Alan Howard’s American Studies and the New Technologies: New Paradigms for Teaching and Learning (originally prepared for the Ninth Annual Learning and Literacy Network Learning Conference, Beijing, July 19, 2002) is one of the clearest statements of important pedagogical issues that I’ve read in quite a while. He describes three multimedia projects at University of Virginia (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Valley of the Shadow, and The Salem Witch Trials) which exemplify the “new paradigms”, and summarizes their importance in two sterling paragraphs [emphasis added]:
These three projects, then, seem capable of changing the way we see and explain our world. And they share a group of common attributes. They are all large, and getting larger; they are interdisciplinary and multimediated, radically expanding the notion of what a text is. They are aggregative, synthesizing, and virtualized, bringing together in a single digital space materials that otherwise lie impossibly separated and unmanageable, resistant to analysis. They are multi-relational and multi-layered, structures whose complexity approximates that of the reality they seek to describe. They are question based and open ended, beginning with no clear sense of the object of the enterprise except to bring together in one space the relevant data, repeatedly discovering and re-discovering the uses to which they might be put.
Above all, these are collaborative, virtual structures built and extended by real communities. In the future, each enterprise will succeed in rough proportion to the degree that it is able to evolve a new kind of institutionalized intellectual culture in which faculty, graduate students, undergraduates, library staff, technical support staff, school teachers, independent researchers, academics at other institutions, and unaffiliated professionals share authority, expertise, and responsibility. Moreover, the technology argues that, in order to succeed, each project will have to create an intellectual community of teachers and learners of sufficient scale, complexity, flexibility, and durability to develop serendipitously and opportunistically over time. If, as some have said, the modern university is the last rust-belt institution, the last standing invention of the age of industrialization and mechanical reproduction, the model these technology-based projects suggest, ironically enough, is strikingly organic, complex, vital, and dynamic — less like a production line than an incubator.
He continues with a description of the UVa American Studies Program, noting that
the objective is to provide students an opportunity to complicate and clarify their notions of cultural process… The AS@UVA site not only generates a newly powerful pedagogy — it also works as a new form of scholarship. Like the three other sites I have described, it thickens the description of each of its fields of inquiry.
And he concludes:
We are confronted with a series of choices about how we use these new technologies: to expand markets and reduce per-unit costs or to increase the scale and complexity of understanding; to use the technology to put a new front on what we already know and can do or to listen to the technology and hear how it can be genuinely transformative; to build fake communities manufacturing rote learning or to create actual communities, even if virtual, that are actually learning.