Academic identity and e-learning.

Being at a bit of a loose end this morning, I wandered into the University Library and picked up the Times Higher Education Supplement. (No, I don’t have a life!) Anyway. There was an interesting article describing a paper about academics’ reluctance to engage with e-learning, something that most of us working in educational development units can tell one or two stories about, and does get the odd mention in the thesis I’m working on. I am not saying that all academics are completely technophobic. Far from it. In my experience most are not, and I don’t think the author of the paper is saying that either.

But she does pick on something I found in my own research – that e-learning (and indeed wider attempts at “educational development”) can be seen as undermining academic identity. I think it was Ray Land who first described educational development as a “modernist project” which of course carries with it modernist notions of “improvement” and doing things “better” which implies that things are currently not being done very well. It’s hardly surprising then that it isn’t welcomed with open arms. The problem is that technology isn’t going to go away, and I think, “academic identities” are inevitably going to change. I don’t see how it can be otherwise. It’s easy to be sniffy about students doing Google searches instead of “proper” research but the fact is that, like it or not, the Internet contains more facts and arguments about them than we can carry in our crania no matter how exalted they may be. (and, yes, I know there’s more to the Internet than a Google search, and I also know that there’s as much crap out there as there is good stuff!)

I’m not saying academic identities will disappear, just that they’ll change. I think we’ll see much more openness in terms of learning resources being made available, but the most radical change may well come in assessment. I think, as I’ve probably blogged about before (and Stephen Downes certainly has), that the degree classification will in a few years be seen as much less important than the students’ blog, e-portfolio, and publicly available work. The challenge for academic staff will be ensuring that the student’s public persona is critically and disciplinary sound.

(Mind you I suspect that if and when that happens employers will start to complain that they have too much information, and wouldn’t it be better if universities summarised a student’s achievement, by oh I don’t know, describing an excellent student as “first class” and, shall we say, a less (but still very good ) student as “upper second class” student, a reasonably competent one as “lower second”…)