Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Academia and New Technology (I)

I've been prompted to think about the question of how teaching in the university today can be, and is, connected to the rise of the Internet and new media outlets by a couple of things. On the one hand, there is my own practice, which has begun to engage with the rise of such new outlets. Evidently I write this blog. I also run a website which has a number of links to further resources additional to those distributed during the course and which presents pieces of mine that have not been published elsewhere. All of this material is open access. Similarly I Twitter. The combination of these three elements surely indicates an engagement with new technology, an engagement intended both to ensure that there is further material available for my students and to enable greater engagement with a community beyond my university and its students.

Additionally, however, I am aware both that my standard activity as a lecturer remains stubbornly locked in the past in a manner well parodied by Michael Wesch. More importantly, however, I have been awakened to the need to think through these questions by a series of postings from David Campbell, including this one and the article form of it he has made available as a link to a more recent posting. There are so many questions that emerge from these postings of Campbell's that it will take at least a couple of postings to respond.

One of the key components of Campbell's analysis of the impact of the new information technologies is that they have ensured a break between information and distribution. In relation to the general mass media this is fairly easy to see since there is no need for one specific form of distribution of information any longer. Newspapers, TV, radio, cinema, all, as specific mediums, have clear limitations and the rise of networks of information that can go through and beyond them has inspired widespread talk of a "crisis of journalism" and campaigns by Rupert Murdoch, in particular, for the re-introduction of firewalls around information, effectively imposing a tariff on its circulation. Campbell is, not surprisingly, both sceptical as to the potential success of this attempted re-imposition of tariff walls and, furthermore, committed to the importance of open source information, not least because it ensures that each part of information circulated can, thereby, attract commentary, potentially in the process enabling contributions that can enrich the original.

The discussion of the old forms of media and how they are impacted by the rise of new networks of information is one thing, and something that will certainly keep the contributors to such media busy. However, it is quite a different thing to try and assess the impact of these new media on the activities of academia. There are two specific areas that Campbell addresses and which are worthy of further discussion and analysis. On the one hand, and this was also the point of the contribution of Wesch, there is the impact on teaching and learning. On the other, there is the impact on research and production of new academic content. In this posting I'll concentrate initially just on teaching, leaving the impact on research for the next posting.

In the area of teaching and learning the break between distribution and information that Campbell is speaking about is very evident. Lectures, as a form, are increasingly threatened. Jeff Jarvis points out that, for example, there are now many excellent lectures available free on-line in relation to a whole host of subjects. Some are distributed on YouTube, others freely available on the web-sites of the universities where the lecturer is employed. In this situation, Jarvis suggests, perhaps it would be better simply to allow students to access this material and then try to add value on top of it. The availability of lectures on-line is not the only problem. There are also reference works, of very differing quality out there. In the area of philosophy there is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and, as we are all well aware, Wikipedia. Along with such services there is an epic increase in plagiarism since, if information is what is required from the students, there is every incentive for them simply to find sources that already possess it and simply reproduce it.

What this disconnect between information and distribution at the academic level of teaching and learning suggests is two things. On the part of the learner, something needs to be given to them that is different from what they can just pick up elsewhere without the lecturer or university having really contributed anything. They need somehow to be engaged with a process that is specific to their encounter with the university and the lecturer, something that they cannot find just "out there". On the part of the lecturer, there needs to be developed some kind of strategy of engagement with the students. It isn't simply a problem with the students if they don't engage. There must also be, in some sense, a problem with the lecturers and with the universities.

Addressing this situation is, naturally, much more difficult than diagnosing it. The attempt to resolve the problems by talking about, for example, distance or on-line learning, does very little. Partly because, as Campbell acutely points out, it tends to mean little more than re-designing the university web-site and even viewed in such a minimal light is typically less than effective. Engaging students with producing on-line material, as is sometimes suggested, is potentially better but still leaves them treating existent material in much the same way as traditional books and articles. Given these problems it is not that surprising that there are multiple cases of argument for what amounts to the abolition of the university both from the standpoint of business and from Marxists and even reached the pages of the New York Times. Whilst these positions are, unsurprisingly, very different in terms of the point of their criticisms of the university as it stands at present, there are some important points in common between them. There is, on the one hand, the clear view that the structured separation of teacher from learner is one that belongs, in some sense, to the past (as Jarvis puts it to the mass production era). Secondly, there is the sense of a crisis in disciplinarity (particularly marked in the NYT piece).

The reasons why there is a perceived "crisis" in the university model of teaching turn out to be very similar to the reasons why there is taken to be a "crisis" in journalism. There are, on the one hand, the effects of the circulation of information bypassing points of distribution (so the lecturer no longer possesses a privileged role in relation to the student). On the other, the ability to line up teaching and learning with the new technologies is effectively being by-passed in most institutions though, intriguingly, this is not so in the most prestigious ones which are quite happy to allow open access to lectures in the form of videos, mp3 files and iTunes U. Jarvis' argument that universities generally embrace the best material already extant and then add to it is one means by which this teaching and learning situation could be addressed. The other way is for lecturers generally to engage more widely in more diverse forms of distribution of information themselves rather than simply relying on the passive setting of lectures. This does, however, require two things from universities: firstly, time for training and engagement of lecturers in new means of communication and, secondly, reward structures that engage those prepared to do this. It would also be helpful to engage lecturers who are really involved in research and to take seriously the commitment of teachers to produce good research so that they are not simply adding to the material of others but producing good material of their own. That, however, would be the topic of a separate posting.

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