Are we holding the next generation back?
If you've heard of the term “educational technology”, then you probably have a pretty good idea of what it means. A whole industry has been created around it, particularly from the early 1990s, where vendors such as Apple and RM focused on such a market. At the time, such a market – of students using computers both in classrooms and in the home – was in its infancy.
Professor Matthew Allen considers the term to be bogus. Allen is the first Professor of Internet Studies at Australia's Curtin University, with an approach is transforming both the views of students under his wing – covering many different angles of media – and that of the University.
There's no question that Allen is a sharp, passionate operator, with a deep understanding of the pedagogical impact of media, particularly digital media. His views are sharp, observant, and derived from years of personal insight. To first explain what educational technology is, you have to go back over several decades of media evolution – before and including the birth of the Internet itself.
“TV is a pedagogic tool to education the nation. Universities and schools saw it as educational technology. Now, of course, it's not called that. But, more people know more from TV than they would ever have done from university. So, how is something not called educational technology, so educational?
“The Internet was usefully called educational technology for some years, but now, in developed and developing nations, infrastructure is advanced. Therefore, teachers need to stop constraining the term.”
Educational technology is just one of a number of industrial terms that Allen seems to enjoy shooting down. In leading a large, disparate undergraduate pool to fully understand the concepts and impacts of social media, for example, it would be easy to “revert to type” - teaching Twitter for Twitter's sake. Allen clearly spends time and energy on getting the course outlook and materials right for his students – as well as aiming to understand what doesn't work. After all, if one principle in social media is that it is possible to move on from mistakes when one manages the situation, then this can also be applied to the teaching of social media: that it must be taught with one eye on what has – and hasn't worked in the past.
Another term undergoes analysis before its dismissal is the “Net generation”. We agree that in the late 1990s and at the turn of this century, it was a convenient term to use. Now, it's a term whose meaning and interpretation is conveniently used to mean something very specific. “Human society manages its fears and hopes of the future through people in their thirties constraining their views of what the future is like.” This fear of the future from a sector of the population going through an aging process from the energetic thirties to the more restrained, conservative fifties creates what we all know as moral panic.
The “Net Generation” is therefore the positive side of young people's “difference”, according to Allen, but it is not a description in and of itself. In not being the universal descriptor that it is often portrayed as being, it therefore becomes both threat and opportunity. “It is true that younger people are more likely to be skilled in this generation, but you can't make assumptions. This is not a blanket statement. Therefore, is the Net Generation intuitively better at this stuff? No.”
The evolution of Internet culture (and the wider cultural acceptance of the Internet) has, of course, impacted on the development of an Internet teaching faculty at Curtin. We are all aware that sophisticated online communities, driven principally by a powerful combination and business and technology, have developed; but they are not the enablers in themselves. Technology is the enabler of human communication.
While the above is of course, not a new statement, what humans have the ability to enable has evolved. Students no longer need to be web designers by trade; content and channel development and strategy is within anyone's reach. Throughout this evolution has been one enduring thread: the web presence. It was once the be-all and end-all of a student's project: the scaffolding. It now plays one part – but a central one: “At the heart of being an online communicator is a distributed presence that links to a central node”.
The cultural impact of the Internet has not gone unnoticed in the shape of courses themselves. Historically, academic courses have finished with the “big piece”: the end-of-semester report, the dissertation, the project. Allen has experimented with the structure of his courses, taking cues from business conferences, where speakers and writers would produce their materials in advance of the conference itself. In some modules, Curtin students now produce their major piece of work at the start rather than the end; not only does this make students more confident throughout the remainder of the course (as they feel more sure that they can pass it), but it dramatically reduces the course drop-out rate.
And then we turn to “New Media”. There is media, and what Allen describes as “not media”. This should be self-explanatory; Google is “not media”. This makes broadcasters with a strong digital track record something that they were never designed to be: the BBC and (Australian) ABC are the “best new media companies in the world”.
Universities, of course, also have strong digital track records, but their progression has gone the other way: it has weakened. Ethics, law and other binding factors make universities better managers of digital presence than ever, at the expense – in Allen's view of a spirit of university experimentation, something that appears to have died in the past decade. Historically, central web/marketing teams tried to develop some sort of strategic web management framework in a partnership with their academic colleagues and, to an extent, students. The management of digital channels within academic is now, in Allen's view, much more driven by reputation and risk management, but free experimentation and expression has suffered as a result.
It's these twin jets of risk aversion and anodyne mission statements that fail to deliver innovation, and according to Allen, Australian higher education is paying the price for it. The quasi-revolution now taking place there, is similar to the market-driven educational economics under successive UK governments: “a consciousness of quality uniformity in a defined curriculum, almost irrespective of what academia and students can do it.” Above all, it's fear that kills: “Fear destroyed Yahoo's business model.”
To counter this, Allen has published some of his course materials to his own website. His view is not necessarily because the material is too challenging to his employer, but one of reliability: cloud storage is cheap, abundant, and secure - so why wouldn't it go there? An additional advantage is that it lies outside of the software packages in the “educational technology” bracket, which can be seen as clunky and somewhat backward from a user experience perspective.
“Fear destroyed Yahoo's business model.”
Professor Matthew Allen
The cloud makes academia free again, but at a cost. It left me thinking that cloud computing presents a much bigger challenge for structural web governance than institutions have ever had.
Allen is energetic, lively, spirited, and opinionated. His thoughts and ideas are clearly in keeping with a deeper, richer Internet culture – something that the more risk-aware universities might consider learning from.