University of Wolverhampton, United Kingdom
This informal essay seeks to give readers some wider context to seamless learning in higher education, at a time when even before the pandemic, higher education globally was subject to unprecedented and unpredictable disruptions. It seeks to reflect on the environment of seamless learning, but of course from the viewpoint of one individual, a relatively senior white male western European, with all the baggage that comes with these attributes, and others, from other backgrounds and communities may see it very differently.
Before moving onto discussing the theme of the book, it is worth remarking that the process itself, as outlined in the first chapter, is valuable. Working collaboratively and connectedly is clearly aligned to the topic and to the zeitgeist. It does however beg questions in connected and turbulent times. When is a book actually finished? Why does it have to be fixed and frozen at a particular time? Is there perhaps a case for some kind of evolving digital text and some kind of topic-based community or is it just the case that people move away, the world moves on and new topics emerge, subsuming, replacing and reconfiguring the old ones? These are important issues as social, economic and technological change accelerate and knowledge becomes more transient, more contested and more fragmented. Of course, the same is also true of these remarks – everything changes.
One issue facing any book or pedagogy that addresses higher education is that higher education is no longer discrete, separate and distant from its environment. Whereas once the only access to education mediated by digital technology, especially for less privileged people, communities and countries, was through the education system, now there is more plentiful, diverse and flexible digital technology outside the institutions of higher education than inside. Ten years ago, children talked about ‘powering down when they were at school’, but perhaps only children from affluent families and affluent countries but the point is still well made, that society is often leaving education behind in the adoption of digital technology.
This is not however a merely quantitative difference with no impact on what happens inside the institutions and no qualitative difference to what had happened outside, in the institution’s environment. Quite the opposite. The ubiquitous, pervasive and intrusive nature of personal and social digital technologies across swathes of our societies has enabled people – not just formally registered students – to create, share, merge, transform, discuss and discard ideas, images, information and opinions, in effect to become their own communities of teachers as well as communities of independent learners. This may not be sanctioned, endorsed or recognised by the professions and institutions of education – in fact it may often not even be very good – but it makes institutions of higher education more transparent and permeable, and it problematise the role and authority of the institutions and its academic staff when extra or alternative knowledge is so widely and freely available. There is of course a tension here between this permeability and transparency alongside the rhetoric and ideology of ‘open learning’ and the neo-liberal marketised and competitive environment of higher education with its digital paywalls. Whilst we are clearly here looking at seamless learning in higher education, which of these visions of higher education are we really talking about?
What does this discussion mean for seamless learning, or any other pedagogy? One of the implications that each different community of learners brings to seamless learners is that they no longer arrive on campus or online with no previous experiences or expectations of digital learning, however formal or informal. They may come with experiences, highly structured ones, from their previous school or college but also with experiences, ongoing ones, highly dissonant and incoherent ones, from social media, mobile technologies and web2.0, where they find themselves with levels of agency, autonomy and prestige at odds with their subordinate status within formal education. This may make them more critical, asking why do university systems have to be like this. It may however just make them disgruntled, not critical learners but unhappy customers, clients and consumers in increasingly neo-liberal universities.
A rather different set of issues for the advocates of seamless learning is the relationship of seamless learning to other emerging pedagogies. Does it compete, complement, subsume or replace them? Does it have some theoretical or ideological underpinnings that are unfashionable or unacceptable in today’s ways of thinking about learning, teaching and education? The current contributions make clear how seamless learning is tapping into many of the ideals of the past twenty years.
Furthermore, it is inevitable that we should ask about seamless learning, especially when stacked up against the other emerging pedagogies, and ask about its capacity to increase or decrease digital and educational equity and access, both amongst current students and amongst potential students, in the connected and resourced institutions of the metropolitan global North and those institutions, wherever they are, less well connected and resourced. Does seamless learning have the innate capacity or perhaps the potential to improve access and equity, does it require more infrastructure, resources and support or can it exploit existing resources, perhaps tapping into those of the learners. Whilst it might be easy to castigate seamless learning for increasing the privilege of learners and institutions with the necessary digital capital, financial capital and cognitive capital, this is probably a superficial response since it risks blaming seamless learning for privilege that pervades every aspect of education systems. A more worthwhile question might be, how can the advocates of seamless learning adapt it to other environments, perhaps higher education in the global South or economically challenged regions in the global North away from the connected conurbations? Can the pedagogies of seamless learning be reconfigured around different devices and infrastructures, and around different conceptions and cultures of higher education. The book certainly provides resources and references describing implementation at quite a detailed level within the Northern, or globalised, context that could be reworked in other contexts.
It is not impossible to think of educational innovation without asking about any ‘theory of change’, without asking how do we get from where we are to where we want to be. The answers are of course very dependent on factors specific to each institution and its regulatory, financial and demographic context. It is however clear that culture, specifically the individual and institutional appetite for change and the appetite for conformity and consistency that will determine how innovation can be encouraged or enforced. These are typical of the factors outlined in the Diffusion of Innovations models. It is worth looking at some of the others, in particular the attributes of seamless learning itself as a specific innovation. Does seamless learning need a risky all-or-nothing approach? Or does seamless learning allow a phased or cautious incremental implementation? Advocates of seamless learning must learn to think in these terms to break out of the ‘early adopter’ population in their institution.
Different countries and systems do of course differ dramatically in all of these cultural aspects. Selling an innovation to immediate academic colleagues is very different from selling it to quality assurance staff, staff developers and technology support, not to mention students, managers, parents and employers, the language and values of each being very different. And as with mobile learning twenty years ago, and many subsequent innovations, institutional managers are often seeing the work of educational innovators in terms of its capacity to attract student recruits and research funds, for the institution to portray itself as at the leading edge.
The current book does of course address, directly or indirectly, many of these concerns and does so in a very clear and comprehensive fashion. It taps into many of the developments of the past two or three decades, when digital technology first became a tool to enrich and extend the experience of learning, firstly within formal education systems and now potentially across significant populations of informal learners.
Finally, we should recognise that the book is situated quite rightly in the immediate context of the global pandemic, but we might argue that the pandemic has only amplified the existing trends and pressures within global higher education. It is also however quite possible the pandemic was not a blip, not a mere perturbation of existing trends and pressures, but a profound and systemic shock to the educational status quo ante. The reality will no doubt be a patchwork of these two extremes. The response within digital learning globally was the so-called ‘pivot’, whereby schools, colleges and universities all changed, or lurched, at short notice to remote online delivery. This was however largely conservative, intended to sustain the continuity of education systems rather than launch innovative learning, and in exploiting whatever systems were already in place, focussed on the transmission of content. This will be the context for seamless learning. These will be the challenges.