Shit or get off the pot: Why are we still talking about the seismic impacts technology will have on higher education?

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It is a fascinating exercise to look back at how academics and scholars viewed the impact of  computers in education.  There have been discourses around technology and computer-mediated learning for over three decades.  What is interesting in the 20 or so articles I read (ranging from 1970 to 1985) is that we are having the same debates, with the same arguments being constructed around the same fault lines, roughly split between evangelists and critics advocating or arguing against the impacts and benefits of technology in higher education;

 

“We are, whether fully conscious of it or not, already in an environment for higher education that represents the most drastic change since the founding of the University of Paris and Bologna…some eight or nine centuries ago.” Stephen Muller – President Johns Hopkins talking about technology in 1985
 
“In each instance, technology failed to live up to its early promise for three reasons: resistance by teachers, high cost, and the absence of demonstrable gains in student achievement” – ‘Looking into education’s high-tech future’ Raymond Bok 1985

 

With the almost ubiquitous impact of technology, whether in the form of devices, usage or interaction, in many aspects of society, there still seems to be significant contesting of the relevance of technology to the way we do higher education teaching, learning and assessment.

1984
 “Communication between people occurs in a social context including role relationships eventually negotiated by participants. Developing and maintaining these relationships assists the society, and the entire communicative process is a necessary condition for a person’s definition of a self-identity. Contemporary technologies potentially limit the development of social relationships and broadening of self?concepts. Computers cannot fulfil many social functions and could disrupt the social fabric, thereby losing vehicles for defining and constructing self.” – ‘Technology and the crisis of self’ – Gratz and Salem, Communication Quarterly v.32, n.2, 1984
 
 1998
“It is often very tempting first to draw a simplified picture of the role of the teacher in “traditional” or even “old-fashioned” education and then present contrasting visions of a new role in the future. In my opinion, there is too much easy and superficial talk about revolutions and paradigm shifts in education. Revolutions don’t happen that often…” ‘The role of university teachers in a digital era’ – Ljoså, paper presented to the EDEN Conference, Bologna, Italy 1998
 
 2013
“The potential of technology to transform teaching and learning practices does not appear to have achieved substantial uptake, as the majority of studies focused on reproducing or reinforcing existing practices.” – Kirkwood, Adrian and Price – ‘Technology-enhanced learning and teaching in higher education: what is ‘enhanced’ and how do we know? A critical literature review.’ Learning, Media and Technology 

 

There are thousands of examples of individual projects both here in the UK and around the sector globally where small and medium scale applications of e-learning, web 2.0 technologies, infrastructure investment or new pedagogies have been implemented and evaluated to varying degrees of success (Smith 2012). There is little evidence that there has been institutional level change, in terms of teaching, learning and assessment or pedagogical strategy, aside from changes in administrative processes connected to those strategies or to enshrine within them the didactic content-driven transmissive models of the existing pedagogy. Nor has there been the associated promised revenue generation or cost savings (Blin & Munro 2008; Kirkwood 2009; MacKeogh & Fox 2008; Stepanyan, Littlejohn & Margaryan 2010).

 

I used to work in a bookstore in the late 1980s back in my hometown of Sydney, Australia.  There was no way in the days of pastel pink walls and stacked tan and maroon bookshelves did we ever believe that the model of book retail would ever change.  The main technological change I saw from the time when I used to go into the bookstore as a five year old was to replace the grand central staircase with escalators.   As I grew more knowledgeable of the business I would see the impact of technology in terms of stock control, buying, customer service and range development.  But once again, little could we predict that less than 10 years after I finished working there, it would be the last major bookshop standing in the city because technology had not simply changed the way they did business, it changed the business itself.  As yes of course, there were more reasons as to the failure of hundreds of bookstores than simply the power of Amazon.  But at the core of it, book buying as an industry changed.  It started with distribution, then it went to price, then it went to promotion and finally it went to product, with e-books and e-readers changing the very way the product is produced and consumed.

 

 

This model of change (for better or for worse) can be seen happening in hundreds if not thousands of every day practices.  Yet despite some change within higher education, we are still arguing about the impacts of technology, perhaps fiddling whilst Rome burns.

 

“People will argue that you don’t get the same interaction as in a face-to-face environment. But the vast majority of our students elect never to show up on campus as we record our lectures and don’t force participation. In terms of project work – they organize themselves digitally – they set up a Facebook group, meet over Google+ hangouts and Skype, and occasionally in person. This really changes the need for face to face interaction.” David Glance, Director of the UWA Centre for Software Practice, University of Western Australia

 

It is clear that the modern university will not look the same as it does now. The challenges and significant changes that the digital age represents cannot afford to be reacted to by putting a new coat of paint on an old car. The modern university will have to adapt to a world that is looking for new ways to get from point A to point B, driven and navigated by learners and a community that are not necessarily constrained by roads or engines.

 

 “…educational policymakers have not learned anything from these decades of research, whose recurring theme has been the complexity (if not outright failure) of educational change and the inadequacy of so many reform ideas…we have so little evidence that anyone has learned anything new about the processes of teaching and schooling beyond the confines of their own personal locations.” Bascia, N. & Hargreaves, A. 2000, ‘Teaching and leading on the sharp edge of change’, in N. Bascia & A. Hargreaves (eds), The sharp edge of educational change, Routledge, London, pp. 3-28.

 

For me, the phrase that adorns this blog post, ‘shit or get off the pot’, represents a critical line in the sand for all of us engaged in the strategic and pedagogical direction of higher education.  Can we afford the same moments of blessed ignorance afforded to the management of Borders and HMV who staunchly refused to embrace the new behaviors of users and when they did it was too little, too late?  Are MOOCs the wake-up call that perhaps all is not right in neverland?  As noted by David Glance, the users of higher education are adapting the new skills they have in information and digital literacy to interacting and engaging with each other and the academy in different ways.  We all know the statistics around mobile text usage, the continued decline in email in 16-20 year olds and continued blurring between the personal and professional in terms of web 2.0 usage.

 

“Tasks that were previously the domains of faculty are now under the control of learners: searching for information, creating spaces of interaction, forming learning networks, and so on. Through blogs, wikis, online video, podcasts and open educational resources, learners are able to access content from leading lecturers and researchers around the world. Through the use of social media, learners are able to engage and interact with each other (and in some cases, directly with researchers and faculty)”. Siemens & Weller, ‘Higher education and the promises and perils of social network’, Revista de Universidad y Sociedad del Conocimiento (RUSC) 2011
 

How long can we continue to argue the toss about technology in higher education?  I argue that the tipping point has already been passed.  The ability to access information and further, the skills to use that information in creative, constructive or problem solving ways are embedded and integrated into school level learning and social interactions from a young age.  Significant aspects of business practice are linked inexorably with technology and more importantly, are different from the way they were even 5 or 10 years ago.  Yet we, as often the largest employer in a region, the hub of innovation and the heart of entrepreneurship and intellectual capacity are debating whether there is any benefit that can be gained from technology in our practice.  We talk about our 19th century learning model as one that has worked in the past, why are questioning its relevance now?  Perhaps the answer to the question as to why there has been little measurable institutional impact of changes in technology is that there have been very few instances of an institutional strategic imperative to respond to the change.

 

Are we trapped in a model of fundamentally believing what is right about what we do that we can’t see that not everyone shares this belief?  Often anyone who advocates for technology is labeled an evangelist or an advocate, sometimes used as terms of derision in the same way users of Facebook are branded addicts because they use Facebook more than the person undertaking the research does (I hasten to tell the story about whether my long dead grandfather would consider all of his grandchildren as addicts for the amount they are addicted to their cars, because he only drove his olive green Morris Minor to church on Sundays).  Whilst we arguing about whether Twitter is an intellectual copyright minefield, or whether Dropbox own our data or if we should ban students from using Wikipedia and Google learners are acquiring knowledge from different sources, they are interacting in the ways they feel comfortable doing and they will seek something different from higher education if what we offer is in discord from what they want.

 

‘It’s tragic because, by my reading, should we fail to radically change our approach to education, the same cohort we’re attempting to “protect” could find that their entire future is scuttled by our timidity.’ David Puttnam Speech at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, June 2012

 

So much of our scholarship on e-learning is about tools and platforms, arguing the relative merits of second life or twitter, or analyzing the dropout rates of MOOCs.  What we are missing in our research and in our arguments at a strategic level is a narrative around what are the changing educational requirements and conditions that necessitate a critical review of our teaching and learning pedagogies.  Employers are actively searching a potential employee’s digital profile, how do we integrate that into our teaching of professional practice? Crowd-sourced information is driving sales and reputation in industries as automotive, travel and arts and culture.  The issue is not the use of technology by the academy, but how that technology leads to a new model of collaborative, interactive and authentic higher education experience.  As Michael Wesch notes;

 

“We want to put them in a state of wonder. They’re insatiably curious. If we (teachers) inspire them, then we can work to harness and leverage technology and create with them.”
Michael Wesch from Kansas State University who directed ‘A vision of student’s today’

 

It is time for us to shit or get off the pot.  In my opinion we cannot afford to continue this cyclical and eventually damaging ‘will they, won’t they?’ dance of unresolved technological tension.  There has to be a critical, empirical and research informed evaluation of our pedagogical practices.  The systems by which we enhance our programmes and courses need to be agile and responsive.  And this has to happen quickly and publicly.  Our agenda in some ways is being controlled for us by companies like Pearson and the reputational one-two of things likes MOOCs and hacktivist education coming from organisations like Coursera, FutureLearn, TED and the Gates Foundation.  At the moment we as universities are relying on the import of credentials and qualifications.  But this is being broken down through new industries, new jobs and continued (in my opinion, flawed) belief that learning can be simply broken down and aggregated like the way you collect football cards, swapped, bartered and finally made into a set.  This is a not a call to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  In fact, it is the opposite.  We need to make a case that we are at the centre of facilitating a creative, engaging and innovative culture.  We support learners to develop a skills set that is authentic, transferable and shareable.  We have decades of interactions, conversations, research, investigations and experience.  Technology does not diminish that.  Technology provides a way in which our learners can connect and join with that body of knowledge.  Technology affords the learners with an opportunity to add to it, share it, remix it and create something new from it.  But at the heart of that is still the institution, the space that encourages, supports and fertilizes that creativity.  But by banning mobile phones in classrooms or insisting that lectures are compulsory (as the only way to learn something is to listen to it being intoned from afar),  we are creating the constructs of our irrelevance.

 

‘Last fall, the Harvard Business School began requiring every entering student to purchase an IBM personal computer. Those who were unfamiliar with these machines received special instruction in their use. Software was distributed to enable students to manipulate financial data. Word processing programs were provided to assist students in preparing their reports’ Looking into education’s high-tech future’ Raymond Bok 1985