Digital Classrooms – are they a permanent alternative?
Some practices and ways of working, historically, have proven more enduring than others. Digital nomadism actually represents a huge step away from the long-established experiences and traditions of human learning which have customarily relied upon F2F (face to face) human interactions. COVID-19 may have been an accelerant for the uptake of electronically mediated engagement, but will it be an enduring shift into working from anywhere (for students and academics for example) or will such a transition take much longer – or simply return to F2F at some stage.
So, a major question arises, if, technically, we are on the cusp of sufficient infrastructure for digital nomadism and a working from anywhere culture to become standard fare – do we have the right teaching approaches to sustain and operate effectively in such an environment? Or will F2F, classroom based teaching traditions and practices overwhelm these new approaches? (There is also a subsidiary question worth considering. To date, universities worldwide have been geolocation driven. They are places, buildings, subsets of business dependencies: Oxford, Harvard, Sydney, Melbourne, Bordeaux, etc. Places you go to and live in carrying high educational real estate values. The rise of digital nomadism may be seen as a threat to this class of business investment.)
Definitions of Teaching
One of the stumbling blocks of educational change relevant to DN (digital nomadism) relates to our own experiences and understandings of ‘teaching.’ Whilst the annual teaching survey QILT goes some way towards determining the causes of student failure and non-performance it could go further. One of the un-tackled issues lies in the very definitions and perceptions we all have around the generalised terms ‘teaching’ and ‘teachers.’ ‘Teaching’, often simply defined as a mode of instruction, doesn’t always imply ‘learning.’
University teachers are on an entirely different pedagogic spectrum to school teachers. In ‘lecturing’ or ‘instructing’ there resides a strong element of passivity and simple presentation of knowledge and learning transmission as opposed to directly engaging with learners.
In Between Eras
Certain teaching environments are always going to be more demanding of teachers/lecturers than others. Understandably, the teaching approaches required for digital transmission are a skill set and acculturation which many school and university teachers are yet to comfortably master. It is a new mode of student engagement. We are moving between eras in the conception of what teachers must actually do. We need to develop some more nuanced definitions to embrace the new digital arena we find ourselves inhabiting – ones that are different to the current understandings developed under QILT.
More of the Same
Noticeably, it appears that a few larger tertiary institutions have been languishing in a COVID-19 malaise (long COVID?) as their ways of teaching are entrenched and invested in industrialised work practices, comfortable routines and traditions. Changing staffing levels and modes of student engagement become expensive and difficult industrial activities. Big universities also enshrine their work practices in an unwieldy barrage of impenetrable policy bureaucracy - as much ensuring work for administrators as in protecting the values of the institution. Of course, a level of bureaucracy is essential, but overly bureaucratic practices are divisive and toxic to change and, often, stall progress. Consequently, DN exponents are likely to prosper in fields other than higher education for the time being.
There is also a lock-step approach across Australia’s public institutions which, in reality, inhibits real change. The recent Universities Australia Conference (2022) was an opportunity for Australian university leaders to seek new directions but, predictably, its keynote address set the tone by congratulating the sector on its achievements and turning to government to fund even more of the same. Change, of course, is unwelcomed by those who prosper under the current circumstances. Ultimately, DN represents a massive disruption in how work has been conceived in those areas of the economy in which DN is a viable practice.
Emeritus Professor Jim Mienczakowski is a Fellow of the UBSS of the Centre for Scholarship and Research
Emeritus Professor Greg Whateley is a Fellow of the UBSS Centre for Scholarship and Research