University 2.0

The student-centred learning movement has meant that educators – for nearly two decades – have prioritized words like flexibility, experience, negotiation and collaboration rather than recognizing the intellectual importance of discipline, integrity, respect, motivation and commitment.
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It was her hair I remember first. It was a soft brown and growing out a spiral perm. It framed a soft, caring and lined face, devoid of makeup. She wore comfortable cargo pants without a belt and a baggy buttoned shirt casually overhanging the trousers. She kicked off her shoes and told us that no curriculum had been written for the session. Our ‘lecture’ and ‘tutorial’ would be based on discussing what we would like the session to discuss.

Silence. Confusion. Discomfort. Laughter. Boredom. Ridicule. Anger. A surge of emotions poured from this class I attended as a young student teacher. I was in my earnest early twenties, filled to the intellectual rim with Foucault’s Discipline and Punish – as were most Generation Xer pseudo-scholars in the 1990s. I have a vivid recall of the session. But now the memory of the perm and cargo pants is always accompanied by an uncomfortable sensation of being kicked in the stomach. The problems that we as teachers confront in classrooms today can be sourced from such kind but misguided instructors in the past.

Education academics at that time were intoxicated – not by Illich or Foucault – but by words and phrases like student-centred learning, facilitation, collaboration and team teaching. Such priorities meant that curriculum studies were undertaught. Instead, ill-prepared student teachers were fed on Oprahfied psychology and ambiguous directives about listening, sharing, caring and – endlessly – facilitating.

My brown-haired teacher was so nurturing, so soft and so completely vague in her learning goals for the session that we spent two hours in groups (of course) not sure what we were actually doing. In retrospect, she was trying to teach us that students can shape and construct material to suit their current context and abilities. Theoretically, she was correct. Unless students have the literacies in encoding and decoding textual materials and some form of information scaffold on which to place new material, then they will not learn. Unfortunately the students in her classroom completely contradicted her principle. In these groups, we were meant to resolve what we would like to learn. Instead, the full two hours were absorbed talking about very little. ‘We’ were happy to learn nothing.

This was not a successful teaching session. A lecture and tutorial evaluating models of literacy and probing how context impacts on curriculum would have been more efficient and productive. However such statements and methods are deeply unpopular in our facilitative present. With all the talk of students as consumers, there is little discussion of the discipline, motivation and hard work necessary for educational success.

The student-centred learning movement has meant that educators – for nearly two decades – have prioritized words like flexibility, experience, negotiation and collaboration rather than recognizing the intellectual importance of discipline, integrity, respect, motivation and commitment. Intrinsically valuing student voices and views without question, debate or challenge has presented a bill. The life and intelligence of teachers are now seen to be equal to the students they are instructing. In other words, teachers’ experience, expertise, knowledge and curriculum are dragged down to the basic, the banal and the everyday.

The knowledge held by teachers and students is not equivalent. Teachers know more. They write and read expansively. They write and interpret curriculum. They set assignments. They moderate and examine. They study, think and translate complex ideas into the stepping stones of lesson plans. Students can enact none of these tasks.

Two forces have decentred awareness of these distinctions between teachers and students. Progressivist and liberal politics have celebrated the value of the students’ voice in a form of mock-1960s libertarianism. Concurrently, neo-liberal forces have added the inflective of the market to the educational mix. Students now whine at predictable intervals that ‘we’re paying for this’ and even ‘we pay your salary.’ So like obedient shop assistants, teachers ignore the disrespect, the ignorance, the laziness and the stupidity to ensure that the students are ‘satisfied’ and they enjoy their ‘experience’ of learning. They are paying for the right to be mediocre.

To this day when students shrilly remind me that ‘we’re paying for this,’ I wonder what they actually mean. Are they paying to pass? Are they paying for a degree? Are they paying for teacher’s time? Are they paying for facilities? Are they paying – in a sadomasochistic revenge narrative – to attack, humiliate and abuse teachers and teaching in any way they see fit?

Since moving to England, I have seen odd extensions of this ideology of student satisfaction that I witnessed in Australia. I have sat in ‘course boards’ where students discuss their modules, teaching, learning and facilities with staff. My initial impression was that this was a great initiative to offer students a place and time to discuss their educational goals with their teachers. All the nurturing and reflexive academics arrive at the appointed time, leaving their marking, research and course preparation, to sit at a table with student representatives from all levels of the degree programme.

Through the subsequent two hours, all the students ganged up into a focused, shrill and personal attack on a couple of teachers in particular, but then generalized into an ill-structured assault on the commitment of academics who instruct them. The evidence before their eyes that their teachers – from the most junior lecturer to the professor – had cleared two hours out of their schedule to hear this nonsense was not a self-evident counterargument to their diatribe. It was not only a pointless exercise, but destructive to the students themselves.

Where have inexperienced undergraduate students gained the expertise to comment on the content and form of a university curriculum? Even more significantly, academics have given them the structure, time and place to enact this ill-informed commentary. We are lying to our students by suggesting – even implicitly – that learning should be pleasant and easy, and that disciplinary specificities can be discussed by those who have not earned the right – through scholarly excellence – to comment, judge or evaluate. Teaching is not a popularity contest. Education is not meant to slot into a lifestyle.

Obviously, teachers have always been the object of humour and ridicule. But the tirades were scrawled as toilet graffiti or through hushed gossip. It was a Bakhtinesque carnival of resistance: the disempowered mocking the powerful. However, this abuse would rarely be to the teacher’s face. Respect and/or fear kept a hierarchy in place. This hierarchy and power was based on a fundamental premise that teachers help students learn important ideas, concepts and knowledges that will allow them to move through their lives with consciousness and care. But the starting point of such a journey is that teachers hold expertise that students do not. In our current culture of equivalence, such a statement is secular blasphemy.

It is not simply liberalism with lashing of libertarianism and neo-liberalism that has fed the pyre of teacher contempt. Popular culture has come to this party. The user-generated content ‘movement’ – often labelled Web 2.0 and gathering together Flickr, wikimedia, blogs, podcasting, MySpace, Facebook and YouTube – has provided a channel and venue for the emotive excesses of grievance, hostility and insolence against educators. It has now become part of popular culture to humiliate teachers and justify this abuse through the premise of social networking.

The point is that educators have been so respectful of other cultures, experiences and people that we have permitted the undermining of the value of teaching and learning. Nearly a decade ago, the remarkable scholar of popular music and popular culture, Andrew Goodwin recognized the consequences of these ‘concessions.’

This point was made for me recently at an academic conference where the audience heard from a distinguished panel of journalists and academics, who, as is usual, talked past each other about their work. What invariably happens is that the academic, eager (like me) to find ways of addressing a non-academic audience, make all kinds of concessions to the difficulties and limitations of journalism, eager in autocritique concerning the politics of academic writing, and discuss our yearning to work as or with media producers, and so forth. We are then treated to career histories from the practitioners, who berate the professors for using bloodless ‘jargon,’ without revealing the slightest interest in figuring out why academics use technical language, or what forms of knowledge might be produced on campus that cannot emerge in a 200-word record review. Because they operate just a little closer to the marketplace than the professors, the critics evidently believe that they are also closer to ‘the street.’

In the nine years since Goodwin published these words, his diagnosis has spilled from academic conferences through the World Wide Web and into popular culture. The concessions made by academics have extended far beyond journalists and into ‘communities’ of bloggers, wiki editors, flickr photographers and YouTube film makers.

What has been weathered in the democratic desire to make connections beyond the gates and gardens of the university is recognition that qualifications, credentials and specialist knowledge hold value. Teachers and scholars have given away not only power and authority, but their intelligence. Fascinatingly, it is now journalists who complain about their loss of credibility through the ‘citizen journalist’ movement with such ‘services’ as the BBC’s user-generated content team and CNN iReport.

The unreflexive nature of Web 2.0 that celebrates the intrinsic value of the digi-literate offering their opinions to the world meant that the dangers of the inexperienced or ill-educated attacking others are unmentioned. The idea that the web literate with time on their hands – a dangerous combination in itself – would abuse those with more expansive literacies and who spend their days dedicated to the education of others is appalling and needs to be addressed either by liable actions, governmental regulations or university sanctions.

Much of this culture of grievance and complaint about education slops into the digital pot of Facebook. Although labeled and celebrated as a social networking website, it is a platform to abuse teachers for their teaching. Originally created for university students, it is now available to any person with an email address. It is currently the sixth most visited site in the United States with 18 million users, and includes more photographs than Flickr. The site makes its money through advertising, selling products to students while they click through the lives and livelihoods of others.

The transgressive and transformative purpose of education is corroded through Facebook. Insults are not the basis of either learning or democracy. A recent survey by the Association of Teachers and Lectures and the Teachers’ Support Network reported that one in six teachers had been cyber-bullied. Entering, the evidence for this number is clear to see. It is extraordinary how many groups discuss such topics as “Is XXXXXXX the worst teacher in the world?” Harassment of instructors has emerged and digital mauling by groups of students is common.

What is stunning when reading the digital car wreck that is Facebook is how few teachers have replied to the abuse. Perhaps it is a mark of their self-respect that they do not scan and upload the corrected papers of these students who attack them for their peer group to see their errors and the real rationale for their abuse.

The greatest gift that a life of the mind provides is self awareness that we are responsible for our own failures, inadequacies and laziness. The greatest gift that blogs provide is the construction of endless cycles of displacement where others – writers, teachers, politicians, boyfriends, girlfriends, (ex)best friends and mothers – can block the self knowledge that maybe we are accountable for the decisions we make in our lives.

Hoping for self regulation of sites such as Facebook is like waiting for Gordon Brown to slap on the leggings and conduct a yoga class in Westminster. But there is movement for change in user-generated content land. Even Tim O’Reilly, oft-claimed ‘inventor’ of the Web 2.0 phrase, and Wikipedia Czar Jimmy Wales complained about the increasingly abusive nature of the online environment and asked for greater civility. If they are concerned then the rest of us should really be worried. Pot. Kettle. Black. But when they proposed something as simple as a Bloggers’ Code of Conduct, the new media site 910am stated that “controlling what people say and do on blogs can only be a recipe for the decline of the medium and the introduction of totalitarianism online.” The confusion of civilization with totalitarianism signifies the loss of the former and a victory for those whose freedom of speech so often drowns out the views of others.

Perhaps legal challenges are not the best way to manage the libelous impertinence on Facebook. Employers are starting to search the site to validate and assess the calibre of prospective employees. So the endless boasting about drinking, bingeing and the uselessness of teachers will have a consequence on students’ future employment. It is this form of regulation – from the market economy and not ‘totalitarianism’ – that may initiate ‘civility,’ through fear for personal repercussions rather than the damage initiated on their teachers’ lives.

In our anti-intellectual times, experts have replaced expertise. Freedom of speech for the few has suffocated the rights of the many. But teachers are also to blame. We have gone too far in valuing the student ‘experience’ over our responsibilities to knowledge. We have ‘facilitated’ an unproductive confusion between valuing student views and validating ignorance. Teachers need to bring the revelation and the transcendence back to scholarship and learning. Education is special, difficult and important. We must critique and attack those who deny the value of the challenging, the inspiring and the complex.

Web 2.0 was deployed by O’Reilly Media to evoke the second generation of the World Wide Web that emphasized collaboration and social networking. It did not describe technological change, but the social and economic transformation in how the digital platform was being used. Similarly University 2.0 has not shifted the buildings, remuneration or the libraries of the institution. Instead, it signals a movement in the form of the social and economic exchange of teaching and learning.

Students buy competencies and skills. They do not learn expertise and gain knowledge. While the architecture for participation is present in contemporary education, the scaffolding of reading, research and respect is not. Talking substitutes for reflection. Group work replaces memory work. Blogging about very little replaces thinking about a great deal. The memory of the great teachers, writers and thinkers who preceded us deserve more than Facebook. They demand a full body of knowledge.

Tara Brabazon
About the Author
Tara Brabazon is Professor of Media Studies at the University of Brighton in the United Kingdom. She is also the Director of the Popular Culture Collective. Tara has published six books, Tracking the Jack: A retracing of the Antipodes, Ladies who Lunge: Celebrating Difficult Women, Digital Hemlock: Internet Education and the Poisoning of Teaching, Liverpool of the South Seas: Perth and its popular music, From Revolution to Revelation; Generation X, Cultural Studies, Popular Memory and Playing on the Periphery. The University of Google: Education in a (ost) Information Age is released by Ashgate in 2007. Tara is a previous winner of a National Teaching Award for the Humanities and a former finalist for Australian of the Year.