‘I can’t count the reasons I should stay, one by one they all just fade away’ – The power of community in higher education and work

The idea of a community, the spirit and goodwill it can create, the passions and arguments it invariably engenders and the potential for learning within one has been a passion of mine since I was a youthful, brown-eyed teenager running discos and band events for my peers at school.  At all stages of my career, I can point to where my practice has intersected with communities, either as part of one or linking to others.  It is the common thread that links my personal to professional life and has driven my daily activity for over two decades.

 

When I worked for one of Australia’s largest book chains in the 80s and 90s, I led a project to create communities of science-fiction and fantasy readers, many isolated by distance and context, where the store and a very primitive on-line and mail network became a hub got people to share opinions and passions.   I was involved in community media for over ten years as a producer and board member, which highlighted some of the difficulties that can arise from community building, however on the other hand, demonstrated the absolute power of being part of something that can change the wider community or its members and make things better.  This sense of community, of belonging, of interaction, collaboration and shared differences (and perhaps indifferences) has influenced my opinions and attitudes towards open access, creative commons, social media, learning and teaching and politics.  It is from these experiences that I have come to passionately believe that communities (or networks or group, or whatever you choose to call this collective of people) are one of the most powerful forces for learning, social interaction and emancipation.  Belonging, shared beliefs and practices, and a sense of ownership are emotional and personal tie lines, connecting us to others, both similar and different.

 

Prior to moving to the UK three years ago, I worked for a large public further education institute called TAFE NSW, located in the south-west of Sydney, Australia.  Within my department, the notion of a community underpinned both the way we worked and the way we engaged with our learners.  Within the department, I was lucky enough to work with one of the most amazing group of teachers I have had ever had the privilege to know. They were passionate about learning and teaching.  They never assumed the learners were incapable of learning, whatever level they were at.  They were open to experimentation and innovation.  They worked with each other, not against each other, sharing resources and ideas, coming to team meetings.  Everyone was part of the family and everyone worked towards making the community stronger.  It is a great example of how work practice was enhanced by community.  Work was collaborative.   Load and responsibility were shared.  People passionately argued for what they believed.  There was conflict, but it was generally constructive and creative, borne out of shared belief in the brand and the work we were doing.  This was often despite an organisation that more than often did not support them, reward them or value them.  The department met and exceeded targets, kept to budget and improved student outcomes.

 

A community of practitioners learns from each other, respects each other and draws on the expertise and experience of other networks and communities, developing links beyond the fuzzy boundaries of their own community.  All the members of this team have now spread themselves to the four winds (three different countries at least).  But the community still exists. It’s bigger, it’s influence different and it’s resonance more wide-ranging.  It has evolved.  This is what happens with communities, new members and new contexts ensure the community survives and changes.   It is another transdisciplinary skill critical to maintaining and keeping connections within and between communities.

 

The notion of community is not a new concept, social movement theory has linked community to the emancipation and democratic participation of individuals in society (Diani 1992; McAdam, McCarthy & Zald 1988; Pateman 1970).  Lave and Wenger (1991) have talked about the idea of communities of practice, where learning occurs through action and practice within a community.  John Seely Brown (2001) in a very interesting evaluation of ‘Learning in the Digital Age’ argues that ‘Learning is a remarkably social process. In truth, it occurs not as a response to teaching, but rather as a result of a social framework that fosters learning…it’s through participation in communities that deep learning occurs…by coming to inhabit the relevant community, they get to know not just the “standard” answers, but the real questions, sensibilities, and aesthetics, and why they matter’. (Brown 2001).  Writers such Kamenetz (2010) and Siemens and Weller (2011) argue that one of the fundamental processes of learning is social interaction and socialisation, which can occur within communities supported or enabled by social media. McMillan and Chavis (1986) in their landmark work on community, position the notions of understanding and acceptance as central to a community often formed by the creation of boundaries defining rather than celebrating difference.

The development of communities should be a fundamental part of modern higher education.  It should sit within the process of curriculum design, learning and teaching, assessment and lifelong learning.  Teaching that is dominated by monologues such as a lecture, the use of technology that replicates the existing individual approaches to learning (such as the way a VLE is often used (Hanley 2011)) and the continued reliance on an assessment system that requires and privileges an assertion of individual understanding is not modern learning. It is memory, it is absorption and it is repetition; it is not application, use, social contextualisation and collaboration.  We often demonise collaboration and call it collusion, punished punitively or call it failed group work, where politics and personalities overrun learning.  At TAFE, our work with students occurred broadly within a restrictive administration and curricular system, with formal exams and nationally set and monitored curriculum and quality enhancement.  Despite this, much of our work with students was collaborative, using methods such as project based inquiry, simulations, case studies, work-based learning and student-led learning (for more, you can read this paper).  We tried to find ways to link the learners across disciplines, with marketers working with events management students and radio people collaborating with musicians and marketers.  It is in these spaces between disciplines that innovations and creativity will emerge.  We clearly saw in a number of projects we ran examples of where students learnt from each other, developed understanding through practice and did so with minimal intervention from the teachers.  These are powerful and resonant ways to learn (and a topic for another blog!) (Brown 2001; Nicolescu 1997).

 

When people enter the world of work, they will need to engage in socialisation, collaboration, team work and sharing, no matter what the context.  When they change jobs, new job opportunities will arise from within their community or because of their interactions with other communities. These communities won’t exist through old students clubs or reunions; they will be virtual, connected across and through platforms.  They will be lasting and agile, drawing on new members and connecting with others, without boundaries and managed intuitively.  Engagement may be more widespread and infrequent, as consumption in modern communities sometimes wins over interaction (how many people read your Facebook status vs. commenting on it…or read vs. comment on this blog!).  The technology supports the on-going viability of these communities, keeping them alive when in the past time would have seem them fracture.  However, it is a new range of skills that people bring to communities that make them functional and productive.  Brown notes that these are 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’ (Brown 2001).  Some of the current modes of teaching and learning are not fit for a new purpose; they are part of the toolkit, not the whole box and dice.  By themselves, at best, they only passively support the learner to acquire and the transdisciplinary skills required to make and develop their community.

 

My alum from my undergraduate days is still connected through Facebook, some of us a little greyer or balder.  Some of them are my closest friends, sharing outings, debate, monopoly and art.  These connections are strong and important, both emotionally and personally.  In some ways this community formed despite our education, which was didactic, non-interactive and individualistic.  We learnt these skills ourselves, as millions of other learners have over centuries past.  Perhaps we were lucky. But imagine the possibility if all of higher education supported as part of the broad church of education, this kind of skill development, collaborative knowledge creation and social interaction.  Imagine if every learner ‘left’ their degree with a community that they were an active and engaged member of and had the skills to form and lead other communities, linking each together where appropriate. If those communities then informed and created the curriculum that the next generation engaged with and were a part of the learning process not just for each other but for successive communities.

This blog post is dedicated to the memory of the wonderful Cathy Lee.  A valued and loved member of our community. You are missed.  

 

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.

Diani, M. 1992, ‘The concept of social movement’, The Sociological Review, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 1-25.

Hanley, L. 2011, ‘Mashing Up the Institution: Teacher as Bricoleur’, The Radical Teacher, no. 90, pp. 9-14.

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

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. 1991, Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge Univ Pr.

McAdam, D., McCarthy, J. & Zald, M. 1988, ‘Social movements’, in D. McAdam, McCarthy, J., Zald, M. & Smelser, N (ed.), Handbook of sociology, Sage Publications, pp. 695-737.

McMillan, D.W. & Chavis, D.M. 1986, ‘Sense of community: A definition and theory’, Journal of community psychology, vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 6-23.

Nicolescu, B. 1997, ‘The transdisciplinary evolution of the university condition for sustainable development’, International Congress – Universities’ Responsibilities to Society, International Association of Universities, Chulalongkorn University, Bankok, Thailand., viewed 2nd May 2012 <http://basarab.nicolescu.perso.sfr.fr/ciret/bulletin/b12/b12c8.htm>.

Pateman, C. 1970, Participation and democratic theory, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Siemens, G. & Weller, M. 2011, ‘Higher education and the promises and perils of social network’, Revista de Universidad y Sociedad del Conocimiento (RUSC), vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 164-170.

 

‘They’ve got more choice!’: Technology, social media, the teacher and the higher education learner of today

There has been considerable theoretical and practice based research on the role of the teacher in a digital higher education environment. Lewis, Marginson, & Snyder, (2005) argue that the underpinning narratives of what teaching in a digital university should be are conflated with competing discourses around the wider status of the university in society in the light of agendas such commercialisation, market responsiveness and informationalism.  This blurring of the debate makes it hard to clearly identify the characteristics of teaching practice in a digital university.  Within the nexus of pedagogical, administrative and technological practice that can be used to define teaching, there emerges considerations of privilege, power, status, and authenticity.  These considerations can change the ground rules of how we teach.  They shape the modes of delivery, the pattern of assessment and even the way students are recruited.

 

The teacher that engages actively with technology that replaces, imitates or adds to the learning, teaching and assessment strategies within their practice is forced to rethink the assumptions and practices they use in teaching.  There are patterns of decision making in the academy that run contrary to this kind of critical and sometimes fundamental evaluation.  Reviews of programmes can often occur infrequently and with little critical evaluation.   The use of a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) such as Moodle or Blackboard can be inconsistent and ‘…imitate, not to disrupt, particular representations of teaching and learning’ (Hanley 2011).  Whether current teaching practice is drawn from that of the past (‘it’s the way we have always done it’) or caught up in expectations (‘it’s the only way we are allowed to do it’) or through the personal choices of the academic (‘it’s the way I want to do it’), it is clear that the decision making processes around the use of technology can become beholden to cliché and rhetoric, where tradition can become practice, which itself becomes concrete and immovable.

 

The result has been extensive debates around the role and position of technology, social media, and the internet in the modern university environment.  The concept of the Digital University, a euphemism coined to describe a wide and varied array of practices, suggests that there is a difference between the analogue university and the new digital one.  There are significant elements of zealotry, parsimony, arrogance and superiority, where the views of the protagonists (both individual and institutional) are frequently opposite and opposing.  Within the more polar positions expressed in the literature and in opinion pieces, there is a tension sometimes bordering on hostile conflict between technological advocates and those who have been derisively labelled ‘traditionalists’ or ‘luddites’.  However, this artificial dichotomy, bounded as it is by literature, research, exemplars of effective and ineffective practice, along with strongly held belief, may lead to higher education swallowing its own tail; an ouroboros institution, where considerations of platform consume the considerations of content, which then consumes the platform, with the cycle continuing ad infinitum.

 

All the while the learner, who has been interacting with peers socially in a creative and collaborative environment may arrive for their university experience and find their device won’t connect to the network, that their programme is predicated entirely on lectures and tutorials, that they have little opportunity to share or create content, or that their access to sites such as Facebook and YouTube is restricted or even banned (as they were in Australia’s largest post-secondary institution, TAFE NSW, until 2010, see Winterford (2009)).  The skills learners have acquired, been able to share and pass along, re-purposed and re-used through their engagement with social media, in areas such as research, collaboration, authentication and interaction, may be redundant in their higher education and under or unrecognised in the design and development of ‘cutting edge’ curriculum.

 

I have heard the following phrases (or variations of them) at review boards, validation panels, training session, appraisals, learning and teaching committees, curriculum design meetings and in lunchrooms.  Whilst anecdotal and entirely unreliable as evidence, I offer them not as arguments but familiar friends.  They are a snapshot of some of the conditions under which these cutting edge curriculums are constructed.  It would be inaccurate to suggest that these kinds of phrases represent the entire academy, for they do not.  I would argue however that almost everyone engaged in enhancing teaching and learning would have heard them uttered at some point.

 

We have to use lectures and tutorials because that’s the way all our other programmes are delivered’

‘Learning can only occur in the institution’

‘Students learn from teachers’

‘We use exams because it’s the only way to know that the students have learnt something and haven’t just copied their previous work’

‘Group work is problematic because there are always tensions and we can’t be sure all members have contributed equally’ 

‘The role of e-learning is to replicate the classroom experience’

‘Students are blank slates when they come to university; our job is to shape them’

The most critical question for me here is; what is the role of the learner in this dialogue?   In many ways, these kinds of comment suggest that the learner is mainly the receiver of knowledge, and that the teacher has a potentially privileged position to decide the best way to transmit that knowledge through learning, teaching and assessment.  Most VLE based systems still require an editor, a selector, a moderator and a leader.  Lectures are frequently monologues.  Social media platforms often require a social authority to support engagement and to provide some form of authentication (Brauer & Bourhis 2006).  Granted, the learner can assert influence over choosing the context in which they apply their newly acquired knowledge, but this may not happen until they graduate.  Arguably, in the modern university, the learner can choose the institution that teaches in a manner best suited to their needs.  They can feedback on their experience through the NSS.  How much of this directly influences the way learning, teaching and assessment is conducted? How much of this influence contributes to the debate on curriculum design and e-learning?

 

‘None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free’. 

 

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe made this comment in 1853 about society and its propensity to be lulled into a false sense of inaction.  Despite massive changes in the way universities are organised and funded, there is a sense that we may potentially be or have already been consumed by an equal sense of inaction.  Learners have changed substantially, and not just in terms of a price-service delivery expectation.  Amongst the rich traditions of debate around academic freedom, research informed teaching and professional judgement, lies perhaps a more fundamental consideration around the learner.  When I went to university over 25 years ago there was no internet or email. I had been to a library to research and was faced with row after row of card catalogues and musty, beautiful books.  I had used a PC since I was a teenager and knew how to programme it, but I was not in the majority. Arts making was the concern of the rich or the bohemian and the ability to create, distribute and promote my own art was the stuff of dreams (and record label contracts).  The modern learner has evolved.  Yet much of the way teaching, learning and assessment are conducted is the same as it was 25 years ago.

 

Now, I am not a throw the baby out with the bathwater kind of guy.   I am not arguing that technology should replace everything, burning it to the ground.  A lot of the practice of higher education is the established practice because it works.  But what I do ask is; have we evaluated these methodologies and approaches in the light of the new learner?  Even if we argue that learners are simply receivers, like radios, then there is now a variety of ways radio is made and consumed, as opposed to the one simple transistor radio of my youth.  We now have digital radios, internet radio, on-demand, podcasts, streaming, and yes, we still have analogue broadcasting (for the moment).  Taking the metaphor one step further, our learners represent similar diversity in construction and consumption, but in some cases, at University they are only receiving ‘The Archers’ (or Blue Hills for us Aussies) and not accessing the wide variety of choice that exists.  Instead of relying on what network programmers and music directors are telling them they should listen to, modern radio users aggregate content through social radio applications like Last-FM, Spotify and Pandora, share likes with friends over Facebook and make playlists and channels with multimedia content on YouTube.  These are new skills.  Skills that they want to apply to developing their knowledge and furthering their career.

 

Has the freedom we as academics have enjoyed to be creative in the past, now stifled us from making creative decisions for the future?  Those creative decisions are not always about which technology to use.  It can be about the relevance of technology, the role of the teacher, how we measure success, how we enhance practice, how we choose to engage or the type of learning spaces we provide or support.

 

What does this mean for the teacher?

Larry Hanley is his article about the changing face of higher education teaching ‘Mashing up the Institution’ published in Radical Teacher argues that the teacher in the new digital age faces a difficult choice;

 ‘We’ll have to abandon our institutional identities as users and clients to embrace more inventive, experimental, self-conscious identities.  Well have to become bricoleurs.’ (Hanley 2011)

 He goes to further to suggest what this means at the interface of learners and teachers by saying;

 ‘The bricoleur-faculty draws on and engages students in the expanding new literacies fostered by Web 2.0s new openness.  Whether via blogs or more explicit multimedia tools…the bricoleur-faculty asks students to make meaning through new conjunctions of sound, image, and text.  In the process, the bricoleur-faculty explicitly develops both students and his or her multi-literacies – navigating new semiotic landscapes that require new skills and new creativities.’ (Hanley 2011)

 

Note that one of the critical aspects of Hanley’s argument is that social media usage develops specific literacies that encourage the learner to remix and reuse (mash-up) skills in order to apply them to new landscapes (contexts).  The university has always provided a learning space, and to varying degrees these spaces have supported experimentation and creativity (Etzkowitz 2003; Power & Malmberg 2008).  However, this often occurs within strict boundaries (firewalls, enrolment etc) and with clearly identified roles for the learner and academic, supported by administrative structures that reinforce these roles.

 

Programmes that use social media and user generated content located outside the firewall, and positioned not as a replication of the classroom but to facilitate a different, connected form of education, challenge these learner and academic roles (Downes 2009).  The learning space becomes virtual, personal and interactive. The position of the academic at the lectern is replaced by clouds of knowledge that can be accessed, critically analysed and situated in the workplace by the application of trans-disciplinary skills, developed and practiced through the use of a variety web 2.0 technologies, including information literacy, evaluation, collaborative learning, dynamic searching and critical reflection (Fischer 2009; Hong et al. 2008).  This kind of environment allows the learner to utilise the skills they have acquired before and during their higher education.  It also provides for the development of connections and links that may ensure past their graduation, which in the current system will stop as soon as they stop paying their fees and lose access to the VLE.

 

I do not propose to find a clear and navigable path through these choppy and muddled waters.  I say this simply because I don’t believe there is one.  However, what is within our grasp is an understanding that learners are fundamentally different from those that went before them, as we were fundamentally different to those who went before us.  They bring with them to higher education an array of skills that are acquired through their interactions with social media platforms and other social media users.  These skills don’t sit easily in the existing infrastructure or teaching, learning and assessment practices of the modern University. Do we have a way to assess those skills, accredit them as being at a certain level, apply them to new contexts and repurpose them for engagement in and between disciplines?  Do we see the need to even undertake this kind of evaluation?

 

In a world where Facebook is often seen by employers as a way of finding out things they didn’t know about their staff, or as a waste of company time, how useful or relevant are the skills obtained on Facebook to working in a digital workplace?  Why do over a half of UK employers ban the use of Facebook at work? (Peacock 2011).  Facebook users have acquired or re-purposed skills within their usage of the platform. Facebook users are aggregators of content, they are networkers, they engage in constructive and critical debate and comment, they share creative efforts; they report regularly about their activities, they interact asynchronously.  These when broken down are valuable skills in a workplace, or relevant to a higher education.  Yet, they seem easy to dismiss as trivial or as distracting from real life.   Not all Facebook users are higher education learners, nor are all higher education learners on Facebook.  But as teachers, we cannot and should not assume our learners are blank slates.  Technology is not the inevitable instrument that will bring down lecture theatres and smash classrooms.  Our learners will be.  If higher education does not meet the needs of the next generation, then the next generation will go elsewhere for their knowledge.  They will learn, authenticate and use it themselves, within their social networks and communities created through and on social media.  They will find an authority outside the academy, or they will find or start an academy that will serve their needs.  Their own practice will vindicate and realise the learning.

 

Anna Kamenetz, author of DIY U (2010), notes that higher education is by its very nature ‘an inherently conservative enterprise’.  Conservative does not mean resistant to change.  The conditions we discussed earlier around academic freedom, learner centred learning and research informed teaching support adapting to a new learner and engaging in creative skills acquisition and learning.  However, as Goethe says, are we hopelessly enslaved simply because we believe we are free to make these choices?  Do we feel that by resisting the pull of technology, defending against its insidious influence and arguing for the way we have always done it (plus or minus one) we are defending higher education?

 

What do you think? I would love to hear from learners and teachers on this subject.  Send me a comment or an email.

 

 References

Brauer, M. & Bourhis, R.Y. 2006, ‘Social power’, European Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 36, no. 4, pp. 601-616.

Downes, S. 2009, ‘Learning networks and connective knowledge’, in H.H. Yang & S.C.-Y. Yuen (eds), Collective Intelligence and E-Learning 2.0: Implications of Web-Based Communities and Networking, p. 1.

Etzkowitz, H. 2003, ‘Innovation in innovation: The triple helix of university-industry-government relations’, Social Science Information, vol. 42, no. 3, pp. 293-337.

Fischer, G. 2009, ‘Cultures of participation and social computing: Rethinking and reinventing learning and education’, paper presented to the International Conference on Advanced Learning Technologies (Icalt),, Riga, Latvia.

Hanley, L. 2011, ‘Mashing Up the Institution: Teacher as Bricoleur’, The Radical Teacher, no. 90, pp. 9-14.

Hong, C., Caldwell, L., Ashley, T. & Alpert, V. 2008, ‘Transcultural perspective on digital practices and the arts in higher education’, paper presented to the Dance Dialogues: Conversations Across Cultures, Artforms and Practices : World Dance Alliance Global Summit., Brisbane, Australia, 13 -18 July.

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

Lewis, T., Marginson, S. & Snyder, I. 2005, ‘The network university? Technology, culture and organisational complexity in contemporary higher education’, Higher Education Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 1, pp. 56-75.

Peacock, L. 2011, ‘Companies ban Twitter from workplace’, The Daily Telegraph, 11th May 2011, viewed 10th May 2012 <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/jobs/8505288/Companies-ban-Twitter-from-workplace.html>.

Power, D. & Malmberg, A. 2008, ‘The contribution of universities to innovation and economic development: in what sense a regional problem?’, Cambridge journal of regions, economy and society, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 233-245.

Winterford, B. 2009, NSW students tear through 40TB a month, viewed 3rd May 2012 <http://www.itnews.com.au/News/156440,nsw-students-tear-through-40tb-a-month.aspx>.