‘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

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

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.

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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