Bill Rankin’s presentation to the Apple HE Leaders’ day on 14th Jan 2010 was an entrancing romp through the history of media and learning, starting in the 3rd century. Rankin is an associate professor of medieval literature from Abilene Christian University (ACU) in Texas and delivered one of the most enjoyable and thought provoking talks I’ve seen for a long time.
He started by reminding us of an early technology shift in the third century from a linear, and not terribly portable nor accessible form of information storage (the scroll) to a random access and portable format (the codex – an early form of book) and outlined the classic cycle of technology change from (1) innovation (a technology solves a problem), (2) building (new cultures form around it), (3) solidification (new problems are identifed) to (4) destabilisation.
He took us through the evolution of learning and information transfer, starting in the middle ages when work of mouth and apprenticeship were the main forms of learning. People learned by watching experts – in a real life context – and developed their skills by taking on simple tasks, practicing over and over until they were ready to try a more difficult task. Learning was embodied, subjective, dialectic and broadly interconnected (we’ll return to this later). The challenge was access – to the master, and to texts.
The invention of the printing press in the 15th century solved the access problem, as multiple copies could be made. However it introduced the problem of information retrieval, and the need for cataloguing. Rankin entertained the audience with an image of a large set of card indexes in a library – reminding us how many hours we’d had to spend as students seeking out information by hand. The teacher took on the role of conduit – helping to organise and synthesise information – and the student became a passive receiver. Learning became hierarchical, objective (from a book rather than from a person), standardized (same learning expereince for everyone), narrowly defined. There was a lack of analysis and a focus on learning facts, on data, and on repetition.
Moving into the digital age the greatest challenge is one of information finding. Rankin Googled ‘educational technology’ and retrieved 51 million hits in 30 seconds. He pointed out that, at 5 seconds each, it would take over 70 years (i.e. a lifetime) to look at each one. He made us laugh in painful recognition that, being of a certain age, most of us in the audience persist in trying to file emails into folders, only resorting to searching when we find we’ve misfiled a message. In contrast the digital native generation don’t see the point of folders and just search for what they want. (My personal resolution is to start to demolish my folders and salvage some valuable lost hours.)
Now we are in an era when classes are still places of standardisation – one syllabus and approach for all. He referred us to Michael Weschs’s video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGCJ46vyR9o) about digital natives and what they really do in class (facebook, email, text, chat, generally multitask). Rankin argued that technologies offer a way out of standardisation, referring to Marshall McLuhan’s view that technologies are extensions of the self, extending our identities.
McLuhan referred to the ‘tetrad of media effects‘ which looks at the effects that a medium has on society, dividing them into four categories: Enhancement (what the medium improves), Retrieval (what the medium recovers whcih had previously been lost), Obsolescence (or reduction in prominence) and Reversal (what happens ultimately).
Rankin applied the media tetrad to Information retrieval using converged mobile media devices (such as iPhones) and showed how context is enhanced; situational mreaning may be retrieved; centralisation my be made obsolescent (why have physical classes or libraries if people can learn where they want to be); the reversal is intrusion of technologies into our lives which is beginnning to be a problem for some.
Applied to communications the tetrad for converged mobile media devices enhances multivocality; retrieves communities; makes uniformity obsolete; with cacophony being the reversal.
Applied to mobility the tetrad for converged mobile media devices enhances personalization; retrieves wholeness or synthesis; makes categorization (e.g. folders!) obsolete; with isolation being the reversal.
Rankin’s argument in favour of the use of moibile devices in learning is that they can help:
- Teaching become relational once again (e.g. blogs, chat, twitter, email and other front and back channel communications.)
- Teachers can once again serve as mentors, guiding students through their own discovery of information rather than presenting information.
- Emphasize contextual learning, using knowledge in particular contexts. Whereas clases used to be used to present information but without time to apply it, that information can be given in advance (homework) by podcast, say, and then students can use the class time to apply that knowledge.
- Allow more challenge-based learning and field exploration of real world contexts.
So learning becomes embodied, subjective, dialectic and broadly interconnected – as it was in the middle ages – with new media publishing, personal learning networks and individualised learning, all available from a mobile device. Students can reasonably asked to use their devices to discover content for themselves in class; it becomes their content and so has more meaning and value for them. Getting students to publish their work to the world is a strong motivator for a good job as the prospect of real world exposure raises the standard. This is where the unmaking of 500 years of university tradition has to begin.
[There was a question about approaches to assessment if we are to abandon standards; Rankin suggested that there is a need for individualised assessment which recognises variations in prior learning and tailors goals to the individual. He argued that students are more likely to reach their potential if given realistic challenges. he told how he has given students opportunities to re-submit the same piece of work, following his feedback on drafts, as many times as they wish until they are happy with their final version which is then submitted for marking.]