This post contributes to the HEA debate on teaching excellence by arguing that HEIs should accept the implications of the socio-technical, networked paradigm which typifies the twenty-first century human landscape. For HEIs this means that one cannot separate the learner from their personal learning network – their on and offline connections to technological devices, services, people and information. These technology-enabled networks of connections are likely to have been seamlessly integrated into students’ lives from long before they enter higher education, although by no means in an equal or universal way. As a result of these digital differences, a significant refocusing of campus time towards the development of network skills and digital literacies, and away from content/knowledge transmission is suggested. This would also have the additional benefit of bringing the university experience more in line with student, employer and government expectations. In light of current and future educational, employment and financial needs, HEIs should adapt their teaching and learning approaches to adequately reflect the network age.
A brief history of networks
Although not a new phenomenon, networks have now become the dominant framework by which we understand the world around us and conduct our day-to-day existence.
Over twenty years ago the sociologist Castells (1996, 2nd ed. 2010) suggested in the ‘Rise of the Network Society’ that “while networks are an old form of organization in the human experience, digital networking technologies [have] powered social and organizational networks in ways that allowed their endless expansion and reconfiguration” (p.xvii).
Since then, a new learning theory has emerged, known as Connectivism (Siemens, 2005, 2008, 2014; Downes, 2005, 2006, 2007). It emphasises that “knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks” (Downes, 2007).
Alongside this also emerged the pedagogy of Networked Learning (Goodyear, 2002, 2005; Goodyear et al, 2004) which aimed to provide guidance on the psychological foundations and educational design necessary for the implementation of a networked approach to teaching and learning.
In relation to academia, in ‘The Digital Scholar: How technology is transforming scholarly practice’, Weller (2011) focused on the changes to research as a result of the web and digital technology. At the same time, Richardson and Mancabelli (2011) explored ‘Personal Learning Networks: using the power of connections to transform education’ and Rajagopal et. al. (2011) researched the networking skills needed to make effective use of these personal learning networks.
Beyond education, networks help us understand not only learning, but also meaning and the self. The philosopher Harari (2017, p.170) in his book ‘Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow’ states that “Meaning is created when many people weave together a common network of stories” and that “the lives of most people have meaning only within the network of stories they tell one another”. Equally, neuroscientist David Eagleman, suggests that “Everything contributes to continually reshaping the neural networks which amount to us” (2017, episode 2, 26:59).
Finally, Clay (2017) noted in his discussion of Utopia and the Golden Age of Exploration in the sixteenth century how “the sea was like the internet of the age – little packets of information travelling backwards and forwards, crisscrossing the globe” (08:50-08-:59), spreading knowledge, culture and understanding. While when exploring the ‘High Art of the Low Countries’ (2017, episode 1, 04:30-04:38), art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon recognised that ““What made the whole culture of the Low Countries unique was that this really was a civilisation built on a network - a trading network, and a network of canals”.
These few examples indicate the extent to which networks have become the framework for understanding learning, academia, meaning, the self, art, history, and much more. Networks are the dominant paradigm of the twenty-first century, yet HE teaching and learning has, in general, singularly failed to reflect this reality in any effective way. As Schleicher (2017) warns, “We are living in this digital bazaar and anything that is not built for the network age is going to crack apart under the pressure”.
Are HEIs in danger of “cracking apart”?
The main area in which HE has been slow to adapt to the network age is in the recognition that teaching and learning cannot be separated from the networks of connections staff and students alike have to technology – specifically the web, the devices used to access it and the information and people found on it. Teaching and learning today is a socio-technical activity - best defined as one which “focuses on the interdependencies between and among people, technology and the environment” (Cummings, 1978, p.625).
However, socio-technical theory also tells us that the adoption rate for new technologies into practices and procedures happens at different rates for different societal levels (Geels, 2002). Change at the macro level (Landscape) tends to be a slow process, at the meso level (Regime) only slightly more dynamic, but at the micro level (Niche) it can be radical and rapid. This means that as individuals at the niche level rapidly adopt radical new technologies into their work and life routines a tension can be created between their personal, technologically-enabled behaviours and the technological inertia of institutions and wider society.
It is therefore vital for HEIs to recognise that an individual entering university today has become almost inseparable from the technologies they have integrated into their daily lives. For example, it is perfectly feasible, as Burnett & Merchant (2013) suggest, that even before being born an individual may have a Web presence and an emerging digital identity (e.g. as a result of expectant parents posting baby-scan pictures on a social media page created for their child). This may rapidly be followed by frequent post-birth picture updates and regular exposure of the child to digital cameras, digital medical technology, digital screens (on televisions, smartphones, tablets etc) and digital toys. Consequently, a report by Ofcom (2016, p.4) found that by the age of thirteen, 74% of UK children have a social media profile, on which they are “messaging, sharing and liking throughout the day” (ibid.). Furthermore, UK children between 3 and 4 years old spend over eight hours online per week, an almost 19% increase on 2015, while those between 5 and 15 years old spend fifteen hours online per week (ibid.).
These experiences of growing up in the network age indicate the extent to which the Web and digital technology have become inseparable from personal development and meaning-making – in other words from teaching and learning. In practice, what this suggests is that a typical HE learner (at least in developed nations), has seamlessly adopted new technologies into their daily habits to such an extent that it is hard for them to imagine life without them, while the educational institutions to which they belong have generally been far slower to do so.
This systemic inertia to change has created a tension between the student’s expectations and the reality of their university experience. These tensions are particularly relevant in the UK in light of the “rising costs of higher education…increasingly borne by students themselves” (Schleicher, 2017) and the use of “idiosyncratic inputs and reputation surveys” (ibid.), such as the National Student Satisfaction Survey (NSSS), as a measure of teaching excellence under the TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework). There is now a direct material cost to UK HEIs for failing to adapt rapidly to this networked, socio-technical educational landscape.
Furthermore, this inertia at the institutional level, which has, on the whole, retarded the effective integration of the web, personal learning networks and technological devices into HE teaching and learning (and assessment) practices, is of even more relevance in the face of the ever increasing pressures towards:
- personalised/adaptive learning
- flexible learning (where, when, how, with whom the learner chooses)
- blended learning
- the need for lifelong learning skills in order to successfully adapt to a future work arena in which automation, artificial intelligence and robotics will render some traditional work obsolete while generating entirely novel fields of work,
- globally distributed learners (not tied to a specific location
- the development of micro-credentials / micro-degrees
- and competition from online-only education providers.
The time for debate is over, the time for action is now - before HEIs do “crack apart” (Schliecher, 2017) under the strain of the tensions between students networked lives and their non-networked HE educational experiences.
Teaching excellence: networked teaching and learning in practice
However, in order for HEIs to achieve teaching excellence, it is not enough to just start ‘using more tech’ in innovative, networked ways. Rather, a nuanced understanding of personal learning networks and networked learning also recognises that despite the inseparability of the student from their personal learning network, it remains the case that both globally and across the UK significant differences remain in
- access to,
- attitude towards,
- motivation to use these networks for learning purposes,
- social contexts,
- students’ digital literacies,
- and student’s networking skills,
all of which impact the effectiveness with which they can use their personal learning network.
Therefore for HEIs to successfully adapt to the network age and achieve teaching excellence, a refocusing of the relationship between face-to-face time and independent study is necessary. With the right levels of network skills, such as knowing how to grow, maintain and activate one’s personal learning network (Rajagopal et. al., 2011), and proficiency across the full range of digital literacies (see figure 1 below from JISC, 2015), much of the learning needed for the twenty-first century student to thrive at university and as lifelong learners, can occur outside formal educational settings. Instead, the formal sessions should be devoted to the development of these network skills and digital literacies so as to minimise the impact of students’ digital differences.
Figure 1: Digital Literacies, JISC, 2015
We have developed some early thinking on how this may be achieved in our open access papers here (Living and Working on the Web) and here (Integrating MOOCs into campus-based modules).
Equally, we are currently blending student participation in the Learning in the Network Age MOOC, hosted on FutureLearn, with their university module Living and Working on the Web. Steps within the MOOC form the module ‘source’ material from which the students can then further explore the topic question and engage in real time discussion with learners from all over the world. The latest run for this two week MOOC began this week, so do feel free to join us if you so wish.
To conclude, we contend that taking a socio-technical approach, innovating through networked learning and personal learning networks, and supporting students’ digital skills and literacies development throughout, may be one route to ensure that the HEIs of the future do not “crack apart under the pressure”, but successfully adapt to the realities of the network age.