The Rise of Content

Universities used to be about thinking. Content was taught and ideas researched, but the primary purpose of the University was to provide a place to  think, ponder, and use the power of rational thought to make sense of the world around us. Over the centuries, empiricism slowly replaced rationalism as our primary source of belief, with the scientific method reigning supreme. I don’t have a problem with using evidence to explain the world around us, but the problem is that evidence and data have pushed all other sources of belief aside. Shouldn’t we slow down and use our rational thought processes to understand the world? Shouldn’t we take time to think?

Data and evidence are useful, no, more that useful – imperative in understanding the world around us, but without deep rational thinking, evidence and data are nothing more than information. The metrification of the research process, along with the massification of higher education, has led to the speed up of information generation without the slower, rational thinking that is necessary to change the new information into knowledge and understanding.

Y Archives - 1962 - two men debate on a stage ...
Debate (Photo credit: universityymca)

When the amount of information about a topic was smaller, a person could be expected to become a real expert about a general field of knowledge, and the purpose of teaching students for three or four years was to ground them in the topic with enough information that, for some of the students at least, they could continue to explore and think about the topic and enrich our understanding of the world. Discussion, debate, questions and thinking played a prominent role in our centres of knowledge. Spaces were built to think in and interact with others in the process. Social spaces were a part of the infrastructure, and the social spaces were comfortable and easy to get lost in when debating, discussing and thinking about a topic or issue. Scholars were expected to spend a great deal of time thinking and debating points as a part of a scholarly life. Students were a part of that equation – learning to think and understand. A creative piece of work was celebrated, and initiative was admired.

And then we forgot. We forgot about the importance of rational thinking, discussion and debate. Today we celebrate the arrival of social learning environments as if they were something new and exciting. Compared to the smoke filled, Senior Common Room filled with overstuffed furniture and overstuffed bookshelves,

The Senior Common Room at Keble College, Oxfor...
The Senior Common Room at Keble College, Oxford, England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

our new, virtual social learning environments are sterile spaces where we engage in asynchronous discussions and throw ideas (with fewer than 140 characters) around to stimulate thought. We fill our time with grant applications, number crunching, marking, paper writing, powerpoint preparation, formal meetings, form filling, and journal reading. We think a lot – about the rise in student numbers, the ping of our e-mail, learning outcomes, data output, formulating arguments for our latest publication, and texting our friend around the corner about catching a quick lunch. We have forgotten about deep thinking and debating.

Our students hone their skills learning how to pass coursework and exams. They debate football scores and reality television. They hone their questioning with zingers like “Will that be on the exam?”. They expend massive amounts of time trying to find out exactly what they need to do for their upcoming assignment. And we reinforce all of this. We have taught them to follow in our footsteps, and they have. We both have forgotten about thinking.

As the content beast has continued to double in size every 10 or 5 or 3 or 1 year, we have been caught up in the process of finding and transmitting that content at an ever greater pace. A five minute topic in 1955 has expanded to 5 years of non-stop talking today – and we have tried to ensure proper coverage. It is no wonder there is no time for thinking. There is too much to cover. How have we gone from celebrating the centrality of thinking to allowing it to all but disappear from the university? Can we use information abundance and ubiquity to bring back thinking? Can we place some value on having a discussion and debating a point? Can we begin to move our students out of lecture halls, where passivity is essential, to vibrant learning spaces, where access to all the information in the world is provided, debate is common, and questioning once again becomes the essence of a university?


Learning Perspective: Students

Where are the students in the learning game, and what do they want out of it? I read Donald Clark’s “7 Fails” that he awarded the education system during the Berlin Educa debate, and found his description of students and what they are trying to get out of the system disturbingly familiar (not actually what he was writing about, but it came through loud and clear). The disturbing part is his opening framework outlining how the system (as it stands) has so abysmally failed the students.

Having said that, the students are getting exactly what they are demanding from the system. They want to know what they have to do to get the qualification they think they should have. They want procedural learning. How do I pass this piece of coursework? is all they want to learn. Is this on the exam? is a common refrain. All I want to learn is how to give you what you need to award me an A (or B or C or whatever they want). Tell me how to do it so I can satisfy the requirements.

This isn’t what the world needs – even if it is what business leaders demand of higher education. A couple of months ago I wrote about learning for talent or learning for labour. What our students don’t realise is that procedural learning is algorithmic? What they are demanding is learning for labour. Most of the skills they are asking for can be done by computers. For too many of our students, they gain qualifications through producing mediocre, uninteresting essays or ticking boxes in MCQ that ask for the colour of the sky in ever more sophisticated (confusing and obscure) ways (exactly what we ask them to do). Computer are close to being able to do this, and in the very near future I can foresee a computer programme earning a passable degree from almost any one of our thousands of HE institutions.

This is what is happening to the qualifications that we are mass producing. We are producing a massive labour pool through the teaching techniques we use and our students demand. Labour can be, and is being, automated and outsourced. Our post industrial, capitalist society is destroying labour, and elevating talent.Talent is related to initiative, creativity, and passion, and is not easily replaceable by automation.

We are wasting millions of our most precious resources – our human resource – by extinguishing initiative, creativity, passion, and the ability to think through our mass education system. Businesses demand qualifications, students demand qualifications, and we oblige. All it takes for mediocracy to smother excellence is for us to wring our hands and ask “What can we do?”

Jef Staes made the point (in the Berlin Educa debate) that “We have 2D teaching and 2D testing that leads towards 2D thinking and 2D people who live and work in a 3D world.

It doesn’t have to be that way.