Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Next best thing

book store by tom.belte, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License by tom.belte

We have enormous respect for the written word. Reading a book has high cultural status that is somehow linked to the fact that it is printed on paper. However other means of telling a story never attain the level of respect that printed texts have. Even reading the digital version somehow has a lower status to reading a "real" book. Further down the respect list come listening to an audio book, watching a film of the book or playing the game. If a child sits all day reading a book we praise them but spending all day watching films or playing complicated interactive computer games is regarded as less praiseworthy and can even be seen as a problem. Somehow the written word is the "real thing" whereas all other media are seen as less serious versions; the next best thing.

I started thinking about this after hearing a talk from a colleague, Anette Svensson of Jönköping University, who has been studying attitudes to different forms of storytelling in schools and how we always give priority to text. This is strange since the written word was originally the next best thing to the spoken word. The oral tradition of ancient civilisations was all about spell-binding narrators who could tell inspiring tales that could last for hours. These were passed down from generation to generation as spoken narratives before finally being written down by poets like Homer. The written form of the Iliad was therefore a pale copy of the real thing which lacked the expression, drama, gestures and eye contact of the live performance. The art of storytelling is seldom practiced in schools unfortunately.

The point is that we should value different media and treat them on their own merits. There are always arguments about whether the film was as good as the book but it's better to discuss whether or not it was a good film. In education all focus is on written communication and success is dependent on mastering this skill. Of course it is important but in today's multi-media world it's surely time to accept examination assignments as films, games or podcasts which often demand a wider understanding of the subject matter than simply writing a text.

There has been a similar attitude to distance and online learning; a substitute for the "real thing" - classroom teaching. As a result we have tried to construct online equivalents of the traditional teaching environment with virtual classrooms, recorded lectures and lots of school vocabulary with e- on the front. Online courses are not respected highly in universities and often it's the most inexperienced faculty members who teach them, though now with the advent of MOOCs all the top professors want to get in there since there's a potential audience of millions out there.

We need to concentrate on learning using different media and different spaces (physical and online) rather than seeing one as a substitute for the other. There are different physical learning spaces that are great for some activities and poor for others. The same applies online. The key is to see how each space can facilitate learning and meaningful interaction. The classroom is not default any more, there are other arenas too just as we should not simply focus on text communication and neglect all other media. Judge each on their own merits.

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