In the late 1990s and early 2000s much was made of the McDonaldization of universities: the standardisation of service in response to a more consumer-like mindset by students. It is this tendency towards a narrow idea of student experience that makes the delivery of a programme like Stories & Streams feel problematic to us as educators: we are going into a room without PowerPoint – how will students know when they have done learning?
This morning I skimmed through The Guardian‘s education supplement which is something of a special this week on applying to Higher Education. I’m now worried about a new front that has opened up in the fight to reduce a drift towards a consumer mindset in students, something which for the moment I will have to call the “iTunesification of HE”.
iTunesU is a platform for the digital distribution of educational content. Arguably it’s the glossy boutique shop front end of the OER movement, and part of a wider movement towards egalitarian online classrooms which are championed in the technology press – all worthy projects which I broadly support (although aspects are problematic).
There is some fantastic content on iTunesU which is offered to us as bite size chunks of knowledge; as iTunes makes the song the unit of music rather than the album, so iTunesU is reductive to the point of a lecture. Removed from the framework of a course, adrift from a relationship with a tutor, and divorced from the need for independent study, iTunesU offers us the ability to dip in and consume learning instrumentally. This chunking up and reduction to morsels of knowledge is being communicated and understood as indicative of educational programmes: the common sense now, as promoted in The Guardian is to taste these portions of learning ahead of time. This must chime well with the student consumer and reinforces their understanding that learning is chalk and talk, and they can just catch up with the PowerPoints later.
Something like Stories & Streams does not translate to iTunesU. Content that does well on iTunesU is slick and didactic, but this project deals in the messy and works with the individual: this programme of learning has a face for the radio, not for TV. It’s ugly, but rich with potential to learn and engage with the concepts.
If we are to reduce discussion around education to value, I know that learning that is focussed on individuals means they are getting better value for money. I also know that student-led learning is more complex and labour intensive for staff to produce. This personal interaction does not remediate, and so it is not present in the digital narrative, it is sidelined by spectacle; this valuable and expensive work is cheapened and under valued because it does not present well in the shop window.
And that’s what iTunesU is, let’s make no mistake. I was involved in early meetings at BCU about joining the service, and I talked through processes around quality control with marketing colleagues. Quality control doesn’t mean learning outcomes and student experiences, it doesn’t mean deep learning, it means gloss and a winning smile.
iTunesU is a marketing project, and the product it sells is suspect.