Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Waiting for the sea-change

Richard Noss, in his initial introduction to the conference as a whole, answered my first key question, as an Australian coming (back) to the UK to think about teaching and learning. By and large, the awaited radical transformation - the sea-change, if you will - has yet to occur in the ways in which technology and new paradigms of social communication fundamentally shift the way we teach and learn.

This is clearly true of Australia, but my question had been to what extent the much more overtly policy-driven agenda towards e-Learning in the UK had been effective. What I am hearing initially is: not all that much. As Noss pointed out, the transformation in other parts of our lives (social, financial; who doesn't bank online nowadays?) has been rapid and pervasive. Likewise in both Australia and the UK, dramatic shifts in the nature and culture in HE have taken place as a result of other external drivers (student fees, internationalization, widening access).

So why do we sit here, waiting for the sea-change? Even those who avowedly rally to turn back the tide, fighting a rear-guard action against the evils of technology in the classroom, appear to be fighting phony war. When will come the large scale institutional commitment to drive whole universities into the forward into the utopia or dystopia of the future.

Saul Tendler, somewhat perfunctorily, took a contrary view, and talked about the transformation he had seen over the past twenty years. However in his passing reference to "new ways to deliver material", he revealed that while the available gadgets, bells and whistles may have changed, his paradigms of learning had, maybe, not. "Deliver material": the junk mail paradigm of teaching and learning.

But Donald Clark returned to the theme that "nothing much changed". The ways in which physics, for instance, is being taught now remains the same as it was when Clark was a student thirty years ago. Clark used the lecture as a metonym for the intractability of higher education practice, and observed teachers' unwillingness, in the main, to adopt a research-informed, scientific or reflective attitude to their own practice or to the nature of learning as causal.

Systematically, Clark destroyed the rationale for the lecture as a teaching method. "It's not just that that the great majority of lectures are shit ... The method itself is flawed ... it's a fossil, a mediaeval relic. ... We have to have a more sophisticated view of the solution to this problem than just to shove them down on tape.". The passivity; the lack of critical reflection or collaboration; the lack of practice or repetition; the lack of collaboration; the cognitive overload: these are all persuasive arguments as to why the lecture is an unsuitable learning experience.

Clark's review of the history, philosophy and etymology of the lecture was an entertaining tour-de-force. But by and large, he was preaching to the converted. The talk was more motivational than informative - and that was no bad thing. Those of us committed to transforming education for the better could deal with a morale boost.

Yes, we are convinced. The lecture is bunk. So WHY, Donald, WHY do we continue to subject our students to an uninteresting and unedifying diet of second- and third-rate lecture experiences? This is the question, which was left haning.

Which brings us back to my original question. Why - given the technologies available to us, the prevalence of leadership committee to transformation in at least some parts of many of our institutions, and the decade or more that has passed since we have been trying - why are we still waiting for the sea change?

That sad truth about most contemporary higher education is that it is not rich or strange. On the contrary: it is poor and ordinary.


  1. Great post Jonathan - and I guess when Donald opened his talk with 'I'd rather not be doing this by lecture, but that's the way of the world' he really meant that our entire HE infrastructure is quite dependent on the model of face-to-face mass education. Yes, Donald uses blogs. But does he get *paid* to blog? Or is he dependent on keynote invitations and sitting on various advisory boards in order to pay the mortgage? He probably is, and as long as there is a demand for face-to-face undergraduate study, universities will continue to supply it. Yes, it's the 'way of the world' - but who's to blame?

  2. Exactly, Lindsay: in contrast with a number of the back-channel commentators, Donald was I think quite right to target university managers, just as the questions about estates and infrastructure were to the point. I think the reason why we have failed to realize the educational vision is through a paucity not of our understanding, but of leadership.

  3. I wasn't there, but was Clark giving a lecture about how lectures are now a relic? Loving the irony!

  4. It was less a lecture, more a motivational speech :-)

  5. Great post, Jonathan.

    Worth noting in a few of the sessions I've attended today, as well as Clark's keynote, is that by seeing any of these issues only in an eLearning or technology-based context, we can start to tie ourselves into knots of, if not self-loathing, certainly introspective spirals.

    By dint of our roles, we have to narrow that scope, but I think that if you look at almost any aspect of HE, change comes slow, management at higher levels seem decision-averse, and staff resist any culture changes.

    We SHOULD be trying hard to push things forward, but as the advocates of this stuff we tend to beat ourselves up or lament the failure of our peers or managers to listen to us, but the truth is, it isn't just our stuff that's being ignored.

    My point, I guess, if I have one, is that if everything is broken, than nothing is, and any insight or positive piece of innovation we push through is something we can feel good about.

    I'm thinking of calling this outlook "Holistic pragmatism". It makes me happy.

  6. I've just come across this post, hence the late comment from a perspective of Australia followed up by Oxbridge.

    The great pitfall of online education is the lack of personal interaction - it strikes me as suitable for graduate studies, when students (one hopes!) already have the habit of study and often, as the workers of the world, have other commitments which preclude attendance at classes. I would be very worried about using it for undergrads, especially in the first year. Perhaps now that John Henry Newman is in he nes again we could revisit his emphasis onthe personal dimension - we might even say the role of friendship - in education.

    The Oxbridge one (or two) to one tutorial model - which Newman had a hand in introducing - certainly does that at it best, in a way that the factory-scale lecture does not. But it is very expensive and is being de-funded by British government obsessed with industrial models of learning. So it is not much help for other institutions which lack Oxbridge's endowments.*

    In short, I wish I had the answer!

    (Some Oxford friends of mine in the humanities reflect wistfully that if they could ditch the 'useful' subjects they could survive without government funding - more likely, the philistines will be out to swallow them.)