Digital pedagogy redux

September 22, 2021 — Asher Wycoff

Monica Chin's new article in The Verge is getting a lot of buzz for highlighting something that many college faculty will doubtless have noticed: Gen Z students don't really think in terms of files and folders. Faculty from a range of institutions, public and private, two-year and R1, report having difficulty explaining to students how to locate files by following directory pathways. If a file doesn't turn up in global search, it may as well not exist. The story presents this in terms of a generation gap, with much of the disconnect explained by the ubiquity of search engines and students' greater familiarity with mobile over desktop computing, while faculty generally have the opposite. But there's displaced emphasis on the former over the latter, which I think is one of the deeper problems.

In a public university system with a lot of working-class students, it's common to encounter students whose primary or only computer is their phone, usually an iPhone or a Galaxy. In both cases you have a UX that deliberately obscures directory structure, and provides access to files primarily within application silos. To some extent, this is a byproduct of greater accessibility requiring greater abstraction. Files and folders are themselves high-level metaphors, and accessing them through a GUI requires less technical knowledge (and less knowledge of where precisely everything is) than accessing them through a text interface. But mobile computing, done on smaller displays through a repertoire of gestures, does not lend itself to that kind of point-and-click organization. You can at least see and manipulate the directory structure on most Android phones, but the hassle of organization with your greasy fingers on a six-inch screen often isn't worth it. Hence Apple's continued efforts to kneecap file management on iOS to protect their reputation for an "it just works" user experience.

One of the reasons I abandoned the Mac this past year (and the iPhone several years before) is that I often feel as though I'm fighting their products to do what I want them to do. On the one hand, it's certainly true that dominant computing paradigms are simply changing, and I'm just stubbornly imposing the habits I had drilled into me by Windows 98 onto computers now—even the tiny one I keep in my pocket. At the same time, though, I don't think my loyalty to the files and folders metaphor is misplaced. I do think that once you take a step above that (already quite high) level of abstraction, you end up sacrificing more control than you should have to.

Here's one example I think about a lot. It's not a coincidence that the ubiquity of mobile computing has gone hand-in-hand with the ubiquity of streaming services, particularly music. I have clung stubbornly to downloaded audio files for nearly twenty years now despite the fact that the music industry has never been particularly happy to allow me (or anyone else) to download audio files. Much as the home cassette recording revolution spawned a host of dubiously effective anti-piracy efforts, so did the digital revolution spawn Digital Rights Management. DRM effectively tied your music files to a single account, limited what you could do with those files, and limited the number of devices you could have these files on at once. The problem with DRM was that it was easy to break: you couldn't restrict users from burning mix CDs of their music, for instance, without incentivizing piracy, but once a user burned digital purchases to CD, they could simply rip them back from the CD to strip DRM from the files.

Music streaming solves this problem for the industry by never allowing users access to the files in the first place, but requiring them to rent access to a corporate server. This is one instance of what Jathan Sadowski calls the Internet of Landlords, wherein rentierism becomes a dominant form of e-commerce. Part of the pitch is, of course, convenience. It's time-consuming to transfer files across devices (let alone move physical media between apartments), but it takes five seconds to log back into your Netflix or Spotify account.

What concerns me about all this is that, as the paradigm of computing shifts, and the average user understands their devices in a more abstracted way, the basic mechanisms by which computers work are mystified, and mystified in such a way that takes control away from the end user. This has consequences for pedagogy that go beyond a generational gap between instructors and students. Academia has long locked students, faculty, and staff alike into dated, proprietary software that makes accessing essential resources about fifty times harder than it needs to be. But even dealing with a borderline unusable CMS like BlackBoard, I can still provide students course readings, as documents to download, for free—a bare level of accessibility I've found especially important during the pandemic. Between the obfuscation of directory pathways, the gutting of university library budgets, and the building attacks by publishers on invaluable platforms like Sci-Hub and The Internet Archive, I'm not sure how much longer that will be possible.

tags: web, godge