Turn away now as I am likely to cause great offence with this blog. You see we have a lot of investment, financial and human, dedicated to the use of ICT (I’m using that broadly to cover anything electrical!) as both a saviour and a necessity of education and I’m about to try and drive a coach and horses through that.
To me, a simple economist, products and services really triumph when they fill a void. Anything short of void filling and the best we get is a sort of branded or marketed swapping with minor benefits. The telephone filled a void, there was no way to talk to someone at a distance, video phones don’t – I get no real added value from seeing someone’s face (beautiful though it may be). This is the premise I am going to use to explore education. I want to test whether emerging ICT fills voids or simply replaces.
Let me begin with a win for ICT. Text and e-mails provide a means of instantly delivering a message that does not have to be read immediately. The closest we had to this was a letter but a letter cannot be sent cheaply. Students had to leave a note, leave a message that someone wrote down or send a letter. Basically there was no easy access to academic staff (or visa-versa). The e-mail/text means that academics and students are contactable 24/7 even if they sometimes don’t answer. The volume of communication has increased and, especially with the advent of smart phones, communication and tutorial style advice has grown to the benefit of both sides. There would have been no way I could handle so many requests without this technology – my institution benefits from increased productivity and students gain greater access.
Compare this to PowerPoint and Prezi. What benefit exists here? I would argue that it is possible to out-deliver most academics using a chalk board, to deliver a more concise, informative and interactive lecture without the use of electronics than with. The PP approach fills no void and instead consumes time in development that may be better spent on scholarly activity, providing, at best, a prop for the poor communicator and allowing the good to become lazy. Of course I can embed video and the like – but have you ever watched the students instead of the video when it plays? Watch next time and you will see they glaze over within a 30 seconds or so. The screen is dull, lifeless and soulless. They do not engage with video and simply let it wash over them – how else could they tolerate the drivel that masquerades as TV.
Taking it back out of the classroom what are we to make of the web? In theory this is a replacement for the library (private or campus). The web has enabled greater access to journals and ebooks, policy and practice and what, honestly, has this resulted in? Instead of better referenced and deeper essays and reports we see instead a proliferation of plagiarism requiring us to be more and more vigilant. This comes in a large part from a misunderstanding we have about education. I know me, and probably you if you are still reading, have a love of learning and a love of knowledge but I am afraid that the majority of students want a degree and a better job. Where we trip up is that when we talk as a community of practice we are amongst our own kind, people who love knowledge. This is not a bad thing, a vet may go in to practice because of a love of animals, but he shouldn’t expect the animals to love that practice and its processes. For them it’s a means to an end. I love the web for the access it gives me to information and often read a wiki on the film I am watching whilst I am watching it – but we are a rare bread best directed towards accumulation and dissemination of knowledge – we are academics because we are obsessed with learning, our students are often students for a completely different reason.
This takes us on neatly to the next use of ICT. Moodle, Pebble Pad, or whatever you call your virtual learning environment (VLE). Students report greatest satisfaction with these when they reduce the students need to think independently or time plan. When the system contains all the papers and links they need and reminds them of where they should be. When it breaks the task down for them in such a way they do not need to plan. What then has this replaced or what void has it filled? Well I believe this is a replacement activity. It replaces the students need to take responsibility. There is a fine line here. I certainly use electronic calendars and are able to do more as a result. But that is the difference. I do more not less as a result. We have equipped students with access to resources on the web, access to VLE’s and have, often, at the same time reduced the size of tasks. What we have not seen as a result is a deepening of learning. Rather we have seen less engaged students as they drift instead towards leisure and PT work.
I can easily imagine a future where universities provide virtual courses for students. Where students swipe information from one page to another with a stroke of the iPad, answering questions at the end of a ‘learning episode’ and accessing information whenever it is convenient instead of the discipline of lectures. What I doubt is whether this will produce graduates with the kind of enquiring and challenging minds we need. It will produce degrees though and, of course, that is what the customer often wants.