What about those clangers, eh? #cetis14

Note to readers that don’t live inside my head – The Clangers was a 1970s UK TV kids programme which could have been entitled “LOLs with Swanee Whistles”. It was (and most likely remains) impossible to survive your first month at university without having a conversation during a dull evening in a rubbish Student Union bar about retro children’s TV, how strange it was, and how everyone involved was clearly on drugs.

So. It’s official. The cool kids of EdTech snarking are now, nauseous with the dizzying headlong rush to whatever TechCrunch reckons is the future, looking in the recently discovered other (non-future) direction: alias “The Past”.

It is, as LP Hartley noted during what must have been a particularly dull evening in the Student Union Bar, a foreign country. Things were done differently. Depending on your point, this may have been with a charming naivete or a jejeune gaucheness, but it generally boils down to the idea that at the time we knew less than we do now – with the inevitable implied corollary that here in 2014 we somehow know more.

And the more we know, the less work we need to do. Or so we would think.

Brian Lamb and Jim Groom recently wrote about “innovation fatigue“:

The practice of outsourcing itself seems to have become the pinnacle of innovation for information technology in higher education.”

If this is the case, it is little wonder we hark back to the time we would change the world for ourselves.

The word and condition of “nostalgia”, interestingly enough, were originally invented in the 17th Century by a 17th century doctor named Johannes Hofer, and was pretty much synonymous with homesickness. He hypothesised that Swiss mercenaries were particularly troubled with this “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause” because of the constant ringing of cowbells in the alps. Over the years the meaning of “nostalgia” has mutated to describe a longing for the type of homecoming that one could only achieve with a heavily modified DeLorean.

In his book “RetromaniaSimon Reynolds cites the story above in the introduction of a becomingly scholarly look at why popular culture is obsessed with its own past. He divides nostalgia from “retro”, with the latter being a specifically twisted form of the new nostalgia:

“[…] that you can feel for the glory days of ‘living in the now’ that you didn’t… actually … live through” (page xxix)

One of his central theses is that the ageing and gentrifying of the original prime movers of popular music has lead to the growth of retrospectives that are aimed at this time- and money-rich market. Because of this, it is argued, those attempting to establish a culture of their own are hamstrung by these cultural behemoths – which become a pattern for the idea of cultural revolution against which newer attempts are measured and found wanting. Leaving us with a range of attempts to recreate the novelty and freshness of experiments of the past by explicitly following the recipe.

But we cannot. We know too much. In edtech, as in music.

Much of the talk at the CETIS14 conference focused on the past, even the opening keynote (Jisc’s Phil Richards) began by citing his own heritage within the lineage of Jisc- and TLTP- supported projects. His former sparring-partner Phil Barker‘s session on metadata was similarly reflective, and although Lorna Campbell’s session on Open Policy didn’t have quite the same lengthy pedigree, we still got back as far as the filo-rice-pudding-wastes of 2008.

These are hardly “hidden histories” – they are documented and described in project plans, reports and blog posts – but they are “unpopular histories”. Their unpopularity stems solely from the fact that they failed to change the word and remind those who would still try of the near-hopelessness of their task.

One imagines an inscription at the back of the Yellow Book (the colour books themselves were standardised with the support of a forerunner of Jisc) or within the old Janet NRS-

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away”

(or should that be “away far stretch sands level and lone The….” 🙂 #bigendianLOLs

We, as the institutionally and systemically based agitators of yore, are now a backwater, professional Cassandras that either maintain the reviled legacy platforms or feed the new disruptive ones with content, effort and time – for little esteem and less money in both cases.

It seems almost redundant to point out that it is these academic and support staff that make the greatest impact on the actual experience of actual students – not that it stops me doing it, mind – and likewise that the institution now exists as a means to sustain itself as a corporate body rather than to sustain and develop a collegiate community.

But I think we’re at, in the argot of the times, “peak student”. The current policy obsession with shaping the system around “student needs” is increasingly seen as representing a concerted attack on the professionalism of academic and support staff, especially when coupled with a parallel investment focus on estates and the seemingly expected infrastructure.

“Peak student” offers us a fetishisation of the tangible facets of student experience coupled with a desire for an impression of novelty, both of which are seen as a means to enhance the experience of the largely imaginary student that is at the heart of the system. (The needs of the real student – advice, challenge, inculcation into a community of scholarship, the skills to learn and adapt to a very uncertain world, and suchlike – don’t really figure here).

All of which is a round-about way of saying that the fact that we do have 50+ years experience of the ins and outs of sharing learning materials electronically is a beautiful irrelevance to those holding the purse-strings. The fact that we can neatly and deftly critique the strengths and weaknesses of something like Coursera or Futurelearn pales into insignificance against a well-designed infographic and the fact everyone else (of note) is involved.

You could describe overwhelming sarcasm at the ahistoricism amongst the “next generation” of innovators as sheer sour grapes. But it is not as if they are succeeding where others have failed.

Rather, it is that technology parted company from the shock of the new some time ago. And this painful separation will take years to become apparent – whilst the chance to refocus on culture, community, collegiality and cohesion is lost.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *