‘Doesn’t matter how far you come, you’ve always got further to go’ – Memory, experience and playing our part


Summer

I have been thinking a lot about the Go-Betweens recently. For those not yet acquainted with their genius, they were the next greatest band of all time in the late 1970s through to the late 1980s (and again in the 2000s for another glorious almost made it moment). They made a string of brilliant, idiosyncratic pop records that make you wonder how they were not chart toppers (they just weren’t). They were from Brisbane, Australia via London, Germany and back through Sydney. They were two lifelong friends, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, who were joined by a series of other critical creative forces in the band to make records that have changed people’s lives, been the soundtracks to births, deaths and marriages and have told and shared stories of love, loss and memory (amongst other things).

The record I have been thinking the most about is their final LP in the first incarnation, called 16 Lovers Lane. This LP (released in 1988) was the sound and words of a band moving from the cold darkness of London back into the Australian summer; with places new and familiar washed bright with sunlight. It was the sound of warm air, dark stories and familiar memories. It was a band held together by a painful breakup, a delirious love affair and two men, connected by friendship, love and an intense creative partnership, steadfast in their belief about importance of their songwriting and their relationship. The album reflected its humanity in spades: life at its most painful, conflicted, joyous and tragic.

Even at the tender age of 17/18 when I bought a copy of the record on cassette from my local record store in Eastwood, NSW these stories of experience and memory resonated, but I wasn’t sure why. I had never been to London, or Brisbane for that matter. I remember watching the clip for Streets of Your Town (see below) on the Australian music show Rage (an all-night music video program that airs to this day on the public broadcaster – ABC) and the clip shone like the sun and butchers’ knife of the lyrics. It was lustrous and bright and not like what I had imagined the London they left was like. It was a far better (and darker) summer song than my previous youthful forays into the Style Council. The songs on the record told of how experience shapes the way we continue to move forward (‘…if you spend your life looking behind you, you won’t see what’s up front’ from the song, Was There Anything I Could Do). They described how memory makes us do the next thing we need to do or risk becoming lost in regret (‘We stood side by side. Strong and true. I just wish you’d remember. Bad times don’t get you through’ from the song Dive for your Memory). They ennoble the importance of reflection and sharing in understanding how to cope with life (‘…I know a thing about darkness, darkness ain’t my friend’ from the song Love Goes On).

In early 2018, after 10 years of living in London, embedding myself and being surrounded by memories, both difficult and joyful, I left the city for a new job back in my hometown of Sydney. It was a quick, wrenching move, played out in difficult and trying work circumstances, with people being hurt for little or no reason. It felt like a bonfire was scorching the earth behind me, poisoning any thoughts of returning. Arsehole landlords, ego maniacal management and stupid, stupid Brexit all made leaving the natural and logical decision. It didn’t make it easy. Too many memories in London, so many of them back home. Memories were unearthed about practical things, family things, old workplaces and long distant battles and alliances. And the sun, the sun was glorious. (‘…and don’t the sun look good today’ from the song Streets of your Town). Memory and experience. But here was the weird bit, and the hook of this story to the land of higher education we all populate. My memories of Sydney were important. But they were just that: memories, fading a little bit each day, echoes of a long bygone past. I could not recreate what I had left behind ten years previously. People moved on, got older, greyer. Things had changed. Just because I wanted to make my experience be like it was, I could not. Lives lived are complex, dirty things. Tragedy, sadness and illness can be shared collectively but is experienced personally. None more so when people chose the path they think is the one of least resistance.

Three months later I am back in London, for a brief trip. Memory and experience snap back to reality. Smells trigger senses of domesticity, exciting travel, local knowledge and that sense of willing wrenching. I make the same mistake, trying to reenact memory and experience when people there are continuing to live their lives. But the experiences are more recent, sometimes raw. You slip back into habits, patterns and being that feels comfortable, if not slightly odd. Memory and experience both know it’s odd, but you can suspend disbelief, even for a short time. And within a flash (ten days being honest) I was back in the sun, the new office and world of new but familiar acronyms, collectives and communities. And I was back at the pub, with my mates, in a scene that to them was tradition but to me was still new and unfamiliar. A stranger in two familiar lands, and in both cases new inhabitants were making their own memories and experiences sans me. It all moves on (as it does, and should).

Winter

Predicting the future of higher education is a brilliant game to play because like most predictions, playing it generally comes consequence free. It is the most popular topic in keynotes at educational conferences. Vendors parade it in front of us with the square peg into the squarer hole solution of their platform or product. We debate it, twitter storm it, hold webinars about it, populate conference sessions with workshops and provocations about it and then when we are at the pub afterwards, we drink to it (or perhaps to the lack of it. Cheers!).

But why do we all play this predictive game of future bingo? Is there a nagging sense that what we have now just isn’t right? Is it driven by a desire to make things better, or a nagging sense of ambition continuously improve? Or is through a sense of discomfort with our role and place in the institution, a challenging of the sense of identity and a fear for how that identity fits into the future? Are these predictive debates, dead ends and fads the educational version of the EU and their place within the Brexit debate and the requisite predictions of project fear and project hope?

Hear me out here.

In the recent C4 movie called ‘Brexit: An Uncivil War’, Craig Oliver (played by Rory Kinnear) working as the leader of the remain campaign interrupted a focus group of diverse voters brought together to inform the leave campaign. His interventions around the damage leaving the EU would do set off a microcosm of the global political climate in a thirty second stanza of anger, names, abuse and fingers in the ear screaming. What he realised in reflecting on the experience was that this referendum was not about the EU. It was twenty years of societies experience leaching through in small drips. Identity. Fear. The Unknown. Job Security. Nationalism. Immigration. Family. Drip. Drip. Drip. And then allowed to come rushing out all at once, in a single vote about the EU and then put front and centre of the political debate through social media and the inevitable polarising effect of speaking to echo chambers. So much of the rhetoric of the leave campaign (and in part, their success to even come close let alone ‘win’) can be summarised in their three-word slogan. Take Back Control. You can go back to a time when you had control. When you were not frightened. When you and people you know had jobs. When you were happy, safe, living your life. When you knew who you were or that it did not matter.

It doesn’t matter if your memory of when you were in control goes back to the days of the Empire, the pluck of the Blitz, the times when you were a kid or a university student, or to last Tuesday, you know the day we downed four pints and watched the game. Taking back control reverts to a time when you are certain and confident that you remember being IN CONTROL. It works in the same way that nostalgia for music, or TV or reminiscing about times gone by does; through the lens of the past and residing in the safe space that is our memory. In those spaces, we can go back to a time that was better (louder, faster, further, safer, cleaner, happier) than it is now and how we fear it will always be.

Autumn

Everyone who works in higher education has experiences and memories of being taught. If you are a teacher, it shapes your philosophy and practice, replicating good experiences and trying not to be ‘that’ teacher when critically reflecting on the bad. If you support teaching, then those experiences and memories provide you with an empathetic and experiential base to enhance your effectiveness in working with academics and students. But are we trying to shape HE to provide the kind of thrilling, personal, transformative social experience we perhaps had? Are we looking at the changes in HE through the prism of a time when we felt (louder, faster, safer, cleaner, fitter, happier, more productive)? Are the discussions driving so much of our time and energy in the sector around transformative, disruptive change and the trolling power of the Internet simply the HE equivalent of the EU? Do they represent the drip, drip, drip of our own fears and concerns about education, our jobs or the role of education in a civil society? Are we caught in a tacit version of nostalgia (perhaps like remembering an album released in 1988) where we trying to defend against change (or take back control of the experience) because it was ‘better in my day’? Is it easier to talk in the abstract about the student experience, the love+hate of AI, the pervasive benefits of learning analytics or the unbound and unreliable future of education than to engage in programs of change that require you to leave skin in the game, to jump into an unknown full of risk, retribution and uncertain reward?

Spring

Middleton and Brown (2005) expose the tensions and fears that exist in that space occupied by memory and experience:

‘… the overwhelming tension is between preservation and loss, the reduction of the everyday flow of our lives to a series of fragments. Brief passing moments and images remain completely intact, unaltered, we feel, despite the passage of time, but the overall framework appears destined to disappear, to be worn away by ageing, the passage of time that levels all, or else by some sudden and fateful intervention.’

 

Middleton, D. & Brown, S. D. (2005). Introducing remembering and forgetting in the social psychology of experience. In The social psychology of experience: Studies in remembering and forgetting (pp. 1-11). London: SAGE Publications Ltd doi: 10.4135/9781446221808.n1

 

There is a risk that collectively as a sector we end up spending some much time and effort trying to remake or contain education in this way that in reality it gets worn away or is taken away by the aforementioned ‘sudden and fateful intervention’. By doing this we are potentially denying students the opportunity to have and make their own experiences and memories. In a policy environment where governments are dictating that university is the means to meaningful employment end. and that curriculum and learning are just ways of embedding the skills required by employers, having an experience (transformative or otherwise) at university is becoming challenging and disappointing. Students expectations are redirected towards the pragmatic assertion that the job is the end goal, university just like doing your reps at the gym.

Equally, the role of higher educators is not to imprint their framework of experiences on students, or to relive their youth vicariously. We can create the environment, the community space and the capacities and opportunities for students to make those experiences themselves. We can help them find the pathway through the policy dictated by the employability end-gamism of modern HE and embrace the idea that university is not the only thing occupying our students lives. They work. They play. They live. They learn. These things intersect and compete. There are tensions that arise when one needs to be prioritised over the other, but they equally generate affordances when the synergies open insights that are new and thrilling.

Some of the research we have been doing at my two most recent institutions with our students has told us that our learners are bound together with initially weak ties centred on the commonly held expectations of a university experience. Sometimes we exceed, others time we disappoint. They are also bound by the need for social interaction, not isolation. They are bound by a belief that at the end there might be some clarity, about work or life. They are bound by how this experience might help define or shape identity. The know that learning is what they need to do, become better at and use effectively to achieve their outcomes. But at some point in their experiences of higher education, one or even all of these weak ties become uncertain, transitory and liminal. And that is where the design of curriculum, teaching, assessment and the student experience becomes critical. It affords the opportunity to find places and spaces to experiment, to test, to succeed and fail, to acquire and apply, to inquire, to challenge and debate, to collaborate, to make and to share.

The next Summer

Platforms like Spotify mean that new people get to hear 16 Lovers Lane every day. They will hear the lyrics for the first time and if they like it, then they will have memories and experiences that emerge from the record. They might fall in love, meet their best friends at a party, be inspired to do something different with their lives, share it with other people, make something new and different, put it on a soundtrack to their study or as they are reading about stuff on the bus. But if I tell them to listen to it as part of my class? What if I get caught up in the nostalgia of times gone by and through my ‘power’ over assessment, compliance and certification I make reflecting on the album a compulsory assessment because it was the way I learnt back in 1989, so shouldn’t they have the same experience as me? What if I compare it unfavorably to the music that inspires them or make them dance around the room in joy? What if I make assertions that by not listening to the glorious harmonies on 16 Lovers Lane, they are wasting their time and they will never get their first job? Or maybe I design an experience that says to students; find something that inspires you to understand Summer. Make a playlist and share it with your colleagues. Swap tracks on whatever platform you feel comfortable using. Tell us the story of the songs and their historical or lyrical context. How do these songs represent Summer (and how could that be used to sell ice cream, or understand culture or influence the way a park is designed or help people with Seasonal Affective Disorder or make an education campaign about skin cancer more effective)?

 

The lyric in the title is from Quiet Heart, by the Go-Betweens. The photo at the top of this post is of the sunset at City Beach in Perth, Western Australia and features my wife and her father.

 

Future! The future of higher education technology led education in the digital world of online digital learning technologies 2020

Slide1

One of the most common keynotes you see these days at educational conferences is the one about how technology will transform the future of higher education. Filled with assertions of the next big thing to emerge from the wilderness and riffing off songbooks of transformation such as the Horizon report, this model keynote usually makes the damning conclusion that education won’t look the same in 2030 as it does today. This is the keynote that a lot of people love to hear. It is vapourware. It makes promises that no-one needs to keep. We all know AI will transform education. Imagine, VR goggles in every classroom, the teacher feeding students with terabytes of virtual data that they think they need, the students wowing in awe and thanking the teacher for the experience. Imagine that! And that is all you need to do, imagine it. Because it will never happen. These assertions about technology (and Horizon is one of the worst culprits) are vapourware. They are like reading a new year’s prediction article in the Daily Mail on the 31st December. Sure, it can be entertaining. It can trigger fantasy, both positive and scary. Some of the predictions might even have a ring of truth. But, they are written to maintain the dominant order as in seen by the Mail (would the Mail ever predict the election of a leader like Macron or that Jeremy Corbyn will displace the Maybot or that Brexit won’t happen). They are also written to be safe, because this kind of prediction is nothing more than a game. It is a safe because there is nothing to be held accountable to. But it also provides you with a safe excuse to convince yourself and others that you are not wedded to the past and that you are looking to the future. Asserting that the future of higher education is digital and by 2025 MOOCs will be ruling the earth doesn’t mean you NEED do anything about it. It either doesn’t happen and you keep teaching the way you always have (winner, winner) or you can say that in 2017 you knew all along where education was heading (winner! ahead of the crowd). By engaging with the menu of digital futures that sound great (adaptive learning! AI!! learning analytics!!!) you can avoid addressing the real questions. You never need to engage in real curriculum level change. You don’t have think about learning styles, different forms of delivery, the experience of your learners. You can quite happily overlay your rusted-on practices, the dominant teacher/student paradigm and the inherent power that comes with it on any imagined technological intervention or vendor created problem. You can also be the one in the privileged position of deciding what you will ‘allow’ the student to use or what technology they can be trusted with.

This post is not about any specific keynote, but represents a series of panels, conferences, workshops and interventions over the last few months. Many of these located the student as the receptor of the innovations ‘we’ enunciated and implemented. Many used vendor PR to spin the future. They blurred the lines between who higher education is for, ascribing technology as the instrument of bloody transformation and avoided the notion of education as a public or societal good. Below are some of the tweets I shared during these presentatiions, with some additional commentary that twitter doesn’t afford me in its expanded 240 characters world.

mcdonalds

One of the consistent messages about the future of HE in these keynotes is that vendors provide the solution. This is demonstrated through showing vendor videos that assert the future of education lies in the framework of technology they offer. This one below from Dell is the perfect example.

They don’t sell any of their products, they are selling (in highly amorphous terms) a solution to a problem that they assert you MUST know exists. And they are your partner in solving this problem. A vendor is not there to participate in education. A vendor is selling a product, often one that is not designed for education, but is being cross-sold. All good marketing is based on a simple fact. A drill retailer does not sell quarter inch drill bits, they sell quarter inch holes. Vendors are creating problems for which their product appears to be the perfect fit. But who tells them about these problems? Who is making the case the VLE needs to be more agile and democratic. Certainly, not our students. When we asked them, they told us they love Moodle. They want academics to use it more. One even asserted they were happy for their fees to pay for Moodle. Yet, they wouldn’t be a day go by that someone pitches the next agile future of learning technology driven 21st century innovative VLE/LMS.

One of the (un)intended consequences of the marketization of education is the equivalence of voice given to corporate partnerships which have enabled vendors to move from service provider to participant in the education process. Education practices become branded instruments, conversations result in brand endorsements. The risk we fear is that vendors get to the CIO, the COO or the VC and dazzle them with the name of leading adopters resulting in their technology getting ‘done’ to the rest of the institution, top down. But educational technologists are not innocent in this scenario. We can get blinded by the latest technology, wanting to keep ahead of the crowd, sometimes we can be bought by swag and promises, or the fear that if we don’t know about it we might look foolish when the leadership asks our opinion. We need to be in the room when the problem is defined. We need to draw in voices and insights from the entire community and be a hub for them. And then we talk to vendors, or we make it ourselves. And we hold them to account. They are not partners, we are buying a service from them. If they can’t solve our problem, we don’t change what we do to suit them. We find someone else who can.

not the platform

learning is social

Another common assertion in these types of keynotes is that ‘we’ know what is best for students. We understand them and why they behave the way they do. So, this assumption is a good example. Students don’t read emails (ignoring that staff don’t read them either according to most published data). We need better ways to communicate with students. We need WhatsApp, we need Snapchat, we should be in Instagram because that’s where they are sharing their selfies. You know what we really need? We need to have better messages. I get about 100 emails a day. Over 50% of those are vendors and unsolicited emails from service providers. Manage security! Move to cloud storage!! How is your stack? They see the word technology in my title and bombard me with messages irrelevant to what I do. Make the message relevant, useful and purposeful, then it doesn’t matter whether it is on email, pigeon or social media, people will find it and read, and perhaps even respond to it. Learning is social. Sending a broadcast email that is no interest to anyone other than you is bound to be ignored, in the same way the 250 introductory messages in the first week of a discussion forum (hi, I’m Peter and I am really looking forward to learning about underwater basket weaving) result in 250 people sitting there waiting for a reply and no one actually answering.

future of HE

Finally, these keynotes make grand, tweetable assertions of the world of education in 2020, 2030, 2050. The critical question for me is who owns this future? One of the critical insights from the Future Happens workshops run by Dave White, Donna Lanclos and myself is that many educational technologists, designers and developers as well as academics believe they don’t have a say in the future of higher education. There is an acceptance that much of the future is decided for us, by policy, by the institution, by competition or by the momentum and culture of the sector more generally. This can range from a passive acceptance to change, a sense of resignation of powerlessness to influence the change or righteous anger vented at all and everything around them.

experience

At the heart of this issue is assertion that technology will continue the progress of education as a transaction. Pathways to employment, boxes of skills for employers, patents and intellectual property coming from making and doing. Experiencing education in this environment becomes value added, meaning a tension arises between what can be afforded and what is necessary. Experience is a value proposition traded off against the expediency of completion. Technology has become the instrument to affect this trade off. One keynote recently asserted that students don’t want to watch three hour lectures, they prefer to watch the lecture recording at double speed. In this example (which we have also heard from teachers at other institutions) there is a simple trade off, time vs consumption. It assumes all lectures are consumption. Good teaching is not a consumptive or broadcasted act. Many of the technology platforms being offered to universities however do just that. They package education ‘content’ and offer ways to multiple and massify it, promising economies of scale through media sharing, social media like VLEs, online examinations and generic content.

Where does this leave us? I can find dozens of keynotes, conferences and webpages promising an insight into the future. But to conclude this, I want to look to the past (and hopefully the present) to get an eye on the future. At its heart, a successful university is a community. A critical community of students, teachers, staff, alumni and partners. Communities need leaders, they need innovators, they need advocates, they need citizens and they need members. Communities share values but they disagree and argue for what those values are and how they evolve and are applied. These debates make communities better. Communities come together to apply tools to problems, sharing and swapping expertise and experience to enhance how we use those tools, or invent new ones. No-one should be able to buy a community. The successful future for higher education is one where the community leads the organisation. Participatory citizenship. In terms of education and technology we need to lead that debate, be the people that bring the community together, critically challenge the assertions of people who want to own the community and convince it spend their hard-earned cash on a newer, brighter proprietary widget for the future. These communities don’t have to be non-profit or altruistic and that is also fine. Well run communities can make money (look at the retailer John Lewis in the UK which is owned by its staff). One of the key ambitions of #futurehappens is that we bring people together to empower and increase the literacy and capability of people to be the catalyst for these communities in their own organisation. Maybe it helps to say, well over 100 institutions came together and they all said the same things, or maybe it promotes and encourages self-belief. In the end, when we hear these talks about the future of education, the future of employment, the myths of robo-replacement and massification of education through technology, we need to have a counter-argument. Evidence based, persuasive and critical ambitions for our institution, built on the engagement with community. We need to describe and understand the wicked and messy problems in front of us, and we need to be able to apply the skills and experiences we have learnt and that we teach to come up with innovative, amazing and completely original ways to solve them. We don’t need the answers, we need to ask the questions.

Note: This blog post is the early part of bringing the innovations and idea together from our Future Happens workshops ran in Liverpool, Toowoomba and Berlin. Stay tuned.