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