Wednesday 13 May 2020

In the Disruptive Light of COVID-19

There was a bit of an unkind fuss when Clayton Christensen died, with a number of people criticising/blaming him for some of the unfortunate pathologies of recent educational technology. "Disruption" was a dangerous idea, it was claimed (although many of us got lots of funding for claiming our kind of disruption would be good!) Christensen's work certainly wasn't very deep (although nobody complains about that!), but if we had looked deeper, we would have seen a whole education system which sought Christensen's kind of "disruption" as a way of maintaining its existing structures and practices. It was a convenient foil for essentially conservative institutions to appear to be radical, whilst at the same time cutting-back on personnel and resources in the name of innovation. What they claimed to be "disruptive" was basically conservative neoliberalism - and it was bullshit.

Now, however, we have real disruption. Not Christensen's fairy stories, but a real monster turning everything, including our institutions, upside down. I'm not sure Christensen had a pandemic in mind, but what could be more disruptive? And in the light of this disruption, all those "disruptive innovations" are revealed in their true conservative light!

The point about these conservative disruptions is that they are not disruptive - they essentially reinforce an old order. They exist to serve a market of existing institutions, structured in a traditional way. Basically, they are parasites, and at the heart of their parasitic attachment are uninspected assumptions about education, certification, educational markets, institutional status, and learning.

What everyone is realising very rapidly is that you can't teach effectively online using the same practices that you might use face-to-face. But it is not just a matter of exploiting particular tools, or changing the structure of activities. The ethos of the whole educational enterprise is transformed when we move online. While it might have been enough to run through a few Powerpoints, exercises, or even do a little groupwork, where the intellectual depth of the engagement was often a little bit shallow, going online means the intellectual depth really matters.

We rarely talk about the intellectual depth of our engagements with students. The curriculum effectively sidelined intellectual depth in the name of measurable learning outcomes and the uniformity of educational "products": this was the end of thinking in our universities. But thinking really matters because it is only through depth of thought that real connections are made between people - between learners and each other, and between learners and teachers. It is only through depth of thought that we "tune in" to the inner worlds of each other, as Alfred Schutz put it.

Intellectual depth is not an epiphenomenon of doing assignments and getting a degree. It is an essential parameter in the establishment of relationships with each other and with the world. While the distractions and comforts of the campus might provide alternative ways in which relationships might form - in the coffee bar or the pub - compensating for the dull bureaucracy of the assessment machine, online the compensations are absent. The intellectual connection must happen between teachers and learners, otherwise the whole thing will fall apart. It was the real weakness of the MOOCs that this didn't happen.

The organisational problem for universities is that the space for teachers to establish meaningful connections has been removed and replaced with a one-size-fits-all curriculum jam-packed with textbook nonsense, assessments with rigid criteria that encourage shallow strategic learning, and vast over-recruitment which leaves everyone gasping for air. These are the real problems that universities will face in September. It's really got nothing to do with technology.

As for technology, really the simplest stuff will do. Intellectual depth doesn't require rich media, although the powerful digital artifacts that we can now make can be a spur to intellectually deep conversations.  However, because we think of artifacts like Powerpoint slides or videos as conveyors of information, we miss their essential relational effect: their power lies as objects in a shared lifeworld between the teacher and the learners. The learning is not in the object. It is in the depth of the intellectual conversation that we can have about the object.

COVID-19 is the most powerful and all-encompassing "object" to have invaded all our lifeworlds for as long as any of us can remember. This is what we should be talking about now. But I fear that come September, universities will try to ignore it. Of course they will do their social distancing, and online meetings, etc, but they will try to talk about curriculum objects which they always talked about (and many lecturers will hide behind their Powerpoints in Zoom, like they did in the classroom).

It's a weird situation really. Imagine War of the Worlds, where the Martians have landed, zapping people at regular intervals. In society, everyone is talking about it. Except in the universities - where they have Core Study Skills and Employability 101, and worry about whether there'll be enough humans left to fill their courses.

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