Towards a radical manifesto? The Impact of Web 2.0 on HE

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 15 May 2009

I have finally re-read the Report of an independent Committee of Inquiry into the impact on higher education of students’ widespread use of Web 2.0 technologies. From the report I am particularly taken by the following statements/outcomes, which have ramifications for our policy, practice[s] and culture[s]. I am especially interested in the connections between these areas as they impact our ability to re-define a radical pedagogy for empowering our learners, wherever they are on a continuum of engagement with technology. The key is making the world a better place.

1.    The impact of pre-HE pedagogies and technologies

This may be the single most important area that will impact HE practitioners. The report notes two key factors:

“Present-day students are heavily influenced by school methods of delivery so that shifts in educational practice there can be expected to impact on expectations of approaches in higher education”

“The digital divide, the division between the digital ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, has not been entirely overcome and persists in several dimensions: in access to, and engagement with, technology; the capability of the technology; and in individual competence.”

Issues of marginalisation, disempowerment and disengagement by accident, status or design are still very real. They connect into Helen Milner’s recent work on social inclusion and digital technologies and her Next step for the digital inclusion manifesto. They are also impacted by the development and extension of the precepts within the Early Years Foundation Stage Strategy, which is in itself a manifesto for: inclusion; child-centred practice; productive, learner-defined and owned personal learning environments; a new politics of praxis within and beyond the classroom. The time is ripe for a reappraisal of the value[s] of Bandura, Dewey, Illich, Rorty, integrated with the work of Ronald Barnett.

As digital identities are developed and better understood, as libraries, community centres, social enterprises and schools extend coverage, and as access via mobiles broadens and depends, HE has a duty to ensure that its practitioners are not playing catch-up. This is especially important in the pedagogic cultures that drive programme teams, both in their definition and scoping of curricula, in their involvement of students-as-mentors, and as a result in the power relationships that exist in the learning space that a learner defines. Enabling learners to manage their place in a set of cultures and ask questions at key moments of transition – to their enrolment or registration, in their modes of assessment, in migrating between levels 1 and 2 or between levels 2 and 3 – are critical for good-enough educators who have to support the student in her/his integration of the disparate facets of HE study for her/his own development.

2.    The impact on staff

The report notes that:

“Staff capability with ICT is a further dimension of the digital divide… Tutors are central to development of approaches to learning and teaching in higher education. They have much to keep up with, their subject for example, and developments in their craft – learning and teaching or pedagogy. To practise effectively, they have also to stay attuned to the disposition of their students. This is being changed demonstrably by the nature of the experience of growing up in a digital world.”

Programme teams are crucial in setting a context and ethos within which students can become themselves and succeed. The academic as lone ranger in embedding technologies helps no-one, least of all the student. The student’s integration of the HE and subject environment into their self-concept as a learner who can achieve, demands that programme teams frame their learning activities and subject context around a cohesive digital environment. Too often this is missing at HE.

3.    Developing information literacy

The committee highlight that:

“providing for the development of web-awareness so that students operate as informed users of web-based services, able to avoid unintended consequences. For staff, the requirement is to maintain the currency of skills in the face of the development of web-based information sources”.

The higher-level speaking and writing skills that Bloom developed in his cognitive taxonomy are as relevant today as they were 50 years ago. Flexible pedagogic development, the impact of diagnostic assessment, peer-mentoring and enquiry-based learning are critical here. Equally important is engaging learners in the context and actuality of publishing data and argument for the wider world to utilise and judge. Issues like those raised by JISC Legal are critical in framing such a set of developments, but the reality of information literacy cannot be divorced from the reality of integrating and developing a digital identity. Critically this has to be linked to decision-making and action in the world. Problem-based learning may be a key.

4.    Change in HE

“The world [students] encounter in higher education has been constructed on a wholly different set of norms. Characterised broadly, it is hierarchical, substantially introvert, guarded, careful, precise and measured. The two worlds are currently co-existing, with present-day students effectively occupying a position on the cusp of change. They aren’t demanding different approaches; rather they are making such adaptations as are necessary for the time it takes to gain their qualifications. Effectively, they are managing a disjuncture, and the situation is feeding the natural inertia of any established system. It is, however, unlikely to be sustainable in the long term. The next generation is unlikely to be so accommodating and some rapprochement will be necessary if higher education is to continue to provide a learning experience that is recognised as stimulating, challenging and relevant.”

The last sentence bears rethinking. It should drive all we do in the coming months. At DMU it will certainly shape our re-definition of our e-learning [technology-enhanced learning] strategy and develop a plan its implementation, with our students, and our e-Learning Co-ordinators and Champions. It is critical that we evaluate our professional development approaches and the technologies we support.

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