Diversity and Democracy

There's No App for Ending Racism: Theorizing the Civic in the Age of Disruption

Last year, I finally threw away all my maps. They were in the back of my car, about a dozen of them: fold-outs of the entire United States, spiral-bound pages describing a single county, booklets about individual states and their largest metropolitan areas. I loved using them to figure out where I was and how to get to my destination, but I hadn’t touched any of them in years. In the age of GoogleMaps and ubiquitous Wi-Fi coverage, it makes no sense to have such twentieth-century relics in the trunk of my car. My iPhone talks me through next turns, always knows where I am, and gives me up-to-the-moment traffic updates. So while seeing those maps brought back some lovely memories of trips long ago, I threw them out with nary a backward glance. It was a no-brainer.

It’s an open question, though, whether or not new digital technologies can, on their own, drastically enhance the democratic mission of higher education by transforming or even replacing the traditional classroom. I am dubious. Don’t get me wrong: within the next decade, technological innovation will fundamentally disrupt and in many ways improve how we think about and enact teaching and learning. Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs) alone may not effect this disruption; but the undergirding technological components that are bundled within many MOOC platforms—components such as cloud-based and networked computing, automated and “stealth” assessment programs, adaptive and personalized learning tools, and data and learning analytics—will surely have deep effects on higher education. This is, therefore, a critical moment to articulate how it may be possible to embrace technological disruption for the benefit of place-based civic learning and strengthen the relevance and resonance of higher education.

Technology’s Promise

Many see technological advancements as enhancing the vision and mission of higher education as a public good and promoting what the Association of American Colleges and Universities calls “inclusive excellence” (Board of Directors 2013). These observers imagine that new technologies will make higher education available to a much greater population, including those who have been historically marginalized. They see technology as offering the opportunity to personalize instruction—for anyone, anywhere, anytime—in order to meet diverse learners’ needs and conditions. In this scenario, technology—colorblind to the user, unmoved by the accent of the speaker, ever-patient and ever-focused—becomes the gateway to a leveled playing field.

It is difficult, though, to uncritically embrace such a utopian vision. Research is demonstrating ever more clearly that MOOCs, for example, primarily serve an already-privileged population. A recent report from the University of Edinburgh found that over 70 percent of enrollees in the university’s six MOOCs already possessed a bachelor’s degree (University of Edinburgh 2013). Similarly, studies conducted through the Community College Research Center at Teachers College make clear that online learning in and of itself may exacerbate rather than alleviate achievement gaps for student populations most in need of support (Community College Research Center 2013).

Yet, arguing either for or against technological innovation and disruption misses the point: technology’s promise lies in how we shape it to advance the democratic purposes of higher education. I threw away those maps in my car because my iPhone was so much better than any paper-based product at getting me from point A to point B. As a faculty member, sometimes all I want is to get students from here to there: I want them to understand key principles, learn core knowledge in a particular field, and follow specific professional protocols. In certain situations, technology is excellent at facilitating this kind of learning. An ever-growing body of research, such as a US Department of Education meta-analysis (Means et al. 2010) and a recent follow-up study from Ithaka S+R (Lack 2013), has shown that, on average, online or hybrid learning is no “more or less effective than face-to-face learning” (Lack 2013, 18). And as the Open Learning Initiative (http://oli.cmu.edu/) at Carnegie Mellon University has shown, highly focused and structured online and blended learning can help students acquire content knowledge in some academic areas much better and faster than traditional coursework.

Technology is really good, and will only become better, at teaching content knowledge and supporting instruction when it is aimed at helping students solve problems that are stable, singular, and solvable. It will do so by “modularizing” information, literally breaking down bodies of knowledge into smaller chunks that can be systematically sequenced, organized, and taught. This is powerful stuff that will transform many segments of higher education. But, to be clear, such technological disruption will not somehow destroy and depersonalize higher education, displacing real professors with digital talking heads and scripted lessons. This is a false dichotomy: technology against humanity, robot-driven cost savings versus “real” face-to-face learning. It is a romanticized idealization of an educational system that never was.

Rather, colleges and universities are far more threatened by other longstanding challenges: the shift to a contingent faculty; the abysmal retention rates at many institutions, especially for students of color and low-income students; and the need for many more students to graduate with higher-order thinking skills. The key issue is thus how we use technology’s strengths to support, rather than displace, the larger vision of higher education as a democratic good. For while some of what we want students to learn can be described in “modularized” terms, much of it cannot. Higher education should be an apprenticeship into democracy rather than into Wikipedia.

Technology’s Limits

My iPhone does not, and never will, have an app for ending racism. Or sexism. Or homophobia. Or even an app for becoming a more thoughtful and engaged citizen. That is because such issues are immensely complex and contested within our pluralistic society. They are embedded within culturally saturated, socio-historically delimited, and politically volatile practices and policies that raise questions with no single or agreed-upon answers. And becoming different—in one’s perspectives, values, and ways of being in the world—is, to put it mildly, a circuitous process. Technology may help students travel from point A to point B as they acquire knowledge, but there is no definitive step-by-step framework that allows students to simply and easily become idealized citizens of a just republic. Sure, we educators have our own guidebooks: theories of identity development, powerful community-based practices, and important research on fostering inclusive campus climates. But these are wonderful exceptions to the rule, and even they cannot claim to lead students to a privileged and final endpoint.

Thus, instead of handing students a prefabricated map to guide them on their civic learning journeys, we involve them in a wide range of civic practices—including service learning, community-based research, participatory action research, and project-based learning—that help them close their textbooks, step outside the campus walls, and begin to engage, explore, and collide with the complexities and consequences of issues such as poverty, race, citizenship, and power. These civic practices embody the hallmarks of a liberal education, exactly because they do not provide predefined and singular instructions for moving from point A to point B. Rather, they provide opportunities for unexpected realizations, the “aha” moments that make us understand that our habituated and “normal” ways of seeing and being in the world may not be so “normal” after all.

This is what Wittgenstein was referring to when he noted that the limits of our language are the limits of our world (1922). In this sense, higher education is about expanding our facility with distinct and different language games or worldviews. It provides what Dewey described as a “forked-road situation” that fosters true thinking as it forces us to hesitate and confront a “situation which is ambiguous, which presents a dilemma, which proposes alternatives” and makes us pause in order to clarify for ourselves the path we take and why we take it (Dewey [1910] 2011, 11). Whether one calls these moments cognitive dissonance, transformational learning, or the disruption of an epistemic framework, they help us step outside of our taken-for-granted patterns and see the world anew.

Innovative educators are of course always experimenting with new uses of technology. But no MOOC or app, it seems to me, can foster transformational learning. This is where technology as a means of facilitating content delivery meets its limits—and, I would suggest, it is where we must begin if we are to rethink the role of the civic in higher education in this age of disruption.

The Flipped University

I would suggest that we begin to think of technology as enabling the “flipped university,” an idea that Sanjay Sarma and Isaac Chuang (2013) have described as the “magic beyond the MOOCs.” Much as the flipped classroom fosters in-class discussions by requiring students to watch pre-recorded lectures before coming to class, the flipped university can help foster participatory learning and community engagement by using technologically-driven platforms in specific predefined roles. In the flipped university, students can learn particular course content at their own pace and in their own way through online learning platforms. They can then link and extend such learning through specific place-based and instructor-guided projects. Academic courses—which would require both online and place-based components—thus become mutually reinforcing linkages of theory and action, allowing students to put classroom ideas into real-world practice. Students operationalize the content they learn online by participating in the very “high-impact practices” (Kuh 2008)—such as service learning, project-based learning, and undergraduate research—that are at the heart of what matters to student success.

Technological disruption thus becomes a potent opportunity to tinker with and transform teaching and learning spaces for the kinds of civic practices that for too long have been seen as add-on components reserved for a certain few (Butin and Seider 2012). With technological innovations like MOOCs and their components enhancing content delivery, place-based learning that integrates theory and practice in the civic sphere can regain its status as the key and signature aspect of higher education. This is what signifies the difference between the transfer of information associated with MOOCs and the transformation of education associated with higher learning.

In conclusion, it is ironic that one of the very aspects of technology that makes it unsuited to advancing higher education’s democratic mission—namely, the primacy it places on knowledge transmission—may actually help advance that mission. By being so good at getting students from point A to point B, new technologies will make visible that higher education has a much bigger and more complex journey to pursue. These technologies will give us the space and opportunity to grapple with the powerful issues that place-based experiential practices force us to confront: how, for example, we can meaningfully translate theory into practice so it truly benefits the communities we are working with and for; how we can come to understand and take seriously differing stakeholders’ perspectives; what it takes to foster change that is sustainable and meaningful.

There is no fold-out or spiral-bound map that can fully guide us through those journeys. But that is okay. If there were, there would probably be an app for that.


Board of Directors, Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2013. “Board Statement on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusive Excellence.” Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities. http://www.aacu.org/about/statements/2013/inclusiveexcellence.cfm.

Butin, Dan W., and Scott Seider, editors. 2012. The Engaged Campus: Certificates, Minors, and Majors as the New Community Engagement. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Community College Research Center. 2013. “What We Know About Online Course Outcomes.” http://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/media/k2/attachments/

Dewey, John. (1910) 2011. How We Think. Project Gutenberg.

Kuh, George D. 2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Lack, Kelly A. 2013. Current Status of Research on Online Learning in Postsecondary Education. Ithaka S+R. http://www.sr.ithaka.org/sites/default/files/reports/

Means, Barbara, Yukie Toyama, Robert Murphy, Marianne Bakia, and Karla Jones. 2010. Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies. Washington, DC: US Department of Education.

Sarma, Sanjay, and Isaac Chuang. 2013. “The Magic Beyond the MOOCs.” MIT Faculty Newsletter 25 (5). http://web.mit.edu/fnl/volume/255/sarmay_chuang.html.

University of Edinburgh. 2013. “MOOCs @ Edinburgh 2013–Report #1.” https://www.era.lib.ed.ac.uk/bitstream/1842/6683/1/

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1922. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Translated by Charles Kay Ogden. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Tractatus_Logico-Philosophicus.

Dan Butin is associate professor and founding dean of the School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College and executive director of the Center for Engaged Democracy.

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