Periods of financial uncertainty and casual political ruination can do strange things to good ideas. Rarely they can refine or perhaps redefine them, but all too often they can be ridden bridle deep into clod. Does anyone remember blended learning? Back in 2003, when the Black Eyed Peas were asking where the love was (it’s certainly not in 2012, will.i.am) and I commuted to JISC every day in a mauve Cavalier “Expression”, blended learning was obviously the perfect transformational convergence of technology into teaching. The Fergie and will.I.am of educational delivery strategy and I had the Venn diagram to prove it.
Fast-forward nearly ten years and what happened? The Cavalier “Expression” has long since limited its edition in a provincial scrap yard, The Black Eyed Peas have stopped the party and are on an indefinite hiatus and I haven’t shown anybody the Venn diagram since I produced it dog-eared and feculent in a departmental meeting and had a faux homemade cookie pitched at my naïve face. Boom Boom Pow.
So, Donald Clark, the University of Derby Online (UDOL) Conference. For those of you who don’t know Donald, he’s a self-styled bullshit samurai, a one man bespectacled slaughter-house of sacred cows and he’s coming to a lecture theatre near you. I like Donald.
His shtick is that lectures prop up a hopelessly outdated pedagogic technique, paraphrasing his Harvard friend, the physicist Eric Mazur, “the lecture is the transfer of notes of the lecturer to the notebook of the student, without passing through either”. Make sense?
Well, yes. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that many aspects of “the lecture” aren’t fit for purpose and never have been, irrespective of technology or the lack thereof. Episodic and semantic memory we are told are best served by a tautologous “multi-modal” approach, which is crudely put, to do the same thing again and again in as many different ways until it “sticks” to your frontal lobes like a homemade cookie. Yet the lecture gives us a single chance, one bite of the cherry and if we don’t get “it”, tough! Analogously speaking, the equivalent of an author reading their book out-loud once, you don’t get a copy! We learnt this apparently from German psychologist and specialist in recall, Ebbinghaus in 1885. I learnt it from Wikipedia.
Not content with a single pronged assault, Donald Tasers the lecture with a swift, flanking pincer movement along the learning curve, by rallying social learning theory. The lecture is the opposite of a social experience. The lecture is, if you like, anti-social and students become anti-social because of the lecture. They don’t sit together; they leave an empty chair for their laptop rucksack between themselves and the alienated being “next” to them. The chairs are bolted to the floor and the whole thing resembles a “sans comic” Socratic amphitheatre where our flock are ritually bored and made ritually boring. You could cut the atmosphere with an acetate.
So, how can technology improve this situation? Well, we can video lectures, in fact Donald tells us that it’s criminal that not all lectures are filmed, in fact he goes further and tells us that it’s better to see a “first-class” lecture on video than in the flesh. Presumably this would make Ebbinghaus a very happy man. As an avid TED viewer and subscriber this appeals to me and presumably my episodic memory. Although could we, as Donald says, scrap the lecture completely and survive as an educational institution?
Statistically, 200,000 students at the Open University suggest that we could; the lecture is dispensed with yet student satisfaction is undeniably very high. But unlike the OU we are beholden to an age-old estates agenda, which continuously reinforces the lecture paradigm by flexing its capital muscle in building expenditure. Like most Universities, our campuses are huge, yet in “teaching spaces” occupancy is often undeniably low. How can we counter this problem, if indeed we ever accept that it is one? Over the last year LEI have introduced B226 as an innovative teaching space and if you’ll allow me to make the leap, helped to explicitly bring the blended approach back to the table in terms physicality. That is, the room actively encourages blended learning.
By establishing a new distance online business unit, University of Derby Online (UDOL), there is a potential risk that the wider University will once again unwittingly play a reductionist role in defining “e-learning” as a distance delivery methodology rather than a catch-all for the blended approach. Over the past five years and in various guises, the Learning Technology Team have made great strides in supporting tutors to embed technology into face to face teaching practice, whilst simultaneously assisting them in the tutoring of a distance cohort, sometimes in the same module area! Although an antiquated academic workload model often impeded both, common consensus suggested that the closer “distance” and “face to face” were in terms of content and cohort, the richer the experience. Consequently, the blended model, which had become the inherent way in which we designed and delivered content, may once again have to be the creatively fertile “differentiated learning” turf that we stick our flag into!
Blended learning always was a good idea and the polemic approach of Donald, last Monday, made me recall those halcyon days of the Cavalier and the Venn diagram, but the context of Donald’s “lecture” (oh, the irony!) troubled me. With the advent of the University of Derby Online (UDOL), LEI have to make sure that they (we) are in a position to transmit good-practice between on-campus and online provision and not let dissonance between delivery mechanisms become the standard in pedagogic design. If we can do this effectively then I think the blended approach can be re-established as a dominant force in content creation, but perhaps more importantly it can be the model which serves as an interface between UDOL and the wider university as a whole. I can feel a new Venn diagram coming on!