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Liberal Education: A New Game for Your Smartphone

Faculty members face a conundrum—how can they engage students who are absorbed in their smartphones? According to our most recent Freshman Technology Survey at St. Edward’s University, 99 percent of incoming freshmen will be bringing a smartphone to campus, and according to the Pew Research Center, 72 percent of  American adults report owning a smartphone. So, what are our students doing on these ubiquitous devices? Texting friends, checking in on social media, and, since July, playing Pokémon Go, which this summer peaked around 25 million daily active users according to GameSpot. Even if you haven’t played it, I suspect students on your campus are. The game tracks physical activity like walking and turns it into movement through the game. Players earn points by finding and capturing Pokémon, pick up needed supplies at PokéStops, which are virtual locations mapped onto physical geography, and automatically track achievements in their Pokédex. The game’s huge popularity stems from the existing Pokémon culture, which emerged in the mid-1990s, meaning that many of today’s college students can’t remember a time when there weren’t Pokémon.

Pokémon Go exemplifies an emerging digital ecosystem that forms both the context for and a design challenge to liberal education today. In this world, we learn and we take action through networks. Creation and publication is easy, and we have ready access to data driven by algorithms that personalize information for users and inform human judgment. We use technology to analyze and solve problems. And while we may not all be playing Pokémon Go, most of us rely on personal digital devices like smartphones and Fitbits.  Understanding this ecosystem is important because it is the context in which our graduates will pursue their personal, professional, and civic lives. If liberal education creates lifelong learners, then they must be equipped for learning in this digital context. The publication Open and Integrative: Designing Liberal Education for the New Digital Ecosystem, co-authored by Randy Bass and Bret Eynon and recently published by AAC&U, defines this emerging digital ecosystem and what it means for liberal education.

While our students also rely on ubiquitous technology, many have not yet learned to use it in a sophisticated way, e.g., for analysis, synthesis, or creation.  Instead, they are digital consumers, broadly familiar with technology but not using it critically, so it is our responsibility to help them develop these skills. Bass and Eynon frame their discussion around the question of how we design liberal education for this emerging digital ecosystem. In other words, if we were starting from scratch today, what would liberal education look like? Bass and Eynon suggest four design principles educators need to implement to design a digitally informed liberal education:

  • We need to create learner-centered learning environments to help our students develop agency. That means we are helping them engage with what interests them and apply it in their life. 
  • We need to help our students build learning networks. These begin in the classroom with social pedagogies and build outward beyond the course and campus to connect locally and globally. 
  • We need to help our students develop the ability to integrate their own education, to connect their disparate learning experiences and apply it in their daily lives. This is all the more important in the context of the new majority of students who are non-traditional and learn both from formal institutions and from many informal sources online. We cannot rely on the traditional four-year college experience to promote integration and, frankly, we can’t do it for our students—integration is something students must do for themselves.  Instead we can provide the conditions.  
  • Finally, we need to be adaptive—keeping up with new learning data and applying it to improve our learning environments, whether the new innovation is automated adaptive learning modules for basic knowledge or eportfolios for evidence of integrative and applied learning.

So, what if liberal education worked like Pokémon Go? Like players using a Pokédex, students could use their own learning data to track their progress and integrate their learning, look for missing learning resources, find the stops where they can fill their bag with needed learning or hunt for missing experiences, and learn with networks of other learners. To achieve this, we don’t need to deliver content to a smartphone; we do need to build learner-centered, networked, integrative, adaptive learning environments, whether online or in the face-to-face classroom.

Rebecca Frost Davis is the director for Instructional and Emerging Technology at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, whose work focuses on the intersections of digital pedagogy and liberal education. She was a member of the digital working group for AAC&U's General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs) project and serves on the faculty of the AAC&U Institute for Integrative Learning and the Departments.