By John Babraj, Lecturer in the Division of Sport and Exercise, Abertay University
We continually hear about embedding research into the curriculum as a way to enhance the student experience. This sounds like a simple goal that all academics would seek to embrace fully, given the dual role of the academic as an educator and researcher. However, once you scratch the surface, this simple goal can turn into a minefield; like most simple problems it has layers of complexity that make it difficult to solve in a meaningful way. You may already feel that you are embedding research into the curriculum as you utilise academic journals in preparing your lecture materials. When I started lecturing this was my approach and I would have stated that I was successfully embedding research into my teaching. However, is this view not too shallow; have I really achieved anything other than deliver material that will form the basis of updated academic textbooks in 18 months? So if this is not embedding research, then what is?
Developing a culture around research
This is really at the core of how I have evolved my practice of embedding research in the curricula. The extent of the research culture can vary across modules but at its centre is the idea that the students are junior researchers. This idea is not so strange if we consider where we as lecturers have come from. At some point in time, somebody has had the belief in us that we have the ability to question and generate knowledge. For me this should be at the core of what the research culture in the undergraduate curriculum is. In order to do this there are a number of ways I have utilised to develop the classroom research culture.
It is important to make students aware of the expectations you have around their involvement with the research environment. Across all modules I have delivered since starting at Abertay I have made the students aware that all references for assessments need to come from primary research material. This is regardless of level and I find with support during tutorials in earlier years you can build the students abilities in finding appropriate material. Within 3rd year there can be an influx of direct entrant students and it is important that they get support whilst tutorial tasks can still challenge continuing students. In order to do this there needs to be computer facilities for tutorials and I set real world problems around sports performance whose answer fits around what is being taught but requires the student to find the research material. This allows me to check sites being visited by the students, guiding them through literature searching. This seems obvious but literature searching is a core research skill that we sometimes wrongly assume students should just be able to do. It also leads to an opportunity to discuss strengths and weaknesses of research design in an informal setting. This can help the students see the importance of research to real world issues.
There is no such thing as a stupid question. As an educator it is our job to encourage students to question what we are telling them. This is difficult to do. Students are often reluctant to answer direct questions or to ask questions in group settings. It is also possible that lecturers can feel uncomfortable being challenged in this way. However, I find this approach stimulating and students can bring questions which are unexpected and challenge your narrative. This can happen in lectures, tutorials or practical’s depending on how comfortable the students feel. It is important that you deal with the questions honestly and on occasion this can be to say I don’t know but I will get back to you or simply current research knowledge hasn’t managed to answer that (which can then lead to a discussion of why we haven’t answered the problem). I find that the creation of this active learning environment is a more effective way to deliver physiology teaching, creating students with more content knowledge and greater self-efﬁcacy.
The core skills are study design, methods and analysis. How we teach these skills is a major issue for all lecturers. In the UK we view these as important requirement for achieving honours but research methods can be dull when taken out of real world situations and students can fail to see the relevance. When these skills are embedded within modules, I find students engage fully and develop a better understanding of the underlying research skills.
In my experience this approach leads to a greater engagement of students with each module. They feel that they are being exposed to the most up to date knowledge and the material being delivered is innovative. Students are surprisingly interested in staff research and the enhanced engagement can lead to undergraduate dissertations generating research outputs. I published research from a number of undergraduate students (BMC Endocr Disord. 2009 Jan 28;9:3; Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2012 Oct;37(5):976-81; J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Oct;30(10):2761-6, Sport Sci Health (2016). doi:10.1007/s11332-016-0313-x), some of which have been cited over 100 times. The students that produce publishable data sets have typically moved on to postgraduate study, reflecting their desire to continue to understand the research areas they are exposed to.
This approach improves employability skills of the students. They develop critical analysis skills, as they seek to deconstruct information and analyse why. They also develop attention to detail, through doing their project or being exposed to data collection methods in class, they realise the requirements for accuracy within research. Together these are two transferrable skills that enhance employability of students.
This week I have been very fortunate to have attended a large international conference in Valencia, Spain on educational development and technologies (the 11th annual International Technology, Education and Development Conference, INTED) which was attended by around 600 people from all over the world. On the whole it was a successful couple of days, from a work perspective I made a few new contacts, raised the profile of the university to an international audience, learnt new things, got some ideas and had some very positive feedback on what we are trying to achieve at Abertay through new technology-rich learning environments. On a personal level I got a bit of time to see the old part of the city the day before the conference and I enjoyed some great Spanish culture in the evenings. All good, you might say but no, not entirely.
First of all, it felt somewhat ironic that I was delivering a talk about new ways of teaching and supporting learning using new technologies and flexible learning spaces in a room that was set up in a very traditional, didactic way! In fact, almost all the sessions were like this although there were a couple of workshops on offer in parallel. Secondly, authors were asked to write a paper in advance of the conference and then had a very short time (15 minutes) to present the paper to their audience on the day.
It just seemed like a real missed opportunity to do something quite different that was more in the spirit of the conference topic. I believe participants would have got a lot more out of the event if it had been run in a flipped classroom mode i.e. attendees are asked to read the papers in advance and then choose the ones they would like to discuss with the author at the event. There could also be other types of sessions e.g. debates on controversial hot topics in education right now e.g. use of big data, lecture capture, social media, students as co-creators of their learning etc. There could be good practice swap shops on particular themes which are very practically focussed and also “masterclass” workshops on topics run by experts in their field.
The TLE seminars have been very successful over the last (almost) four years and rest-assured they will continue but I would like to propose that we offer a greater variety of themed sessions next year to make sure that those colleagues who attend come away with real practical, take aways. We have a terrific community of practice in teaching and learning at Abertay and I think the time is right to think about how we can keep it fresh going forward. All ideas welcome!
I look forward to hearing from you,
How are your students coping? What’s the best way to find out?
In academic session 16/17 term 1, 6 module leaders and staff studying as students on the PGCert in Higher Education Teaching programme have participated in a trial using Bluepulse, a software platform designed to give students the opportunity to respond anonymously to questions regarding module content, administration and facilities; in addition students have 160 characters each day to ask any question or make a comment. The idea is that students will be able to give teaching staff feedback as they study their modules rather than waiting for a module questionnaire. Of course students can always speak to staff directly or e-mail them but students may be shy or think their question will make them look stupid, although we all know . . . there is no such thing as a stupid question.
We’ve learned a lot about how to introduce the tool and use it effectively and have reached out to Dr R Parrish Waters from University of Mary Washington for some ideas as he has been using Bluepulse with his students for over a year. Abertay staff have also provided tips on how they have used the tool.
Here are the Top Tips for a successful implementation
Make sure its appropriate for your module.
If you have a small cohort where you know communication won’t be a problem and your students are happy to talk to you and engage in discussion in class, Bluepulse probably isn’t needed. However, staff have reported it is sometimes difficult to get students to say they don’t understand content or articulate other problems. Think back to when you were a student, were you really comfortable speaking out in a lecture in front of your peers? Really? Bluepulse allows your students to voice any questions or problems without fear of embarrassment.
Know what you want to achieve
Dr Natalie Coull wanted to keep in touch with her large class of 169 students who she only saw in lectures; tutorials are run by Post Graduate Researchers. She asked questions via Bluepulse to gauge prior knowledge of the topic, the pace of the module and some content questions to help her to identify the topics students struggled with allowing her to provide targeted additional resources.
Dr Parrish Waters uses it to empower his students to give them control over the pace and content of the module. He has questions that he asks every week regarding engagement/ accessibility and following any high stake assessment he will ask students how fair they found the test, bearing in mind the materials provided. If he finds that he is getting negative feedback on the perceived accessibility of material because students are finding it too difficult, he tends to slow down and provide a review session.
Understand the software
Ensure you know how the software works. When you respond to students only the group of students answering a poll question saying “I’m really struggling” will see your response. Parrish says If you feel that the whole class has a problem because you’ve received a few comments on the same topic, take it back to the class and say “10 of you have indicated you have a problem with topic . . . so that probably means about half the class has the same problem, let’s go over it and here are some extra resources.”
How to introduce Bluepulse to your module
All staff who have used Bluepulse recommend introducing it in class. It has to be a “hands on” demonstration. You might like to ask a few questions gauging level of knowledge. Ask students to use their own devices to post responses and comments. Show students what you see when they answer poll questions and send comments. Students should check their devices to check what they see. You should check what students see too.
Get your students buy in to the process. Parrish says it’s important that students get something out of it. Let them know that they can dictate the pace and the scope of the course and that they will learn much more if they engage with it.
Keep up the Momentum
Natalie and Parrish agree it’s important to take 5 minutes at the beginning of each class to talk over the results of polls and questions you want to address with the class. This lets students know you are using Bluepulse and listening to them. The most time consuming part is responding to comments and questions, Parrish reports this takes him approximately 35 minutes each week. He says “It helps when the questions are humorous. “Students feel like it is a more informal environment, . . . it changes the tone to something that they are more willing to respond to” See example question below.
All participants noted that students had to remember to go into Blackboard and Bluepulse to post comments and see if there were any replies. Explorance who provide Bluepulse have promised daily and weekly summary email notifications will be available in the next couple of week.
Promote constructive comments
Staff commented prior to the trial that providing an anonymous feedback platform may lead to hurtful comments from students. This hasn’t materialised but a couple weren’t totally constructive. As part of introducing Bluepulse to students, remind them that they are partners with the institution in their learning, should behave professionally according to Abertay Attributes and be aware of Abertay’s social media policy which precludes online bullying. Staff have found by talking about the results of Bluepulse polls in class and feeding back on questions raised, students know they are talking to their tutor via Bluepulse and behave appropriately online.
Natalie reported that it did help the teaching team on her module keep in touch with student progress and identify topics causing difficulty. She intends to use it for the follow up module next term. Staff who did not get student engagement thought that perhaps their module did not lend itself to Bluepulse because the cohort communicated well and were already engaging in discussion forums, one thought the module topic didn’t lend itself to Bluepulse. Others felt that because the software wasn’t ready at the start of term it didn’t get the best introduction and that they had been on a learning curve regarding how to use it but are willing to try again next term.
PGCertHET students commented that although they experience difficulty getting students to communicate they don’t really want an anonymous backdoor for grievances, they would rather students discussed issues openly and that is the behaviour Abertay should be promoting. Bluepulse or other software should be used to initiate discussion in the classroom.
Parrish reported that “when asked in the end of module survey how students felt about Bluepulse, his students reported that they had ownership over the class, they felt that they had a voice and that I really responded. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. They say I engaged with them far better than any other professor they had had thus far. I think that it was down to the tool not just me .”
What did the students say?
Only 23 students responded but 79% of those student said it had made it easier to communicate with their tutor on the module, 73% that they would prefer to use Bluepulse to a mid-module survey, one saying, “Yes, better to have constant feedback and interaction.” When asked what would they change about Bluepulse they said “Make it more obvious”, “add notifications or reminders”, e-mail every week so you remember to fill it out”. When asked what other methods of feedback they would like to use that addressed issues on their mind the responses were mainly N/A, unsure, don’t know, can’t think of any. However, some suggestions were “paper”, “feedback week”, “having assigned contact time with the tutor” and “a discussion forum to allow students and tutors to openly discuss issues with the module or certain tasks. This also means that students can check if their question may have already been answered on the forum.”
The Bluepulse trial has demonstrated some success and will be continuing next term. It has raised a few issues we want to pursue further regarding engagement and student confidence. If you would like to join in the Bluepulse trial for your module, please contact Carol Maxwell (TELS Team Leader) on Ext 8892 or e-mail email@example.com
Many thanks to Bluepulse trial participants for their participation and feedback. Dr Natalie Coull, Dr Suzanne Prior, Dr Kate Smith, Dr Martin Watson, Mr Neil Berwick Dr Karen Mayer and all staff participating on the Abertay PGCert Higher Education Teaching programme. A special thank you to Dr R Parrish Waters from University of Mary Washington for sharing his experience with us.
by Gillian Hunter, Residences Officer in Estates and Campus Services.
I was recently awarded funding by the Robbie Ewen Fellowship to visit three very forward thinking institutions in the Netherlands to learn how they are redeveloping their campuses. Their philosophy is that any space on campus can be a potential learning space. This message, and their innovations, are inspirational and could inform our own ongoing campus redevelopment.
In a world of wireless connectivity – hybrid laptops, tablets and smartphones – our ability to interact with the world around us is quite literally at our fingertips. This interconnected ‘always on’ culture is having a positive impact on the educational establishment. Learning spaces are rapidly evolving in this digital era and are encouraging new pedagogical approaches that acknowledge this shift in the way students interact with knowledge, and the world around them.
Institutions in the Netherlands are very aware of the importance of employability, and forging the link between education, research and entrepreneurship is something that is profoundly influencing their campus redevelopments. They are providing facilities that encourage core entrepreneurial skills such as teamwork, partnership forming and flexible working – in a sense mimicking the environment of many workplaces. The new facilities on offer range from touchdown spaces (informal areas that encourage short duration working), upgraded project rooms and lecture theatres that enable collaborative working. Their new library facilities have a focus on a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) culture, transforming libraries into learning centres and focusing on the needs of students. Bold use of design is turning formerly ‘dead’ corridor spaces into vibrant circulation areas that not only encourage social interaction but are also used for informal meetings. Staff, students and external partners are using these spaces in ways that promote creative teamwork and improve the learning and teaching experience for students and staff alike.
One of the key things that emerged from my conversations with these institutions was that planning may not accurately capture the various ways in which students actually use these spaces, so the design must be left with enough flexibility so it can organically expand through student usage. It was also clear that a mix of flexible spaces allow for the best opportunities to learn.
Abertay is currently undertaking an exciting programme of redevelopment and we can certainly learn something from the example of the Netherlands. Indeed, the new active learning space and the redevelopment of several new laboratories shows that we were already moving in the same direction as these world-leading and innovative institutions.
By Alastair Robertson, Director of Teaching and Learning Enhancement
Last week Michael Turpie (Director of IS), Adrian Neville (Head of Estates) and I paid a fleeting visit to Maynooth University outside Dublin, in Ireland. The purpose of the visit was to check out their award winning library as part of our information gathering for ideas for Abertay’s library refurbishment which will take place in summer 2017. It is fair to say that the visit exceeded all our expectations!
On arriving at the University we were briefed on the context of the institution and the development of their new library which was completed in 2011/12. The drivers for change were to improve the learning environment but also the way in which students and staff work. Students at Maynooth had requested that the building be “green” i.e. environmentally sustainable but also, perhaps contrarily, more power outlets! Other requests were for the library to accommodate a diversity of learning preferences and environments: from silent study areas to technology-enhanced group working areas and more informal social learning/ chill out areas. In addition, they wanted longer opening hours (especially at exam times) and on site catering facilities. Staff were keen for the new library to also offer a dedicated PG/ staff area, meeting rooms, non-timetabled space and events space(s). The third key stakeholder in the consultations was the local community as the library has a strong local engagement and service function so a publicly accessible cafe and exhibitions area was built into the spec of the new build. Finally, and this was really apparent in our short time at the university- the library is intended to provide a key focal point and source of pride. Aentslmost everything that was talked about in the presentation resonated with what we are trying to achieve at Abertay, even when they talked about their current curriculum reform exercise and intention to provide students with greater depth and breadth (liberal arts-type education).
Briefing over, it was time to experience the library first hand with an excellent tour. Michael, Adrian and I were all suitably impressed in a variety of ways. I have included a number of images from our visit below to give you a flavour of the place. One thing which I cannot emphasise enough, however, was the vibe of the place- it was buzzing! I was really struck at how busy it was and the level of engagement of the students in the building-it was inspirational and consolidated in my mind the need for us to provide a much richer campus environment at Abertay for our students and indeed our staff.
We have made tremendous progress over the last few years and I am very proud of the quality of education we provide our students but I am also convinced that the projects which we have begun to re-invigorate our campus are essential and will help consolidate our position as Scotland’s leading modern University!
So, to conclude this short article I would like to thank all of the staff and students we met at Maynooth for their time, generous hospitality and inspiration. I would also like to say a special thanks to our host, the University Librarian, Cathal McCauley.
22nd November 2016
By: Dr Kenny McAlpine
Wisdom. Solomon had a surfeit; Curly, Larry and Moe, not so much. It’s something that we imagine we will all develop as time and experience ravage us – Stooges excepted, of course – and it’s a concept that’s becoming something of a hot topic in higher education. So began today’s Understanding ModernGov conference on Optimizing Higher Education Curriculum Design.
Hang on a minute, I hear you splutter indignantly at your keyboard, you can’t teach wisdom! It’s one of those things, like making a decent cup of tea, that depends on good judgement; an ability to draw on interconnections between disparate pockets of knowledge, situational awareness, and the contextual application of a bunch of related skills, and it’s very easy to get any one of those things wrong, as anyone who has witnessed the look of horror on my face as they’ve poured freshly boiled water directly onto tea leaves will – hopefully – have realized.
True, you can’t teach experience or good judgement, but you can provide opportunities for students to gain that experience, and, perhaps more importantly, to reflect upon it and feed back into their contextual and situational awareness when problem solving. That was the broad thrust of Alison Le Cornu’s opening session at the event.
Dr Le Cornu, a Consultant in Academic Practice at the Higher Education Academy, began by turning the notion of the constructively aligned curriculum on its head. We typically think of the curriculum in terms of three related ideas, perhaps best expressed as the why, the what and the how of teaching. Between them, these monosyllabic aides-memoires cover the learning aims and objectives, the syllabus and the pedagogic approach, but, she argued, in thinking about the curriculum in this way, we risk putting the cart before the horse: shouldn’t the curriculum be driven more by the qualities that we wish to emerge at the other end of the learning process than by the specific knowledge and skills that students will acquire along the way?
There are strong resonances here, of course, with our notion of graduate attributes. Dr Le Cornu’s argument, however, was that we should not be thinking about how we embed those graduate attributes in the curriculum, but rather that our curriculum, our whole approach to teaching and learning, in fact, should be in the service of those attributes.
It’s an idea that makes sense, although it’s not without its challenges. Those attributes might be realized in very different ways across disciplines, and their realization depends on a certain degree of disciplinary praxis. And people, annoyingly, are individuals, and don’t all respond equally well to a one-size-fits-all approach, so if the curriculum is to be conceived as the thing that facilitates the development of graduate attributes in individuals, then flexibility in the curriculum is essential to support their development. It helps to foster meaningful and deep engagement in a way that meets the needs of the students and develops in them the ability to be flexible themselves, responding to the flexibility in the supporting structures of the system to become flexible themselves in how they approach and respond to the world around them.
The question, then, is how do we achieve it? That’s not an easy question to answer. We, as academics, may well have a view on what graduate attributes look like in our own particular areas, and we might have good ideas about how to develop those qualities in our students, but so too might employers, professional or legislative bodies, or even – Heaven forbid! – the students themselves.
That idea, of working in partnership, was presented by Jess Sewter, Head of Partnerships & Placements, and Catherine O’Connor, Head of School of Arts and Communication, both of Leeds Trinity University. Ms Sewter and Ms O’Connor detailed how their university’s background as a small teacher training institution had provided a framework for a flexible approach to employer collaboration, with placement opportunities embedded as core elements within the curriculum during the first and second years of study. During their presentation, they outlined ten key principles that ensured student, staff and employer buy-in, with each stakeholder getting genuine value from the relationship, and – crucially – giving students multiple opportunities to contextualize their learning through practice, and consolidate and reflect on their experience through a sustained relationship with a professional partner. Individually, none of the points that Ms Sewter and Ms O’Connor raised were particularly groundbreaking, but collectively, they created an infrastructure that allowed for, as they put it, a whole-institution approach to supporting this aspect of student development.
Catherine Hack, currently a Consultant in Academic Practice with the HEA, brought a global perspective to the discussion. Internationalization, she argued, isn’t just about how we deal with international students coming to our campuses to study, and nor is it just about how we facilitate study abroad. It is about preparing students – all of our students – for living in and contributing to an increasingly-connected global society.
Of course, with the current trend, both politically and culturally, towards exclusionism and building walls, both real and metaphorical, never has it been more important to celebrate the richness of experience and broadening of perspectives that diversity brings. Dr Hack challenged us all to think about the four key areas in which internationalization might overlap with the notion of nurturing wise students: the ways in which students situate their learning within a global context; an understanding of how knowledge might be applied differently in different environments and communities around the world; the sheer diversity of cultural experiences that exist, and sensitivity towards one’s own place within and impact on the global landscape. Again, these are far-from-trivial things to address, but they are vital, and they depend on a triumvirate: the institution, the student and the curriculum all coming together to empower individuals as they negotiate their learning within that global landscape.
In the afternoon, Rafe Hallett, Director of Leeds Institute for Teaching Excellence, presented a fascinating session on new modalities of learning. There has been some talk – ever since hand-copied ecclesiastical Latin texts were supplanted bymass-printed tomes in the language of the hoi polloi, in fact – of how successive technologies have undermined students’ ability to read, understand and relate to information. The current outcry, driven by the explosion in digital communications technology, suggests that unfettered access to information promotes cursory, hurried reading, distracted thinking, and superficial learning.
That’s possible certainly, but it also encourages a form of digital bricolage, a creative culture of online assembly and exhibition that encourages collaboration and the construction of collective knowledge drawn from multiple sources. It is about scanning across media and across disciplines, not just within them. This isn’t just a youth phenomenon either. Lots of world-class research now focuses on visualization of complex data – dendrograms and sunburst diagrams, for example – that make research more accessible by offering different routes to datasets and which encourage different ways to engage with complex knowledge and information. Such approaches borrow conventions from many different disciplines; even the way we present research outcomes is becoming multi-disciplinary.
With that in mind, then, how do we design curricula that enable students to learn using the methods that are being readily adopted and celebrated elsewhere in academia? More importantly, perhaps, do we need an assessment revoluation? After all, if we fail to design assessments that legitimize these collaborative trans-media approaches to information construction and their use, students will learn to see learning as being something separate from the rest of their digital lives.
Ultimately, then, I came away from the event feeling quite stimulated and challenged. The key takeaway was that we should not just be encouraging learning, but we should be kindling a deep desire to learn, coupled with a nuanced understanding of the context in which that learning takes place. Curiosity, then, may well be the single most important thing that we can foster in our students, but that has to go hand-in-hand with the confidence to embrace and hold on to new experiences and the resilience to keep moving forward in the face of failure.
And finally, we come to the F-word. It’s vital to all of this. If we are to create confident and creative individuals who can push against both orthodoxy and orthopraxy, we must also capture the notion of the glorious failure. Often, we learn the most from reflecting on those times we fail, and the more spectacular the failure, the greater the potential gain from learning from it. But how do we account for that in a regulatory framework that gives academic credit only for success?
This, I think, brings us back full circle. What sort of graduates do we want to create? Confident, creatives who are equipped for and prepared to take calculated risks to better the world we all collectively share and inhabit, or students who are so risk-averse that they confine themselves to the targeted pursuit of a set of core knowledge and skills that may well be out-of-date by the time they graduate? What, I wonder, would Solomon do?
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.