In Hacking the Academy: New Approaches to Scholarship and Teaching from Digital Humanities edited by Daniel J. Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt, interesting claims are made about the physical space of the educational institution. In “Dear Students,” Gideon Burton writes: “The campus for your education isn’t made principally of buildings and books; it’s made mostly of microchips and media. Any other school is a satellite now, subordinate to the main, digital campus where you reside and thrive.” Burton de-emphasizes the material classroom by labeling it “subordinate,” drawing attention instead to the way technology has created a seemingly limitless virtual place of learning, which we reside in long before entering college, and never escape post-graduation. In his justification of what he believes will be the timely demise of the resume, he goes on to claim that: “Cyberspace is already more real to you than the physical space of your college campus—and it is becoming so for your future employers.” By using this rhetoric, he continues to establish a structural hierarchy in which the digital clearly trumps the material world by being “more real” and thus, presumably, more valuable.
While I agree that cyberspace plays an increasing, and often beneficial, role in education, I find myself hostile to the idea that it could ever outweigh or replace the physical environment. I believe the material classroom, as well as the wider college campus, is still pivotal to the learning process – providing elements that get lost when translated into cyberspace. There is still something to be gained from interacting face-to-face with peers, professors, and material objects that cannot be replicated through online learning. I’m wondering why Burton feels the need to pit these two worlds against each other as opposed to allowing one to complement the other. I would not consider cyberspace “more real” than the physical space of a campus, nor would I try to claim that cyberspace is irrelevant to education. What I’d prefer would be to discover a more helpful way of linking the material and immaterial worlds that would allow students to envision the direct consequences their online activity has on the physical environment and vice versa.
In this line of thinking, I am seconding Michael Welsh in “From Knowledgeable to Knowledge-able” who, instead of labeling the physical campus obsolete, suggests: “we need to start redesigning our learning environments to address, leverage, and harness the new media environment now permeating our classrooms.” It’s not that the material environment has become useless, or will soon be discarded, but that we are no longer utilizing it to its fullest potential. Welsh explains that “there are many structures working against us” and that “Our physical structures were built prior to an age of infinite information.” Considering the age of our educational institution’s architecture, it is no surprise that it could now use some updating. As technology changes our lifestyles, it also alters the ways we interact with our environments – especially those we have built ourselves. Thus, how we construct those environments also needs to change. The question that remains is how to do this. How do we best integrate technology and the digital world into our classrooms? Is there a way we can orient the physical space of a campus towards these goals? How would this alter the aesthetics of education?