Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Proper live blogging

What an enjoyable way to spend a morning. A colleague doing PhD research on integrating IT into teaching (we call it 'blended learning', presumably because we mush it up to spoon feed the students) got me in, switched on a dictaphone and set me off. It was honestly like blogging in meatspace, and I duly rambled/ranted for 45 minutes without pause. Even better, I was rewarded at the end with a bottle of home-brewed Santa's Winter Warmer. In a bottle, that is, not a foaming pint at 10.45 a.m.

My thoughts on our IT-learning strategy aren't confidential… or original. I'm a fan, just a critical one. I blog, tweet and run discussion fora in the course of my teaching (in fact, I should be marking one right now).

However, I'm wary of the uncritical rush to incorporate IT into every corner of our activity. Some staff and students feel that pedagogical requirements come a very poor second to institutional pressures. Economic and spatial restrictions mean that some in higher management - many of whom are literally ignorant of IT's potential - see 'blended learning' as a way to reduce face-to-face contact, cut down on staff and economise on the use of teaching rooms: we're a large university in a very small space. So naturally, they think that a) all our students are online constantly, b) they'll be impressed if we do everything online and c) we'll save loads of money.

Wrong. Those teachers who use IT as a complement to in-person encounters are the experts. It works. A forum gives students the time and space to research ideas and discuss them with other people in their own space and time: my Shakespeare fora are creative, supportive and intellectually rigorous. But we know, and the students can tell, when IT learning is being used to cut corners. In the midst of the government's swingeing, Philistine attacks on education as a public good, it's important to say, over and over again, that education is not the linear transmission of data, a trap into which many IT-education boosters fall. True education is personal, messy, intellectually and emotionally demanding. It's a herd activity. Unintegrated IT is reductive and isolating. It assumes that education = facts, when in fact the free-flowing seminar should be at the heart of education. I can't tell from a forum post how a student is feeling about an idea or a text. I can't alter my approach or go off on a tangent if my students are posting at midnight, 4 a.m. or when I'm having breakfast. They can't tell me to slow down or speed up, nor can they direct the experience to so great an extent.

One anecdote springs to mind. When I did The Hegemon's postgraduate certificate in education (yes, students, I'm actually qualified!), the session leader proudly announced that in America, English essays were marked by machines, and that this would soon spread to the UK. To him, this was logical and convenient. Lots of students + few staff = a problem solved by software. My horror, to him, was the mark of the Luddite.  I think it's a monstrous idea. On a very basic level, students will be paying £9000 next year. Will they be pleased to know that their fees don't pay for an actual teacher looking at their work? I don't think so. A computer can't detect the subtleties of a student's creativity. It can't work out where the intellectual sticking points are, or remember that X wrote it while caring for a couple of children or that Y has a totally different viewpoint on the subject. It can't spot the qualitative difference between a good pastiche and a stumbling attempt at originality.

We have an official policy that 25% of all learning should be conducted electronically. I didn't know that learning could be quantified, but that's not the only problem. Why 25%? I don't know. It seems to be a magic figure dreamed up without regard for pedagogical research or the requirements of the people actually doing the teaching. There's a suspicion that we're in the hands of the neophiliacs: if it's new, it must be brilliant. This is why we had a Second Life presence - rapidly abandoned. That's why the institution has Facebook and Twitter pages which ignores the fundamental characteristic of those media: interaction. I think it's deeply patronising and reactionary to assume that our students will be impressed by IT as a primary medium: they're bright and know that some activities should be electronic, and others should be face-to-face.

What we need to successfully integrate IT into learning is research and a critical engagement with their wonderful possibilities. Without this, we become cheerleaders for 'efficiency', which means isolation, convenience, distancing ourselves from our students, and reductiveness.

Rant over.

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