29 November 2011

Pessimist or realist?

Maybe it's just because it's the festive season, and maybe there's a change in the air, but this week I have come across two articles dealing with similar issues - one serious, one very silly. Both gave me comfort.

I have long lamented the tendency among those of my tribe who proselytize, touting the bright-shiny things in a firm belief, unquestioned and unqualified, that more technology in education is the thing. These colleagues are people I love dearly for their passion and their knowledge about the detail of the code and the finickity specifications of the widgets. These colleagues know, deep in their hearts and in every atom of their being, that they hold the key to better student engagement and much higher quality learning - and that the key is digital technologies in teaching and learning.

I'm not so sure. I'm the one on the side, asking questions like "Is there another, simpler way to achieve the end? Is this new bright-shiny absolutely robust and reliable? Where do the less confident go if they can't figure out how to work it?" and "Which is the best tool for the task I have on the table right now?".

Now I have a label for myself.  Neil Selwyn calls me 'pessimistic'. In defining the term, he writes: "... pessimism ... is not "a dogmatic blanket negativity towards education and technology", but while it "allows room for an acceptance that specific things are getting better", the "pessimistic educational technologist ... accepts that digital technology is not bringing about the changes and transformations that many people would like to believe".

And so it is, here in the world I live in, embedded as I am in an academic organizational unit that is responsible for teaching the business disciplines in a research-intensive university. That is why I am sometimes perceived to be anti-technology: I do not adhere to the belief that increased use of digital technologies in education is automatically followed by an improvement in quality in teaching and learning, even if the technologies are wielded expertly. I would call myself cynical rather than pessimistic, but the idea is the same.

Selwyn writes:
"Surely, there is nothing wrong with attempting to develop realistic and honest ways of working with digital technologies in education that involve thinking the worst (rather than the best) of them. Of course, that would mean reorienting the educational technology mindset so that it is accepting the social world as it is and is comfortable in its inability to offer definite technological answers to what are indefinite problems. This would therefore mean refocusing the imaginations of educational technologists away from some of the wilder 'science fictions' of their particular areas of education, technology and society."
Fabulous thinking. His editorial is in the latest edition of the British Journal of Educational Technology (see below for the full citation).

The other academic piece that has made my day is Jon Baggaley's article in Distance Education: "Flexible learning: a Luddite view" (full reference below). Tongue in cheek, he writes:
"... I confidently look forward to the day when inflexibility, and its by-products IL [inflexible learning] and OM [obduracy maintenance], will be lauded as redeeming educational solutions. In anticipating that future, it is recommended that educators should celebrate the inherent inflexibility of their colleagues rather than lamenting it, and should stimulate inflexibility in teaching and learning by the development of IL centres, intervention programmes, journals, profeissional associations, and events."
He goes on to remind us of the motto for the new Society for Inflexible Learning: non inflexibilitas sed constantia ("not inflexibility but regularity").

I like it. I plan to order a badge for Christmas.

Baggaley, J (2011). Flexible learning: a Luddite view. Distance Education, 32(3), 457-462.
(Thanks to Tony Bates for mentioning this one in his regular blog at http://www.tonybates.ca/.)

Selwyn, N. (2011). Editorial: In praise of pessimism - the need for negativity in educational technology. British Journal of Educational Technology, 42(5), 713-718.
(Thanks to my colleague James M. for bringing this one to my attention.)

27 November 2011

As 2011 comes to a close

Well, here I am at the end of November, and I really don't know where the second half of this year went.  Still, the year has gone well. Back on the home farm (in the university that buys most of my time), we've made some useful progress, tidying up our curriculum documentation and spreading ideas of clear learning outcomes and alignment with assessment. Some of my academic colleagues have been lucky enough to work on their lecturing skills in the lecturing as performance courses run by the wonderful Amanda Burrell of Captivus. It looks as if she will be working with a couple of new groups next year, which is fabulous news. I had some success in introducing blended and flexible ways of teaching to the academic community in my hometown in a range of different ways, sometimes by pretending I'm going to run a training session on Moodle and surreptitiously sneaking in ideas of learning design and task sequency, and sometimes by focussing on the bright-shiny things that come labelled "Technology".

This three-pronged approach to the support of university teachers in my part of the University has prompted me to think about the current divides that exist, at least operationally, in most Australian universities: the divides between those who teach face-to-face and those who teach online, between the academic developers (often employed as academics) and the educational designers / developers (often employed as general staff), between those who attend the ASCILITE conference and those who attend the HERDSA conference ... and between - well, fill in the gap with your own example here.

This divide, it seems to me, is particularly obvious - and damaging to progress - in the Australian research-intensive universities. I haven't yet been able to think of a way to break down those barriers, but perhaps tomorrow, when the world has evolved, someone will find a way.

Most of the university teachers I encounter are so flat out working on their research that they barely get time to think about their teaching. If they do find time to think about their teaching, they don't know if they should be interested or good at it; if they are good at it, they don't know if they should be proud of the fact; if they are proud of their expertise, they don't know whether they should tell anyone or keep quiet about it for fear they'll be perceived as dilettante researchers.

That's a great shame ... and I suspect would come as a considerable shock to most parents of undergraduate students.

In the meantime, in the interests of getting on, I've prepared my draft operational plan for 2012, which is looking good.

I'm off to the ASCILITE conference in Hobart next week, so should have some new and exciting ideas to report from there - at least one or two, anyway.

I've started to build a Moodle site with some very practical ideas for unviersity teachers, but that hasn't progressed very far, so I have little to report on that. That should be available quite soon, but not just yet.  Access will be available on request, as I will need to create the user accounts and send interested parties a password. There's something very empowering about being Queen of my own Moodle nation, with the power to issue passports / passwords. If you want one, just ask.

I have a half-written paper on university teachers and professional judgement ... that will have to be finished next year now.

There are a few other things in the oven, too. More of those later.