The logical impossibility of Status Quo: Six disconnects that demand a digital pedagogy (or at least a good debate about it)

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It is a reality. Learners arriving at university this month are already e-learners (and this isn’t a new phenomenon by any means, see Allerton (2001). If we are to assume that before they land in our august lecture theatres and classrooms they have indulged in some learning then a significant proportion of that learning has involved technology. Further, that the skills and knowledge they bring to their higher education have evolved and been shaped by the way they engage with a technology driven society. The status quo as we remember it doesn’t exist anymore, as it didn’t when we were at the same emerging point in our lives. Perhaps we have a short memory. That doesn’t say that we as academics, teachers, colleagues are obsolete, old or behind the times. What it does say is that we as a generation/s often prided ourselves on the fact that we were different to our parents. Well, guess what…

Sure, the sometimes holier than thou notion of digital natives was a bit bunk. But, the idea that people who grew up with technology, learnt using technology and live with it as an everyday aspect of their lives have developed different skills (or perhaps different ways to apply the same skills) has resonance. There are a significant body of studies that argue this very point about Gen Y learners through to Gen Wi-Fi (or whatever we want to call them). Henry Jenkins took a stab at categorising them, suggesting that modern learners possess a variety of skills that have emerged from their interaction with web 2.0 technologies, including (but not limited to) the skills of play (problem solving through experimentation), performance (discovery through the adoption of alternative identities), simulation (interpretation of models of real-world processes), appropriation (remix and reuse of media content in the form of ‘mash-up’), multi-tasking (focus shifting required by the situation), distributed cognition (the use of tools to expand skills and thinking capacity), collective intelligence (the use and validation of pooled knowledge to solve problems), judgement (evaluation of the reliability and validity of information), trans media navigation, negotiation and networking (Jenkins, 2009) – quite the digital backpack.

Yes, there is significant evidence that learners today are not experts in all technology. Yes, sometimes they come in and have NO idea what Facebook is, or how their camera on their smartphone works. Technology is not a class or category. It is a means, a society changing and generation shaping means. So, you scientists…you know everything about science-y things, eh? Then why do we expect all learners to be social media mavens or device professors? But what we can expect is that as Conole and Alevizou (2010) assert, the skills of digital learners are not universal nor consistent, as they have been acquired ‘for purpose’ as opposed to developing a toolkit of potentially useable skills, which requires the institution to both identify the skills gaps and rectify as required.

What I want to argue for in this article is the imperative to look at, analyse and evaluate the way we as higher education practitioners see the role of technology within our pedagogy. On one hand the many of the ways we teach and assess are predicated on a model of work, practice and learning that is at best dated, at worst obsolete. On the other hand, the way we as academics use technology in higher education can be seen by learners as akin to watching your mum trying to twerk at your 18th birthday party. Not totes amaze by any stretch of the imagination. #mumreally? What we experience from our students and staff in reaction to both of these scenarios is often resistance, embarrassment and sometimes disengagement, all of which compromise student achievement and learning. There are disconnects of expectation, of practice and of outcome that need to be addressed in our pedagogy. And we have reached a ‘beyond critical’ state to start that process with the rapid emergence of MOOCs a salutary reminder of how quickly things can move (even under less than reliable premises).

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Australian Mining Magnate and now Member of Parliament Clive Palmer twerking on Sydney Radio.  Wow.

Disconnect #1 – What is knowledge and where do we find it?
Knowledge starts as something we are told. Plato argues that a statement must meet three criteria in order to be considered knowledge: it must be justified, true, and believed. What did that mean for me when I was at university? It came from a book. An editor checked it, and then by virtue of publication it was assumed to take on those three criteria. Further, an academic aggregated, summarised and interpreted that knowledge and presented to me, as a told lecture. There was no crowd-sourcing. There were very few places for the collective outside of the establishment to form and create knowledge, to challenge what was believed, justified and true. The way in which knowledge is constructed, justified and communicated has changed. Without getting all philosophical, the way learners find, evaluate and share knowledge is different. Ideas emerge and bubble up through social media, through experience expressed as games, creative media or interaction. The emancipatory power of alternative media like zines has been rent large for the internet generation. Learners find knowledge through searching the internet, asking wikipedia or putting a post on a board to get a collective response (amongst many other ways including books mind you). What happens when they arrive at the university experience? They are told that Wikipedia is not a valid academic source. They are told that collaboration can sometimes be seen as collusion and that their community and communications should be filtered through the firewalled VLE. So what do learners do? Exactly as they are told! They go on the VLE and post using the same language they are expected to use. And they leave the crowd-sourced, creative energy for the projects and activities they do outside university. As one blogger on Kineo notes ‘They (Gen Y) are engine that has fuelled Web 2.0 and, unfortunately, they seldom get a learning experience in the workplace that looks anything like the world they inhabit so significantly in their spare time.
Learner: Knowledge drawn from a potentially limitless library of sources, both credible and credulous
Academy: Knowledge filtered and curated, from established sources.

Disconnect #2 – What is the purpose of university?

‘The fact is – you read for your degree. You don’t need to sit or listen – you just need to read, and occasionally join in tutorials to purloin ideas from other students.’

Daniel Stacey – ‘How much longer will universities exist?’ SMH 16th September 2013

Professor David Helfand of Columbia University noted that many of his students that have different views of why they are at university, with student stating in a seminar ‘I am here for a degree, not an education’. There are disconnects between both the purpose of attending university and the understanding by which learners engage in university activity. Some of it is predicated on the dated notion that students are empty vessels into which we pour the knowledge and skills that reside in our heads. But some of it is of our own making. We have changed the way we describe and structure our university programmes to make them fit an employability agenda or what we believe ‘employers’ want. It is once again didactic. Listen to what we say, do what we tell you to do and you will get a ‘good’ job. There is a place here for a two-way conversation so that the notion of a degree as a product doesn’t become the norm. The role of teacher will change from instructivist to facilitative, leading and supporting user generated and peer sourced knowledge (see Steve Wheeler’s excellent and positive blog about this and most of all the transactive nature of learning in the modern university is supplanted by a collaborative one.

Disconnect #3 – Jobs today/Jobs tomorrow
The idea that we are preparing learners for jobs that don’t exist at the start of their degree has been well explored. But how are we doing that? Has our curriculum shifted to one that is trans-disciplinary and trans-context? Do we assume learners are developing skills that can carried through the career changes they will undertake through their long lives? Alvin Toffler noted that ‘The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn’. The disconnect lies in the ability of the university to step away from the ‘this is how you do it’ mode of teaching and learning. Learners come to higher education with experiences and ideas. These are often not valued as they sit in their first lecture of a new degree. And in many ways they are not assessed or recognised either. It goes back to the empty vessel model. Learning how to learn, knowing how they learn already and being an active partner in those processes should be at the core of a digital pedagogy. Some of the work on the ‘new university of the 21st century’ addresses the need to make our practice of teaching and learning transferable, complex, socially engaged and constructivist (or connectivist). But that aspirational goal is difficult to achieve by small incremental curriculum shifts and natural attrition.

Disconnect #4 – Question/Answer

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Much of what the OU describe in their annual ‘Innovating Pedagogy’ report, especially in the medium and long term, describes learning that is connected, crowd sourced and peer-led. Good words. All of them. There is one problem. Apparently we know the answers. Assessment is often designed to ensure that the students have remembered the answers as well. How does connected learning, seamless learning, crowd sourcing or student-led learning sit with that assumption? Well, a lot of modern teaching is still question based. We ask the questions, students go away and answer them. There are right answers and wrong answers (and sometimes very wrong answers). But the internet is not about the answers. Information is stored and housed, more than at any time in human history and certainly more than could be housed in any library. The key to effective internet use is the question. The disconnect cuts to the heart of our learning design and teaching practices. We are still caught in the notion that there is one right answer.

Disconnect #5 – The ubiquity of technology
For me this is the big one. Technology is not new. Smart phones are not the latest thing, Facebook isn’t trendy and you won’t be hip talking about Pinterest. Technology is ubiquitous, yet we as academics often get excited when we finally get to test something new in a class, whilst the learners grown about their lecturers being behind the times. Equally technology activity is not all about work and education. Most technology is about fun, social interaction, play and peers. Academics telling students that we are going to appropriate their Facebook for a course? Or even worse, telling them how to use the technology they already know how to use? No Dad, I already know who Tinie Tempah is, and please, you really have to stop rapping now at the kitchen table! #shutthehellup. There is a lot of evidence that suggests that students resist using the technologies they think of as their own (including devices) for purposes that they have not chosen. They are comfortable using the VLE or desktops in the library, but asking them to use and share their own devices can be problematic. A more realistic approach from the academy would be, here is a problem, how would you solve it and let them come to the technology they find most appropriate. It is a co-constructed approach.

Disconnect #6 – Speaking in tongues
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Language varies between generations. Pretty obvious really. Words lose and gain power. But the way language is communicated also changes. The patterns of change even in terms of digital communications are astounding. Even now, smart phone usage amongst under 18 year olds is on the decline in favour of tablets. 43% of students prefer to find content through social media as opposed to search engines (privileging peer and crowd based learning). Instant messaging is replacing email. There are standards, ethics, behaviours and cultural habits that emerge from these different modes of communication. Yet, we have academics who honestly believe that unless the student is looking at them they are ‘skiving’ off and probably just checking their Facebook. Some lecturers even have a laptops closed rule. I was a conference a few weeks ago, head buried in my iPad, thinking through ideas whilst presentations were on. I must have look disinterested, yet it was noticed that I often made the most pertinent tweets. People (and not just yoof) can multi-task, listen whilst not looking and can learn from more than your words. The devices they have are powerful gateways to knowledge. Sure, there are times when interacting face to face is what is required, and having the geek sit at the back at the room constantly tapping away is inappropriate. But that is not and should not be the default.

These disconnects represent pressure points (and not the only ones) for the argument to at least debate the need for a digitally relevant pedagogy. This debate needs to be one that engages learners, involves staff and strips away the inflexible practices and replaces them with ones that can adapt to a world not the same as it was twenty years and fundamentally different to what it will be in five. The status quo will turn the whisper into a throat rasping shout about the future of universities. And at the end of the day, inaction will simply see the relevance of what we do simply pass us by. It won’t be a fingernail scraping desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable it will just be the passing anachronistic irrelevance of the Yellow Pages. Tapscott and Williams (2010) argue that the learner of today is boycotting the pedagogy; ‘…for many of the smartest students, it’s fashionable to try to get an A without going to any lectures—meaning that the cream of the crop is beginning to boycott the basic model of pedagogy.’

Kregor, Breslin and Fountain from the University of Tasmania in Australia note that ‘…universities no longer have a choice about whether to implement e-learning: they must in order to remain competitive in the market place. Rather, their choices are about what vision or strategy to adopt and therefore what technology infrastructure and human resources to invest in’ (Kregor, Breslin, & Fountain, 2012). The other side of that coin comes from John Seeley Brown in 2001 when he noted quite presciently that ‘…today’s digital kids think of information and communications technology (ICT) as something akin to oxygen: they expect it, it’s what they breathe, and it’s how they live. They use ICT to meet, play, date, and learn. It’s an integral part of their social life; it’s how they acknowledge each other and form their personal identities.’ (Brown, 2001). With both the institutional pressure and the ‘customer’ pressure why do we privilege technology that replicates what we do now (VLEs for example) and why is it so hard to have a debate about the relevance of digital pedagogies?

* thanks to @TELgreenwich for the title.  Follow the debate by following my twitter @PeterBryantHE

Here is the slideshow for the enhanced presentation of this at the Goldsmiths Teaching and Learning Conference, held on the 30th May 2014

References

Allerton, H. E. (2001). Generation Why. Training and Development, 55(11), 56-60.

Brown, J. S. (2001). Learning in the digital age. Paper presented at the The Internet and the university: 2001 Forum, Boulder, CO.

Conole, G., & Alevizou, P. (2010). A literature review of the use of Web 2.0 tools in Higher Education. A report commissioned by the Higher Education Academy.

Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century: The MIT Press.

Kregor, G., Breslin, M., & Fountain, W. (2012). Experience and beliefs of technology users at an Australian university: Keys to maximising e-learning potential. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 28(8), 1382-1404.

Tapscott, D., & Williams, A. D. (2010). Innovating the 21st-Century University: It’s time! Educause review, 11.

How do I know that all of this was real? The dark side of being a digital stranger in an online learning environment – Part 2

Introduction

In part 1 I started to explore some of the darker aspects of online engagement, particularly the process of disinhibition, which can be facilitated by the anonymity, fantasy, openness and freedom that engaging online affords.  In this post, I want to take that analysis a little further and perhaps a little deeper into our practices as both digital citizens and academics.  More specifically, I am going to unpack some of the notions around authenticity and realness.   Lying at the heart of an educational experience is the ability to understand why something is authentic or real.  Without that, we are left with a bunch of words sans context.  Repeated, spoken but not contextualised or understood.  Remembered, resourced but without meaning or resonance.

 

The use of e-learning as an instrument of replication and repetition is a theme I have explored in a number of earlier blog posts.  The concept of the digital stranger throws a specific light on why using web 2.0 platforms and social media specifically as didactic, broadcast-led instruments firstly may isolate learners who have been moved significant components of their interactions and relationships to an on-line environment and secondly miss an opportunity to explore different modes of authenticity and realness, facilitated by a learners disinhibited to varying degrees, being interactive and collaborative.

 

What makes engaging on-line different from a face to face meeting or a class?  Is there something that emerges from these apparently dark processes of identity, interaction and sharing online that doesn’t occur when we are in the same room or lecture theatre?  Are we even comparing apples with apples?  Perhaps we are talking about two separate iterations of the very same thing – learning.  The evolution of social media and its increasingly ubiquitous use by people who chose to live some or all of their lives online do not simply represent the transition of conversations and relationships to a new platform, like moving from one coffee shop to another.  These relationships can be very, very different, drawing on a portfolio of skills that have emerged and aggregated through social media platforms.

 

Aside from the aspects of online engagement such as anonymity and asynchronous communications that I looked at in part 1, on-line relationships can be collaborative and open, where content sharing, appropriation and creation are a daily function of the interaction.  Before Facebook, would you send a memo to all your friends giving them a status update?  Before Flickr, the only way we had to share photos was the dreaded slide night (I am still trying to get the memory of bad fondue and Blue Nun out of my traumatised brain.)  The difference is more than the mode of transmission.  Let’s take Flickr as an example.  It affords the opportunity, if provided by the creator, to re-use photos, not just from people we know, but complete (digital) strangers.  It provides us with a chance to comment, which can then become conversation which evolves into a relationship.  It then allows us to meet other people who liked the photo or the subject of the photo, as part of a wider group.  Finally, it can provide for learning through the application of critical comment, expertise sharing and collaboration.  Now, think about your own discipline in this context.  A class of learners engaged not just in consuming material provided to them by academics, but re-purposing them, sharing them with others, making network and connections that facilitate interaction and social construction of knowledge and participating in learner-led and facilitated learning.

 

However, the purpose of this blog post is not to proletize the use of social media in higher education.  There are enough advocates out there doing that without me and my size 12s.  No, I think there is a more fundamental lesson here for education.  As academics designing and facilitating programmes there is a challenge about how much we need to engage with these new relationships.  Do we keep designing learning, teaching and assessment in the same way we always have, just using web 2.0 platforms in very web 1.0 ways?  Is there something more to be gained from identifying and understanding the changing ways in which interaction is occurring?  Should we experience more, become part of networks and communities ourselves as a way of applying and repurposing those experiences to next contexts?

 

I have been actively engaged online for nearly 17 years from bulletin boards, to IRC and now onto any number of social media platforms.  It has been a continual cycle of experience and appropriation and evaluation.  Most of it has been enjoyable and satisfying.  Some of it has been painful, traumatic and cathartic.  There have been moments of inspiration, of creativity and of disappointment and body shaking laughter.  I have made friends, partners, enemies and colleagues.   That lived life informs how I design and develop a programme especially where there is some blended or online component.  I am also 42.  I am cogniscent of the fact that modes of interactivity are neither uniform nor agreed across all users, and that there are significant differences between age groups, context of usage and device preference. But I am also aware that many of my own experiences would not have happened in real life.  It took both the emancipatory and the disinhibiting nature of social media to facilitate much of those experiences.  In part 1, I looked at three of John Suler’s considerations for what he termed the ‘online disinhibition effect’, a way of understanding some of the darker aspects of online interaction.  In part 2, I would like to explore three more; invisibility, dissociative imagination and minimisation of status and authority.

 

Invisibility

The absence of visual cues like tone of voice and body language can lower the inhibition of online learners.  Suler notes;

 

People don’t have to worry about how they look or sound when they type a message. They don’t have to worry about how others look or sound in response to what they say. Seeing a frown, a shaking head, a sigh, a bored expression, and many other subtle and not so subtle signs of disapproval or indifference can inhibit what people are willing to express.’ (Suler 2004)

 

The fact that you can’t see the person you are engaging means the bounds of physical appearance are no longer present.  Some writers (Stephens, Young and Calabrese 2007) argue that it increases the opportunity for cheating behavior in learners (necessitating a different kind of assessment, one that relies on understanding and application, not repetition and memory).  Invisibility also engenders lurking and trolling behaviors  both in many ways anti-social and counter to the participatory aims of most online programmes.  The cloak of invisibility also impacts on those facilitating the programme as they cannot identify the visual cues of the lurkers, identify the motivations of the trolls or even see who they are actually interacting with.  Equally, invisibility may afford the user with the sense of braggadocio that comes from not being seen or known, and which may hide a lack of understanding or a deliberate or accidental misreading of the learning.   More widely, this can manifest itself in fantasy and role playing, gender swapping and increasingly complex scenario building that works simply because the user is effectively invisible, relying on text and images completely in their control.   What happens in an online environment when some or all of what someone says turn out to be untrue or a misconstruction of the facts?   What does it say for trust, authenticity and realness?  How does it impact our processes of marking and feedback?

 

Dissociative Imagination

How much of online interaction is a game that we control when we log in and log off?  Dissociative imagination unlocks inhibition by pretending that what is happening is not real, that the interactions are akin to those that are simulated in a video game; that the emotions, impacts and personalities affected by your actions are not real, or at least not as real as real life.  And, that these actions are free from the responsibilities and consequences of real life interaction.  In terms of engagement in online learning, dissociative imagination can result in boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable interaction becoming blurred, learners not treating collaborative or group activities seriously because it’s only ‘online’, especially in the context of activities or formative assessment.  It is less the case in summative assessments as these have a defined impact on achievement.  Whilst this type of disinhibition is not limited to online learning and clearly occurs in many classroom based modes of group work especially, the ease with which it can occur online has considerable impact on social interaction, especially in large, disparate and potentially anonymous groups.

 

Minimisation of status and authority

As a guiding principle, most of the online programmes I have designed or been involved in developing have been put together with the intention that the role of the ‘teacher’ should be de-privileged.  Why should the articles we recommend become the basis for the literature used in all our assessments?  Why can’t learners find and share references through citation platforms or digital curation tools like Scoop.it?   Suler notes that;

‘The traditional Internet philosophy holds that everyone is an equal, that the purpose of the net is to share ideas and resources among peers. The net itself is designed with no centralized control, and as it grows, with seemingly no end to its potential for creating new environments, many of its inhabitants see themselves as innovative, independent-minded explorers and pioneers. This atmosphere and this philosophy contribute to the minimizing of authority.’ (Suler p.234)

 

In the context of adult learning, how do we reconcile the internet’s ability to support a democratic and emancipated environment (although within a wider context of access to infrastructure and bandwidth – the digital divide is a post for another day) with the central control that a university craves?  I would argue strongly for the need to support the development of ‘innovative, independent-minded explorers and pioneers’ both inside our community and our faculties and schools.  Arguably, whilst the deconstruction of authority poses many challenges, especially to ego and established practice, the potential it offers from programme design and assessment is exciting.

 

Conclusions

At the end of the day, as a person leading a programme, what I am really seeking?  Are retention and achievement the key measures of the success or failure of the programme to make learning happen? Without doubt they measure, at least obliquely, learner engagement and perhaps even more obliquely, learner satisfaction.  I called these two blog posts ‘How do I know that all of this was real?’  What matters most to me in the digital life I live, the digital scholarship I engage in and the relationships that I build and have fall is authenticity.  The experiences, whether they are with me or others hidden behind a disinhibited wall or showing their ‘real’ selves warts and all, should have something authentic about them  That could be a glimpse of a personality or trait kept well hid in real time or a full blown role play of character and emotional resonance.

 

The most powerful form of authenticity in terms of online learning manifests itself as creativity.  I see online learning as a magnet for creative activity, freeing learners from the some of the rules of society that inhibit creative thought.  There are risks attached to this at a curricular or learning level.  People can hurt in this environment; it can be traumatic, worrying, confusing and challenging.  Whilst it is essentially (although not always) a safe environment, it might provoke learners into thinking about why they are doing something or why they are being told something.  My observations from part 1 still stand however.  In the age of MOOCs and platform driven e-learning, fuelled by OERs and user engagement, there is a place for a new pedagogy, a new way of thinking about how we structure higher education.  It is a pedagogy that accesses the skills the learner already has and does not assume that they are a blank slate, ready to be moulded by own inputs as faculty ‘experts’.  It is a pedagogy that puts interaction and engagement at the centre of learning, teaching and assessment strategy.  It is a pedagogy that challenges the learners to make decisions about the authenticity or realness of what they are learning.   It asks learners to reuse, appropriate, create, design, share, collaborate and apply things.  It is a pedagogy that draws inspiration from the challenges presented by interaction as and with digital strangers.

 

In 2007 Marilyn Lombardi in a piece called ‘Authentic learning for the 21st century’ used the phrase ‘authentic learning’ to describe a learning-by-doing process, defining it thus;

‘Authentic learning typically focuses on real-world, complex problems and their solutions, using role-playing exercises, problem-based activities, case studies, and participation in virtual communities of practice. The learning environments are inherently multidisciplinary.  They are “not constructed in order to teach geometry or to teach philosophy. A learning  environment is similar to some ‘real world’ application or discipline: managing a city, building a house, flying an airplane, setting a budget, solving a crime, for example.” Going beyond content, authentic learning intentionally brings into play multiple disciplines, multiple perspectives, ways of working, habits of mind, and community. ‘   

 

The attraction of the space between disciplines is a strong one, and a lot of the literature around authentic learning supports the benefits of inter and trans-disciplinary learning.  Perhaps there is a need to think again about authentic learning as a way of shaping both the curriculum design and broader pedagogical principles of an institution, right down to programme or even modular level.  Drawing on some of the recommendations from these last two posts, maybe there is a need for authentic learning 2.0.  A topic for another blog post!

 

Keep the conversation going by posting comments, following my twitter feed @PeterBryantHE or just getting in contact  through the blog.

 

Lombardi, M. M. (2007). In D. G. Oblinger (Ed.), Authentic learning for the 21st century: An overview. EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative. http://alicechristie.org/classes/530/EduCause.pdf

Suler, John (2004). “The Online Disinhibition Effect”. CyberPsychology & Behavior 7 (3): 321–326.

http://www.samblackman.org/Articles/Suler.pdf

‘…it’s better to burn out than to fade away’ – has higher education reached a punk moment?

Making connections, keeping connections, growing connections; all of these processes are fundamental to human interaction and social co-operation.   In music, connections are the small pieces of scaffold that inspire and encourage people to create, share and perform art and songs that mean something to them and to their audiences.  Some call it rock family trees, some call lineage.  Whatever you choose to call it, the Beatles were inspired by the music coming out of the US in the late 50s and early 60s.  Punk rebelled against the music of the time and took their inspirations from the blues, the sounds of Detroit or simply from each other.   However, at each of the centre of each of these often seismic shifts in culture was an inherent tension between the fringe and the mainstream.  Soul music, that amazing combination of Rhythm and Blues that came pouring out of the Motor City took issue, both directly and obliquely, with segregation and the lack of civil rights for African Americans, breaking down barriers between white and black music.  Grunge emerged mainly from the cold, wet cities in the Pacific Northwest of the US, where teen angst, disenchantment, unemployment and a DIY spirit all fused together to forge a scene of bands that would burn out (and sometimes fade away), but change the face of popular music in a way that lasts today (indie music anyone?)

 

None of these movements were single bands (although there were leaders and figureheads).  None of these movements could have had the impact they did without connections, music made as a tribute to their heroes, people making more music after hearing it from their heroes, and people finding something in hearing this music on the radio, on record, in zines or from the friends on mix-tapes.  Kurt Cobain of Nirvana was heavily influenced by bands like the Pixies, in fact, Smells Like Teen Spirit was his attempt to fuse the quiet/loud dynamic of the Pixies to the heavy sounds he loved.

Now, I hear you ask, what does all of this have to do with Higher Education? I was recently putting together a paper for the University of Greenwich Learning and Teaching conference called ‘Start an information riot!’ which focuses on a case study of student-led learning and how the students on the BAPP (Arts) programme at Middlesex University, could make and share content in order to learn.  However, as I was trying to position this paper in the literature and my findings, a single question kept popping into my brain…’is higher education having a punk moment?’

‘…(learners) communicate in a language that many academics don’t yet understand. It’s an ever-evolving language of interpretation and expression, an interactive approach to learning, creating, and responding to information through a complex montage of images, sound, and communication. Students are pushing learning into a new dimension; it’s a mistake to continue to try to teach them in time-worn ways. (Brown 2001)

We could fill this whole blog with opinions around the origin of punk rock.  But let’s keep it simple.  Punk happened in the late 70s.  And for whatever reason, sometimes facilitated by the artists and other times by the fans, three, perhaps disconnected things, happened…

  1.  What went before punk was often vilified, demonised, mashed up, diminished or ignored

See Alan Medhurst who said… ‘Punk erupted into my life in the autumn of 1977…  Swathes of my existing record collection had to be disavowed, [but]…  it was OK to have three Van Der Graaf Generator albums because Johnny Rotten said he liked their singer, Peter Hammil

2. What happened in the name of punk was often DIY, emancipatory, easy to access and consume and communal

 

3. What happened after faded away, burnt-out, got commercialised and then was vilified, demonised, mashed up, diminished or ignored by what came next

‘Punk degenerated from being a force for change, to becoming just another element in the grand media circus. Sold out, sanitised and strangled, punk had become just another social commodity, a burnt-out memory of how it might have been.’ Penny Rimbaud of Crass

I argue that e-learning has experienced these three things over its recent lifespan.  There is a claim made a number of intellectual theorists and futurists in higher education who argue that, at this time and at this juncture, technology will be the greatest instrument of change for higher education and that universities are facing the most significant challenges in their history as a result of the impact of technology on their learners and their way of learning (Brown 2001; Brown & Adler 2008; Garrison & Anderson 2003; Greenhow, Robelia & Hughes 2009; Kamenetz 2010; Keats & Schmidt 2007).  Yet, with all of this debate, research and dialogue, as Bascia and Hargreaves (2000) noted there is little evidence that wider, macro-level change arising directly or indirectly from technology and its impacts on pedagogy and learners has occurred within institutions.  There are thousands of individual projects, cross-institutional and even international looking at elements of the relationship between technology and higher education, but very little to suggest that e-learning and technology is the predominant pedagogical instrument in the modern university.  Why has this happened?

 

The clue is in what happened ‘after punk’.  The punk explosion pretty much died off after 1980 with the break-up of the Sex Pistols and the release of the Clash’s ‘London Calling’.  The movement splintered into a multitude of tiny shards; post punk, ska, new wave, dub, dance; all of which drew on punk and its own nascent influences.  Punk then influenced other, more popular movements like grunge and indie (for example).

 

E-learning has been experiencing the same deconstruction and fragmenting. We have stopped talking about the change in pedagogy that is required to adapt HE to the new wave of learners.  We have ceased thinking about what kind of attitudinal change needs to occur in faculty and community in order to effectively link technology to practice.  We are fighting smaller battles.  We are heralding new instruments, new platforms and new devices, for use in one classroom or with one group.  The growth of the VLE (such as Moodle or Blackboard) is a testament to this kind of thinking.  A VLE is defined by its role in the administration of University function and its ability to replicate the information dissemination and limited social interactions that often occur in our bricks and mortar classrooms.   The VLE is to the new pedagogy as the Sex Pistols and Crass are to Limp Bizkit and Korn – a poor imitation, popular, but empty of influence and lasting impact.

 

I believe that higher education has reached a punk moment, where what went before needs to be re-evaluated, re-thought, re-mixed, mashed up, re-purposed and redesigned for the next generation of learners and the community they will enter into.  The noted writer on fan culture, Dick Hebdige noted quite astutely that;

 

‘…in order to render a subculture non-threatening, it must be pulled into the mainstream and commodified’ (Hebdige 1979)

 

E-learning and technology in the modern university has become just that.  A VLE is eminently non-threatening, especially if we use it solely to hold the archive of our digital notes.  A podcast or a lecture capture is non-threatening if it’s just last year’s lectures uploaded without any consideration for the new medium or how it could be used.  YouTube is mainstream and commodified if it simply replaces those old VHS tapes we used to watch in class.  However, using all of this great data to argue for a fundamental change in the way we operate at the most base level, to argue for pedagogy 2.0 is far less safe.

 

Another small deviation into music history, if I can indulge you.  One of the small shards that speared off punk in the US landed in the Pacific Northwest (again).  As a response to the misogynistic, white, male punk rock scene that dominated the scene as punk was commercialised (‘early punk’ was far less male-centric with strong characters like Siouxsie Sioux, The Slits etc), a small group of female and male musicians coalesced together as the Riot Grrrl movement, a scene of bands from which third-wave feminism and female empowerment and expression came to the fore in lyrics, zines and other media (Rosenberg & Garafolo 1998; Schilt 2004)

‘BECAUSE we girls want to create mediums that speak to US. We are tired of boy band after boy band, boy zine after boy zine, boy punk after boy punk after boy…BECAUSE we need to talk to each other. Communication/inclusion is the key. We will never know if we don’t break the code of silence…BECAUSE in every form of media we see us/myself slapped, decapitated, laughed at, objectified, raped, trivialized, pushed, ignored, stereotyped, kicked, scorned, molested, silenced, invalidated, knifed, shot, choked and killed. BECAUSE a safe space needs to be created for girls where we can open our eyes and reach out to each other without being threatened by this sexist society and our day to day bullshit’ Erika Reinstein, Riot Grrrl NYC #2, 1992

 

Riot Grrrl amongst other movements kicked the commercialized sounds and attitudes in music fairly and squarely towards something new.  They might be brief flares of rebellion, burning out quickly, but they left connections to other artists and scenes that last today. Higher education is at a point where it needs something like riot grrrl to shake it up, emancipate people to think differently and say what they need to say.  E-learning and technology can be the instruments that bring about the largest change in higher education in living memory.  They will not be the change, nor will they be the catalysts of change.  As guitars and drums are the instruments of punk, web 2.0 and devices are simply the tools of the trade.  The DIY spirit, the anger and passion (the filth and the fury!) and the dedication to creation and creativity is what made punk happen, what pushed riot grrrl to reposition the role of women in music and what made Motown fight against racism in the US.

 

We need e-learning 2.0, a new pedagogy that embraces the significant changes in the skills of learners, that prepares graduates for employment in industries and jobs that are nothing like the generation before experienced, that utilizes the amazing ability of the internet to aggregate, share, collaborate and construct and that ensures that University is not a dinosaur in a world moving at pace that far exceeds the speed at which the institution has been able to change in the past.  In no way am I arguing that we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater, nor I am advocating everything should be on-line, virtual and jacked-in.

 

Fritz: The printed page is obsolete. Information isn’t bound up any more. It’s an entity. The only reality is virtual. If you’re not jacked in, you’re not alive.

Ms. Calendar: Thank you, Fritz, for making us all sound like crazy people.

I Robot, You Jane – Buffy the Vampire Slayer

 

 

The modern University will not look the same as it does now.  The challenges and significant change 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 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.  The challenge for the modern university is to make these changes on the larger scale; across the institution, through the entire provision and within a variety of linked or dislocated processes, so that they impact the very core of what it means to be a modern University in the digital age.

 

‘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… ‘  (Ljoså 1998)

 

If you are interested in this kind of debate, I am presenting a couple of papers at the University of Greenwich annual teaching and learning conference (Inspiring Teachers: learning and leading in academic practice) and the Academic Practice and Technology conference (Employer Engagement in a Digital Age) on the 3rd and 4th of July 2012.  Come along and join the debate.  As always, I would love to hear your opinions, ideas, views, angry ripostes or bouquets, just make a comment!

Also, I will shamelessly plug my Australian Music Podcast called Wide Open Road. It is based on this notion of connections, finding links between various eras of great Australian Indie music.  It will hopefully keep the dream alive so that the next wave of creativity can be influenced by what went before them, and it won’t all vanish into the quicksand of nostalgia.


 

References

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.

Brown, J.S. 2001, ‘Learning in the digital age’, The  Internet and the university: 2001 Forum, eds M. Devlin, R. Larson & J. Meyerson, EDUCAUSE, Boulder, CO, pp. 71-86.

Brown, J.S. & Adler, R.P. 2008, ”Minds on fire’ : Open education, the long tail, and learning 2.0′, Educause review, vol. 43, no. 1, pp. 16-20.

Garrison, D.R. & Anderson, T. 2003, E-learning in the 21st century: A framework for research and practice, Routledge.

Greenhow, C., Robelia, B. & Hughes, J.E. 2009, ‘Learning, Teaching, and Scholarship in a Digital Age’, Educational Researcher, vol. 38, no. 4, pp. 246-59.

Hebdige, D. 1979, Subculture: The meaning of style, Methuen.

Kamenetz, A. 2010, DIY U: Edupunks, edupreneurs, and the coming transformation of higher education, Chelsea Green Publishing.

Keats, D. & Schmidt, J.P. 2007, ‘The genesis and emergence of Education 3.0 in higher education and its potential for Africa’, First Monday, vol. 12, no. 3.

Ljoså, E. 1998, ‘The role of university teachers in a digital era’, paper presented to the EDEN Conference, Bologna, Italy, 26th June <http://www1.nks.no/eurodl/shoen/eden98/ljoså/htm>.

Rosenberg, J. & Garafolo, G. 1998, ‘Riot Grrrl: Revolutions from within’, Signs, vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 809-41.

Schilt, K. 2004, ‘”Riot Grrrl Is…”: The Contestation over Meaning in a Music Scene’, in A. Bennett & R.A. Peterson (eds), Music Scenes: Local, Translocal and Virtual, Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville.