Online teaching’s TikTok pedagogy is leading students a merry dance

Australian universities’ ongoing embrace of digital approaches is cheapening learning – but not in a good way, says Binoy Kampmark

December 14, 2021
A woman watching a computer and doing a dab dance, symbolising online learning
Source: iStock

We tell our students that sound attention to detail and evidence are the hallmarks of good scholars and employees. The qualities should also be the hallmark of policymaking in universities, of all places.

Inside such a structure, staff should also be called upon to offer their experience and expertise in a process of genuine consultation, as opposed to rubber-stamping cobwebbed executive decisions long predetermined. That should be especially true when it comes to teaching and curricula, areas in which university managers rarely have much genuine expertise, either theoretical or practical.

Yet such consultation is conspicuously lacking in some Australian universities’ breakneck move towards abolishing in-person teaching, on the back of the pandemic. Driven by learning and teaching groups with inordinate power and influence over curricula, the move towards a style of delivery driven by TikTok pedagogy risks becoming the norm.

Colleges and universities feel both tempted and threatened by the presence of online instruction systems. Writing in 2018, Subhash Kak was already noting that online learning would “put as many as half the colleges and the universities in the US at risk of shutting down in the next couple of decades as remote students get comparable educations over the internet”. But, equally, online delivery has been a supreme opportunity for the budget minders.

Last year, for instance, Curtin University entertained a proposal to abolish exams and physical classes. The institution’s suggestion was to replace each lecture with three 15-minute videos. While there is something to be said for breaking up lectures and using some video-based subject matter, the reduction of theoretical and substantive topics to such a shortened format is counterproductive. Such pandering to short attention spans is bound to result in a cheaper product in every sense of the term. One Curtin humanities academic, nameless for fear of losing his job, summed it up rather well in one newspaper report: “The topics that we teach are not able to be rendered down to three dot points.”

Similar moves were also made at another Western Australian institution, Murdoch University, which promised that all of its 2021 lectures would be delivered online – although “most” tutorials were intended to be face to face.

“Even without the impact of Covid-19, this is a contemporary and pedagogically sound approach that increases students’ flexible access to learning and is aligned to our Technology Enhanced Learning Strategy,” said Kylie Readman, deputy vice-chancellor for education and equity.

Despite Tasmania being relatively untouched by the pandemic, The University of Tasmania announced in November that it would also ditch in-person lectures since – according to its academic executive director, Mitch Parsell – students have made it clear that “small group, on-campus activities such as workshops, tutorials, practicals, and seminars” are what they “value most”.

The University of the Sunshine Coast has also “taken on board student feedback and will be offering more contemporary and flexible approaches to learning.” In other words, all lectures will be abolished, in person or online, in favour of tutorials, podcasts and quizzes.

But what about the contrary evidence? Students’ reaction to online learning has been, to put it mildly, mixed. After collecting surveys from 118 higher education providers across the first semester of 2020, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency noted that between 33 and 50 per cent of respondents “commented that they did not like the experience of online learning and did not wish to ever experience it again”. Students also noted embarrassment in using their video in online classes, IT problems (41 per cent), a lack of academic interaction (34 per cent) and a lack of engagement (29 per cent).

Concerns have also been voiced by University of Tasmania Student Association president-elect Sophie Crothers. Describing her experiences in her fourth year of university, Crothers noted the unsettling nature of suddenly “not seeing anyone” with new students unable to make new friends and lacking knowledge of who they were studying with. She also noted that it can take much longer for students to go through online lectures because academics “don’t have to worry about how they deliver the content as much”.

The critics who claim that attending lectures in person is not the be all and end all of the university experience are, on some level, correct. There is much not to recommend stumbling into an 8am lecture delivered by a stereotypically decrepit, barely audible professor slumped over a book of his or her authorship, incapable of awareness beyond the lectern.

But much intellectual watering takes place outside the stale confines of the lecture hall where intellectual seeds are first sown. The online experience is pipeline pedagogy of a different and altogether more impoverished sort. It blocks the interpersonal conduits between students that makes the flow of ideas possible. And it won’t be long before the cracks start to become impossible even for university managers to ignore.

Binoy Kampmark is senior lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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