Thursday, 10 June 2010

The Hierarchy of Digital Distractions.

Today was staff training day and once again we explored ways to incorporate e-learning and digital technology into our teaching. It's a knotty problem made more difficult by nobody seeming to know the scale of the cultural shift that new technologies have brought. Has there been a seismic shift sweeping away all the perceived wisdoms of the traditional lecture and seminar? Or is social networking just a different sphere, good for communication but offering very little as a teaching resource?

We had two keynote lectures. The first, ironically, heralded the death of the key note lecture... unfortunately we didn't have the right software downloaded on the computer for the visiting expert to demonstrate what would replace it. So a lecture it had to be.

Skepticism aside I think we are fairly conservative about the new initiatives - not because we're not open to the potential opportunities but rather because we believe in the theatre of the lecture and don't openly accept the idea that it's not an interactive or engaging medium. We also know through the experience of creating work that technology, if not skillfully integrated, can distract and disrupt the delivery of the live event every bit as much as enhance it. I worry that the machine is expected to provide the charisma, leaving the lecturer to work as a competent technician rather than a generous teaser of opinion and powerful rhetorician. The recorded v live debate has been going on in the theatre industry for decades.

The real possibility that the technology opens up is in offering students flexible access to teaching resources, down loadable at a time that suits them. What we lose in terms of lecturer interaction might just be made up for in terms of the freedom to fit our programmes of study to the emerging new world of distance learning. It's hard to monitor progress, tangent or to sense whether your audience understand what you're saying via podcast - but it might offer some divergence and enable students to rewind, repeat and review the ideas we're proposing. It's efficient - but does it engage? Perhaps the world of the wiki, also, opens up possibilities to democratise teaching and learning, allowing a rapid exchanges of thoughts and giving a synergistic approach to problem solving?

Overall though I left the day feeling wary of subscribing blindly to a new culture. I'm very happy to play and explore whatever is on offer but, just as the digitisation of contemporary music has created a purer but less authentic sound, I think there is as much to lose as to gain by assuming virtual learning environments are the future for education.

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