Hidden values

Joshua Kim at Inside Higher Ed feels that those of us who write about ed tech should mind our manners a bit.  I want to like this argument a whole lot more than I do.  The appeal to collegiality and respect is a winner, and I do agree that right at this moment it could be painful to be watching the global ticker feed on online learning if that’s your line of work, especially if you’re still at the startup stage.

But the way his advice positions us as supplicants to the goodwill of LMS vendors has made even clearer that there’s a mile-wide gap between the parties in this potential partnership. He’s also missed a key point about current negative sentiment: we’re not necessarily cranky at specific LMS vendors, although sometimes we are, so much as at a general and often thoughtless enthusiasm for automated workflow that is not paying sufficient attention to how higher education actually works. Unless we can bridge this somehow, the prospect that the student experience will be transformed in good ways will remain very weak.

Kim is reacting, I think, to the intensifying confrontation between stakeholders in the technologisation of higher learning (university leaders looking for cheap alternatives to buildings, LMS vendors in the current land grab for market share, edupunks wanting to break the whole thing apart) and university teachers who feel that online learning threatens something vital that must be defended with increasing stridency:

A good teacher can also lead group activities that are both educational and interesting, not to mention virtually impossible to do online. When my wife was in college, she used to cook dishes from every country she studied in her world history courses and bring them into class. When I first heard David McCullough speak, I specifically remember him talking about how important it is to learn to read aloud. Just try doing that online!

I hope it’s clear to More or Less Bunk and his many supporters that I’m with them at the barricades when it comes to defending labour conditions against further deterioration, and preserving the standards and principles of good teaching. I just can’t get out a placard for these kinds of particularities, for the simple reason that for every excellent learning experience based on cooking, I’ve seen one based on the sharing of, say, an digital map of childhood memories that students located in different places have built together online. I’ve seen students light up at the sight of a published academic whose work they know arriving in their classroom, but I’ve also seen the exact same effect when that person joins them in an online chat from the other side of the world.

And while we wrestle over these told-you-so details, our students aren’t better off. In fact we may be leading many to feel that they need to adopt similarly emphatic positions.  So I’ve heard students tell me over and over without any direct personal experience what online learning is like, why we do it (cost reduction or work avoidance), and above all how impersonal it is and not like real communication—after which they go straight back to their online social lives.

So I’m relieved and impressed by three simultaneous calls for us to redirect our focus away from the technology and back onto what we do.  The first is from Tenured Radical herself, in the post mentioned yesterday, who writes:

Let’s think about whether the university actually saves money by going on-line, and under what conditions teaching and administrative staff cannot actually be replaced or reduced through technology.  In fact, in addition to the investment in hardware and technical staff, might shifting higher education to on-line platforms actually mean a greater re-investment in full-time, well-paid, highly educated labor, rather than the reverse, which is what many critics of higher education claim?

This is exactly the point that George Siemens is also making in an excellent discussion of the search for a new value proposition that will make higher education worth the debt:

Content is easily duplicated and has no value. What is valuable, however, is that which can’t be duplicated without additional input costs: personal feedback and assessment, contextualized and personalized navigation through complex topics, encouragement, questioning by a faculty member to promote deeper thinking, and a context and infrastructure of learning. Basically: human input costs make education valuable. We can’t duplicate personal interaction without spending more money. We can scale content, but we can’t scale encouragement. We can improve lecturing through peer teaching, but we can’t scale the timely interventions and nudges by faculty that influence deeper learning.

Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson in the Chronicle of Higher Ed are similarly interested in returning to a focus on what it is that skilful teachers do, as a counter to the rising panic about how they do it.

The trick is to figure out where the human beings on the faculty and staff can do the most good, and use that scarce resource well. At the same time, invest in developing high-quality interactive online teaching tools, and then use them on a large enough scale to defray the substantial development costs. This implies sharing the same or very similar materials across a range of institutions (much like textbooks), which will require overcoming difficult “not invented here” and related governance problems.

What all these three suggest to me is that if we’re going to start behaving like leaders, not followers, in the higher education field then we’re going to have to back ourselves, as Australian sports commentators like to say. This means being much clearer on the non-negotiable values expressed in the systems and solutions we design, and the ways in which we create opportunities for learning by combining all the resources available to us that we think will help us do this well, from cooking to mashups.

And it means, I think, allowing diversity itself to be one of those values. Some of us don’t mind online grading rubrics but others really do work more effectively using a red pen while sitting under a tree. Some teachers are skilled at leading writing-intensive interactions between students online, and others make the bricks and mortar classroom a place of unforgettable learning. None of us wants to force the style that works for one, on everyone.

So, an update to my never ending memo to the leadership: we’re all happiest when the diversity of our approaches matches the unanimity of our commitment to the same overall goals.  This means we need to tread very, very carefully when rolling out big, unifying systems, or devising grand institutional narratives in our IT strategic planning or standards. The value proposition in terms of what human teachers bring to learning must always be that we play best when we play to our strengths, irrespective of the tools we play with.

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