Showing up

At the midpoint of the LMS evaluation marathon, I’ve been cooling my heels with an appropriately dressed colleague at the “social media in higher education” professional conference previously mentioned.

What’s the difference between a professional conference and an academic/disciplinary conference?  Just about everything, from the business attire dress code to the regularly refreshed glasses of iced water and the bowls of mints and the corporate pens and the sit down lunch and the fairly decent coffee with little pastries and the preloaded slide shows for seamless transition between speakers and the music at interval, and that’s all before we get to the twice-daily reminders to fill out the minute and separate evaluation of every speaker, every session chair, every aspect of the room, the management of the conference itself, and anything else that comes to mind.

Still, I’m left with some questions.  The message emphasised by all the speakers is that three modes strongly associated with learning and student communication are going the way of vinyl, and the losers are … lectures, email and the big one-size institutional LMS.  These are pretty riveting predictions, in terms of the major institutional investments in at least one of these, if not the whole trifecta. But it turns out that students find all of them as engaging as cold soup.

If these three practices are so obviously not engaging, why are universities still betting the bank on them?

In reverse order, I think it might be a bit like this.  First, like all very big things, the one-size enterprise LMS can be looked at from a number of angles, and it’s this scale that enables it to appear as a wildly innovative game-changing disruptive technology, a business basic, and a poorly supported, badly designed nanna phone, all at the same time. The latter view carries the least weight, because it’s based on the everyday experiences of ordinary users: very few senior decision-makers have active and ongoing need to use the local LMS for anything at all, let alone to engage and manage four hundred first year students.  So the one-size LMS is a safe bet for some time.

Then there’s email. It’s true, overall use is patchy, and wearing thinner. Students who do use email efficiently and well often don’t use the account you think, especially if it’s a university account. So while academics are flat out trying to outrun the email avalanche, students resent being expected to deal with it at all:

The generation now in high school and college sees email as, at best, a necessary evil.  Email is something that parents and schools and bosses make you do against your will.  In a recent New York Times story on the topic, one 17-year-old high school senior was quoted as saying about email, “it’s so lame”.

Hooray.  They may yet save us from ourselves.

But the prediction that interests me most is that the face to face lecture is history.  Why, we were asked, should students show up at all, when either the actual class content or even a superior version of it is more conveniently available online? (Fellow worrier, More or Less Bunk, has taken this up too, or at least a version of it, when he addresses the question of why students should drive all the way to class to take a history lesson when all the relevant facts are at their fingertips via Google before they set off from home.)

Here’s the thing.  Why was this prediction put forward so often by speakers who were addressing a live audience in 50 minute presentations using, almost exclusively, Powerpoint? Does this mode of delivery seem at all familiar to anyone? And why were the audience sitting there, even those of us who were using odd moments of inattention to try to fend off email in the background?

Because showing up is built into the business model of professional conference organisers, just as it is of universities.  Co-presence (lots of people showing up at the same time and place) visibilises the organisers’ investment in buildings, catering, infrastructure, services, heat, lighting, human resources.  Our showing up is precisely what justifies the fee. That’s why professional conference organisers and universities use the same event evaluation instruments with the same degree of fervour: we both need to show that we’re champions at providing value for the effort of showing up, so that new audiences/students will show up to the next thing we do. CRM101.

And this is also exactly why we continue to timetable lectures and plan our teaching strategies around them, ignoring everything we know about demand for lectures or learning outcomes associated with being lectured at.  As Dean Dad explains, universities are currently having a problem with something called Baumol’s cost disease. In any service industry where the value or benefit of the service provided doesn’t increase much over time, but the delivery cost has to rise in step with the overall labour market, then
something has to be done either to manage those rising costs, or to justify them. Casualisation is a familiar strategy to try to cut back on actual costs while delivering the same service, ideally concealing the strategy itself from the customer.

The reverse strategy is to make sure the high cost of labour is highly visible. And maybe this is one answer to the mystery of the lecture’s resilience as a teaching mode. The bottom line is that week after week, it’s the showcase in which the expensive salaried labour shows up in public. This keeps the lecture safe, along with email and the big, fat LMS, even though secretly we’re using social media as workarounds for all three.

So, business as usual.  For now, anyway.

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