Michael Bugeja’s recent article at IHE, “Harsh Realities About Virtual Ones”, attempts to find fault in current uses of technologies at universities, laying the blame on our drive for “engagement” for various problems: rising tuition, a new digital divide, corporate sponsorship, and an increasing interpersonal divide. I think Begeja raises some very valid points, especially that “engagement” has gone under-theorized by administrators and that we should be concerned about where public moneys are being spent (corporations), but his argument rests on a few faulty assumptions:
1. That tuition is rising because the costs of technologies are rising. He doesn’t back this assumption up, and I’ll admit it: I’m going to be lazy and not do research myself. However, I do know that the major reason that tuition has been rising over the last few years is because states no longer put as much money into their schools as they used to, so students have to pay the bill. I’m not a numbers person, but it would be interesting to see how much of a university’s budget goes to these technologies that Bugeja writes against. I doubt it constitutes the 12 percent rise in tuition or the 5 percent rise in cost of room and board in the last two years. Bugeja claims that these rates are driven by “an engagement industry, largely corporate, relying on wireless campuses to vent virtual products and on teaching excellence centers to advertise their brands in the name of engagement.” I sense that these rates are actually driven by a politics of privatization, so that the state withdraws support from schools and expects individuals to be responsible for their education.
2. That virtual technologies are vastly different from other technologies â€” and by extension, digital technology companies are different from non-digital technology companies. Bugeja complains that universities “are unwittingly underwriting Second Life, Facebook, Twitter and G-Mail, among other applications.” However, he doesn’t take note of how these very same universities are underwriting Prentice Hall, Bedford St. Martin’s, Houghton Mifflin, HarperCollins, and W. W. Norton, among others. Take away universities and some of these companies would crumble, or at least be seriously maimed. And these are at least classroom related. Let’s talk about the contracts many universities have with clothing companies that they are underwriting? I know I’m probably stretching my point thin by bringing up the clothing companies, but universities seem to have, for quite a long time, promoted consumerism.
3. There is a separation between the virtual and the real world. How is the virtual world not the real world? Don’t words and images still hurt and help people online? Don’t issues of materiality still play roles? Don’t the actions of people online come out of and then also influence the actions of people offline? I agree with Bugeja’s desire for studies to see the interrelations between virtual interactions and face-to-face interactions (in the forms of ethnographies, case studies, etc.), but I don’t agree with his strict dichotomy.
4. Commitment is a better virtue/action than engagement. Bugeja concludes his article:
Those [unwitting business] models perpetuate rampant consumerism, undermining standards that have endured for decades, if not centuries, emphasizing commitment rather than engagement so as to prepare learners for the challenges that await them in the real world rather than the virtual world.
I think Ira Socol’s comment on Bugeja’s article gets at this point: that the last few decades (or century) of learning haven’t necessarily prepared students “for the challenges that await them in the real world.” If they did, then wouldn’t less students say they learned the most in college outside of their classrooms? I wish Bugeja would have explicated his theory of commitment, especially as he chastises administrators for not explicating engagement. Perhaps Bugeja does in his books, which sound interesting (Inerpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age and Living Ethics: Across Media Platforms). Nevertheless, he does not here.
Allow me to theorize commitment, briefly and probably with some banality. To be committed to something means, according to my dictionary on my MacBook, to be devoted to it, to pledge to it, to, in a sense, be loyal to it. Bugeja goes to his dictionary for engagement, and one of his definitions is “to bind, as by pledge, promise, contract, or oath; make liable,” which oddly sounds like commitment. In fact, definition #2 for commitment from my MacBook’s dictionary: “an engagement or obligation that restricts freedom of action.” Perhaps commitment and engagement are actually in debt to each other in learning: one must commit (devote) oneself to something, and then one must engage (act) with that something.
EDIT: I forgot the perhaps most obvious assumption of all: “the [digital] divide has been bridged.” *shakes head*