidly accelerating towards greater total viewing than television and film combined! The banality and worse of much of YouTube's content could also be laid at our door, at the way such content has been uninformed by instruction and critique within higher education. Higher education invented the Net and its denizens the software and the concepts for leveraging their use. Our failure is accented to our shame by being "the" branch of the educational system that was "gifted" by tax dollars with the digital cornucopia, the digital bandwidth, hardware and software, an embarrassment of inadequately used digital riches, for the last 40 years.

It is high time that we elevated more of the knowledge of our colleagues in Communications (audio, photography, video/film communication and forms of interaction), in the art department (still image and animation and 3D) and in engineering (sensors and robotics) to the level of graduation standards for our students in these now so digital media. It is not fair to excoriate this same group for failing to lead us in the rest of the media of the Web, but it is fair to ask whomever claims a role in leadership for the direction of our higher education institutions why we have not seen this coming, and led instead of now even refusing to chase. Where are our standards? If it is not seen as stooping too low, examining the national standards of our impoverished cousins, K-12 education, would be one useful starting point.

Considering the implications for the lucky 19% that actually graduates from college is but part of the overall culture scene. Digital technology also provide "curb cuts" for those on the spectrum of illiteracy/literacy, fully illiterate or functionally so. How will we use the Net to provides the incentives to reach greater text literacy as well for the majority of our population?

So it comes back to the members of the academic academy to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps. If you have not developed your own personal and/or institutional growth path within the new literacy, digital literacy, then consider some of the fine teaching resources that would enable you to do so: Atomic Learning and Lynda.

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