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Deep Learning for a Digital Age: Technology's Untapped Potential to Enrich Higher Education

By Van B. Weigel
192 Pages
ISBN: 0-787-95613-9

Reviewed by

Kathleen "Peggy" Lant

CSU Hayward


The first assertion in Van B. Weigel's Deep Learning for a Digital Age is this: "Reflective thinking is an art" (xiii). Given that Weigel's title contains the word "digital" and that his subtitle extols "Technology's Untapped Potential to Enrich Higher Education," it comes as a pleasant surprise to discover from the outset that Weigel embraces traditional educational values such as thinking, reflection, and the cultivation of wisdom--yes, he uses the word "wisdom"--in the age of the Internet. In fact, in this brief, interesting, and sometimes quirky book, Weigel, Professor of Ethics and Economic Development at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, goes so far as to claim that these time-honored pedagogical standards can be cultivated, fostered, and expanded in the digitally enhanced classroom.

Weigel's book comes at the perfect time. The fervor for online classes, the rush to join forces with eCollege, Blackboard, WebCT, and other "learning partners" has slowed, and suddenly we realize how much money and time we have spent and--in many cases--how little we have accomplished that has profoundly improved the performance of our most fundamental task-teaching. In fact, Weigel makes very clear that he does not advocate a wholehearted embrace of online education.

Like many of us, Weigel has heeded the cautionary words of David Noble, who warns repeatedly about the incursion of commercialization into our classes and our institutions. Noble predicts that a time will come when we deeply regret the hurried steps we have taken away from the traditional classroom: "a dismal new era of higher education has dawned. In ten years, we will look upon the wired remains of our once great democratic higher education system and wonder how we let it happen." While he acknowledges the dangers Noble outlines, Weigel takes a balanced and enthusiastic approach to the use of technology in higher education, and this approach is the strength of Deep Learning. Rather than retreat to the safety of the on-ground classroom or forge ahead heedlessly into the completely online class, Weigel proposes that we take a few steps on a via media toward a solution that he calls "deep learning."

By "deep learning," Weigel means "learning that promotes the development of conditionalized knowledge and metacognition through communities of inquiry." Weigel goes on to explain that to allow for the development of the conceptual understanding and reflective attitudes necessary for deep learning, an instructor must provide opportunities for modeling, coaching, scaffolding, articulating, reflecting, and exploring. All such activities are time consuming, intense, and--it goes without saying--demanding on both teacher and student. But with the resources of the Internet and online communication, Weigel claims, such powerful student-to-teacher, teacher-to-student, and student-to-student interactions can be enabled and fostered: "From a practical standpoint, deep learning and e-learning are inseparable. It is simply not economically feasible to provide a broad cross section of students with depth educational curricula unless Internet technologies are used" (5).

Adhering to his moderate approach, Weigel warns against attempting to move all such communication and activities online in order to save money: "The purpose of ... a blended approach is not to boost course enrollments or economize on faculty resources but rather to enhance the quality of education" (25). Nor can we, he adds, hope to do more easily online what we already do well on-ground: "the teacher's passion for intellectual inquiry and love for his or her subject" and "the unique chemistry of each class ... are best experienced in real time" (26). Weigel, then, supports time-honored faculty values and argues that faculty must be permitted to preserve those values: "Tradition is a core value for most academics--and for good reason" (27). He asserts, moreover, that we have insufficient justification for consigning the traditional classroom to the past: "The bottom line is that one needs a compelling logistical or economic rationale to do away with the brick-and-mortar classroom completely" (125).

Thus, Weigel champions a blended approach to education for most institutions of higher learning. To achieve the blended classroom, Weigel recommends what he calls the knowledge-room strategy. According to Weigel, the knowledge room is a digital space made possible by collaboration and communication teamware from IBM and the Lotus Development Corporation called QuickPlace. QuickPlace permits groups to share documents, communicate by email, chat, schedule, prioritize, plan, archive, and manage tasks in an online environment. Weigel provides an exhaustive guide on how to use QuickPlace to build an educational environment that forwards the constructivist principles necessary to promote deep learning.

In support of the knowledge-room paradigm, Weigel offers chapters on learning theory, on current and future uses of technology in education, on implementation of the knowledge-room concept, on necessary institutional support, and finally on the future of the knowledge-room paradigm in terms of instruction and instructional services. Weigel's gaze is sweeping and his approach is varied. He is, moreover, fearless in shifting his focus from the very technical to the highly theoretical. He seems as comfortable--and competent--explaining techniques of color anti-aliasing and its relation to screen resolution as he is in discussing learning theory or library databases. Not surprisingly, Weigel's bibliography is wide ranging as well and offers a rich collection of titles drawn from education, management, computer science, and business.

Most useful for faculty considering the move to the blended or online classroom will be Weigel's first chapter, "Beyond the Virtual Classroom," in which he offers a theoretical justification of his "deep learning" approach. He covers selected theories of learning and relates those theories to the different attributes of deep learning and surface learning. Given the constructivist bent of his principles, he favors an approach to teaching that promotes contextualized and project-based learning, reflection, and negotiation through presentation, research, and communication. He outlines appropriate strategies for assessment in this paradigm, and he justifies his espousal of the "team" approach, which he favors because it replicates workplace interactions in which students will eventually be engaged. He aligns every aspect of his pedagogical structure to a given knowledge-room capability.

Despite the fact that Weigel does not advocate fully online classes for most post-secondary institutions, he does devote a good part of his book (nearly the entire second chapter) to considering the future of online education--if only to let us know who our major competitors in higher education shall be in the coming years. Weigel's description of the potential of distance learning in higher education is somewhat chilling. When broadband access is widely available in the home and workplace (he gives it about ten years), he explains, the online classroom will emerge as a place where "seven hundred to two thousand students ... will be able to see and hear the instructor, view PowerPoint slides, respond to survey questions posed by the instructor and view the results of each poll immediately and send questions to a help desk, where they will be answered by a battery of content experts" (34).

While he asserts that this approach will bring education to developing nations and to those who cannot afford more exclusive institutions and while he believes that such mass-produced, for-profit education will characterize a good portion of higher education in the coming years, Weigel cautions that most traditional educational institutions will not be able to compete in the marketplace where these courses will be built, managed, and marketed.

Here Weigel offers another motivation for the blended approach. For those institutions that cannot compete in this heady online environment or--probably more realistically--for those whose faculty and administrators choose not to, he advocates the blended approach: "Instead of running headlong into the beam of light emanating from the oncoming distance education caravan, administrators and faculty should have been thinking about differentiating their educational services by adopting strategies that add value to the educational experience and create a firewall against commoditization. By the time that many institutions recognize this strategic mistake, it may be too late to change course" (54).

The third chapter of Weigel's book is devoted to a careful delineation of the knowledge-room structure. Unfortunately, Weigel's knowledge-room concept is so involved that simply learning to manage the many resources he promotes might prove overwhelming for an instructor and learning to navigate the environment might displace course content for the student. The fact that there are seven distinct virtual areas in the knowledge-room set up Weigel advocates and that these seven rooms contain nearly 20 smaller virtual locations points to an elaborate and complex conceptual framework. Not all faculty will have the patience to understand such an approach, let alone incorporate it into what they already accomplish quite simply in the classroom, the library, and the office hour. In all fairness, though, it should be noted that Weigel argues that knowledge rooms may be integrated slowly into regular class work. While those who give this protocol a try will certainly be rewarded, Weigel might be more convincing and more useful to a wide range of faculty members if he broadened his discussion of blended learning to include practices other than the knowledge-room protocol.

Some faculty may find it troubling that Weigel presents his knowledge-room concept as inflexibly conjoined to workplace software. His enhanced classroom paradigm is valuable and certainly offers a guide to enriching and widening the focus and content of any class. But the protocol as Weigel describes it is based entirely on a western workplace model and a team-oriented approach. While most faculty will agree that team or group work is important, some might not concede that a workplace application is suitable for academic use simply because, as Weigel asserts, "Learning experiences in higher education should be as close to real life as possible" (17). In fact, some might argue that the traditional distinction between the Ivory Tower and the marketplace is a useful and valuable one that we should go to some length to preserve.

These minor shortcomings notwithstanding, Weigel's book provides a valuable addition to the library on enhanced and online education. The work is readable, far ranging, and interesting. Moreover, Weigel's breadth of research is impressive and offers an informed base for those beginning to explore this important area. Most notably, Weigel prompts us to broaden our perspective so that we see the blended or enhanced classroom as offering us the best of both worlds--online resources and the traditional on-ground gathering.

But there is one area in which Weigel misses the mark in a rather more serious manner, one which cannot be left unnoted: Weigel's enthusiasm for the possibilities of a global campus is not tempered by cultural awareness of or sensitivity to different conceptualizations of authority, work, and learning. Even as he advocates the ethical duty of faculty to perpetuate the values of free inquiry and respect for difference, he proposes an "international distributed campus" that threatens to be a blueprint for intellectual colonialism. In fact, Weigel seems not to have considered the implications of his words when he suggests that the international digital campus could benefit those in developing countries: "The international distributed campus would work like this. A college or university in a more developed country could establish a presence in one or two locations in the developing world. It could develop a nontraditional campus (perhaps in collaboration with a local, sister institution) in a hotel or other building complex, consisting primarily of guest rooms wired for the Internet and conference space for classes."

His justification for this approach is that "there is such pent-up demand for high-quality education in the developing world. Students around the world are eager to invest in their futures and will gladly pay more for a high-quality education that prepares them for the twenty-first-century workplace.... employers will certainly understand the value of an education that is built around the virtual team concept and emphasizes knowledge management" (129). One worries about traditional non-western cultures that may embrace other forms of leadership, other habits of work, other cultural structures. C.A. Bowers, for example, launches a careful consideration of the cultural implications of the "global cyber community" in his Let Them Eat Data: How Computers Affect Education, Cultural Diversity, and the Prospects of Ecological Sustainability. Bowers delineates the many ways in which our tools, our computers, and our workplace habits encode cultural values that we frequently do not recognize or subject to critique. These values, he says, may bring serious damage to groups of people whose traditions and patterns of communication and work are other than those we espouse:

The modern expert ... armed with computers ... is educated in the high-status patterns of thinking learned in the university. Of the many detrimental characteristics of high-status knowledge, one of the most destructive is the emphasis on diagnosing problems and framing solutions as models that can be replicated in various cultural contexts. Another is the assumption that abstract, theoretical, and data-based knowledge is more enlightened, progressive, and effective than knowledge learned and tested over generations of cultural experience within an ecological context. The latter has long been recognized by marginalized cultural groups as one of the reasons for the failure of expert forms of knowledge, but their insights have been ignored because of the supposed backwardness of their cultures. (75)

I recommend Weigel's book. He points to one path that we might follow to an intelligent and effective use of technology in higher education. His values are sound, his practices considered, and his spirit true to the standards we share as teachers and scholars. At the very least, he is heading in the right direction, as his conclusion makes clear:

Higher education can have no higher calling than to create learning environments that inspire wonder. Wisdom cannot be programmed into a curriculum or delivered as an educational outcome. But it is possible to create learning contexts that are conducive to development of wisdom. . . . Although the knowledge room framework offers students many opportunities to reflect on their own responses to new knowledge, there is no better place for such interaction than the brick-and-mortar classroom. In depth education, the classroom is not the place to transmit information but rather to provoke dissent, nurture rapport and collegiality, and light the fires of curiosity and the passion for inquiry. (140-141)

Works Cited

Bowers, C.A. Let Them Eat Data: How Computers Affect Education, Cultural Diversity, and the Prospects of Ecological Sustainability. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 2000.

Noble, David. "Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education." First Monday 3.1 (1998): 13 Mar. 2002.

Posted May 2, 2002
Modified July 1, 2002

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board.
©2002 by Kathleen Lant.

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