Vertical thinking

The “education vertical” sounds a bit more thrilling than it is.  The first time you hear it, it seems to share the weird poetic syntax of “the body electric” and “the life everlasting”. It’s education, on an updraft.

A bit of googling fishes up a turn of phrase that has more concrete aspirations. This vertical is both market and solution  (“Callista cracks open education vertical“) and it continues intermittently to appear in the promotional talk of software vendors and government procurement. So it’s one of those ways of thinking about what we do that slips off the tongue a bit more readily after a slurp of the corporate Kool-Aid.

But it hasn’t really entered the vernacular or the affect of the higher education workplace. We don’t feel ourselves to be operating in a client vertical of any kind, and we mostly don’t use this kind of language to describe our position in a complex network of learning experiences. Dimly, we’re aware that the students currently sitting with us have come from somewhere, and are on their way to somewhere. But we have our heads down, concentrating on our bit of the conveyor belt.

This sense that we get what comes along the belt, without much idea of how it comes, is behind quite a bit of current academic frustration. With rare exception, we don’t have much say in the selection of the students that we teach, and we’re not entirely sure by what means they’re found to be suited to what we do. In many ways, the key judgment is theirs, and the choice is between us and the operation down the road.

The marketing impulse at this point is to trundle lecturers out for information days, high school enrichment programs and early entry interviews, in the hope that having seen us in action spruiking the product, students will choose us over the rival outfit. More than once on these occasions I’ve been gently reminded (often by a marketing intern) that we need to remember to engage the students, because students like to be engaged.

At this point, the obvious question is: and what exactly is it that you think I do for a living?

But in fact, the way these promotional events are almost always designed around the staging of a faux lecture experience is reasonably typical of the way in which university marketing is adrift from university experience.  What we do every day is way more engaging than this. If the mock lecture remains the staple of our cunning marketing plan, things are only going to get worse as primary and secondary schools themselves drive the diversification of learning experiences.

In order to market a new vision of university learning that promises to build upon what students have already experienced, and to extend what they can already do, we need to take a much closer look at primary school in particular.  Changes in this foundational learning environment should be at the core of our planning for curriculum and teaching styles over the next five years, and our marketing will need to reflect this.

The higher education learners of the day after tomorrow are already making video clips and blogging and connecting across schools and learning in large open plan multifunction spaces where they move from activity to activity apparently without distraction. This will affect the way that they view traditional lecturing, and certainly our heavy reliance on Powerpoint, given that most of them can already design presentations using more sophisticated applications. When we ask them to sit in classrooms, turn off their mobiles, tablets and laptops and listen to us talk, they’re going to want to know why our assumptions about learning make sense.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean filling the wide concourses of our smart new buildings with washable, modular, stackable play seating in bright jelly colours surrounded by power outlets and wifi, and ramping up the group work assignments. It will also mean making sensible and sustainable investment in our online environments so that their learning can be sustained to high pedagogical standards, whether they’re on campus or not.

And to ensure that all this is managed by us and not by the design agendas of global learning solution vendors, we need a more agile approach to internal policy making, that moves beyond the current model that treats everything we do as some kind of faint analogue of the 19th century university experience. For most universities in Australia, this will mean redefining policies for contact hours, consultation modes, the shape of the traditional semester and even the year.  It will mean more modular, shareable curriculum, more interinstitutional cooperation, and an approach to staffing that enables some reasonable degree of career development in an increasingly flexibilised system.

The coming changes will also put extreme pressure on traditional risk management via IT use policies. We’ll have to figure out a smarter conversation about the boundary between legitimate and illegitimate internet usage, which is now such a scuffed up line in the sand that it’s impossible to imagine it being sensibly defended. We’ll need to admit that the copyright horse has bolted, and that the stallion of privacy is also about to make a run for it. We’ll need to address digital social inclusion, and not just physical social inclusion.

But at the same time we’ll need not to leave behind the students for whom online is a traumatising, discriminatory or simply addictive distraction, so we’ll need some strategic thinking about the value of presence over presenteeism, just as we’ll need to create quiet and privacy for those students for whom buzzy open plan spaces and busy interactive media-saturated lectures mean a headache and an inability to think straight.

So there’s a ton of planning work ahead.  Meanwhile, this just in, from a crumpled note at the bottom of a five year old’s schoolbag, promoting a local school cybersafety initiative way down in the foundations of our education vertical:

The Internet is not going to go away! There is no escape. And no reason to fear or seek escape!

Indeed.

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