Arbiters of Information

Photo by Giulia May on Unsplash

This week, I discovered an essay by Eli M. Noam (1996) entitled Electronics and the Dim Future of the University. Although not the most heartening read for anyone in HE, Noam’s vision of technology’s impact on universities is nevertheless insightful . He presents the traditional university model – a model that remained undisrupted for centuries – as creator, curator and transmitter of information. Distance learning, he predicted, would disrupt all three of these roles. Noam’s essay reflects on what happens to the arbiters of information when the gateway to information snaps open.

Information is the established currency of HE: its creation through research and specialisation, its curation through libraries and rigorous publication standards, and its transmission through teaching. I’ve already discussed OER’s impact on the university as an information creator and curator in a previous post. Although I think there’s still plenty to be said on the subject of OER and information, I’ll focus on the third role Noam (1996) has ascribed to the university; as information transmitters, or educators.

Despite the dark implications of Noam’s (1996) title, his own thoughts on distance education seem less dim and more opportunity-driven. Noam rightly predicted that technology would impinge on education, but with its destruction would come reinvention.

For Noam (1996), digital learning forces an extension of teaching beyond mere information transmission to what he thinks it should do: foster active learning, coach and mentor, facilitate collaboration and guide learners to identify and share their own information sources. In other words, the kind of learning we do in SBOSE, which is miles away from the more passive learning I experienced as a student in the past. Learning online is as much about learning new approaches to transmitting information and testing those modalities to establish what works best for you as a learner.

As an example, this course introduced the padlet as a learning tool last term and continued to incorporate it throughout this term. For our assessment last term, the padlet acted as a journal of our development as students and educators but in mind-map form rather than traditional, text-based form. I found the padlet exercise challenging because I was not used to approaching the organisation of ideas in that way, as a text-based learner. Using the padlet and becoming more comfortable with navigating it to match my own preferences, through the collection of artefacts, made me feel empowered and I now use padlets regularly as an alternative way of laying out my thoughts.

Noam (1996) doesn’t think this new approach to teaching happens because of technology but technology facilitates this approach to teaching. Whilst not everything Noam predicted back in 1996 has transpired or appears remotely ready to, his points about new conceptions of teaching and the accompanying re-conception of a campus definitely resonate with me in 2021.

Universities take organisational approaches to many things but they are essentially comprised of individuals. Each educator has their own, well- embedded, ideas of what it means to teach and learn. 2020 was a pivotal year in that it took most educators down the digital path, with varying degrees of reluctance or resolution. The degree often depended on the teacher’s pre-existing perception of online learning.

Gonzalez (2012) identified five very different ways in which teachers perceive online learning. These different conceptions influence the degree of embeddedness of learning technology in the classroom: from viewing learning technology as merely a medium of information transmission (something akin to what Noam (1996) identifies as the original role of the university), to occasional communication, to online discussion, to, in its most developed stage, giving students the tools to collaboratively build knowledge through online learning (the ‘future’ university à la Noam).

Gonzalez’s (2012) shades of online offers up a pathway for teachers where they can incrementally embed online learning within their comfort zone. COVID dragged educators from Category A all the way up to Category D or E in an instant. I suspect, when we return to a degree of normality, some educators will return to their safe place with regards to online learning -which will fall on various points along Gonzalez’s spectrum.

The decision to throw away the rule book and start a new one can be uncomfortable. Incorporating learning technology in more significant ways requires educators to rethink what they do and how they do it. Some teachers perceive this as regressive, on par with becoming a novice where you were once an expert. It can change the dynamics within departments and disciplines and it forces universities to reposition, reconsider and repurpose, just as Noam anticipated.

In our institute, early digital adopters now find themselves in positions of power regardless of how junior they might have been pre-COVID. They have become natural leaders in a time of reflection and soul-searching within our organisation as we implement a Digital Transformation project. These shifts in power have changed the dynamic in our organisation. It is uncomfortable but it is also offering up new possibilities.

In the accounting classroom, students have traditionally been passive learners, listening to us lecture, taking notes, undertaking formative assessments and preparing for their exams. We are preparing to take a new approach to teaching, both in the classroom and through online learning, that will allow our students to become more self-directed. Essentially, we are moving along Gonzalez’s (2012) spectrum in a tight timeframe. In the post-COVID world, I suspect the learners will adapt to these changes well. It is the lecturers who may struggle, to varying degrees, with revising their own ideas about their roles as teachers.

González, C. (2012). The relationship between approaches to teaching, approaches to e-teaching and perceptions of the teaching situation in relation to e-learning among higher education teachers. Instructional Science40(6), 975-998.

Noam, E. M. (1995). Electronics and the dim future of the university. Science270(5234), 247-249.

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