On “The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University,” by Elizabeth Losh

On “The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University,” by Elizabeth Losh

In The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University, Elizabeth Losh surveys the current state of networked technology in / and higher education, or as she terms it, the “digital university.” Throughout the book, Losh incorporates various case studies of failed initiatives in this realm, including in terms of behaviour (student, professor, and company), public relations, and outcomes. She highlights situations where professors become Internet sensations over their education performances — either due to their ridiculousness or their popular showmanship — as well as instances of blatant corporate pandering and promotion at the expense of undergraduates’ educational experiences. Many of Losh’s criticisms in the book come down to the corporate presence in higher education that the digital turn has wrought. She argues that the emergence of distance learning, MOOCs, and flashy ed-tech tools have contributed to the overarching idea that education is about consumption and consumerism versus intellectual development and social engagement. Perhaps this conceptual shift  is not surprising in a context like the United States, where universities are often brand-focused and annual tuition can be so exorbitant that it causes decades of debt. Regardless of the context, Losh is quite right to point out that many of the current educational technologies are overly focused on information / content delivery (as well as getting paid), and not focused enough on ensuring effective pedagogical experiences take place.

Despite Losh’s criticisms, and all of the online and technological education mishaps that she details, the author does hold out hope that the future of technology and the university can be successful. In her conclusion, Losh asks

How can we influence the digital university to be more inclusive, generative, just, and constructive? How do we learn from embodied interactions in the lived experiences of the current university’s users, rather than simply accepting the untested structures of entrepreneurial venture capitalism — structures that might disenfranchise many kinds of learning activities when such activities fall on the wrong side of a cost-benefit analysis? How do we avoid overestimating machines? (224).

She then lists 6 guiding principles to lead the development of the digital university, which can be boiled down to mutual respect, common tools, joyful experiences, traditional techniques, serious objectives, and novelty avoidance. Adherence to these priorities, Losh argues, could create a more embodied, beneficial experience for all, students and professors alike.

Work cited

Losh, Elizabeth. 2014. The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University. Cambridge, MA, & London, England: MIT Press.

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