By Dr Kenny McAlpine, Academic Curriculum Manager, School of Art, Media and Computer Games
Back in 1950, Muddy Waters released his classic track, ‘Rollin’ Stone’, a relentless drone blues that captures the anempathetic way in which life just keeps rolling on with little regard to the events or the people that it carries along with it. Technological progress, it’s always seemed to me, happens in a similar manner; a process of interminable evolution, the biggest impact of which seems to be that all my gear is obsolete before I even get it home and out of the box.
Every now and then, however, something truly disruptive comes along, and ushers in a period of transformative change that forces us to reappraise the world around us and our place within it. In his keynote presentation at Abertay’s Teaching and Learning Enhancement Conference this morning, Kerr Gardiner, the Head of Learning Technology and Media Production at Glasgow University, set out the case for digital communications being one of those disruptive technologies, particularly within the context of higher education.
Now I’ve often heard it said that digital communications technology has resulted in the biggest change to our relationship with language and information since Gutenberg invented the movable-type printing press nearly six hundred years ago, a time that, coincidentally – or not – saw the sudden growth of Europe’s major universities; Glasgow University, for example, my old alma mater, was founded in 1451, just as the first true information age began. Mr Gardiner, however, posed us all a challenging question: why, as we enter a new, technically-mediated information age, is learning and teaching still so bound up with paper and the printed word?
Well, the words we use to talk about technology in education certainly don’t help. We have technology-enhanced this, and technology-assisted that… In so doing, we bring into focus the technology itself, and the additionality that it brings. The thing is, though, for most of our students, technology isn’t an add-on, it is at the very core of everything they do.
When I was a kid – and it wasn’t so very long ago that I was – the timetable of my life, particularly during those long, carefree days of summer, was dictated by television broadcasters. In the days before Tivo and Sky+, it was the BBC who determined what I watched and when, and as a consequence, there were definite points in the week – proper events – where the whole family would congregate around the telly in the living room and a reverential hush would descend.
All of that changed with the convergence of digital communications and multimedia computing. Thanks to fast broadband and mobile devices that put powerful computers in our pockets and on our wrists, entertainment-on-demand is now with us and it’s been transformative; I honestly can’t remember the last time I purposefully sat down to watch something as it was transmitted.
That is not just a change in viewing habits, it is a change in mindset. On-Demand gives me the programming I want, when I want it. It’s entertainment on my own terms. It’s a revolutionary concept, and although it has changed the social dynamic in the living room, it is an empowering change that I now can’t imagine living without.
That change in behaviour and outlook has filtered through into other areas, too, and it’s no surprise to see it encroaching on the cloisters of academia. Our students, whether consciously or subconsciously, now expect educational services to fulfill a need and to adapt quickly to a changing world. They have greater choice than ever before in terms of provider, and with the internet at their fingertips, comparison shopping between institutions has never been easier.
Mr Gardiner argued that in this new digital landscape, we need to reconceptualise our ideas about education. It’s not enough to translate what we have always done in the old, ‘analogue’ world, since this misses the opportunities that new technologies afford, and often makes the original content less accessible and engaging. Back in the early 1980s, for example, Atari released a video-game version of the Rubik’s Cube for its VCS console, apparently confident that people would pay ten times as much for the digital version of a puzzle that played better as a collection of plastic parts and stickers.
Mr Gardiner’s key message was that we should not be trying to build technology into our classes, but rather, we should all be trying to design new educational experiences in this new digital landscape. I buy into that idea: I’m a technologist, of course I do! But I’m also a pragmatist, and I know that to use technology in that way requires both time and headspace. To use technology really creatively, you often have to use it transgressively, and that can only really happen when you understand its boundaries and limits and can push against them and subvert them. And yet, the demands of day-to-day teaching and the pace of institutional change are often such that, just to keep on top of things, I default back to doing things the way I’m used to; that safe, comfortable ‘analogue’ old way.
There are all sorts of systemic barriers to this. Institutions tend to be – understandably – fairly risk-averse. They come from a paper-based world, and all of their supporting edifices, everything from regulatory frameworks to programme validations and review, are embedded in ideas that have evolved slowly over half a millennium. That’s not going to change overnight.
And yet change we must. The landscape around us has shifted, and the corresponding evolutionary pressures are acute. How we all adapt to those is likely to be very different depending on our disciplinary background, pedagogic style and the nature of the institution in which we teach. I like to imagine a future characterised by Darwin’s Galapagan Finches, a diverse population with each perfectly adapted to the environmental niches they inhabit, rather than the poor Mauritian Dodo.
Perhaps the way ahead lies in our virtual real estate. Our virtual campus is not constrained in the same way as our physical one. Of course, delivering meaningful, engaging and connected learning experiences online is not trivial. A blended learning community that is geographically dispersed can’t rely on physical presence to provide a sense of communal activity and shared purpose, but that, I think, was the very point that Mr. Gardiner was making: curriculum design must acknowledge and work for and within that new landscape to deliver opportunities for that dispersed community to come together and meet and cohere in the learning space.
One thing that we shouldn’t forget is that virtual communities are virtual only in the sense that they are distributed and mediated by technology. After all, at the front-end is still real people forming real friendships and participating in real community activities.
A friend of mine is a sound artist, and, for a recent project, he created a sound piece that contrasted the dispersement and sense of loss felt by users after an online video game forum was closed down, to those of ‘real’ communities that were similarly displaced after the forced closure of workplaces in the industrial heartlands of Scotland. The sense of connectedness in the virtual community was every bit as palpable as that of the real. The trick, if trick is the right word here, is in providing a focal point around which the community can cohere and invest, and in an HE context, that means engaging educational content and experiences, all designed and facilitated by academics who can use those new, disruptive technologies as confidently as they can more established technologies like pen and paper.
There’s no quick fix solution or well-trodden path to follow, but if we, as a university community, are really going to see things differently, we need that perspective, and the time and space to bring it into focus.