I'm just recovering from a very full conference schedule with the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts annual conference held this year at Valparaiso University. My warm thanks are extended to the many new friends and colleagues I met over several meals and dozens of conversations.
It was an honor to be invited to give a keynote address along with two other notable scholars.
Image via WikipediaThe conference revolved on the notion of "place" in higher education and, appropriately, there was a scholar of art and architecture, a theologian working on issues of globalization, and myself, a sociologist who pays attention to religion and social change. I focused on the transformation of higher learning welling-up from the cumulative transformations in digital connectivity.
My talk revolved around two moral orientations, two moral "codes" if you will, that are clashing (rather than converging) in higher education today. The first code is the formative retreat ethic that stresses the moral imperative of creating a cloistered space of education that works toward discipline and even piety. Our institutions of higher education have an underlying moral orientation: a formative retreat for the cultivation of virtuous adults. I speculate that the stronger the religious orientation of the college, the stronger the formative moral imperative of the institution.
On the other hand is a new ethic, a Hacker Ethic, that emphasizes openness, free access, and utter playfulness. The Hacker Code, Hacker Ethics, and Hacker Culture – these are terms I use heuristically to describe a nascent, overarching ethos that has fueled the development of our increasingly “connected” (I mean digitally, online, networked connected) lives from the 1950s until now. Various principles are involved (I give several lists and descriptions in my talk), and much of it centers on digital connectivity.
What I stressed to this esteemed group of scholars and administrators is that higher education is caught in a larger transition. Banks, phone companies, and our local and federal governments are all firmly committed to open internet connectivity. For example, the federal government just announced at the end of September that while we can still physically mail our returns, more people are e-filing and, as a cost cutting measure, the federal government will no longer mail tax forms, but we must access them online. Examples could be multiplied many times over.
Our schools are dominated by this connectivity as well – Barry Wellman on twitter recently wrote, “Student finds it impossible to go cold turkey off the grid because official announcements & research materials are only online.” The internet is not just a tool of knowledge and business but has become something much more.
Image via Wikipedia
We submit grades online, our students register for courses online, use electronic course reserves (72% of professors use course management systems), answer questions, set calendar appointments, distribute departmental information and committee reports, and even submit journal articles and whole book manuscripts. Increasingly we post syllabi and study content, we skype into meetings, we blog and tweet (about one-third of professors as far as I can find a statistic) our results. Administrators are pushing internet connectivity to solve certain problems and scholars are using internet connectivity to solve others.
It took me a while… but I soon saw that there was a new set of ideals being promoted. What fuels the development of these new digital realms is not just clever innovation but a new morality, what’s been called the Hacker Ethic. Hackers represent those who were taking advantage of the new spaces and new possibilities opened by the creation of new structures. It’s an entire moral orientation.
Although you can't see the Power Point slides emphasizing different points, here's part 2 of 4 parts of the keynote available on YouTube:
More on the "Hacker Ethic" can be found in part 3.
I'm grateful for the time at Valpo and a new set of conversations. Certainly there are many others who understand these dynamics far better than I do and can speak far more articulately about them. But this was my chance to package my best understanding of the things that affect my life and work everyday. And I'm convinced they are propelling more substantial changes that threaten our traditional understandings of higher education in unanticipated ways.