Knowledge is a team pursuit

June 7, 2002

It is time to restore communal values to academia, writes Ros Ollin

As universities suffer from the repeated fragmentation and division caused by government policy experiments, a lack of shared values and beliefs among the academic community is increasingly evident. One manifestation of this is the acceptance of the separate and divisive identities of researcher, teacher and student. It is time for an alternative discourse that emphasises communality rather than division and is not afraid to have as its basis a meaningful vision of the power and wonder of learning.

The commonality being eroded is that of participants in communities of learning that are multi-faceted but have an engagement with learning in a variety of forms as their core.

Fundamental to the tradition of the university is the fostering of a spirit of open debate and intellectual inquiry. The term "knowledge creation" can have a more profound meaning in this context, with all participants in communities of learning involved in creating new knowledge through interaction.

Some people, especially those with perceived status to protect, may find this idea difficult to accept because it breaks down the barriers we have been encouraged to erect.

It is evident how researchers contribute to knowledge creation and how teachers may disseminate this knowledge to their students. In practice, there is often a blurring of the distinction between the two roles in that some researchers are also involved in teaching.

Although there is no question where the main expertise and knowledge lie, a brief reconsideration of the role of students could prove useful in challenging the overall dynamic of knowledge creation.

Academics may wish to consider whether the student as passive receptor is an accurate representation of their own experiences as students. It is surely conceivable that there are students in our audiences who may be thinking, if not asking, questions that could provide a new perspective on our own ideas.

The academic who gives a lecture to 100 students may influence the thinking of a future leader of society. There is also the possibility that this academic may be in front of students who could influence the academic's own ideas or research. Accepting this could create an open and powerful, rather than a divisive and weakening, dynamic of knowledge creation.

Universities should be bodies with great hearts as well as great minds. Our students are members of this community of learning and metaphorical sons and daughters to us all. There is much diversity within and between universities, but we can choose whether to emphasise the differences or to focus on our common values and beliefs.

There is a larger picture of the role of the university that has the power to transcend the confines of experiments on the sector; a continuing line through generations to which, as a community of learning, we can contribute. Research is never complete, a body of knowledge is never entire. Each generation builds on what has gone before.

As a result of what was learned from us, the grandchild of one of our students may solve a problem that we, as yet, do not even know exists.

Ros Ollin is a principal lecturer in the School of Education and Professional Development at the University of Huddersfield.

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