E-Learning: Going down to the crossroads. Track 1: Tramps like us baby we were born to run: Singing to you, singing with you, singing for you, not singing at you…

Photo by Hardseat http://www.flickr.com/photos/hardseat/2156068845/

I was watching a documentary recently about the rise and fall of punk in NYC and London.  I was struck by some of the comments made by the people who there at the time, seeds of a movement that influenced not just decades of music but cuts to the core of the way people choose to live their lives today.  Over the next few weeks I thought it would be nice to write some short vignettes about these insights, and explore what relevance they have to both the ‘punk moment’ that I believe higher education is rapidly racing towards (or perhaps already seeing in its rear-view mirror) but also to the way we practice higher education in the midst of the squall.

Now I guess I’ll have to tell ‘em
That I got no cerebellum
Gonna get my Ph.D.
I’m a teenage lobotomy

(The Ramones – Teenage Lobotomy)

Track 1:  Tramps like us baby we were born to run: Singing to you, singing with you, singing for you, not singing at you…

This idea sums up the spirit of the punk for me.  It blurs the line between the audience and the artist and defines the relationship as one driven by communication not broadcast.   It is not someone from a high altar of the stage telling you what you should do, it is a voice and a message that you get and understand.  When John Lydon (the lead singer of the Sex Pistols) wrote in his autobiography about what made the Sex Pistols different, or prescient he said;

‘Before the Sex Pistols, music was so bloody serious…There was no deep thought in it, merely images pertaining to something mystical, too stupid and absolutely devoid of reality. How on earth were we supposed to relate to that music when we lived in council flats?’ (Lydon & Zimmerman 1995)

 

Despite often have an adversarial relationship with his audience, Lydon in both his Pistols incarnation and his later band Public Image Limited, challenged the audience, made the uncomfortable but also included them, if they chose to be included;

‘The more I see the less I get.  The likes of you and me are an embarrassment’ From the song ‘Chant’ by Public Image Limited 1979

Higher education through its often slavish devotion to administrative systems, its movement towards a customer orientation within the student/institution relationship and wrapped up in its legislated position as a certifier of credentials, often seeks to draw clear distinctions between learner and teacher.  Power, authority, authenticity and perhaps an innate sense of fear colour the way we interact with learners.  These two processes alone provide the teacher with a privileged role within a network, making it difficult to provide an environment for learners to challenge, create, repurpose and experiment.  My colleague at the University of Greenwich, Patrick Ainley with Joyce Canaan (2006) notes that ‘…opportunities for enabling students’ critical thinking, and our collective critical hope, are more limited than previously as students and lecturers face increased pressures and constraints due to the neoliberal marketization of the sector’.  Along with many other he advocates for a new pedagogy that provides learners with the opportunity to make and create;

‘…for students to add to these bodies of knowledge and their practical applications by new acts of creation, experimentation, investigation or scholarship as the warrant of the quality of their graduation ‘ (Ainley 2012).

 

Is this call a world away from what punk bands like the Sex Pistols and the Ramones offered their audience?  The conditions, by which they themselves could get on stage, make music and add to the body of knowledge that is popular music.  There is a clear distinction between singing to you, singing with you and singing at you.  It is the idea that an artist sees their audience in a different light.  They are more than simply passive consumers; there to sit at the foot of Buddha and hear all the imparted wisdom they need to find meaning, experience life or be inspired.  The late Johnny Ramone noted in a 1993 interview that ‘…that’s what I had always hoped (was) that when kids see the Ramones that they feel they can go out there and do this to’.  The audience are part of the process and can be emotionally transformed by the song.  The audience is their reason for being there.

 

The use of a VLE or CMS is a telling example of this problem in higher education.  The dominant paradigm within many programmes is to use the VLE like a radio station, with play-listed tracks, little opportunity for interaction, certainly little or no user generated content and in reality seeing the audience as simply the pathway to achieving other aims (such as advertising dollars).  The listener is expected to consume whatever is produced, or move to another radio station within a limited bandwidth.  It is the academy singing at them.  There is no engagement, no involvement, no connection.  The VLE that replicates the classroom does just that.  The lecturer curates the playlist, the learner does as they are compelled to do through activities and readings, and through doing this, contributes to a variety of performance measures (including participation in e-learning!).  It is then rolled over into next year, another audience, another town.  Hello, Cleveland!

It is like Spinal Tap in their Simpsons appearance having to lift their guitars and read the town name they were in, before screaming at the audience ‘Hello Springfield!’  Bruce Springsteen, despite playing stadiums was the exact opposite to this humorous disconnection.  Bruce chooses to sing to the audience, and encourages them to sing with him.  He connects with them at the most fundamental level.  He tells them stories around the dinner table.  He draws them into a fireside chat about things that matter to both of them.  He elicits a sense of solidarity with his fans, he never berates them, belittles them or criticises them. He rarely proselytizes about politics, his or theirs.  The fans are part of the same cause, the same experiences seen through different eyes.

 

Higher education teaching faces the same mountain as Spinal Tap (yes, I know they are ironic, but they were being ironic about something real!) and Bruce Springsteen.  It is easy, and perhaps comfortable, in a world where learners are coming to education with different experiences and skills (and maybe as Patrick Ainley argues with even less academic literacy than before) to rely on the tried and true methods of teaching and learning we have used before.  The institutional shift from one VLE to another becomes an excuse to scale back the interaction built up over time and ramp up the control or disengage the learner from each other.   Supported by a curriculum that can be up to five years old, learning can look less like the new world and more like the ‘new boss, same as the old boss’ (to quote The Who).  The VLE becomes a way of broadcasting materials that we have made AT learners.  There is little opportunity to personalise those materials, but significant provision to individualise the learning.  Do we provide an opportunity for the learner to make their own materials and resources, collaboratively or individually and share them?  Find resources and ideas through their own networks?  How are the communication tools within a VLE, such as discussion forums or blogs, used?  We seed them with thought provoking questions like, ‘I think that the new boss is not the same as the old boss – Discuss’.  Is there an opportunity for learners to start their own topics? Activities are assessed automatically, against a rubric.  A VLE supports quizzes, multiple choice tests, matching tests.  They are individual not personalised.  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 (Brown & Adler 2008a, 2008b; Hemmi, Bayne & Land 2009).

 

The commercial pitch for the plethora of e-learning tools on the market usually revolves around the notion of pulling academics back from the precipice of overwork and change and providing them with a point of calm in the ever-threatening maelstrom of higher education.  Is e-learning too much for you to do? Then simply buy our product, press a button and capture the lecture.  Click an icon and screencast everything you do, and as they say in Australia, ‘Bob’s your uncle’.  Jack a mic into your laptop and bingo, you have made a podcast.  Make your hand-outs into PDFs and put them on Moodle and voila, you are engaging in e-learning.  There is no exploration as to the reason why we would use these tools in the first place (‘pedagogy before technology’ we hear the collective academy sing, usually at us though – how many people actually believe it when they sing it?).

 

More importantly, there is little exposition around the way we make this content, the words we use, the techniques, practices and skills we acquire and apply and the scaffolding we integrate into the methodology.  Teaching and learning in higher education is at a point where it must take a root and branch look at the way it is engaging with its audience.  Perhaps, higher education can seek inspiration from the Ramones, a band of amazing virtuosity, influence and critical and popular respect, but equally one that people feel that they can be a part of, a template that is replicated, reused and mashed up.  They engaged in ‘new acts of creation’.   They took their rudimentary skills and made something with them, getting better and better and taking their audience with them.

 

‘Live punk rock actively tore down the barriers between artists and audience, intentionally exploding and deconstructing the image of rock star.’ (Dunn 2008)

 

The VLE and other forms of institutionalised e-learning can create barriers between the teacher and the learner.  The more automated the system becomes, the more learner feels disconnected from the network forming around them.  Is this the same as the way rock stars became disconnected from their audiences, before punk smashed the wall down and through confrontation and challenge made the audience re-connect, often viscerally?  Are we at a juncture where e-learning has made the academic the rock star? And if so, how do we explode and deconstruct that myth, hand power back to the audience, bring them on stage, show them a few chords and make them a member of the band?  How do we encourage the learners to make their own band?

 

Joe Strummer of the Clash inspired thousands of people to make their own music.  In some cases, he then went on to play on their records, rave about them in interviews, played with them live and was mourned by them on the occasion of his tragic death in 2002.  However, it would disingenuous to suggest that these artists were not in privileged positions.  This is not about, as Sonic Youth challenged ‘Kill(ing) yr idols’.   Teachers have a significant and important role in higher education.  We just have to accept that it may not be the same as before.  That our role is to sing to our audience, help them to make connections not just with us and the content we share, but with each other, sharing and making new content, to help them let go, experiment, express themselves and share experiences, and to help make the experience one of hope, of potential and of creativity.  Singing to them, with them and for them.


References

Ainley, P. 2012, ‘For A Really Open University’, Compass: The Journal of Learning and Teaching at the University of Greenwich, no. 4, p. 9.

Ainley, P. & Canaan, J.E. 2006, ‘Critical hope at the chalkface: An English perspective’, Cultural Studies? Critical Methodologies, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 94-106.

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

Brown, J.S. & Adler, R.P. 2008b, ‘Open education, the long tail, and learning 2.0′, Educause review, vol. 43, no. 1, pp. 16-20.

Dunn, K.C. 2008, ‘Never mind the bollocks: the punk rock politics of global communication’, Review of International Studies, vol. 34, no. S1, pp. 193-210.

Hemmi, A., Bayne, S. & Land, R. 2009, ‘The appropriation and repurposing of social technologies in higher education’, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 19-30.

Lydon, J. & Zimmerman, K. 1995, Rotten: no Irish, no blacks, no dogs, Picador.

 

‘…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.

 

‘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>.