Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Pondering the Future of University Education.

I’ve spent the past fortnight marking first year university essays. Anybody in the business of academia knows this is fundamentally tedious work. More often than not it seems that student are unwilling (but not unable) to work, let alone be engaged in any meaningful dialogue, both in class and when performing assessment tasks. Just last week one of my students spent the greater portion of the class attached to their mobile phone. Instead of criticising, what are essentially a group of students who are technically part of my generation, I wonder how it is possible to make learning a pleasurable experience?

The problem essentially lies with my fellow academics. Two years ago I attended a professional development day run by the education faculty at my university. They spent the greater portion of the day placing generations into cohorts according to their year of birth and adapting learning styles to fit those various molds, using the theories of Marc Pransky. Those born between and during the World Wars are known as the ‘Depression Babies’. Those born between 1945 and 1960 are known as the ‘Baby Boomers’. (This generic name explains the astronomical growth of the population when soldiers returned home and sowed their wild oats.) Those born between 1961-1980 are known as Generation X. Best symbolized by JFK Jr, they are highly individualistic and materialistic. Those born between 1982 and 1991 are known as Digital Natives. (Strangely my brother born in 1981 seems unable to be categorised) Digital Natives are so called because they have grown up with modern technology at their fingertips with such innovations as the Internet, mobile phones and instant messaging at their everlasting disposal

According to Pransky:

Digital Immigrants (those born prior to 1982) typically have very little appreciation for these new skills that the Natives have acquired and perfected though years of interaction and practice. These skills are almost totally foreign to the Immigrants, who themselves learned - and so choose to teach - slowly, step-by-step, one thing at a time, individually, and above all, seriously.

Digital Immigrants don't believe their students can learn successfully while watching TV or listening to music, because they (the Immigrants) can't. Of course not - they didn’t practice this skill constantly for all of their formative years. Digital Immigrants think learning can't (or shouldn't) be fun. Why should they - they didn't spend their formative years learning with Sesame Street.

Digital Natives are used to the instantaneity of hypertext, downloaded music, phones in their pockets, a library on their laptops, beamed messages and instant messaging. They've been networked most or all of their lives. They have little patience for lectures, step-by-step logic, and "tell-test" instruction.

“So what should happen? Should the Digital Native students learn the old ways, or should their Digital Immigrant educators learn the new? Unfortunately, no matter how much the Immigrants may wish it, it is highly unlikely the Digital Natives will go backwards….”

As one of the so called Digital Natives, I had many a question as my generation was being trashed. As much as the Immigrants would love to relive their youth again, aren’t the Natives the next generation? I believe that many of the qualities described as part of the Digital Natives’ armory are over inflated, but even if they are not, what are educators doing to support these trends rather than suppress them? In an educational, as well as a social setting, growth is achieved through interaction with peers and mentors, with the addition of interaction through technology. Unlike the theory above Natives and Immigrants should be working together, not against each other.

Midway through the 21st century the Digital Natives will be leading the world across a variety of disciplines. As Pransky and the majority of attendees on that day would have you believe a future Prime Minister of Australia would be chatting to the Treasurer via MSN Messenger (“That surplus is lyke sooooooo big and awesome”) whilst listening to a broadcast of the UN General Assembly on their IPOD and trying to decipher the words of an aging Andrew G as he reports from the US Colony of Iraq all at the same time. I go to university with a lot of stupid people, but please don’t lump the future leaders of this world, my friends and I, with those of the Digital Generation who spout the latest catchphrase from the coolest Twitter feed! There’s an old saying that we should respect our elders, maybe we should respect and facilitate the future too.

It goes deeper than that though, as in how do we mix the old and the new? How can technology be used to enhance learning, rather than be consumed by it? The most troubling thing as I was marking those essays is that a rather large minority cannot put a paragraph together, let alone a sentence but use mobile phone language as their native tongue.

Part of the problem lies with the university sector itself. It’s a business first and foremost. Profits are placed ahead of a decent education. Enrolment numbers are the primary focus instead of teaching standards. It’s an understandable, but a worrying trend, and so is the oft repeated phrase of ‘Ps (passes) = degrees.’ Tertiary education should be better than that. It must be better than that. When research and profits are put ahead of teaching, it is not only the students who suffer, but perhaps more importantly the university sector as a whole.

The fault lies then with all stakeholders. Some students under appreciate the importance of a university education, and only attend because their parents are paying for them to waste three years of their lives. University staff are generally underpaid and grossly overworked. Owing to this they get despondent when students refuse to engage with them. However, what they fail to understand is that they must engage with students to their level, rather then proclaiming theories from their ivory tower above. Perhaps tellingly, the most important step is the one not taken. The Federal Government must ensure that the preservation and extension of higher education funding remain of the utmost importance, rather than the sound byte it has become. Therein lies our future, ‘Digital Native’ or not.

1 comment:

  1. You guys gotta switch to a 4 yr system. The first year weeds out a lot of people. That's why it's necessary to switch to a 4 yr sys.

    Seriously though. Your uni is HARD! So no wonder there are so many passes...

    Switch to an A-F system. Do it the American way. Cause it's the ONLY way! :-D