Tara Brabazon: The hare or the tortoise?

We live in a society where speed of communication rules, but Tara Brabazon asks if fast is necessarily better, particularly when it comes to learning

July 31, 2009

The typical email is read within 24 hours and answered within two days. A text message is read within a minute and responded to within five. Text messaging has an addictive quality that seems to circumvent older, slower modes of social interaction. But it is the speed – the rapidity – of reading and answering text messages that is significant. Why are they read immediately and responded to within a few minutes of arrival? A lived, sensory experience is displaced for a physically disconnected communication environment.

Such tendencies and trends are not necessarily antithetical to teaching and learning. Education is based on discovering ideas and then moving them to a different place and time. Accelerated, expedited, contracted and work-led learning has come to dominate our universities. As early as 1990, the writer and futurist Alvin Toffler realised that “the metabolism of knowledge is moving faster”. The educationist John Tomlinson confirmed that “acceleration rather than deceleration has been the constant leitmotiv of cultural modernity”. It now appears that the cultural theorist Paul Virilio’s “city of the instant” houses our universities. Technology not only enables change but a consciousness of the speed of change. The dominant medium of an era is often a channel or metaphor for this moving knowledge. Participatory platforms and portals such as Twitter and YouTube are recent examples. Scrolls, codex, radio and television were earlier modes.

Virilio suggests that the speed of an event or idea changes its essential nature. He also offers a secondary argument: the entity, textual or cultural formation with speed dominates that which is slower. That is why expedited, online, modularised degree structures and compacted semesters have crushed older, gradual, year-long patterns of lectures and tutorials. Mapping and checking student benchmarks has masked the expansive failures and mediocrity generated by a quick education based around achieving learning outcomes. Exchanging “just in case” education for “just in time” training presents an intellectual bill to generations of scholars beyond the repayment of student loans.

While efficiency and productivity are integral to the financial and administrative management of universities, a wider question for educators is whether or not fast teaching and learning is the best model for our institutions. If we intervened in the speed of data extraction to ensure that students slowed their engagement with ideas, would slow teaching create better learning?

Other areas of our lives are resisting the need for speed. While in the past two hundred years, slowness was a signifier of intellectual weakness, in the past quarter of a century it has been transformed into an attribute of value. There are many origins of the “Slow Movement”. The most commonly cited trigger was the protest against the opening of a McDonald’s restaurant in Piazza di Spagna, Rome. Slow food was the first established community. Now including 122 countries, it is a trans-local formation and operates through a decentralised structure. Publications released by the organisation are in a range of languages. It has spread from slow food to slow retail, slow travel, slow design, Cittaslow and the slow society.

There are important critiques of this Slow Movement. It is elitist, summoning specialised knowledge about food, travelling and shopping. There is little contextual or historical understanding of why fast food has emerged. Fast food has provided culinary medication for the transformations in our lives with regard to work, leisure and family. Therefore, social problems with food cannot be solved without addressing the economic and political environment in which food is positioned.

Intriguingly, this movement that has punctuated food and tourism has had little impact on education. Older, analogue teaching and learning modes were part of an elite system. A few students were taught slowly and well. As higher education has spread to a larger group, the speed of delivery has increased. More students are taught faster. This imperative dominates our classrooms, timetables and curriculums. Fast education is fixated on learning outcomes rather than learning to ensure that many students learn efficiently rather than effectively.

Education has not been slowed. Instead, it is mashed into the knowledge economy and a version of post-Fordism that necessitates the rapid dissemination of skills for immediate deployment at work. The speedy movement of ideas – between media, industries and governments – increases the possible economic returns from education. In 2000, Stuart Cunningham wrote about The Business of Borderless Education and located eight trends in teaching and learning in a “new” economy:

• Globalisation

• The arrival of new information and communication technologies

• The development of a knowledge economy, shortening the time between the development of new ideas and their application

• The formation of learning organisations

• User-pays education

• The distribution of knowledge through interactive communication technologies

• Increasing demand for education and training

• Scarcity of an experienced and trained workforce

Nearly a decade has passed since this report was released. These trends still resonate with the current challenges confronting universities. But through such a list, there is an assumption that fast education is better education.

The disturbing and necessary issue to address with honesty is whether all students deserve the quality of education that those of us who enrolled in an elite system experienced. The best of education is slower, more careful and more complex. Slow teaching and learning creates better education, but it is more expensive. It transforms a student’s life, rather than merely enabling employment.

A desire to slow the processes of our teaching and learning is not a denial of modernity or industrialisation. It offers the hypothesis that just because information is found at speed does not mean that knowledge can be developed with rigour and depth. Simply because a curriculum is compressed into semesters, passed through validation protocols, squeezed into subject benchmark templates and signed off through show-trial external examination boards does not mean that life-changing education has been created.

We all remember Aesop’s fable of the race between the tortoise and the hare. It is meant to convey the life lesson that great speed can create waste, mistakes and misplaced arrogance. The issue is whether this childhood message has any place in our thinking about contemporary education. Will the text messaging, social networking, twittering hare win the race to a degree? Will students be satisfied to attain a few learning outcomes on their way to work?

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