A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
March 27, 2008 Volume 38 / Number 5

 

From the President's Desk

Bowling Alone and Learning Together

In his delightful 1995 essay, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” Robert Putnam argues that the “vibrancy of American civil society has notably declined over the past several decades” as social connectedness has eroded. Citing several trends to this effect—including his most whimsical evidence, a rise in the number of bowlers in the country, but a decline in the number of bowling leagues, hence the title of the article—Putnam notes how technology has both privatized and individualized leisure time, thus disrupting many opportunities for social interactions. Putnam asks, “Is technology driving a wedge between our individual interests and our collective interests?”

Although Putnam has been criticized for overlooking evidence of activism that might challenge his argument of civil decline, there is value in heeding his concern as institutions of higher education decide the role of technology in the learning environments that they strive to create for their students. This is an especially relevant concern as we experience another downturn in our state’s economic fortunes and our public educational institutions look for technological “solutions” to the balancing act of funding shortages, enrollment surges, and academic quality.

At Chico State, we have a good deal of experience and wise guidance in these matters. We have recognized—as we must always recognize—that the issue is not technology per se, or learner “productivity,” or the promise of cost savings. It is the kind of teaching and learning community that we seek to build and the understandings that enable us to achieve one of the highest quality.

Foremost among these understandings is the recognition that good teaching depends on a sense of intellectual community, that is, the common commitment of faculty to approach learning as an integrative activity, not a disjointed one. The hallmarks of such an environment include frequent student-faculty contact both in and outside of the classroom, collaborative learning opportunities among students and faculty through interdisciplinary engagements, the mutual commitment of faculty and students to the hard work of disciplined thought, and active learning techniques.

Focusing on these conditions enables us to distinguish between those aspects of student learning that are lasting and substantial, such as self-confidence and intellectual curiosity, and those, like unit accumulation and seat-time, that are easily quantified but prompt the question of how learning is being achieved and measured. So, too, how well technology enables us to scale up, not drive down, the interactions between and among faculty and students is as critical an issue as recognizing that pedagogical decisions about course objectives and instructional strategies are a preliminary step to choosing any technology.

Yes, like the solo bowler, some of our students, out of choice or circumstance, especially those that are time- or space-bound, will learn alone. New information technologies increasingly accommodate this opportunity. But no matter the learners we serve or the technologies we employ, we should seek to foster collaborative learning, social discourse, and other attributes of dynamic learning communities. For to fail to do so ignores proven understandings of how students best learn and risks contributing to their isolation. A consequence of this can be the kind of fragmentation that Putnam has observed. Being alone, yet connected through the Internet, may be a new form of togetherness, but it may be a poor condition for engaging students in a rigorous manner and encouraging their imagination. Our institutional values should champion the characteristics of successful learning communities; our instructional forms, means, and strategies should reinforce them.

Paul J. Zingg, President