Multiple choice and short answer exams of the type suitable for automated assessment are more prevalent in Social Science and Physical Science classes than they are in the Humanities. However, Humanities teachers should not delude themselves that they will be immune from the seductive appeal of the same kind of technological applications in their own classrooms.
Frank T. Boyle, in his report on a visit to the IBM conference center at Palisades describes a demonstration which featured, amongst other things, software designed to "interactively" teach students Hamlet by requiring them to respond to multiple choice lecture questions from keypads affixed to their seats. This kind of use of technology which treats students as if they were the studio audience on Love Connection is clearly predicated on convenience for teachers and is loaded toward a view of education as a feedback loop with no remainder, where students choose the one "correct" option from a limited number of alternatives.
The end result of the application of technology in this fashion will be to accelerate current educational trends whereby students disappear as individuals, incorporated within some more educationally imprecise but administratively useful construct, the "student body." The temptation to use the technology in this way will be very great. But teachers need to be fully aware that turning the student into the "student body" is not a short-term response to an educational crisis, it is really a continuation of the ideological presuppositions that have led to the crisis in the first place. It is another expression of the change from a student-centered view of education as an individual right, to a corporate view of education where the student is a stock in which corporations and society have an investment from which they expect to reap big dividends.
One possible outcome of this change in educational perspective is that undergraduate education will be de-emphasized as colleges shift away from the model of public education and re-orient themselves as research universities whose products are researchers and those kinds of knowledge that are saleable commodities.
Another possible result, one that assumes that some emphasis on undergraduate education is retained, stresses that the purpose of education is to train students to be socially "useful" where useful is almost always read as productive; thus the strong emphasis in contemporary political and economic thought on producing students as foot-soldiers in the trade wars between the US and the enemy-of-the-moment, currently Japan.
This renewed emphasis upon the social investment in the education of the individual is not solely a perspective imposed on education from without, but is frequently embedded in certain pedagogical assumptions. Christy Friend examines how certain classroom practices, particularly those associated with composition, have for some time reproduced a "distributive" logic associated with capitalism. Drawing on the work of feminist scholar Iris Young on social justice, Friend notes that "the distributive model assumes that human beings are primarily consumers and that justice can be defined as the distribution of societal benefits in equal portions to individuals" (550).
Distributive logic, in Friend's reading of Young, inappropriately emphasizes the degree to which people are "havers" rather than "doers". This has two consequences, both of which are important for the argument I am making here. Firstly, distributive logic emphasizes an individuality based around a notion of equality achieved by treating all people alike. However "such distributive logic fails to recognize important differences that result from individuals' membership in various social groups--differences in oppression, domination and social position. And by emphasizing only features that are common to individuals across groups, this logic represses and downgrades the unique needs of those who do not 'fit' with the majority" (550).
The second consequence is that "questions about the fair allocation of commodities are emphasized, overshadowing questions about the larger contexts that determine what actually gets distributed and why" (550). Attempts to address these concerns while remaining within distributive paradigms often miss the point that things like rights, decision-making, opportunity, and even power "are better perceived as relations and processes rather than static quantities" (550).
Much of this should now appear familiar. The way in which a distributive logic informs the rhetorical construction of various information technologies explains the individualistic hostility of Internet users to any notion of special treatment for other users, and for the general blindness of utopian infotech critics when it comes to material power imbalances and inequities.
The distributive paradigm is also informing the decisions of administrators as to how information is to be made available--the belief that it is enough simply to provide more information in a diversity of formats is, as I have noted, frequently at odds with the material reality of the processes that govern distribution and reception of that information. It is also, as Boyle points out, based on a confusion between information and knowledge. Knowledge, as Boyle reminds us, is what one arrives at after a lengthy and often painful process of analysis (of facts, self, the mechanisms of analysis themselves) in which information represents merely the building blocks, not the means to the end, much less the end itself.
In fact, Boyle's distinction may more properly be stated as one between knowledge and organization. For increasingly information is discussed as part of a database, a collection, an organization and retrieval system, with the Internet treated as the mother of all databases. Many of the problems that I have highlighted in this article either stem from or are in collusion with this mode of database thinking which renders the mechanisms of collection invisible, the interface transparent, and focuses less on the data itself, but concentrates on various permutations of the idea of accessibility. Those with access to information technology are designated as users, people implicated in a process, but the process in this case is the consumption of accessibility and utilization as product.