There was a session devoted to education at the MacGill Summer School in Donegal and speakers included The Minister, Ruari Quinn, eminent academic, Brigid Laffan and our President here in DCU, Brian MacCraith.
The Minister’s speech was disappointing. What I found most surprising was that there was no real attempt – and this by a Labour Minster – to put the education system in a social context. Education doesn’t exist in a vacuum; the education system and the outputs from that system are inextricably linked with society. No discussion about literacy or numeracy can take place in the absence of a discussion about social and economic deprivation. No discussion about the structure of the education system can take place without seeing it in the context of a country with 400,000 people unemployed, many of whom are low-skilled construction workers. And no discussion about quality in the university sector can take place without considering the values of a society in which young people acquire attitudes and expectations.
Take the issue of Quality in Higher Education which Brigid Laffan discusses in her talk. She says: “Aspiring to be the best requires a relentless focus on quality.” I haven’t yet read her speech in its entirety so I don’t know the precise context in which she made this remark, but most readers of this statement, which appeared in the Irish Times, would take it to mean that the education system needs to be ‘policed’ much more rigorously. Of course, the quality of the educators is important but what few people ever remark upon is the fact that the quality of an education system depends not only on the educators but also on students. Education is, and must be, a partnership and to assume that education can be ‘fixed’ in some way without considering both partners is completely wrong. In my experience, we have created a society in which many students lack motivation to study at third level, lack the basic skills to learn at honours degree level and, crucially, have expectations of themselves that are too low. Our third level educators are constantly ‘chasing their tails’ trying to develop teaching methods that will help students ‘engage’. If there is to be a genuine commitment to a “relentless focus on quality” then we’d better brace ourselves for the fallout from the massively increased failure rates that will inevitably result.
In his speech, Brian MacCraith, President at DCU, talked a lot about digital and online learning. He views developments such as MOOCs as “transformational” and claims that by 2015, 90% of jobs will require full competency in e-skills. (I don’t buy that!) I don’t quite understand this love affair with the online approach and I’m not convinced that the world is undergoing quite as dramatic a transformation as people claim. If anything, online learning requires even more motivation and commitment from students and, as I said earlier, it is in these areas that I think we have our biggest problems. Youngsters need to come to college to experience a culture of learning with their peers. (Indeed, I think we need to put a lot more thought into making our campuses and our timetables much more student-centred.) Just as fundamentally, moving to an online approach to education is essentially a leap of faith – it is not evidence-based. Just because some people and institutions are doing it doesn’t make it right. And, to get back to the education-and-society theme, a move to an online approach, in which students could learn from a distance at a more self-determined pace, requires a buy-in from society where there is an expectation that young people actually go to a place (college) to do their learning.
In a few weeks’ time, the kids will be back at school and the traffic will return to its normal congested state as people commute from home to the workplace via the school run. This has been happening for years: people get up early, commute to their jobs on the factory floor or in the office or wherever. There, they might use all sorts of digital tools – or they may not – all the time interacting with their colleagues face-to-face and by telephone. They will work at a pace demanded by the job, not at a self-determined pace. They will return home in the evening like they’ve done for decades and the whole process will start again the next day. Our society in the West is built around this routine with relatively few people able to work remotely and flexibly.
At the moment, some of us in the education system are living in a bubble in which have created a vision of an e-future of the type one might see in an Apple or Microsoft commercial. We need to burst that bubble and come back into the real world where people’s working lives are not really undergoing much of a transformation at all. Most importantly, we need to remember that our students will have to live and work in this real world, not the fantasy world of our own little academic bubble.