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.

Know your Product II – Are MOOCs the pedagogical messiah or just a very naughty boy?

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Much of the recent debate, certainly within the academic beltway, has been about trying to re-contextualise and develop new measures of success for MOOCs. Some of this ground shifting can be easily attributable to the poor picture painted by the more traditional statistics used to evaluate educational offerings such as completion rates and achievement. In terms of pedagogy, there is a further issue in that the role of the student within a MOOC is highly contested but rarely discussed. In early MOOCs, students were seen as part of the bigger, better, faster, more mantra that demonstrated success of the MOOC. More modern MOOC offerings have focused on engagement (did the student post to a forum?), completion (did they demonstrate consumption of materials?) or the pot of gold at the end of rainbow, conversion (did they become paid students of the institution?). Liyanagunawardena, Parslow & Williams (2014) argue that dropouts don’t represent the learners behaviours especially well in that they may have got exactly what they wanted from a course in the first week or two, leaving satisfied (but officially ‘dropping out’). The issue here for me is that all of these presuppose understandings that we don’t actually know, which are occurring on a platform we can’t explain as most aspects of it are contested. Amongst these presuppositions are the questions around why students engage/don’t engage and why there is a significant issue with attracting 15-30 years olds where such an innovative pedagogical technology should be manna from heaven. In the end, universities are putting a lot of faith into something that has yet to attract much significant scholarship or critical analysis, yet are investing in technology faster than they ever have before (‘MOOCs Proliferate Despite Unanswered Questions’).

In the midst of the forest of grey literature, evangelical musings and emerging criticality, there seems to be very little active research around the modes and models of learning occurring within MOOCs. There are a number of studies identifying participation behaviours of learners, teaching practice, the efficacy of specific add-ons or engagement platforms as well as a continued stream of mostly homogeneous demographic data. Most of this research is centred on xMOOCs and their massive data sets. There is a tendency within these studies to position the learner as part of the product, especially in the context of MOOC as reputational branding tool. To that extent, the idea of pedagogy is not the most important one in both the construction and evaluation of MOOCs. The simplest demonstration of this for me arises from the two–tier participation system, where top institutions are courted like the belle of the ball and those outside the top tier of the rankings are laughed at or ignored by the major platforms. There is significant evidence that some of the most innovative trans-disciplinary teaching and learning is occurring in these newer institutions by engaging in emerging fields of knowledge, innovative pedagogies and agile partnerships with industry. That is not to say that these things are not happening at top institutions, because they clearly are. However, where the focus of activity is on teaching and learning, there is a clear necessity to innovate as a form of competitive advantage. Now, if pedagogy and innovation are at the forefront of a successful MOOC platform, then the current platforms would be scrambling for these amazing innovative programmes. Funnily, they are not.

So, in trying to get a better understanding of MOOC pedagogy and to understand what a post-MOOC world might look like once the hysteria and hand wringing have subsided, I have focused on identifying the challenges to understanding the beast within. What is a MOOC? What are the key identifiers and behaviours of a MOOC pedagogy? What does a post-MOOC world look like? Are we going to see the half buried head of a statue of Stephen Downes in the sand on a beach, holding his laptop aloft like a torch, with Charlton Heston dropping to his knees in despair?

1. The challenge of definition
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This would have to be the most fundamental challenge of all. There is no agreed definition of what a MOOC actually is. Every word in the acronym is challenged and changeable. From SPOCs to SOCCs, there are more silly names than you can find in an episode of Monty Python. How can we discuss the nature of MOOC pedagogy when we have little agreed idea about what a MOOC is? A recent tweet of mine noted that ‘I am now quite certain that the term MOOC is as well defined and understood as the ‘Boogie Monster’. When anything can be a MOOC, what reliable and valid means do we have to critically evaluate and understand them? At the same time, there seems to be an assumed meaning when MOOCs are discussed by academics that assume that everyone’s individual understanding is shared by the collective. There has been some attempt to delineate between connectivist MOOCs and the more didactic xMOOCs. But this still is broad brush when Massive, Open and even the on-line parts are constantly contested. We now see the weird sight of something that 2 years ago might have been called an online course fighting desperately to be labelled a MOOC. Various parts of our sector are scrambling over each other to ‘own’ MOOCs. It is akin to the day at school when yo-yos become popular again. Before you know it, newsagents, milk bars, supermarkets and gas stations are all selling them. All those loyal yo-yo sellers all year around either clean up or are swamped by the new craze.

2. The challenge of motivation
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It is equally critical to understand why somebody is doing something, in order to help understand how they are doing it. In some ways, the MOOC-steria of the last two years reminds me of the Goldrush. There are hundreds of people panning for gold in the creek, hoping to find their fortune. Why did they start panning in that creek? Well, they saw a bunch of other people there so they thought they would start. When you go back to the beginning of the Goldrush, the person panning in the creek first is the person who owns the creek or more accurately, owns the shop up the road that sells the pans. When you hear a number of institutions talk about why they got into MOOCs most discuss the enthusiasm of the VC, the excitement of councils and boards who have heard about these things called MOOCs, the rumours of sacked Provosts in US universities and the ‘got to be in it to win it’ peer pressure akin to be goaded into trying your first cigarette at the back of the school oval. It would have to be the first principle of identifying a pedagogical approach to have a clear reason why learners are there (and what they hope to get out of participating), what benefits the institution seeks to gain, the benefits for the teacher and perhaps at an altruistic level, how does this contribute to the university’s societal mission. Yet, there seems to be very little clarity, aside from the competitive candy crush that seems to be occurring at the moment. This is not an uncommon phenomenon.

 

apples and apples

 

When Nirvana broke over twenty years ago, record companies scoured the planet for other ‘grunge’ acts to be the new Nirvana, and in that grunge-steric few months we ended up with acts as diverse as Avril Lavigne (sk8er boi), Live (which led to Nickelback) and Ween (yes, I said it, I hate Ween!).

 

3. The challenge of disruption
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MOOCs have often be referred to as the Napster moment for Higher Education. Now, I would like to firstly take issue with the premise of the statement. Napster was a user-led rebellion against the perceived greed and control being exerted by record companies in an over-inflated CD market (yes, who wouldn’t get angry at having to pay three times as much for something you had already bought, and sometimes sounded worse). It has led to other user rebellions in the form of Pirate Bay and bit torrent and eventually led to the success of legal streaming and downloading services like Spotify and iTunes. MOOCs are not a user-led rebellion. There is no ‘sticking it to the man’ here. It is the ‘man’ who is delivering and marketing these courses. The user does not generally (although there are exceptions) redistribute and become part of the network for the proliferation of the learning. Yes, there are huge numbers of ‘users’. Most of which try it once and leave, not to return again. MOOCs are not a revolution and Coursera is not Che. Right, with that rant over, let’s get onto the more relevant bit for MOOC pedagogy. Napster changed music distribution for ever, no doubt. But what happened to it? Bankruptcy, court cases, takeovers by Best Buy and a portrayal by Justin Timberlake in a David Fincher film all ensued. The most interesting part of Napster was the post-Napster world. What is most interesting for educators and strategists is what comes next. What is the post-MOOC world? What part of our teaching and learning practice will change because of the disruption, transformation or destruction of MOOCs? This is the critical question. What aspect of how universities do business will change? We already have the entry of new players, venture capitalists, tech entrepreneurs and young innovators into what has been a static walled garden of academic privilege and certification.

What next? Who will be the next iTunes (iTunesU perhaps? ;-)

4. The challenge of participation
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This is not a level playing field. It is not enough to have a brilliant range of courses, experienced and inspiring teachers and a government mandated ability to issue qualifications in order to compete globally. Let’s be fair, it never has been a level playing field. Brands and reputations and rankings mean something and the ground continues to rise up and transform with the arrival of new players, emerging states and a mobile gang of learners. However, MOOCs have drawn these seismic changes into sharp contrast. The first challenge is what I call the in/out paradigm, where being ‘in’ the tent imbues you with innovative practice, cutting edge reputations and being at the forefront of technological change. Being ‘out’ of the tent labels you as curmudgeonly, conservative or more cruelly as a laggard. MOOCs are not an in/out choice, especially where the pedagogies on display are not substantially different in many instances to existing distance or online offerings. Who says what some institutions are doing is not MOOCs by any other name? Who died and made MOOCs the benchmark by which we decide how innovative we all are? I think you can guess my answer. MOOCs – The Choice of a New Generation.

The second challenge of participation is one I alluded to earlier, where the ability to engage in this whirlwind is not an equal one. The IPRR report ‘The Avalanche is Coming’ which was supported strongly by Pearson, sees a bleak future for the ‘mass universities’ not engaged in the MOOC-nation, noting;

‘Due to the nature of the industry, there will be rapid consolidation of the online providers, with only the strongest players left standing. At the same time, many middle- to low-tier universities will have to disband or adapt as they become irrelevant.’

It is a conundrum that MOOC platforms should be seeking the most interesting, relevant and innovative ideas, practices and disciplines, yet by virtue of being owned by venture capitalists, investors and corporations and seeking the strongest, most recognisable brands to add to their supermarket shelves, ignore the institutions where these things are happening. It is important to note that I am not a class warrior. I work for a leading elite institution. I know the power of that brand, and the cool things we are doing. But I have had the distinct honour to also work for a number of institutions who would never be in the roadmap for the major MOOC providers, yet continuously deliver innovative, exciting, transformative programmes informed by relevant and agile digital pedagogies. This is not a call for revolution. This is a call for collaboration. If we honestly believe that MOOCs can transform and democratise education on a global scale, why are solely obsessed by brand values?

5. The challenge of innovation
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This blog post seeks to identify what pedagogical innovation MOOCs represent in this fractured, and some would argue broken university environment still reeling from increased fees, the changing skills requirements of employers in a high unemployment world and shrinking global boundaries between systems and institutions? It would easy to argue that they are the messiah, bringing with them a new era in open learning, connectivity and smashing the cobwebbed ivory towers of the academic establishment. But equally it could be argued that they are a manifestation of the same old, same old; a web 1.0 mode of didactic instructivism and academic-centred content. In line with the emerging discourse around the superficiality of change seeded by or in response to technology in higher education (Blin & Munro, 2008; Garrison, 2011), I pose a simple final question – Are MOOCs learning 2.0 or just another attempt to re-package what we have already have produced, effectively the McDonalds Happy Meal of higher education, the same burger, fries and Coke that we have been served up consistently and efficiently for decades, just with a different plastic toy and a newer, funkier box?

In reality, MOOCs are not really that innovative. They are a new name for something generally we have been doing for decades in terms on-line learning, adult education, community education, school learning, distance learning, external studies, computer aided learning, technology enhanced learning, you name it. xMOOCs especially are akin to the change YouTube made to the delivery of media in a classroom. We are still showing the same tatty old film, it is just on-line now, as opposed to coming from a dusty DVD or VHS. In reality, through the delivery of MOOCs the sector has not changed the way it teaches or in many cases, what it teaches.

But there is an innovation in there, and it comes from the focus they have placed on the way higher education is perceived. There is a huge group of people out there demanding new ways of learning, new pedagogies, knowledge that transcends discipline boundaries and can be remixed, repurposed and reused. They are digital citizens, living in a world that has no boundaries between on-line and analogue. Social media is not a new-fangled platform; it is just another form of communication. These people are ignoring MOOCs in DROVES. Yet they are still consuming free, open and massive pots of learning through the internet, sometimes provided by a higher education institution and other times provided by their peers and friends. They are forming networks, making connections, sharing and making content and changing their world. They are under 30. They want something from universities, but they want more from the rest of the world, yet they show little or no interest in these world-changing MOOCs. Have they realised that it really just is a normal McDonalds hamburger they are being offered and they are looking for something far more interesting and finding it by searching on Google and asking their network of friends for advice? University is a place for the youth to find answers, develop ways to ask the right questions and make connections (physical and virtual) that will last a lifetime. MOOCs seem counter-intuitive to where the learner of today and tomorrow already is. And it is here that the challenge for institutions lies.

 

Postscript

This is an extended version of the paper I am presenting at the MOOCs and the Humanities conference at Edge Hill University, May 2014.  The slideshare presentation can be found here…


 

 

Picture Credits
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Image 2 by JoséMa Orsini
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Image 3 by ekkun
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Image 4 by Thomas Hawk
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‘I am going to blow the whole thing to kingdom come’: In praise of discontinuity within a digital pedagogy

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One of the things valued in higher education is it’s ability to scaffold and structure knowledge in a logical progression of activity, learning and assessment leading to the achievement of learning outcomes, and the certification of that learning as a qualification. This logical progression approach (constructive alignment to some) informs the way we have subsequently used technology to enhance our teaching. A VLE, for example, is structured generally in a logical, topic driven way, often aligned with weeks of activity or work. There is much to be said for the notion of learning in order, knowing something before you can use or apply it to a context. The euphemism about learning to crawl before you can walk is true often because it is right. However I want to make a case for the power of discontinuity, chaos or mess in higher education pedagogy and especially in the use of technology as both disruptive and transformative tools of education within a digital pedagogy.

 

This ain’t new-fangled thinking by any stretch of the imagination. Piaget in the early seventies had been talking about the idea of disequilibrium as a spur for cognitive growth. He defined this as where information acquired could not be fitted into a person existing schema (conceptual or perhaps even experiential frameworks). Round peg, square hole. How do we make it work? We change our schema as we acquire and assimilate new knowledge. All good so far. What happens though when the information we get is discontinuous or chaotic? When we find the end first and the beginning somewhere later down the line? Story lines criss-cross each other so that narratives and concepts blend and you are not sure whether you are watching something coming or going. You see, consume or miss small fragments of knowledge, like shards of glass shattered across the floor. You might only brush past bits of content, and in another turn of your head see all of a fragment, fully exposed to the world.  This is knowledge and skills consumed in a discontinuous manner.  It is quite similar to the way people search the internet, floating from link to search in a weird and strangely poetic pattern (don’t believe, check out your daily internet browsing history one day, you will see all of these weird junctures and transitions – well at least I do ;-).

 

Now this might all seem a little abstract, or dare I say the rudest word in the academic lexicon ‘post-modern’, but bear with me peeps.

 

The Drowned Man

 

This is a new play by the rightly acclaimed Punchdrunk, in co-operation with the National Theatre called ‘The Drowned Man’, playing in London right now.  They call it an immersive experience where you are let blindly (or at least in a mask)  into a labyrinth of rooms and plot lines spread across over 100 rooms in an old mail sorting warehouse in Paddington, London. You are watching characters, chasing them up and down stairs, and equally being led to particular parts of the show. The experience is entirely discontinuous, with everyone ending up together only once during the night for the finale, which you may or may not have seen before. We saw it twice in the space of 2 weeks and engaged with almost an entirely different interpretation of the story. We were forced to try and find connections between the fragments and then fill in the gaps and solve the problem with the bits of knowledge you have that arrive scattered from throughout the narrative. It is the polar opposite of a traditional narrative structure, where beginning, middle and end come in that order, providing a satisfying though perhaps predictable resolution.

 

What gets lost in the context of HE with all learning following this staged procession, levels 4 through 6, pre-requisites and constructive alignment is that discontinuity can provide the learners with a critical opportunity to solve problems not simply in the time worn way they have always been solved, but to make new connections, linking bit A and bit B and finding they don’t equal bit AB but some something entirely new. Like with many of my previous blogs posts, I am not arguing to throw the baby out with the bath water and that we move to entirely discontinuous, chaotic or problem focused curricula. However that experience with the Drowned Man made me think about the disconnects between the way we live life and the way education prepares us to live life. Life is sequential to some extent. But the experiences of life not always are. We don’t watch people life their lives in order, we see bits and fragments, we hear stories told from different perspectives and we find out own way through the narrative. Work is often an aggregation of different people working on different parts of a project, with the left hand not always knowing what the right hand is doing. We survive, we flourish, we innovate and we create in the spaces between, where the tenuous threads are fleshed out by problem solving, imagination, experimentation and risk taking in an environment of unpredictability and rapid change. And to be honest, it is these things that modern HE seems to struggle a lot with.

 

Written in the context of school education, Anna Craft from the University of Exeter notes that ‘…in the shifting technological landscape, childhood and youth are changing. Connectivity around the clock, with a parallel existence in virtual space, is seamlessly integrated with actual lives. Young people are skillful collaborators, navigating digital gaming and social networking with ease, capably generating and manipulating content, experimenting virtually with versions of their ‘social face’. They are implicit, inherent and immersed consumers. They are digital possibility thinkers posing ‘what if?’ questions and engaging in ‘as if’ activity.’ (Craft 2012: 173).  But in order to support this engagement during their education experience, institutions (or in this case schools) need to engage in a ‘high trust pedagogy which encourages uncertainties, co-construction, diversity and dialogue’.

 

What does this all mean for e-learning?

 

It is another critical factor in the debate for a digital pedagogy. Many of our existing pedagogical approaches assumes learners are empty vessels, that they don’t have the academic or digital literacy required to actively participate in the privileged narratives of higher education and the learners need to start at the beginning before they can earn expertise or mastery. And there is a lot to be said for that. But there is something different already happening here (or actually has already happened). We know the learner five, ten, fifteen years before they get to university are developing skills that are not rooted in certainty or continuity. They consume media in small, bit sized chunks or gorge on it all at once, in a weekend sitting lashed with popcorn. They have access to a library of information more vast than we would have ever imagined possible and can have instant sight of any amount of it. The job they will do when they grow up more than likely does exist. With the amount of information available, mastery is not simply an aspirational impossibility but a physical and logical one (thanks Henry Jenkins for that thought).

 

So, how can higher education cope with this? Sure, we need to develop a framework, step by step, crawling before sprinting. But we also need to recognise that learners can be involved in developing and structuring their own learning. We need to recognise that our pedagogical task is not to present the beginning, middle and end as a fair accompli, like the ‘tah-da!’ at the end of a magic trick. It is presenting problems without solutions. Identifying the questions for which there no answers. Letting students jump off the cliff knowing there is no net but they will not fall. Letting them play, experiment, fail, succeed and invent a totally new way to make the ground shake. A pedagogy that simply delivers a lecture followed by a tutorial, week by week building a story that is already repeated in a thousand theatres across a million websites does not add value nor does it empower learners to create and connect. Supporting that however, with a digital pedagogy predicated on co-production, not knowing all the answers but having a good idea about what questions to ask. Putting creativity and criticality at the heart of the curriculum supported strongly by access to and analysis of knowledge and skills relevant to the discipline and the trans-discipline. In this media-rich digital age, higher education has an opportunity to embrace discontinuity. The challenge is not necessarily just about poking and prodding the schema of our students. In reality, it is also about poking and prodding our own. The resistance is not coming from the learners. This technology is what they use every day, to varying degrees and for varying reasons, but it is part of their everyday lives. It is not new. It is not hi-tech. It is not bright and shiny. It’s a phone. It’s the internet. It’s Wikipedia, innit? The same can be said for discontinuity. Where we have an opportunity is that the disconnect between the institution and learner could be fertile ground for this type of innovation. We know part of the story, they know a different part. As we walk around the theatre, we can choose to follow characters up and down the stairs, hear bits of the story, or they can follow us, learn more about other small fragments. The pedagogy should be what glues it together, allows learners to make connections, both inside and outside the ‘walls’. A digital pedagogy should not be the answers. It should be the questions.

 

Reference: Craft, Anna. “Childhood in a digital age: creative challenges for educational futures.” London Review of Education 10.2 (2012): 173-190.

Image 1 by quinn.anya @ http://bit.ly/1cwwd8N