Flee to the high ground! A technology Tsunami threatening HE fast approaches!

On Thursday 21st June, I attended the JISC RSC East Midlands e-Fair – http://moodle.rsc-em.ac.uk/ – and was introduced to the indomitable and controversial figure of Bob Harrison – http://www.setuk.co.uk/ for the first time. Bob is an Education Advisor and Consultant with a distinguished pedigree in FE. Explosive from the start, he managed to entertain, inform and wind people up in his keynote speech – http://moodle.rsc-em.ac.uk/course/view.php?id=215, which is what you want from an opening presentation. I found myself agreeing with much of what he said, particularly his observations about the need for pioneers who address the analogue thinking which informs much educational technology policies. His call for such individuals was refreshing and had me totally captivated. However, in the back of my head I had this niggling voice that told me he was going to spoil it all by making grandiose claims about the zeitgeist defining powers of technology in education.It wasn’t long before my fears were realised when the usual slides of small children with iPads etc were flashed before us as evidence of the need for large scale change.  That wasn’t the biggest disappointment for me, though. That arrived when MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eW3gMGqcZQc – were touted as being the death knell of formal HE education as we know it. To quote Bob ““If you don’t see this Tsunami coming it’s going to wash you away in the waves.” As a result, I’m ashamed to say I inadvertently got into a bit of a Tweet-off with him, which I feel all got a bit silly in the end with requests for attrition figures etc. I can only guess that such figures, which can be got from the HESA website – http://www.hesa.ac.uk/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2064&Itemid=141 – , where going to be used to substantiate arguments about attrition rates on MOOCs and Derby. We shall never know as Twitter, which lacks the space needed to provide contextual clarity in such instances, died and by that stage had distracted me sufficiently so that I was unable to get on with an assignment I had intended to write. In fact, I was so distracted that I started venting my spleen, albeit it in a balanced way I hope, into this blog article. Every minute of my day thereafter was consumed by putting together a reply to the Tweets. I was so consumed with the need to write it that I got into the wrong car after a trip to Morrison’s, much to the dismay of the woman driving it and much to the amusement of my wife, who laughed so much I thought she was going to go into early labour. Fortunately, I wasn’t pepper sprayed and the police didn’t need to be called.

Anyway, this isn’t a dig at Bob because I genuinely found a lot of his arguments compelling and hard to disagree with. I also enjoyed his gruff Northern honest-to-God way of telling it straight. In fact, I hope someday we can get him over to Derby to speak to the staff. In this post, I just want to highlight the issues I have with what seemed like another example of the never-ending cudgelling face-to-face formal education is consistently subjected to by sections of the eLearning community. A lot of these conclusions reached appear to be founded on the premise that because 120, 000 sign up for large scale online courses this is a measure of success. I find this startling because time and again people fail to question the quality of the learning as they are so caught up in the enormity of enrolment numbers, attrition rates etc. Quantity can only be used as a yardstick for success for so long before people start asking probing questions about the quality of the learning experience being received. A happy medium between attracting and keeping the numbers of students needed to ensure survival and deliver top quality learning experiences needs to be found.

Often eLearning phenomena such as MOOCs are couched in a rhetoric which seems hell bent on denigrating face-to-face modes of delivery as anachronistic throwbacks to a dark and less enlightened period in history. It may not be the intention of those who make such utterances to do so, although I suspect it may be at times, but it does do damage. For me, it does harm on two levels. Firstly, it can make those who are suspicious of technology even more intransigent and militant, making my job as a learning technologist difficult. Secondly, it provides those commentators in positions of influence, loved up on the notion of technology-enhanced everything, with platforms on which to disseminate their skewed views of reality. As with the Twitter thread yesterday, the detail is often missing and people won’t always persist until it becomes clear. Circulating such divisive discourses demonises those who don’t feel the need to prostrate themselves at the altar of eLearning, which many evangelists urge us to do. It also relegates the emotional work of teaching to a perfunctory act as technology takes centre stage.

I found Bob’s rabble-rousing clarion call for revolution slightly hard to take, especially when the picture of Lenin was flashed up on the same slide as a logo for Toshiba. While the image of old Vladimir was undoubtedly added for dramatic effect, it does highlight how extreme ideological doctrines promoting a “this-is-how-it-is” view of the world can always be contradicted as they adjust to incorporate or be incorporated by more dominant ideologies. Sooner or later they have to acknowledge that the world we live in is not one in which everything can be rationalised and explained in tidy soundbites created for mass consumption. It’s a messy unpredictable kaleidoscopic landscape, cluttered with all sorts of ideological oddities, each resonating with people in different ways.

I’m not a revolutionary and if I had to apply a label to sum up who I am, then I’d say I’m a contrarian; one with a deep seated suspicion of ideologues and their associated ideologies. The problem with revolution is, as history has repeatedly shown, they never maintain the state of perpetual rotation needed to safeguard against tyranny. More often than not one form of despotic regime is replaced by another, which is exactly what will happen if we don’t stop creating unnecessary dividing lines between different modes of learning. At Derby, I’ve been lucky enough to work with tutors from a wide range of subject areas who bend over backwards to ensure their learners have the opportunities to engage with modes of learning in a range of formats. The emphasis is on learning and they use whatever it takes to meet their learners’ needs, however best they can. It may be online, face-to-face or a mixture of approaches, but they never lose sight of what is important; the learning experience. This is how it should be and in my role I will do all I can to ensure it continues.

As a way of finishing, I just want to reiterate that I wholeheartedly embrace the use of technology to support learning, so long as there is a legitimate place for it. However, I feel more consideration needs to be given to teachers’ beliefs about pedagogy and the role of technology when implementing it. Rolling out large scale technology inspired initiatives, which fail to provide adequate support and development opportunities, can leave individuals feeling their very identities as teaching professionals are under threat. Where threat exists, people find different ways of coping; one form of which is dropping out. A less than desirable situation for all concerned, not least the students. Care needs to be taken to ensure that technology does not lead to such occurrences. After all, when and if the tsunami comes, all electrically powered technologies will be rendered useless as the water levels rise. Should this happen we will be forced to rely on caring, inspiring, innovated and committed individuals to teach in water logged environments devoid of technology-enhanced props.

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