In higher education there is a cultural and psychological trend toward standardization and normalization. Certain ideas about education become socially reinforced and codified as norms and standards. This is, to some extent, to be expected. After all, educators and instructional designers should rightly be concerned with student performance and learning outcomes, the theory being that the normalization of the educational experience will more reliably and predictably produce the desired outcomes.
What interests me, however, is the latent fear that underlies this desire for normalization. This fear can take various forms: fear that we might break the fragile minds of young college or graduate students without that normalized educational experience, fear that some students will be left behind, fear of reduced enrollments at the institutional level, even the desire of educators and administrators to appear maximally competent as educators, academics, and intellectuals.
This last item, the fear of appearing less than competent, is particularly noteworthy, as I believe it is responsible for much of the hegemonic trend in higher education. After all, what better way is there to appear maximally competent than to have your own ideas codified and recognized as the de facto standard embraced by many? The implication is that the trend toward normalization does not have purely educational or altruistic motivations. The impulse toward normalization is as much psychological and political as it is pedagogical, however subconscious or implicit those psychological and political motivations may be.
All attempts at hegemony and normalization breed resistance and cultural backlash. People don’t like having their individuality or creative impulses suppressed, even by something as seemingly innocuous and altruistic as “standards” and “norms.” This phenomenon, the rebellious backlash against hegemony and normalization, can be seen in several dramatic shifts in industry and culture across the 20th century. For example:
- The work of postmodern designers and architects, such as the Memphis Group, can be viewed as a backlash against the rigidity of modernism in architecture and industrial design.
- The personal computer revolution of the late 1970s can be seen not just as technological progress, but as a counter-cultural rebellion against the military-industrial complex and the inaccessibility of mainframe computers from companies like IBM.
There is a sense in which cultural backlash helps to move the world forward, whether in terms of technological progress or cultural progress. Think, for example, of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, its transformative effect on the 20th century, and its counter-cultural aspects.
Given this transformative power of counterculture, the time seems right for a new counterculture in education to emerge. Certainly there have been transformational moments in the history of education, such as the desegregation of public schools or the several waves of new educational technology in previous decades (e.g., the PLATO computer-based educational system in the 1960s, computers in the classroom in the 1970s and 1980s, the first wave of online courses in the 1990s, and so on). But, like many cultural revolutions, the novelty and the rebellious impulses that begat the revolutions in the first place eventually wear off as the liveliness of these revolutions stabilizes into the new cultural or technological norm.
This stabilization effect has certainly occurred in higher education. We now take for granted the fruits of previous cultural and technological revolutions as the current educational norms, so much so that there is a danger of forgetting the liveliness and spirit of those revolutions in the first place. The very concept of taking a course online was once new, filled with promise of unfettered access to information and beautifully crafted multimedia learning experiences. But the reality of the experiences in too many online courses, as the playful liveliness of learning has been replaced by the rigidity of institutional and instructional design standards, falls rather short of this promise of a revolutionary online learning experience.
There is a grand idealistic vision associated with these technological revolutions in education. But, like all grand visions, the idealism is constantly in danger of being squashed by resistance to change, by bureaucracy and its psychological and political drives, and by the aforementioned impulse toward standardization, hegemony, and normalization so prevalent in higher education. This ultimately translates into institutional slowness, a resistance to experimentation and innovation in online learning and course design, and an emphasis on “standards” over the liveliness and vitality of an online learning experience.
Just as the there are always those seeking to standardize and normalize, there are always those with a grander vision, the risk-takers who are willing to try something new because they believe it’s the right thing to do and who are willing to live with the unpredictability of the outcomes of those experiments. These idealistic and creative educators and educational technologists, members of the new counterculture in education who feel a deep dissatisfaction with the educational status quo, who also have the tenacity to see their vision through to fruition while resisting the trend toward normalization, will be the ones who continue to push education into the future in the upcoming decades of the 21st century.