Edu 2.0

Today I was lucky enough to attend the University of Ulster Computing and Mathematics Away Day – my role to represent Digital Circle and give the faculty staff an update on some of the exciting things we’re doing in mobile – starting with the iPhone initiative.

One of the other talks was about Web 2.0, a suitably nebulous subject which was, for this talk, defined as “The Art of Listening, Learning and Sharing” which, up front, seems to be entirely suitable for a progressive university.

The issue for universities of the future is the fact that the average 11 year old has a higher “digital literacy” than the average lecturer in a university. This obviously colours what new students will expect from a university when they attend. They will likely expect interaction from their lecturer as a “peer” in some networks and yet not desire it in others. Few students may be happy with their Lecturers being a “Facebook friend” with the expectation that the difference in the culture hierarchy will mean it affects their relationship during classes. If a lecturer follows you on Twitter, he or she may see that you’re not impressed with the latest assignment and have decided to go out to Shine instead. That’s bound to be damaging.

Donald Clark mentioned formal higher education last week during his talks at the InvestNI IP Seminars. He referenced that you can download many lectures from eminent educators on YouTube, or from iTunes U. He claimed that classical classroom teaching is a horrid way to learn and that educators should be prepared to put their teaching material online. He also suggested that those who refuse to do so are perhaps insecure about the quality of their content?

This does not mean that lecturers are redundant as according to the talk today, students believe they are paying for face to face interaction with lecturers.

What does a “digital native” expect then?

When I went to university I had pretty much zero experience of computers. Sure – I had a Spectrum 10 years earlier but that wasn’t exactly inspiring. After my second year, we were presented with UNIX-based terminals in the Open Access Centres. This began my love of networked systems. I learned what I wanted (and learned more about that than what I was being taught). We had email but never interacted with university staff except to be told off for using the systems for accessing a MUD or MUSH which were the precursors of chat rooms to a degree (and arguably a precursor of Second Life). We had an instant messenger app called “zwrite” and we could use “talk” from the command line as well. And among our little cliques, we had the best fun.

These days, the new intake into the university will consist of people who have grown up with wikipedia, with chat rooms, with email, with instant messengers. They’re used to trusting the information sources they find online, they’re extremely competent at finding sources of information and sharing that information via social bookmarking or other online tools. They expect to have access to networks like Twitter or Facebook and are immediately suspicious or resentful of regimes which restrict that access. They’ll be able to circumvent those restrictions either through hacks distributed via their social network or by just using their phones (each individually more than a hundred times more capable than the computers I first used in the Open Access Centre). They’ll expect their assessment and course materials to be available online.

What’s more interesting is what access and interaction they expect from their lecturers. They’ll expect email. But what about blogs? Twitter? Facebook? SMS? Would they give their mobile number to their lecturer?

We didn’t have these problems…

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  1. That’d be interesting, being a student today. Lecturer talks and — for inquisitive me at least — I’d look up additional stuff on the Net via iPhone while he talks/drones.

  2. A few thoughts and experiences you might find interesting:

    While I don’t believe you can or should ever be the students mate, you can’t as you have to remain objective and impartial, that shouldn’t stop discourse. Indeed, I feel such discourse is so important to teaching and learning that I attempted to enhanced it by setting up a forum for my students several years ago. I wanted them to have a place to meet and discuss their work, problem, likes, dislikes…anything they wanted really but also to be able to access staff in a different way.

    I was inspired to do this by an old Horizon show I had seen long before I was a lecturer. The show was about some subject I’ve long since forgotten but at one point there was a scene with a student in a dorm using an early chat facility to discuss work with peers and staff. This seemed ideal to me and when the opportunity and need presented itself many years later I thought I’d attempt to recreate this environment and create a way of reaching beyond lecturers and other formal mechanisms to support students and to facilitate them to support each other. It was a success, I believe, and while staff uptake wasn’t great it worked when it happened. There were limits however, often when a topic was about social life I could (unintentionally) stop a thread dead in it’s tracks by posting a comment. It largely depended on the individuals and the topic but there was an obvious if fuzzy line, a divide.

    As a lecturer you usually know who’s working, who isn’t and who was out the night before when they probably should have been working. Yet the formal nature of most contact in a university seems to suggest to students that you don’t, that you couldn’t know. It’s possible that the less formal nature of the forum broke this barrier and made students feel uncomfortable at times, as you suggest. This was of course a false comfort and it’s absence didn’t present any true threat. At the end of the day it’s the work that counts but psychological safety is important when creating a learning environment and you have to know when to back of and leave that feeling intact.

    For my next attempt at creating such a discourse I plan to use twitter hashtags to create conversations around modules and topics within modules. I anticipate that the biggest challenge will be balancing what is possibly with what is allowed. In all our communications with students we have to be aware that the Data Protection Act constrains what can be public, and rightly so. This will necessitate dropping to direct messages or email at times and I expect this could prove disruptive to the conversation. We’ll have to wait to see how this works but I’d welcome any ideas on how to do this.

    Btw, regarding putting work online, this is something I am more than comfortable with but then I’n an Free Software advocate and welcome openness in all its forms. However, I think we have to be careful about the platforms we use when making material available as being open on a proprietary platform can result in giving aware control of material and potentially ownership, not to the student but to the owner of the platform. As a rule the platform has to be an open standard for me to be happy using it. this is limiting in the short term but I feel necessary.

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