Learning Reconsidered: Education in the Digital Age Communications, Convergence and the Curriculum

Article excerpt

Everette E. Dennis

It took longer than anyone imagined for the digital age to arrive. From the 1960s forward, futurists and forecasters predicted a revolution in communication that would drive seismic change for the communications industries, higher education and society. Although the modes of technology and platforms of delivery changed several times (from cable to direct broadcast satellites to the Internet), there was boundless optimism about the promise of a digital future.

That communication schools and other professional fields were not ready for such change when indeed it did come in the 1990s was no surprise. Education, appropriately the most conservative of institutional enterprises, was equaled only by the often Luddite media industries where the captains of content urged caution. The always-uneasy truce between theory and "useful knowledge" did little to facilitate a framework for understanding with a practical penchant for best practices. As a graduate student I was introduced to cybernetics three decades before the Internet entered our lives and was advised to master the world of information storage and retrieval, an importunement I and my peers largely rejected. Still there was in our study of general system theory, communication theory and related fields the wherewithal to know and understand what was later called convergence.

Thoughtful scholars were well ahead of intelligent professionals in understanding the implications of an information society years before the first stirrings of the digital age. Thinking all technological development to be so incremental that it would hardly be noticed, the managerial class of the media industries with whom communication and journalism educators largely relate were wholly unprepared for the radical change in communication that came in the buoyant decade of the 1990s when unparalleled bull markets and an economy gone mad conditioned our lives. It was then that the concept of convergence emerged as a wholly theoretical notion that imagined all information and knowledge could be made accessible to people everywhere. What was a useful construct, drawn from information theory and quantum mechanics, became both social gospel and the basis of business models. Writing frequently about the potential impact of convergence from the early 1980s forward, I was surprised when this notion won largely uncritical support from the ranking leaders of media and entertainment industries who often overruled their cautious underling managers. Media empires were rearranged and cultures altered to accommodate convergence, which became the state religion of media industries with the likes of AOL TimeWarner, Bertelsmann, Vivendi and others climbing aboard. The much-heralded marriage of old and new media cultures evident in the AOL TimeWarner transactions of 2000 and 2001 occurred just as the dot-com bubble burst at Wall Street.

In recent months, firms that resisted change have been the big winners as the innovators who dreamed big and took risks were scorned and their executives sacked. It is in this environment that we find ourselves today. Communication education, at first cautious, warmed slowly to the blandishments of the digital revolution. There were some curricular changes, especially in professional education in such practical applications as Website development as well as in the policy and research arenas. Often this did not make for a coherent whole. However, best practices advocates existed alongside cultural studies devotees, mostly talking past one another with each claiming to understand the future with a fervent certainty. In the present economic and cultural environment, those who resisted change in education seem to have the upper hand, just as they do in industry. There is little talk of educational innovation or curricular reform, let alone a reconsideration of the question of who should teach and what those teachers and scholars should actually do. …