Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Universities and the Domino's Effect

How can the university sector best respond to the rise of online learning, and what will be the impact on teaching, learning, the student experience and the physical infrastructure of university campuses?

By and large, the rise of online learning has caught universities woefully unprepared. The "flipped" classroom, massive online courses, open educational resources, private-sector online commercial providers - at an institutional level these are all seen as recent threats to a university sector struggling to respond to a new reality. At the individual level, lecturers often seem to be fighting a losing battle for the hearts and minds of their students - dropping attendances at lectures, a reliance on recordings and online notes in lieu of face-to-face engagement; I have more than once seen lecturers vainly request for the university wireless network to be turned off during lectures to prevent the students logging into Facebook when they should be attending to the sage on the stage.

But this is curious. As research-intensive instituions, universities typically are among the first to embrace new technologies that support academic work - from the first electronic library catalogues, through discipline-based newsgroups and email lists, to online journals, new technologies have happily and quickly been embraced by the research community. So why have we as a sector so clumsily and cantankerously engaged with new technologies for teaching and learning?

The answer is simple: it's because education is not pizza.

Since the 1980s we have seen four factors working together to fundamentally shift the way we think about and organise higher education. A rapid increase in the percentage of the population which attends university has led to a "mass-production" model of teaching. University managers can now talk about "efficient mechanisms for content delivery" with straight faces - ignoring the fact that there is nothing actually delivered during learning; nothing changes hands. Second, the increasing cost to the student since the introduction of HECS has resulted in a far more transactional model of education: what do students "get" for their money? Thirdly, partly as a consequence of both students and the Government wanting to know exactly what they are paying for, we have seen increasingly prescriptive requirement for univesities and teachers to spell out exactly what students need to do, what they will learn, and how this will be assessed. Opportunities for learning to be subjective, to be about personal growth and the serendipity of epiphany, are squeezed out in favour mundane learning outcomes that can be measurably demonstrated by the majority of a student cohort. Finally, a much larger university population, with very diverse aspirations and equally diverse levels of ability, all of whom are paying substantial sums for their courses, has led to degree structures and options dominated by the market: students choose their courses from a menu available, and only popular choices are sustainable within an increasingly tight resource environment.

Attending a modern university is uncomfortably like placing an order with Domino's: choose your options online from what's available and affordable, and the university will attempt to deliver your educational content as quickly and efficiently as possible. Rarely will you have your content delivered by a pimply-faced youth on a motor scooter; more usually you will be placed in a lecture theatre with 400 other people and have your content delivered by a lecturer who for two hours bravely wades upstream through a river of facts. But the business model is the same.

Now, before you write me off as an old fogey pining for the bygone golden age of education (i.e. whenever I happened to do my own undergraduate degree), let me say that I am in complete support of the four factors I have identified. I believe Australia needs mass participation in higher education, which therefore needs to be sustainable, accountable, and demonstrate value for money. I also am in favour of student choice, as the research evidence suggests (unsurprisingly) that students learn better if they are studying a subject that interests them. However I believe that the factors dominating recent trends in HE have led universities to a model of education that is wrong-headed: one that sees education as about the "delivery" of "content".

Early misadventures in online learning enthusiastically embraced the notion of "content delivery". Put the content online for the students to download themselves and you don't even need to pay for the lecturer! How efficient a mechanism for delivery. But the experience of the last decade as shown us how educationally undernourished this leaves the students. Learning by absorbing content simply doesn't work very well, and the new online environments merely reinforce this point. Interestingly, the history of the internet parallels the history of online learning. The late 1990s and early 200s was the era of Web 1.0 - static online content: company web pages and large slabs of course content. The commercial and social web has moved on to 2.0 and beyond. The educational web hasn't, quite.

Educational theory and research-based practice is at odds with the "content delivery" model. Learning is fundamentally a social activity - it happens when your ideas are challenged or put to the test by others: teachers, tutors, authors, peers, even your own students. Ultimately we can never measure how much "content" has been absorbed by a student; we can't know what they know. We can only watch what they do - what they say, write, paint, play ... The origin of universities themselves stems from this recognition that learning comes through interaction, challenge and debate. Plato's Academy was founded on this principle that one learns though dialogue. The "colleges" of mediaeval Oxford and Cambridge were spaces in which intellectual fellow-travellers, "colleagues", came to learn from each other. Curricula are all well and good, but a good deal of research shows that a great deal of learning - perhaps the majority - occurs in the extra- and intra-curricular spaces where students, teachers and colleagues interact spontaneously and creatively.

The point many universities still miss is that online technologies are radical in that they connect people dialogically like never before. Social media such as Twitter and Facebook have allowed virtual colleges - communities of like-minded individuals - to spring up regardless of geographic and institutional borders. If I want to find something out, nowadays I'll go online and ask an expert. If I say something stupid, chances are I'll say it online and get called on it by a collegue in Newcaste-on-Tyne or Accra or Alaska (to think of three examples from last week). And I'll probably learn something as a result. As a music and education academic, I have two distinct professional and disciplinary spaces online. Even more interesting, the social community from which I learned the most - a multi-disiplinary gaggle of individuals who were my student colleagues at Magdalen College, Oxford, twenty years ago - has reconstituted itself online in recent years, and has resumed being one of the (now virtual) places where I learn. Not formally; but very deeply.

The pianist Arthur Schnabel once said this of his ability to perform profound and moving music: "I don't think I handle the notes much differently from other pianists. But the spaces between the notes - ah, there is where the artistry lies!". I could paraphrase this for education - "The content of university degrees is nowadays much of a muchness. But the spaces between the content - ah, that's where the learning happens!". Those spaces are increasingly online. And unless universities are able to rethink the fundamental paradigm and business model they use to manage education, from one predicated on "content delivery" back to one predicated on dialogue and communication, they will find that they will be increasingly on the margins of where the educational action is in the twenty-first century.