#bebettr , @anna_debenham , skills vs literacies and my shady past.

This post represents my personal opinions only, and does not reflect those of my employer or the programmes and projects I am responsible for. It is made available under a CC-BY license.

Not for the first time, I think @jukesie is on to something. #BeBettr was the bare bones of an event, simply a room to keep the rain off and some interesting people talking, both on the stage and from the floor. No tedious “conference dinner”, no dodgy buffet lunch, no reams of paper, no trailing through the bowels of an expensive venue finding the next break-out room. No wireless to lure you in to email and the backchannels. My suspicion is that we will see a lot more events like this in 2011, and a lot less multi-day quasi-academic conferences for edtech folk. This can only be a good thing.

When I go to a conference I expect to leave with my head spinning, and at least one blog post ‘twixt my teeth. I was especially keen (after very positive reports from #drumbeat) to see Anna Debenham speak and I was not disappointed (here’s her talk on similar themes given to London Web Standards). She’s a young, talented, web professional who feels she has been let down by formal ICT education, and provides example after terrifying example to back up her narrative. Academia and the world of education has simply failed to keep up with the changing face of web technology – teaching children how to lay out a web page using HTML tables, or design a site in PowerPoint helps no one, and although these examples are taken from current GCSE and A-level syllabi it has also been argued (Leslie Jensen-Inman, in A List Apart) that HE is not much better. Anna herself chose not to apply to university based on a poor impression of what courses were focused on, and has instead developed a successful freelance career.

I agree with her diagnosis, but was wary of her solutions – which were that ICT professionals should work to support the development of updated syllabi. I simply don’t think this is sustainable, as web technology and development practice are liable to keep changing at the same dizzying rate as they are currently. Will we still be teaching web design in a world dominated by platform specific applications drawing information down from the cloud, bypassing the web entirely?

My suspicion is that any course that purports to teach you how to do “x” is probably a waste of time if it talks about industry standard practice. It’s not education, it’s training – and thousands of commercial training providers are quite delighted that training becomes out-of-date very quickly as they sip champagne cocktails and cavort in pools of gold coins. 

Education isn’t training. Training shows you how, education supports you in understanding why, and in gaining the general principles and aptitudes that allow you to find out how for yourself in the future. (NB although this sounds pretty convincing, please remember that I am essentially a policy wonk that spent too long listening to experts, so I claim no special insights here).

Back in 2003, I taught Music Technology to a group of Foundation year (level 0) students at a University not unadjacent to Pontypridd. I’d graduated from what became a MusTech degree in 2000, and even three years later most of the practices I had learnt had become laughably outmoded. I had learnt how to programme the venerable Akai S1000 sampler as a cutting edge tool, I was now teaching on a platform where a plug-in was available which allowed you to play the S1000s vintage, grungy, low bandwidth samples.

However the students were expecting to learn the latest industry standard tools, and many of them were much, much better than me in using them. Clearly something had to give. So I didn’t teach any tools at all – I pointed students to newsgroups, websites and online tutorials… I showed them how to identify and use reliable advice. I talked about copyright, music publishing, composition, harmony, basic production principles and critical listening. I even did a seminar called “how to play keyboards – in 40 minutes”. I also (wonderfully) branched out of a critical listening session because of questions asking me to explain what a passing reference to “Marxism” meant – the response prompting one keen student to opine that this revolution of the proletariat stuff sounded brilliant and why hadn’t it happened already? Students used the tools they were comfortable with, supported others in developing their own skills and were supported experimenting with new ideas.

But still, when one student asked me if this course he had signed up for enthusiastically would prepare him for a career as a sound engineer, I had to say no. I explained (truthfully) it would make him a better sound engineer, a better musician, and give him the literacies he needed to work in a fast changing field… but he left the course the next week and became a sound engineer in a club in Cardiff. Fair play to him (and I hope he at least took on board the stuff about ear protection!)

We can’t teach skills in HE. We’re not set up to do it, we’re not very good at doing it and we need to stop selling ourselves as if we are. We shouldn’t run courses claiming to make people professional sound engineers, or professional web designers, or professional anything else. We give people the literacies they need in order to pursue these careers (or any other). The subject matter of a degree, I suspect in more cynical moments,  is largely a way of getting students to concentrate long enough to swallow the literacies pill.

What does it matter if you studied English Literature, Music Technology, Pharmacy, Modern History, Software Engineering or Horticulture? The important things are that you learnt how to find information yourself, make decisions about it’s validity and usefulness, use the information to gain new knowledge, capability and expertise – write and argue persuasively, use sources and quotation to back yourself up, use technology to better express yourself, and had the confidence in your analysis to stand by it in the face of contrasting opinions. These are the graduate skills that most people end up using  – as web designers, sound engineers, sales managers, doctors and business analysts – we need to be a little more open about them at the start of the journey.