Wednesday, 1 July 2009

i Pods and Rhetoric

The conference started in earnest this morning and the main theme was quick to emerge. There is a real crisis in HE as we try to understand and incorporate the new technologies which are driving so much of our students understanding of the world. Delegates lined up to tell stories of integrated pod casts, text polls, wikis and avatars. The race is on to 'outsmart' the technology and be on the level with the students. At best this challenge supports learning in ways that replicate the change in mindset that the new technology has undoubtedly brought, at it's worse it's an envious desire to infiltrate and control a world that has partly evolved in opposition to academic elitism.

I'm a little skeptical, partly because I'm an immigrant to the new world surrounded by native students who, as Matt pointed out in our own staff training last week, where born with a mouse in their hands. I may be able to learn some of these languages, but my brain is not programmed to move with the nuances and developments. I can also see a black hole opening up at the core where we stop creating meaning based on a palpable understanding of the world and instead hide away from war, poverty, climate change, genocide in a labyrinth of clever conceptual virtual truth. If someone is starving you feed them. If someone is cold you share your blanket. I don't think these things are relative and in so much I find myself in partial support of a more fundamental, and to my mind compassionate, way of passing knowledge from one generation to another.

However the opportunities do exist for a different form of relationship between teachers and learners and some of the formal processes that maintain tradition and hierarchy may be about to be swept aside. I'm in favour of having sessions for staff run by students, who know exactly how to join up the dots and make the most of their social networks and portals. It seems to me that learning is undergoing profound changes, and many of them, which look at working together, are for the greater good. A website like wikipedia isn't so much a dodgy encyclopedia as a process of collaborative meaning making with an ability to democratically create and dissolve information on a particular subject. A fluid way of refining and debating truths, in which millions of people make small, but significant contributions. It's peer learning and the future of university may be to offer the facility in which students come with ideas and are given the support guidance and resources to enable them to flourish. If it means that communities come together an develop greater awareness of the structures needed to live together so much the better.

In all this the individual and his or her sense of ownership has lost value. The net has created a democratic resource which priorities retrieval over knowledge. It gives us an architecture for participation and perhaps this means creativity will come to the fore as increasingly flexible, experiential learning represents the preparation students need to make an impact in society beyond the academy.

It's impossible not to roll with the changes. On average during term time students are in class for only 7.2% of their time. At St.Mary's because of our commitment to training this rises to 11.2%. This is negligible compared to the hours many students spend each day social networking. The trick is not to be trendy, but to anticipate how we can utilise these new resources in the most exciting way.

Late on in the afternoon I dropped in on a paper delivered by Michael Burke from the University of Utrecht who championed a return to teaching classical rhetoric. It was a convincing case for providing students with a secure grounding in the European traditions of logos, ethos and pathos. It seemed to offer a protection against being duped and paradoxically an exciting counterpoint to the shiny toys of the digital age.
At nightfall we had a drinks reception at Manchester's spanking new exhibition space Urbis, gleaming and glassed next to the red brick of the Cathedral and Cheethams School. It's a beautiful space, exquisitely designed and tonight hosting a wonderful exhibition of photographs of hidden Manchester, a back stage look at the abandoned sewers, locked rooms and unused spaces left behind as the city pushes ever forward. One image was of a cobwebbed attic high in tower of the town hall in which hundreds of civic records from the eighteenth and nineteenth century lie waiting in entropy and neglect; their beauty unquestioned but their active function long forgotten. It was a poignant image with which to end the day.

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