Mike Holderness finds a deeper message in the fun of electronic learning.
You might say (OK, I will say) that the new playful semi-irreverent banter found on this Internet discussion list will save academia from its own ponderous weight. Without the net, without lists like this, the academy will sink into oblivion. Soon."
Thus concludes Eric Crump, assistant director of the Learning Center Writing Lab at the University of Missouri, in an article entitled "It's Fun to Have Fun But You Have to Know How! or, How Cavorting on the Net Will Save the Academy" that appeared in the Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine (CMCM) on the World-Wide Web in January.
The author was responding to a concern that discussion on a mailing list he maintains for discussion of creative writing was not sufficiently "academic".
Clearly, Eric is an enthusiast. He continues: "I do know that the most liberating aspect of this list (and others) is the fact that they provide space for us to explore the intertwingling of seriousness and play, for the benefit of both. For the benefit of us." Intertwingling? That is defiantly not a bid for sober-sided respectability.
His co-author Rebecca Rickly, a member of the English Composition Board at the University of Michigan, adds: "It's because I love language, because I find it fun, that I chose my profession: teaching writing (and teaching it with networked computers whenever possible). Yet no one wants to talk about having fun in this profession (or most others in the academy)!" But what exactly are the educational and pedagogical issues in the increasing use of "virtual courses" in higher education? Rickly's and Crump's defence of fun is apposite, but not the whole story.
Course materials can be delivered to students on CD-Rom (if the copyright issues work out). The same materials can be made available for students to fetch from a World-Wide Web site. Staff and students may communicate through private electronic mail, a shared mailing list, by posting messages in open or closed conferences and news groups, or through various forms of real-time "chat".
Video-conferencing may be used, though usually when an institution has managed to blag the equipment. Motivations for adopting these methods range from a desire to experiment to enriching existing courses or budgetary demands to increase student numbers in already-packed buildings.
The effect of all these - except perhaps video-conferencing - on the flow of information in a course is similar. The structure is moved from the extreme of the "I spiel, you all scrawl" model of lecturing towards "I point at information, you form groups and hunt for it".
The major and recurring theme in the debate on the new pedagogy is that people who practise and propound the use of electronic communication perceive it as placing responsibility on the student.
Tari Lin Fanderclai is a composition instructor and manages the English department computer lab at the University of Louisville. Her expectations of introducing students to multi-user dimensions or MUDs - at their simplest, virtual places where people "meet" and converse through their keyboards - were that they "could disrupt the hierarchy of the traditional classroom, giving students more power and responsibility and a chance to learn to use them wisely in order to accomplish their goals."
Charles Jennings is associate professor in electronic communications at the Southampton Institute, and involved in a world-wide remotely-delivered master of business administration course.
He says that his nine years of delivering electronic courses leads him to the conclusion that "peer-to-peer learning is greatly underestimated by teachers in traditional face-to-face learning situations, and the potential isn't exploited. In telematic-based learning environments it becomes obvious that peer learning is happening and it is easier for teachers to exploit it . . . the pedagogies of 'received knowledge' don't really fit with interactive telematic environments." This article was prompted by an observation by David Hawkridge of the Open University IT and Society course team, which this year has distributed a CD-Rom of course material instead of the traditional wodge of paper. "One of the big changes," he notes, "is that the students move from a fairly straight-down-the-line study to something nearer to resource-based learning . . . there are 300 articles on the CD-Rom so students have to learn selective negligence and so on."
This different style of learning has a very direct and definite effect on the course: "It affects the assessment," Professor Hawkridge says, "so that you have to ask the students questions of principle, not questions based on things you know they've read."
This unanimity may, however, be an artefact of the present concentration of successful "virtual courses" in areas where distance learning has traditionally been undertaken.
John Clancy at the Chelsea School of Art and Design is planning a move into the virtual class from the opposite direction. "The important thing to us in art and design is that you learn about art and design by making art and design. You become a painter through painting pictures. At Chelsea only 15 per cent is about studying, the rest is practice."
When all is well, art students in a college studio spend more time in playful, peer-to-peer, exploratory exchange than anything else. But if sculpture is the creation of three-dimensional objects in the Real World, it's difficult to see how a lecturer could assess a student's sculpture in cyberspace.
The new technology may initially be most useful for teaching the new arts and design disciplines which it makes possible. "The technology in many ways has allowed other disciplines to make art and design," Clancy observes.
"Andrew Nimmo who runs the ArtAids virtual gallery from Queen Mary and Westfield College is a computer scientist. In many ways, though, he teaches what I teach. We're going to have to get our act together or we're going to lose our discipline - the study of the human form is now not so much going on in life-drawing as in computing departments doing animation and human movement."
Such talk must be music to the ears of the net enthusiasts. Having had their own assumptions about the compartmentalisation of information (or knowledge) challenged by the net, some seem positively evangelical about rearranging the traditional structures of academe.
Tari Lin Fanderclai writes (also in CMCM) of her disappointment that other teachers are constructing virtual colleges in MUDs with "separate buildings which highlight the traditional divisions among disciplines, and within these buildings are elaborately programmed classrooms. Teachers can lock students in and others out; they have tools for delivering lectures, for silencing one or all members of a class, and controlling who speaks when."
This approach is to canalise the rich possibilities of a Web of knowledge into a simulation of closed courseware and programmed learning.
Charles Jennings sees a need for a synthesis: "I profoundly believe in 'quality in structure'. . . I've had many an argument over the late-night bar at conferences with other academics who hold the view that 'give 'em the information and they'll learn by making knowledge out of it' is the only way to go.
"I think that the structured, didactic approach which is usually embedded in closed courseware is sometimes dubious in terms of pedagogical soundness, and often so rigid that it is unusable by, and inappropriate for, all except the small group that the authors trialled it on," he says. That synthesis, like the Internet, is still under construction. How thoroughly it is achieved will determine whether increasing numbers of teachers and students sink or swim in cyberspace.