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.

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