Why have an exam? Why have a lecture? Why have a seminar? These learning activities in their traditional sense are not available right now so pretty much every education institution in the world are looking for alternatives…
Exams, lectures, labs, seminars are deeply embedded into higher education culture. I have long been a proponent of the digital being embedded in the whole learning experience, whether that be on campus or in the kitchens, spare rooms and train journeys of learners. I have worked in digital learning since 2006, completed my undergraduate degree ‘online’ with the Open University and without the internet certainly wouldn’t be 4 years into a part-time PhD. A simple and coherent approach to accessing learning materials I believe shouldn’t distinguish between education administrative systems of ‘part-time’, ‘full-time’, ‘distance’, ‘campus’. After all, every student when they leave the campus (for the holidays or during the outbreak of a global virus pandemic) becomes a distance learner. Let’s be clear, I’m not a digital or nothing evangelist here. I don’t think Microsoft Teams will revolutionise education anymore than the face to face ‘experience’ is the premium. Maybe it’s finally the time to have a balanced perspective with some nuance.
Education is currently a socially distanced experience through no choice of universities, teachers or students. Schools are in the same position. Despite some initial huffing, puffing and will power not to scream ‘I told you so’ when it comes to digital and distance learning, those working in digital education across the sector are playing a huge part in helping to drive and support creative ways to get learning and teaching far and wide in these difficult times.
Martin Weller, Professor of Educational Technology at the Open University originally expressed some cynicism about distance learning’s “enforced” rise to prominence in 2020, but then saw the current crisis as an opportunity to share experience, knowledge and skills to help. Professor Weller’s first blog on Covid-19 offered support for educators with a whole host of resources to ‘#pivotonline’. Martin also recognised that many students were also new to online distance learning and provided some great resources for them too (gen z, millennials, digital natives etc, also need help with digital technologies. They aren’t born with the skills of a computer programmer and digital designer as some might have you believe). The flood of great advice and support continues on Twitter with #pivotonline.
It is difficult to add to anything that has not already been said by the Twittersphere or my colleagues over in University of Birmingham HEFi digital and many others. The great news is that there is some great advice and support out there for academics and students.
I would however, like to stress that this is not something new
- In my own research on the discourse of part-time higher education Harold Wilson, in 1963 enthused about the white heat of technology and the opportunity to take education to the masses through radio and TV technologies.
- In 1981, philosopher of technology, Andrew Feenberg pioneered distance learning with a community of professionals through dial up modem at the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute (WBSI).
- 1983 hit film Educating Rita romantically told the story of working class hairdresser (played by Julie Walters) studying for a part-time degree with a cliched alcoholic Professor (played Michael Caine). The 80s was a boom time for distance learning.
- 2012, according to the New York Times was ‘the year of the MOOC’.
“The shimmery hope is that free courses can bring the best education in the world to the most remote corners of the planet, help people in their careers, and expand intellectual and personal networks.”New York Times, 2012
Yet, still ‘online’ is perceived as second best by many, fine for those who can’t take the premium on campus ‘experience’. Extreme, binary discourses such as this and the polar opposite of digital technology fixes everything regardless of the social, surely in 2020 should be blurred, nuanced and part of just what we do – the postgital.
Author, journalist and ‘ping pong guy’ Matthew Syed is equally interested in such rebel thinking. Here, Syed writes for the BBC on some of the innovations that are taking place at this time of worldwide crisis. He looks at “assumption reversal” which the ‘why’ people are constantly doing, asking why something is the way it is and then coming up with creative responses.
We are all being forced to do things differently which are a bit out of our comfort zone but this is an opportunity for a new conversation about digital, not extremes of arrogance and physical classroom superiority or technology fandom which solves every problem we have without regard for social impact.
Why have an exam? Why have a lecture? Why have a seminar? We can, but are they the right way of doing what we want to achieve in the best way? They may well be, but let’s ask ‘why’.
Stay safe everyone.