Curated Reality: Directives, the Collapse of Collaboration, and Technology in School

If we all took the Invisible Gorilla experiment (1-3), and you were one of the people who saw the gorilla, you’d probably try and figure out who else saw the gorilla, detect what they have in common with you that let them see the gorilla, and find a way to say “Hey, you saw the gorilla too. What’s the deal with the gorilla?”

Since you’d been directed to count all the passes, though, you would then convene with the Basketball Counters (who, all this time, have been doing to their calculations what you’ve been doing to the gorilla) in an attempt to arrive at an accurate picture of what’s going on here. That’s the collaboration that Davidson gestures ambitiously towards in her introduction (5), it’s the framework for the book’s objectives–to examine how we might adapt our schools and workplaces to account for this human tendency to pay attention to some things and not others, and to seek new information on what they’re missing when they need to problem-solve.

But let’s suppose (in a little mental experiment) that the Invisible Gorilla experiment that no one directed the audience to count the passes—there is no clear problem to solve. Without this directive, people would watch the video with a more open filter, with the counting-inclined counting all sorts of passes in different categories, the sports-inclined watching the form of the passes, perhaps, the literature-inclined attempting to close read the scene for symbolic meaning, and a fair number of people just watching. A larger number of people, without their attention externally directed elsewhere, might see the gorilla–without telling everyone to count (as Joe deliberately neglected to do on Friday), most people see the gorilla. It’s a gorilla.

In a group large enough, without this counting directive, people might generally see the gorilla and understand the passes and the coding of the colored shirts, and talk about what it means. But this central consensus on the (now obvious) gorilla presence would still generate a series of outlier groups: people who don’t think the gorilla is important, who counted all the passes between black shirts, or white shirts, or all the passes from one color shirt to different color shirts, and so on. They form their own small groups, reinforcing each other’s beliefs.

This is basically the internet in a nutshell. There is a mass of data, to be processed by people, with no filtering directives or directive towards problem-solving. Like Baby Andy (47), it’s just spitting data at us, and we’re selecting parts, giving them value, reinforcing the reproduction of that data, and grouping up with other people to form cultures where “Dada” is a word and “Mada” is not, where the gorilla doesn’t matter but the black-shirt passes do.

Internet Opinions

Collaboration under these circumstances may or may not be as prevalent as under the “count the passes” directive, but this collaboration is fragmentary and self-reinforcing non-collaboratory (or intra-group collaboratory) activity is just as common. Team Gorilla and Team Mathematics don’t always talk. They have no reason to. This self-selecting group-identity without an impetus to collaboration creates what I call a Curated Reality (sometimes called a bubble world, or a pundit sphere, or when properly financed, a cable news network). Davidson seems particularly unconcerned about this (the book is deliberately “optimistic” [back cover] after all), but it does make me nervous. I’m usually one of those “the internet is THE BEST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED” people, but there’s no ignoring the fact that people (all of us) select data that we are already pre-inclined to find interesting, accessible or agreeable, and filter out as “crap” all that stuff which is uninteresting or contrarian, and are generally blind to these filtering activities.

What this has to do with my experiences as a student and as an instructor grows out of the fact that, like Duke, my undergrad institution distributed iPods to its incoming freshmen (in the 2006-2007 school year). The problem was, without the financial resources of Duke or the Apple branding help garnered from Duke’s large public profile, the iPods were only distributed by specific programs in specific colleges. Unlike Duke’s student population, which as Davidson indicates was directed towards education their whole lives (64), the population at my not-quite-Ivy institution was less inclined to go along with the overtly experimental program, effectively fragmenting the student population (and the school) into iPod Education Advocates (developing apps and doing work), Happy iPod Hijackers (who laughed at this heavy-handed idea that if you just dump new tech into an old classroom things will get more efficient, and just used it to listen to music), and The Humanities Students (who did not receive the technology at all, despite appealing to the administration). The collaboration that Davidson commendably notes at Duke (65) collapsed before it even formed, except for isolated, intrepid pockets of iPod Education Enthusiasts and iPod owners. Like miniature Dukes.

In the following years, whole colleges in the university abandoned the program. The programs that abandoned the iPod did so because collaboration and innovation was stifled–ironically, stifled because these programs had implemented free iPods in an unequal fashion and hoped that crowdsourcing without directives would somehow magically collaborate them straight into the information age. iPod education became a Curated Reality–those who had it said it worked, those who had given up on it said it was worthwhile but not exemplary, and those who never had it scoffed at the idea that technology had anything new to offer, and none of these groups was really interested in talking because there was no directive, no problem to solve. Collaboration became in-group only, and attention blindness became the mode of the day.

While Davidson says Duke’s program never came with a directive (62-63), it did implicitly have one. Duke distributed the technology to a student population already inclined to work outside class time on improving the university, with specifically branded partnerships with Apple, under an educational initiative undertaken by the whole university with the direction of Davidson herself (64). In essence, she did the Invisible Gorilla experiment on a room full of professional counters at a conference on counting basketball passes–a directive is implicit in the context, creating an object of, and impetus for, collaboration.

The excerpt from a Youtube video that follows, by user Gabgorilla from October 20, 2011, stands as a prime example of both an argument for technologically enhanced education, and as an example of an artifact of collapsed collaborative possibility and implicit, limiting directives, forming a Curated Reality:

In the video, the user (a student or professor, perhaps, in a digital composition course) juxtaposes the “classrooms of today” (which are filled with laptops, mostly Apples) with the “classrooms of the past” (with patriarchal paintings and warped desks) (see 00:16 to 00:19), using and proprietary clip-art to make a point about technology and classrooms in a painfully artificial use of technology that students would giggle a bit at. The video transitions from talking about technology in education generally to focusing implicitly on composition, challenging the notion that technology can only be used for “word processing” (01:48 to 01:50) while it fails to cite any uses that are not composition-oriented. The end result is commendable, but fails to reach outward beyond its implicit focus on composition technologies, proposing to enable a collaboration it implicitly fails to imagine. The video’s author challenges us to use technology in new ways, which in the video seems to mean making essays with more expensive software than a word processor.

This video gets caught up (as Davidson does, a bit) in the rhetoric of technology as panacea for education–a Curated Reality based on enthusiasm for technology and education whose laudable enthusiasm frequently erases the dangers of technology inequality and of shoehorning technology into a classroom without regard for its actual pedagogical usefulness or the ways in which technology has already impacted the classroom. Technology, despite everything said, insistently remains a replacement for or enhancement of older technology, and paying attention to it at all is grounds for self-congratulation (see all of Davidson, Chapter 3). Likewise, it remains bound up in an implicit economic language where the cost of these technologies, and their accessibility, is ignored. iPods are used to record and distribute spoken lectures to other iPod users (Davidson 66), and Duke (and Davidson) congratulate themselves on crowdsourcing new ways to use technology to make education accessible to everyone (with the several hundred dollars necessary to purchase an iPod in 2006).

Selective attention to one aspect of educational technology by a specialized group of educators with a specialized group of students (Davidson’s Duke and it’s implicitly elite student body) with the directive (implicit or otherwise–it was certainly obvious to Duke students) of modernizing educational practices creates a small group which can collaborate but collapses the possibility of collaboration outside that context–no one cites the problem of unequal implementation, or of the social forces built into educational systems which disqualify certain approaches (and which contaminated Davidson’s experimental control of not telling students what to do). Davidson, pointedly, recognizes this skewed basis but continues to universalize her experience at Duke anyway (64). She claims there are no directives or conditions–but directives were built in everywhere. Likewise, at my undergraduate institution, the unequal implementation of the initiative put further directives in the mix, rapidly enabling very specific kinds of collaboration and utterly destroying any other kind.

My much-belabored point is this: Much like the video’s limited embrace of technology, Davidson’s ideas of where this technology goes in Chapter 3 perpetuates some of the problems she wants to fight: it disables the awareness of attention blindness and collaboration that she champions. As many education technology enthusiasts (like me, and Davidson, and others) have done, we have challenged the conditions of an old, conservatively anti-technology Curated Reality on education and, in the process, perpetuated our own Curated Reality, blind to our structural preconceptions. We have enabled some forms of collaboration by disabling others, blind to our own implicit directives while claiming to be “open.” Our utopia is smaller than we imagined, because membership and collaborative knowledge is governed by criteria we pretend aren’t there.

11 thoughts on “Curated Reality: Directives, the Collapse of Collaboration, and Technology in School”

  1. Thank you for this. This is a criticism that I really needed to read.

    After reading Davidson, I was caught up in that “yay-technology-everything-changes-no-rules” feeling–I think my post pretty much reflects that haha–but your post really gets at some uncertainties I had that I couldn’t put into words. Change doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and there is no such thing as a truly free, revolutionized space to play in.

    What would our best option as instructors be, then? To always have a set of explicit directives for students? Or is having the imaginary play space, however false, good for something?

    Or, as in my post, another question would be: how do we understand and verbalize the implicit directives about our own digital essay assignment?

  2. Thought-provoking post, MBHP.

    “She claims there are no directives or conditions–but directives were built in everywhere. Likewise, at my undergraduate institution, the unequal implementation of the initiative put further directives in the mix, rapidly enabling very specific kinds of collaboration and utterly destroying any other kind.”

    This is such an interesting point, and perhaps an example of her earlier recognition that nearly everything that feels “natural” should be assessed and questioned, because it’s usually not. She falls into the very trap she admonishes her readers to avoid when she writes, “in situations where we share the same cultural script, we proceed as if that script were natural. In most circumstances, it is invisible… natural is always relative to our world” (35).

    Where does that leave us, then? Is there a way to be more aware of the ways in which we can make visible the “natural” boundaries we put up around our Curated Reality?

  3. I’m not exactly an expert on escaping Curated Realities, but really I’ve found while teaching the first thing you have to do is realize that you’re stuck in yours and you can remodel it, but you can’t escape. That’s like a fish trying to swim in air. Likewise, you often have to simulate a natural space in your classroom that you know (and you know that your students know) is kind of awkward and artificial. Frequently, I use humor and meta-teaching to talk about what people (like me) really mean when they ask for “a memo” or “an essay,” and how those are already bound up in conventions that we tend not to think about. On the day when I tell my students about their big-scary-essay, for example, they are “totally free” to choose their own topics, they *already* know that I’m putting verbal scarequotes there, and that their freedom is bound up in academic and social conventions that they are now (hopefully) literate enough in to use strategically for their own ends.

    In a weird way, the teaching of composition is always about going HEY THIS IS ARTIFICIAL AND WEIRD! so that they can figure out how to say what they want while playing along (or strategically defying) genre rules. Maybe that’s why I get bothered whenever I read (in the C’s or CHE or somewhere) about a teacher who’s just so super excited about collaborative learning and letting students teach back and iPods and all that stuff–I’m sitting there going 1. that’s way more artificial than you seem to realize, and 2. congratulations on doing what you were supposed to be doing all along.

    I love practically everything CND is saying, but sometimes she does that same thing and I just sigh a little.

  4. First, I have to say that this is a great post- lots of thought-provoking ideas, and I really enjoyed following all of the connections that you made throughout.

    I agree with you that Davidson does deliver a reality where technology is useful in the classroom without exploring he practical issues of problems or setbacks. Of course, that doesn’t mean that her ideas have no application or validity. It just means that they need to be more well-thought out and developed. I feel like critiques and noting errors of logic often can become situations where people insist upon examining the reality or “privilege” surrounding a particular view of an idea or concept. It just becomes so meta that that discussion about whether or not the idea is merited manages to totally disregard the actual subject that began the conversation.

    I guess I’m hesitant to spend a lot of time deconstructing her proposal, instead of discussing an action plan that could make it work. That’s what it is, after all- just an idea that needs to be implemented before we can pass judgment on it.

    In regards to the iPod usage and distribution choices at your undergraduate institution, I find it fascinating that they chose to pass them out to only specific groups. I’d be curious to hear about what drove those choices, especially their failure to involve Humanities students.

  5. Michael,

    An interestingly tendentious post! (And I use tendentious here as a term of praise.) For me the take-away from your writing is the caution that over-celebrating collaboration can distract (and, yes, I use the term deliberately) us from the need to engage with difference. World War II metaphors are always a little risky, but I think it’s worth remembering that the “collaborators” in Vichy France were bad guys. Some resistance is required, too.

    I was at Duke at 2006 and my take on the iPod give-away is very different from Davidson’s. It’s a point in her book where she loses me as a reader. I’ll be happy to share my experiences in class if people are interested.


    1. Joe,

      I’d very much like to hear your experiences with the iPod give-away because I’m not sure that I’m as enthralled with it as Davidson is/was.

    2. I would definitely like to hear your experiences, too, especially since I could see this becoming a purely sciencey-thing rather than a multi-discipline collaboration!

    3. I really, really want to hear your take on that–since this is the part of CND’s book where I actually had to put it down for a while, as I suspect there’s something very after-the-fact about her position on it.

  6. So, the brief version of my experiences with/reactions to the iPod experiment. I objected to it on several grounds: (1) It was an exercise in top-down mandated collaboration and creativity, which I felt mocked the organic nature of both activities, (2) it gave away expensive toys to an already privileged and affluent group of students, and (3) it was first and foremost a PR stunt—administrators kept talking about how this would show that Duke was “fun” (I’m not making this up). I raised all the objections in meetings, which did not make me especially popular, and which raised my suspicion that it was a top-down effort. Finally, I don’t think all that much came of it—which I suppose didn’t matter, because the buzz around it was what it was all about.

    So I’d have to accuse Davidson’s account in her book as being yet another PR version of how hip and cool Duke was.

  7. While I’m still trying to work through your tenuous definition of “Curated Reality,” what I’m picking up on is the artificiality of it all, which I think is particularly evident in Davidson’s text on p. 161, at the end of her chapter on the benefits of video games on collaboration (and what are video games if not the perfect example of an artificial “Curated Reality”?). She concludes with the sentiment that, “Our kids are all right,” followed by a handful of sweeping generalization about what seems to be a very select minority of students. Even so, I question how Davidson is measuring how these students in question “are learning skills that cannot be replaced one day by computers.” It’s almost as if she has some bizarre knowledge of the future that allows her to be so openly encouraging and effusive.

  8. Michael–Like Gab, I too was intrigued that the distribution of iPods at your university was so selective, and that certain majors/colleges were privileged over others. I’d be interested to know what specific groups the iPods were distributed to and what (if any) explanation was given for this choice–especially if, as you say, many of the students who did end up receiving them were not putting them to the desired use. To me, this seems to suggest that certain disciplines are seen as “more” fit to use or be associated with certain technologies, when, as WE all know, the Humanities are deeply invested in these sorts of digital writing/texts. Clearly the iPod distributors at your university had never heard of Digital Humanities!

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