Meeting Student Expectations 2: Access to Knowledge

Over the last ten to twenty years we have seen an unprecedented growth in the use of mobile phones and online technologies. Students today exist in a very different world, and have very different experiences, not only from our own student days, but in most cases from our own contemporary lives.

Much has been made of the concept of ‘digital natives’, but this, I think, needs to be treated with caution as it often suggests too much understanding of how the technology works, rather than the experiences of living within it. Many young people today grow up engaging with a wide variety of information. They are natural multi-taskers, flipping between platforms and between media. Their attention span may, or may not, be reduced (the literature is ambivalent on this) but the ability to switch constantly between many different sets of stimuli is inherent. This inevitably means that the students’ access to knowledge, and to understanding, is changing. The medium does affect the message, and the learning style has to change with changing technology.

Swansea University, like many other HE institutions, is already looking at a very wide range of alternative approaches to learning and teaching, with a large blended learning pilot, the arrival of the ‘sticky campus’, developments in active learning and a major conference this September on the use of virtual and alternative realities in learning and teaching (the first of its kind in the UK). This does not automatically mean, however, that the lecture is dead. At its best the lecture is also a performance, and the performance of teaching still has a very significant role in education. Live performance still has a significant role within the digitally enhanced world, as we saw in the recent crowds coming to the Radio One Big Weekend in Singleton Park here in Swansea.

I still remember sitting in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, waiting for a colleague, and watching the visitors moving from art work to art work, snapping the image on their phone and then moving on, never allowing the art to engage with them directly, and never allowing time for the art to capture their imaginations or emotions. Today, of course, it would not just be the capturing of the image that is made possible by the phone. Through Snapchat and Instagram the image is immediately shared and the individual visitor’s personal interaction with the art is instantaneously shared with an online community, becoming part of a collective engagement, not necessarily with the art itself, but with the visitor’s presence in front of the authentic and the real.

What then is happening within the lecture? Which wider communities are being created and engaged with as the performance is unfolding? How do students curate the knowledge and experiences they gain from that lecture, from other student’s comments, from literature and from many other sources? As we move into a post-literary world, then new methods of learning, or refashioned forms of learning (maybe associated with the apprenticeship model, or collective experimentation) will have an increasingly important role within the wider learning experience. We cannot easily predict where this will lead, but we need to be open to the possibilities, and constantly experimenting with new forms of engagement.

I have often been told, since I came into higher education, in the early nineteen nineties, that technology would lead to the death of the lecture and a complete rethink of how students learn within universities. For much of the last twenty five years or so that has been a hope (sometimes a threat) but the old ways have continued. I have progressed from overhead projectors, through PowerPoint and Prezi, to the embedding of video and other multi-media engagements, but in practice little has really changed. I do believe, however, that the rise of social media, the multi-level instantaneous engagement that is now expected by students is about to lead to very dramatic changes, and we need to be ready for this.


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