Tablets, tablets everywhere

Ferdinand von Prondzynski, VC at Robert Gordon University, is asking why universities have been relatively slow to mainstream the innovative teaching practices that will match the speedy uptake of mobile and tablet devices by their students.  As he puts it, technology-enabled learning shouldn’t be “the preserve of nerds”.

The need to break out of the nerd enclave is critical for any institution hovering on the brink of committing to an enterprise-wide LMS contract. This is going to cost so much that it will need widespread take-up by all users, not just the hardy early adopters. Even though there are now many ways to create online learning environments, the big self-enclosed learning systems are still the high status gadgets for the institution, and the open source models especially retain a kind of geek cred. We want the latest and the coolest, even if we’re not exactly sure what we’ll do with it.

But without content, and without engaged users, they’re (virtual) paperweights. So there’s a level of risk involved in the purchase, and this means that once the institution takes the financial plunge, the result is an outbreak of strategic planning, one aim of which is to encourage a larger number of academics to develop online courses, or even to make online elements compulsory in all courses.

Still, things move slowly in the higher education sector. And so post-nerdism, or at least our failure to achieve it, is also preoccupying electronic publishers Pearson, who have surveyed US college students and those heading to college about their expectations in relation to the purchase of a tablet device. Their headline finding is that “college students believe that tablet computers will transform learning” (hint, hint).

Funnily enough, this is the same nudge that my kids used to persuade me to buy them the netbooks they now use for watching movies on YouTube and keeping up with their classmates on Facebook.  Don’t get me wrong; I also believe that these are transformative learning experiences, even if not in the same terms artfully sketched in the original value proposition. I’m watching them learning to search, think, create, share and argue, with friends and strangers. As far as the skills they’ll need for their educational futures are concerned, it’s all good.

But I’m also aware that there’s a gap between the quality and style of the locally generated applications and learning environments that they’re sent to for homework; and the globally dominant brands in social media platforms and content that they navigate to by choice once homework is done. They ain’t from around these parts, no sir.

So I’m back on my soapbox about the risks posed to global cultural diversity when we outsource content development to the world’s most well-endowed publishers. As we sketch a vision of the future in which teachers everywhere have access to the best and most enriching content that the world has to offer, what safeguards do we need to ensure that resources to develop high quality content are equally accessible in small and emerging cultural economies?

The model of global opportunity in screen entertainment is instructive. Here we see a very small number of countries in a position to leverage population advantage to build industries whose production and marketing budgets are typically high; and a much larger number of small countries who can raise only limited funds to produce poor cousin versions of these formats, which are then naturally less appealing even to their own domestic markets.

Gary Palmer, of the University of Nevada Las Vegas, is a Professor of Cultural Linguistics specialising in diasporic Tagalog communities in Las Vegas, which is as compelling a credential as any to strike this cautionary note:

Interactive educational media will still require authors of content supported by institutional research budgets. In addition, they will require programmers to assemble software games, computers to serve them, graphics artists skilled in animation, and legions of video and sound editors. It will be very expensive, so the consumer base will have to be large, as with video games. It won’t be available to upper division classes, because the smaller population of students won’t justify the costs. Advanced or special topics will still get the basic text or case study which will perhaps include one or two video clips and creative animations that can also be incorporated into the lower division mass-produced learning software.

Replace “upper division” with “Australian”, and you get the picture.

The skewing of global advantage that results from demographic and historical happenstance is very difficult to overcome without some form of protectionist subsidy; but this strategy carries with it the significant risk that we end up lobbying for what is essentially cultural parochialism on the grounds that it’s good for you. This is the national-identity-as-broccoli argument that for me has never been put down as efficiently as this: “They want to make ‘Australia’ and ‘good’ the same thing. Which is stupid. And lends itself to evil.”

So I’m not against the mainstreaming of tablet-based learning that Pearson have invested in, and it’s not nationalist civics disguised as curriculum that I want to save. But I continue to think that perhaps universities outside the US need to step cautiously towards the future that mobile, online and open resource learning will make possible, in order to be able to inhabit it wisely, sustainably, and with respect to where we are.

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