Tara Brabazon: Paying to get connected

Managers may promote the use of technology in teaching purely with a view to saving money, but students want face-to-face interaction with inspirational teachers they can admire

December 15, 2010

One consequence of budget cuts in higher education is an increase in managerialism. In tough times, managers write strategic plans, invent new acronyms, create cultures of fear and intimidate staff. These tactics operate effectively in silencing academics. When managing students, the challenge is to predict how many contact hours can be sliced from timetables before complaints impact on national teaching surveys.

This is Groundhog Day. When writing Digital Hemlock a decade ago, I was critical of the confusion between economic efficiency and technological change. We have returned to this bizarre debate where the use of software and hardware is a proxy for quality teaching. Technological change mitigates economic cuts, enabling both a reduction in staff and maintenance of student satisfaction.

Those who teach in online environments, rather than “manage” them, know that the considered integration of software and hardware into an educational portfolio is expensive. Mistakes, obsolescence and redundancy attend all moments of technological transformation. Effective innovation in teaching and learning requires planning, cycles of reflection and – most importantly – an understanding of student hopes and aspirations.

But instead of activating these more complex discussions, Web 2.0 is a seemingly easy option to “manage” staff workloads, exchanging face time with screen time. Instead of lectures and seminars, Skype and iPhone apps are the cheap replacement. The flawed premise of such “innovations” is that no staff time is required for synchronous and asynchronous content generation, content dissemination and content management. This is not an online learning revolution (again). These tools have been around for years. They are only “new” because managers have discovered them.

Once more there is confusion between revolution, innovation and change. I use Skype to run a weekly tutorial for MA students. It increases the opportunity for student support, but is not a replacement for other modes of teaching. It has value. Skype enables virtual office hours. Distance and on-campus students meet and communicate. For undergraduates during the Christmas break, I help with assignments while campus buildings are closed. But it adds to, rather than cuts, staff workload.

Social media are productive supplements to core learning materials and practices, not a replacement for them. It is important to remember the adjective in the phrase “social media”. They are not “educational media”. Some social media tools and platforms create community and cohesion, and can generate efficiencies in a teaching day. They can also distract students.

The irony of university managers boasting about the economic savings of Web 2.0 initiatives in degree programmes is that academics have paid for most of the equipment now challenging their working conditions. Managers do not know the full economic cost of e-learning. The “online revolution” has been subsidised by the academics that the managers now wish to replace, remove or retire. I am surrounded by laptops, microphones, cameras, mobile media and an array of peripherals that allow me to operate with rigour and innovation. None of it was bought by any university in which I have worked. This is not unusual. Academics have subsidised online learning since it began.

To justify online tools because they are economically efficient requires an attendant managerial investment in league tables and student surveys. When teaching is confused with technology, student satisfaction is valued rather than student learning.

Twenty years ago, student surveys were flippantly dismissed as a popularity contest. Now they are part of the corporate engine of universities. I distribute student surveys because I am required to disseminate them. But the feedback of most value to me is the exit interviews with postgraduate students and the face-to-face commentary from undergraduates that I log for later reflection. Most constructive of all is the inadvertent feedback carried by email, Facebook wall posts and the everyday correspondence of our teaching lives.

We need this information. The recent public protests show that a large group of people want to attend university. These protesters raise questions about the purpose of higher education. Put another way, why do students want to enter a degree programme and – perhaps most importantly for our techno-enthused managers – what do they expect when they walk on to campuses and into classrooms?

One fortuitous moment of feedback that answered this question came from a first-year student email. I have taught first years for nearly 20 years. Every Monday morning at 8am, 8.30am or 9am, anywhere between 60 and 380 first-year students have gathered to learn, think, talk and consider. It is the best job in the world. First-year teaching is the pivotal moment that aligns student aspirations with the realities of education.

Sam, one of my first years, sent an email in the first week of semester asking whether he should read course material before or after the lecture and seminar. I answered his question and then received a fascinating reply. It was one of those productive accidents in our teaching lives that left me bemused, confused and wondering (again) what students want from both universities and academics:

“I figured it out about 10 seconds after I’d asked. There is something you can do… Tell me how you’ve done so many exciting things?! That’s right, I researched all my lecturers to see if they deserve wages from my fees! You definitely, DEFINITELY do. AND MORE. You’re an inspiration!”

Sam gave me too much credit. What was interesting in his email was the remarkable – and disturbing – statement: “I researched all the lecturers to see if they deserve wages from my fees.” As the protests have rolled throughout the country over the past two months, I kept returning to his email, wondering what he expects from us. I decided this was a moment for feedback, so instead of trying to decode an end-of-module survey, I asked what he was looking for when he “researched all my lecturers”. His reply was extraordinary, instructive and inspirational.

His message could be read as cocky and confident, but the rationale for his research on staff came from a very different source:

“I went to a really under-achieving school; so bad it’s being shut down in the summer actually. There were quite a few times when I felt like I knew more than the teacher, or that I wasn’t being challenged enough and I suppose that’s kind of made me defensive about my education since. The [sixth form] college I went to was the complete opposite, supposedly one of the best in the country, so I’d say that because I’m getting into thousands and thousands of debt, I want to know what makes the staff at university worthy of my money and what makes them more deserving than the staff that weren’t paid for at my really good college.”

Instead of this student disrespecting academics, he holds so much admiration for teachers that he wondered what made university educators any better than the staff of his former college. Students validate our qualifications against their former teachers. We can be found lacking.

It was not only qualifications that were of interest to Sam. He anticipated and hoped for a dialogue between staff and students:

“I’ve always liked to break the student/teacher barrier, especially at school and college because I spent so much time with them, and it just seems right to me that I learn about the person that’s standing in front of me. I think it’s just polite, I suppose. It’s also got something to do with trust. From watching your videos on YouTube and reading your works, I know how to read you and a bit more about your style, therefore, I’m going to listen to you a lot more when you give me feedback and, I have to say Tara, your style of teaching definitely makes me and quite a few others want to try harder. I think your passion rubs off on us and gives us that spark back that reminds us why we chose to come to university in the first place.”

For managers who are so eager to deliver lectures and seminars via Skype and learning materials via iPhone and iPad applications, they need to remember why students like Sam were drawn to universities. He wants connection and respect, passion and commitment, trust and communication.

Students mention the cost of their education as an indicator of their expectations. Academics are sometimes offended that the value of universities is reduced to the fees they pay. However, Sam’s attention to fees is masking a much deeper desire and aspiration:

“A final thing I’d say is that on a personal level, coming to university is a massive deal. I’m the first one from my traditionally working-class family and it’s going to be a massive struggle trying to get by on the money I get given. My loan, grant and bursary combined isn’t enough to pay for my rent alone and my family can’t afford to support me so I’m stuck living out of my overdraft for at least this whole year. And that’s the price you pay for wanting an education.”

For Thatcher’s grandchildren like Sam, fees prove their commitment and interest. While managers confuse technology and teaching, efficiency and education, students know that university is “a massive deal”. Their language may appear abrupt and cold, exchanging money for learning. Behind this brittle surface is a yearning for connection and community and not Skype but scholarship.

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