I’m bored (with your lectures)

If you’ve ever sat in a lecture or tried to read an academic article that gave you that “What the… is this about?” moment, then, like me, you might think that education is more than just passing on facts. Even really good lecturing staff sometimes struggle with the material they are presenting. They don’t want to be boring but, let’s face it, some topics just aren’t that exciting.
Now, there are a couple of ways we might think about the problem of boring material. One, quite common approach, is to treat being bored as one of those rituals we have to go through. A sort of initiation rite into the World of Academia. Another approach is to rethink the way we present material.
I recently discovered the term digital storytelling and was excited enough to think that this might be something that not only could I use in my teaching, but that I could encourage others to do the same. Without pausing to over-think this I set about organising a Digital Storytelling event, due to take place next week, which is a 2-day residential event for a small group of Open University tutors.
This event will encourage the tutors to think about using digital images, and especially video in their teaching. In addition, I have a goal to encourage them to increase their digital presence. I am confident that the event will be successful, but I am still struggling with the notion of a digital story as it relates to education.
Digital storytelling began in California in the 1990’s at the Center for Digital Storytelling. Their website is a fantastic starting place if you want to see some American examples of the method. In essence, digital storytelling is a way of capturing a person’s life using images, sound and text in the form of short personal narrative videos. It has proved particularly popular with schoolchildren who have little or no fear of the technology.
The point is that up to now it has tended to concentrate on personal storytelling – ethnography with pictures, if you will. At the same time there are some great examples of the use of screencasting in an educational context. A blog post on the Educause website gives some useful tips and links to videos. But, I’m still not entirely convinced that digital storytelling, screencasting and higher education have become happy bedfellows (and I know that is three in a bed!)
Lectures and chapters in textbooks usually have an internal coherence (I know we can all think of counter examples, but put that to one side). They usually start with an introduction, have a very stodgy middle and then end with a conclusion. Nothing at all wrong with that structure you might say, and in principle I’d agree with you. The problem is that stodgy middle. As anybody over a certain age knows stodgy middles are to be avoided. And, as anybody over a certain age can confirm, that is more easily said than done.
Reducing stodge, he says speaking from experience, is incredibly difficult. But, it can be done. If we start to think of our material as a form of storytelling we both simplify the material and make it more accessible. I tried this approach when I was tasked with making research ethics exciting (you can read about the results in a paper published in the journal Enhanced Learning in the Social Sciences). The point is that using dialogue to explore concepts is nothing new – it can be traced back at least as far as Plato.
What is new is the range of options available to us, mostly web-based, that allow us to bring our stories to fruition. So, if you are an academic who finds it difficult to bring your lectures and seminars to life, then my advice is to treat the material as a story. The best stories, as we all know, have twists and turns and unexpected outcomes. Much like the best social theories. If you are a student ask yourself, or better still ask your lecturers, which you would prefer: a 15 minute video or podcast or an hour’s lecture?

A change is gonna come, (or maybe it’s here)

Everything changes. After all evolution seems to be hard wired into us, yet for all sorts of reasons we cling to our old behaviours. This seems as true in education as it is in other parts of our lives. Some people, take a bow Mr Gove, fetishize the past to such an extent that the only explanation is that they must have been born in a previous century, accidentally frozen and then thawed out in time to visit misery on the rest of us.
Most academics are, and here’s a shocker, quite good at passing exams. For us, lectures, seminar papers and final exams worked. So, if they worked for us, they should work for everybody, right? Well, no actually. The notion that because something worked in the past, it is fit for the present is, frankly, a nonsense. That modern students should be forced to sit in rows listening to the sage on the sage says much about the sage and little about the needs of the student.
A recent paper in ELiSS (Enhanced Learning in the Social Sciences) argued that social tools, such as blogs or wikis, “allow the expression of learners’ thought, opinions, and ideas, enabling the construction of an online presence that arches over many spaces.” The authors, Monica Aresta, Luis Pedro, Antonio Moreira and Carlos Santos report on the use of what they call ‘personal learning environments’. These are online spaces where students can build and enhance their digital presence.
It is probably worth pointing out that their sample was 22 students taking a Masters in Multimedia Communication. One would, no doubt, expect such students to have a higher than average digital literacy, and to be open to this kind of experimentation. But, what of the rest of us? Indeed, for those of us teaching in the more ‘traditional’ social sciences or arts/humanities, what lessons?
I may be mistaken but I don’t think our students are as wedded to, so-called traditional pedagogies as many academics remain. But, and I believe this is a myth needing busting, neither are all young people digitally connected.
The key point about the Aresta et al study is a recognition that almost all of us now have an online identity, and that this has become as real as our other identities. By failing to acknowledge and nurture the online identities of our students, we do not just do them a disservice, but put ourselves into the position of evolutionary throwbacks.