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

7344245446_6baee05e2a_b

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
 

E-Learning: Going down to the crossroads. Track 1: Tramps like us baby we were born to run: Singing to you, singing with you, singing for you, not singing at you…

Photo by Hardseat http://www.flickr.com/photos/hardseat/2156068845/

I was watching a documentary recently about the rise and fall of punk in NYC and London.  I was struck by some of the comments made by the people who there at the time, seeds of a movement that influenced not just decades of music but cuts to the core of the way people choose to live their lives today.  Over the next few weeks I thought it would be nice to write some short vignettes about these insights, and explore what relevance they have to both the ‘punk moment’ that I believe higher education is rapidly racing towards (or perhaps already seeing in its rear-view mirror) but also to the way we practice higher education in the midst of the squall.

Now I guess I’ll have to tell ‘em
That I got no cerebellum
Gonna get my Ph.D.
I’m a teenage lobotomy

(The Ramones – Teenage Lobotomy)

Track 1:  Tramps like us baby we were born to run: Singing to you, singing with you, singing for you, not singing at you…

This idea sums up the spirit of the punk for me.  It blurs the line between the audience and the artist and defines the relationship as one driven by communication not broadcast.   It is not someone from a high altar of the stage telling you what you should do, it is a voice and a message that you get and understand.  When John Lydon (the lead singer of the Sex Pistols) wrote in his autobiography about what made the Sex Pistols different, or prescient he said;

‘Before the Sex Pistols, music was so bloody serious…There was no deep thought in it, merely images pertaining to something mystical, too stupid and absolutely devoid of reality. How on earth were we supposed to relate to that music when we lived in council flats?’ (Lydon & Zimmerman 1995)

 

Despite often have an adversarial relationship with his audience, Lydon in both his Pistols incarnation and his later band Public Image Limited, challenged the audience, made the uncomfortable but also included them, if they chose to be included;

‘The more I see the less I get.  The likes of you and me are an embarrassment’ From the song ‘Chant’ by Public Image Limited 1979

Higher education through its often slavish devotion to administrative systems, its movement towards a customer orientation within the student/institution relationship and wrapped up in its legislated position as a certifier of credentials, often seeks to draw clear distinctions between learner and teacher.  Power, authority, authenticity and perhaps an innate sense of fear colour the way we interact with learners.  These two processes alone provide the teacher with a privileged role within a network, making it difficult to provide an environment for learners to challenge, create, repurpose and experiment.  My colleague at the University of Greenwich, Patrick Ainley with Joyce Canaan (2006) notes that ‘…opportunities for enabling students’ critical thinking, and our collective critical hope, are more limited than previously as students and lecturers face increased pressures and constraints due to the neoliberal marketization of the sector’.  Along with many other he advocates for a new pedagogy that provides learners with the opportunity to make and create;

‘…for students to add to these bodies of knowledge and their practical applications by new acts of creation, experimentation, investigation or scholarship as the warrant of the quality of their graduation ‘ (Ainley 2012).

 

Is this call a world away from what punk bands like the Sex Pistols and the Ramones offered their audience?  The conditions, by which they themselves could get on stage, make music and add to the body of knowledge that is popular music.  There is a clear distinction between singing to you, singing with you and singing at you.  It is the idea that an artist sees their audience in a different light.  They are more than simply passive consumers; there to sit at the foot of Buddha and hear all the imparted wisdom they need to find meaning, experience life or be inspired.  The late Johnny Ramone noted in a 1993 interview that ‘…that’s what I had always hoped (was) that when kids see the Ramones that they feel they can go out there and do this to’.  The audience are part of the process and can be emotionally transformed by the song.  The audience is their reason for being there.

 

The use of a VLE or CMS is a telling example of this problem in higher education.  The dominant paradigm within many programmes is to use the VLE like a radio station, with play-listed tracks, little opportunity for interaction, certainly little or no user generated content and in reality seeing the audience as simply the pathway to achieving other aims (such as advertising dollars).  The listener is expected to consume whatever is produced, or move to another radio station within a limited bandwidth.  It is the academy singing at them.  There is no engagement, no involvement, no connection.  The VLE that replicates the classroom does just that.  The lecturer curates the playlist, the learner does as they are compelled to do through activities and readings, and through doing this, contributes to a variety of performance measures (including participation in e-learning!).  It is then rolled over into next year, another audience, another town.  Hello, Cleveland!

It is like Spinal Tap in their Simpsons appearance having to lift their guitars and read the town name they were in, before screaming at the audience ‘Hello Springfield!’  Bruce Springsteen, despite playing stadiums was the exact opposite to this humorous disconnection.  Bruce chooses to sing to the audience, and encourages them to sing with him.  He connects with them at the most fundamental level.  He tells them stories around the dinner table.  He draws them into a fireside chat about things that matter to both of them.  He elicits a sense of solidarity with his fans, he never berates them, belittles them or criticises them. He rarely proselytizes about politics, his or theirs.  The fans are part of the same cause, the same experiences seen through different eyes.

 

Higher education teaching faces the same mountain as Spinal Tap (yes, I know they are ironic, but they were being ironic about something real!) and Bruce Springsteen.  It is easy, and perhaps comfortable, in a world where learners are coming to education with different experiences and skills (and maybe as Patrick Ainley argues with even less academic literacy than before) to rely on the tried and true methods of teaching and learning we have used before.  The institutional shift from one VLE to another becomes an excuse to scale back the interaction built up over time and ramp up the control or disengage the learner from each other.   Supported by a curriculum that can be up to five years old, learning can look less like the new world and more like the ‘new boss, same as the old boss’ (to quote The Who).  The VLE becomes a way of broadcasting materials that we have made AT learners.  There is little opportunity to personalise those materials, but significant provision to individualise the learning.  Do we provide an opportunity for the learner to make their own materials and resources, collaboratively or individually and share them?  Find resources and ideas through their own networks?  How are the communication tools within a VLE, such as discussion forums or blogs, used?  We seed them with thought provoking questions like, ‘I think that the new boss is not the same as the old boss – Discuss’.  Is there an opportunity for learners to start their own topics? Activities are assessed automatically, against a rubric.  A VLE supports quizzes, multiple choice tests, matching tests.  They are individual not personalised.  The continued reliance on an assessment system that requires and privileges an assertion of individual understanding is not modern learning.  It is memory, it is absorption and it is repetition; it is not application, use, social contextualisation and collaboration (Brown & Adler 2008a, 2008b; Hemmi, Bayne & Land 2009).

 

The commercial pitch for the plethora of e-learning tools on the market usually revolves around the notion of pulling academics back from the precipice of overwork and change and providing them with a point of calm in the ever-threatening maelstrom of higher education.  Is e-learning too much for you to do? Then simply buy our product, press a button and capture the lecture.  Click an icon and screencast everything you do, and as they say in Australia, ‘Bob’s your uncle’.  Jack a mic into your laptop and bingo, you have made a podcast.  Make your hand-outs into PDFs and put them on Moodle and voila, you are engaging in e-learning.  There is no exploration as to the reason why we would use these tools in the first place (‘pedagogy before technology’ we hear the collective academy sing, usually at us though – how many people actually believe it when they sing it?).

 

More importantly, there is little exposition around the way we make this content, the words we use, the techniques, practices and skills we acquire and apply and the scaffolding we integrate into the methodology.  Teaching and learning in higher education is at a point where it must take a root and branch look at the way it is engaging with its audience.  Perhaps, higher education can seek inspiration from the Ramones, a band of amazing virtuosity, influence and critical and popular respect, but equally one that people feel that they can be a part of, a template that is replicated, reused and mashed up.  They engaged in ‘new acts of creation’.   They took their rudimentary skills and made something with them, getting better and better and taking their audience with them.

 

‘Live punk rock actively tore down the barriers between artists and audience, intentionally exploding and deconstructing the image of rock star.’ (Dunn 2008)

 

The VLE and other forms of institutionalised e-learning can create barriers between the teacher and the learner.  The more automated the system becomes, the more learner feels disconnected from the network forming around them.  Is this the same as the way rock stars became disconnected from their audiences, before punk smashed the wall down and through confrontation and challenge made the audience re-connect, often viscerally?  Are we at a juncture where e-learning has made the academic the rock star? And if so, how do we explode and deconstruct that myth, hand power back to the audience, bring them on stage, show them a few chords and make them a member of the band?  How do we encourage the learners to make their own band?

 

Joe Strummer of the Clash inspired thousands of people to make their own music.  In some cases, he then went on to play on their records, rave about them in interviews, played with them live and was mourned by them on the occasion of his tragic death in 2002.  However, it would disingenuous to suggest that these artists were not in privileged positions.  This is not about, as Sonic Youth challenged ‘Kill(ing) yr idols’.   Teachers have a significant and important role in higher education.  We just have to accept that it may not be the same as before.  That our role is to sing to our audience, help them to make connections not just with us and the content we share, but with each other, sharing and making new content, to help them let go, experiment, express themselves and share experiences, and to help make the experience one of hope, of potential and of creativity.  Singing to them, with them and for them.


References

Ainley, P. 2012, ‘For A Really Open University’, Compass: The Journal of Learning and Teaching at the University of Greenwich, no. 4, p. 9.

Ainley, P. & Canaan, J.E. 2006, ‘Critical hope at the chalkface: An English perspective’, Cultural Studies? Critical Methodologies, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 94-106.

Brown, J.S. & Adler, R.P. 2008a, ”Minds on fire’ : Open education, the long tail, and learning 2.0′, Educause review, vol. 43, no. 1, pp. 16-20.

Brown, J.S. & Adler, R.P. 2008b, ‘Open education, the long tail, and learning 2.0′, Educause review, vol. 43, no. 1, pp. 16-20.

Dunn, K.C. 2008, ‘Never mind the bollocks: the punk rock politics of global communication’, Review of International Studies, vol. 34, no. S1, pp. 193-210.

Hemmi, A., Bayne, S. & Land, R. 2009, ‘The appropriation and repurposing of social technologies in higher education’, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 19-30.

Lydon, J. & Zimmerman, K. 1995, Rotten: no Irish, no blacks, no dogs, Picador.