The Conduit Metaphor – A TTW Guest Post by David Wedaman

Kurt Fischer noted (in passing, at a Mind, Brain, Education Institute) that the Conduit Metaphor of Learning is defunct. This is the idea that education is essentially a kind of pipe whereby knowledge travels from the mouth or mind of a more- to a less-learned person. That the learner is a receptacle to be filled with knowledge. Learning, it ends up, is actually much more complex. And knowledge is apparently not a paper package of data tied with string moving across the meat counter. Which is just as well, because the Conduit Metaphor taken to the extreme leads to students thinking of the “product” of their learning as a purchasable thing, like a refrigerator, and the instructor as a functionary, and they (the students) as having no role in the construction of the refrigerator, whereas in reality they must fabricate their own compressor.

The Conduit Metaphor also governs how IT and library staff interact with our communities. It’s ready to be replaced there, too.

If you scratch the surface of your representative library or IT staff member you’ll find someone who thinks they are providing a passageway for people to get to things, whatever those things might be. Information. Computer Help. Study space. What have you. That the organization is a kind of storeroom of resources or services or skills, and its customers a kind of chaotic mass of generally needy and bemused people operating according to the principles of Brownian motion, needing to be channelled into tidy streams, have their velocity restrained somewhat, and their questions and needs regulated, prior to the provision of service unto them. The channels? Your service desks or call centers or liaison staff or webpages–windows or openings or . . . Conduits.

Relegating your community to people on the other other end of a conduit, and yourselves to the role (undeserved, really) of the Guardian of the Conduit, and your services to those that are simple enough that they can actually be conduited (if you will) is generally dehumanizing. Not only does it not really win you the hearts of your people, it blocks them from you. It re-enforces the black box reputation your library and IT organization should do everything to combat. It makes your work no fun. It closes down your opportunity to hear the needs of your community and to use those needs in a pedagogical way–to teach yourself what services you should actually provide. And it doesn’t allow people to do together what they are designed to do together, which is, in my humble opinion, to learn.

The Conduit Metaphor might be OK in a static world. But the world is not that. If there was ever an age when people were willing to be pigeon-holed, it isn’t now. If there was ever a time you should be feverishly looking for ways to build community with your academic community, to be seen as people engaged in learning, it is now. Now is when your library and IT staff should use every opportunity they can to learn about how to be relevant and meaningful in the digital age. The conduit doesn’t help us do this, and so we must emerge from the conduit.

What does service in the post-conduit age look like? Efficient online help tickets? Artificial intelligence-based answering machines instead of staff? Probably not.

Here’s what I predict: we’ll wade in among the people and become them, engaging in the definition and resolution of problems that are unconduitable, because unique, complex, asymmetrical, or political. Our service provision will be indistinguishable from the normal activities of our community. We will flit happily among those teaching, learning, and doing research.

There won’t be a community over there and a service organization over here and a box office window in between with the sliding door seemingly always either closed or about to close. There will just be a community.

A few thoughts by way of postscript. I suspect some base fear is behind all this desire to protect ourselves from the community. Perhaps it’s the ubiquitous and pernicious slippery-slope fear of being overrun by a horde of ravenous users,checking out all the books! or asking for more help than we can give!, making us work too much! (For my part, I say let your users overrun you. It means you’re meaningful.) The great gift of the bureaucratic mentality is to milk the C0nduit Metaphor of Service Provision almost infinitely to stave off users from disrupting the administrator with their needs. One can even reason oneself right into wishing for what I call the “Administrator’s Dream,” which is–a sad Holy Grail–to find a way to provide a service to no users. The other day I heard it said that library staff love more the book on the shelf than the book in the users’ hand (I really don’t think this is true, but if it were, it would be an example of the Conduit Metaphor taken to a pathological extreme–the Closed Conduit).

David Wedaman is Director of Research and Instruction Services, Brandeis University, and sits on the board of NERCOMP (the NorthEast Regional Computing Program) and on the advisory board of the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative.

He blogs at http://wedaman.wordpress.com

Cross Posted here: http://wedaman.wordpress.com/2010/10/13/the-conduit-metaphor/

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