Around ten years ago an IT-savvy colleague called me a shoveller. It was an accusation; that I was not rising to the challenges of e-learning because I was simply shovelling resources I had already developed (in a previous era) onto an e-learning space (like Blackboard). I was guilty as charged and I was grateful to him for alerting me to the need to curriculum-build from the ground up, and to accept that the principles of universal design applied equally to the world of IT as anything else.
Things have moved on apace in the last ten years; unfortunately my pace has been that of an asthmatic ant with heavy shopping (to quote Blackadder, Series 4). For example, this blog will contain no embedded links and no images. Perhaps I should apologise for that, but, on the other hand, I look at many blogs and see that the embedded links simply take me to sources that I could have got to via a traditional reference list, and the images…well, where do I start? Far too often for my liking I see a photo of a mountain next to a sentence about rising to a challenge, or a photo of a classroom because the author happens to be talking about education. As Billy Connolly once said about weather forecasters, I don’t need to see an icon of the sun to know what the real sun looks like. And here’s my point, is this really pedagogic progress or are we just – in the words of Neil Postman – amusing ourselves to death (Postman, 1985), this time through online learning?
I decided to write this blog because I know I’m a bit of a luddite, and I hope my thesis will prompt someone to counter each point with a solid anti-thesis. So, what is the thesis?: that we could be losing more than we are gaining through online learning, mainly because the technology is more advanced than we are, and we are finding it increasingly difficult to put it in its place – the cart is ahead of the donkey, so to speak. Naturally, the covid pandemic has forced even me to embrace the online technology, so a related question is whether we really are looking at the future or whether people will clamber for the good old hybrid days, if we’re ever allowed to get near each other again?
Let’s take zooming (by which I mean all similar video conferencing platforms). I think I’ve got on pretty well with it; I’ve even run a successful conference with it. Apart from anything else, attracting 600 conference delegates rather than the usual 150 was fantastic. But there did seem to be a lot of shovelling going on, where presenters presented in much the same way as they would have done face-to-face, or does that not matter? And in zoom discussions, is it me or do they often resemble an episode of the American sitcom Friends, where each of the six characters methodically take it in turn to say something? Indeed, the technology makes it hard for anything else to happen. Is that really what a conversation is like?
Haven’t humans invested thousands of hours in learning how read and decode face-to face conversations; learnt how to deal with the loudmouth and the interrupter and to gauge something about them from the way they present themselves? And don’t we learn huge amounts from reading body language; taking cues from eye contact; witnessing mirroring behaviours; and so on? Are we really exercising these skills even in synchronous video contexts? More generally, haven’t we become hard-wired to expect to be in the presence of others; to experience pleasure and pain from potential tactile encounters and receive olfactory sense data?
It is probably too early to fully assess the data which is coming in on how students are experiencing the new online university, and it will – no doubt – produce a complicated and contradictory picture. Yes, there are reports of students wanting their money back or at least a discount, but some of that probably relates to not getting what they were expecting, and it’s difficult to blame universities for having to adapt quickly in unprecedented times. Some students seem quite happy with their online experiences, but are disappointed about losing the more usual forms of networking and socialising. But some students seem quite happy about not having to come to campus very often. In the past many of these students would have been those juggling work and domestic commitments with their studies, but are some these students the ones who stand to benefit most from the traditional close contact with tutors – as evidenced by Graham Gibbs (2010)?
All of this begs the obvious questions about whether online tutorials can really enhance learning in the ways that Gibbs outlined, and whether we are now being forced into underplaying the richness of the networking which goes on around learning and teaching in higher education, including at conferences.
For me, I’m grateful that I can still run workshops and do talks via Zoom, but I hate not being able to take my traditional cues from the audience. I’m still doing a lot of spade work, but, looking around, I see a lot of others shovelling away (thank goodness it’s not just me). I continue to be unimpressed with Twitter because I don’t like having to wade through all the information and entertainment to get to some education, or even edutainment (or maybe I just need to be more discerning). And I worry about people being a little too enamoured by what the latest platforms can do, rather than whether they will truly enhance what we did without them (or am I just past my sell-by date?).
Gibbs, G. (2010) Dimensions of Quality. York: HEA.
Postman, N. (1985) Amusing Ourselves to Death. London: Penguin.
John Lea, Independent Higher Education Consultant