Sometimes, as we navigate the perilous waters of higher education reform and renewal we get sidetracked into debates about detail. How do we define open? What do the letters in the MOOC acronym really mean? Which systems help us replicate the practices we have entrenched in our teaching rooms? Despite our best intentions, these sidetracks can sometimes come across as a case of technology leading the debate ahead of pedagogy. Arguably, this can be rationalised to some extent by the fact that as a sector we have often struggled with and sometimes openly resisted the debates surrounding innovative pedagogies. This is not to say there has not been a debate in some quarters (and not just amongst the beltway) but I would not feel afraid to say that in most institutions the forms of teaching and learning that were in place decades (centuries?) ago remain dominant and defended or excused in a variety of ways.
The clear intention of the e-Learning and Innovative Pedagogies Conference, held at Pacific University in Oregon was to engage in a process of sharing and significant debate amongst practitioners around these very issues. With participants from all corners of the globe (Australia, Middle East, US, UK, Asia, Europe, Africa and South America) the discussions were incredibly robust and engaged. Finding a narrative for HE and for the LSE through this was challenging and rewarding pursuit. Representing schools, FE, vendors, private trainers and teaching/research intensive universities, the delegates shared experiences, small and large shaped by their own unique engagements with the sector.
Inspired by the work based learning (through assessment rather than recognition) experiments of the University of Wisconsin the theme of flexibility kept reoccurring. Their programme (called UW flex) allowed people with significant work experience to complete courses using a combination of online competency based resources and rigorous assessment at an accelerated self-pace with flexible entry points, recognising the learning that comes from experience (very similar to the WBL model of Middlesex University). For me, this idea of flexibility, whether it be in the idea of an empty room, devoid of rows (or square walls), or in the way in which the VLE can be reinterpreted as a tool of interaction not delivery or administration, is critical to our understanding of what can constitute a new pedagogy for the post-digital age.
How much will we let 21st tools shape the way we teach? These tools have already shaped society (although interestingly this was a twitter free conference). It was argued in a number of forums that pedagogy must dictate the use of technology. I have espoused this very line more times than I can remember. However, what happens when the pedagogy won’t bend? What happens when learning, interaction and engagement don’t fit the way we want to structure teaching and assessment? This was a significant challenge faced by a number of people at the conference. Delivering business education in China where many sites are blocked, arts education in Japan (where students are more engaged in their mobiles than their interaction with staff) or trying to teach advertising in Southern California where all the key industry players are in New York present challenges to the way we construct and execute our pedagogy.
I presented a paper based on this blog post which argued that there are a number of disconnects that demand a debate about what constitutes a pedagogy for the post digital age. These included the way learners identify, acquire and verify knowledge, the way we prepare them to ask the right questions (as opposed to requiring the right answers) and the impact of the increasing variety of spaces that catalyze and fertilise learning (that are located outside the lecture space). In the light of this paper, and my engagement with the others that I saw over the two days (including two very practical keynotes from within the Pacific University faculty), I kept coming back to flexibility. Learners will want to engage with our institutions in a variety of ways, requiring us to have both macro approaches to learning informed by modes of agile micro flexibility. What might this look like at scale? That is the challenge for higher education in this post digital age. Certainly, some of the more entrepreneurial providers have started to apply a start-up approach to these problems, fracturing the educational offering, tailoring it specific industry contexts and providing it in manageable and viable chunks (once again, the UW Flex model represents one possible future).
In summary, it shouldn’t take a conference for these debates to be seeded. They should be happening in lunchrooms, staff meetings, student committees and conversations. They should be central to the way we all talk about teaching and learning. The greatest outcome this conference could have hoped for was the challenging of established orthodoxy…technology and pedagogy are instruments of change, they are not always sequential and they are not always scaffolded into each other.