Sunday, March 29, 2009

Applying “What Would Google Do” to a University Faculty –some initial thoughts

I’ve been reading Jeff Jarvis’ book “What Would Google Do” in which he analyses the success and operation of Google, and deconstructs the company’s approach so that it might be used for other enterprises, industries or organisations. He does include a chapter in the book, imagining the Google University.

Since we talk a lot about our students being of the “Google Generation”, and all that that entails – not all good, if you look at the numbers of cases of plagiarism based on simply lifting material from the web – maybe it’s appropriate to look at the lessons of the book and see if they can be applied to ourselves.
In doing so, other touchstones that I’m eventually going to consider are the University strategic plan, the goals of the Faculty, and other outside documents, for example the latest HEFCE report on technology supported learning. It may be that many of these get kicked straight into touch if they don’t adequately reflect a new reality.

Let’s look at some a couple of the “Google Rules”

New Relationship – Your worst customer is your best friend and your best customer is your partner

In a world where it’s easy to blog, to provide reviews of university experience at thestudentroom.co.uk, ratemyuni.co.uk and a hundred other places, then the relationship we have with our students has to change. If they’re not happy, they’ll soon make their voices heard, outside the University, as well as inside. And the voice heard outside is the one that will damage us most if we aren’t listening. As a Faculty we make our responses to the annual student surveys, both our own Viewfinder survey, and the National Student Survey. And our reposnse? In so many cases we write “there isn’t enough data for this to be representative”. No matter that students are complaining, that they are withdrawing and we are seeing the same comments again and again, we continue to operate in a world where we feel that we know best.

Let’s look at Jarvis’ statement of turning our worst customer into our best friend. He or she is the student who isn’t happy, who might lodge a formal complaint, who may ask their parents to contact us, who might post on their own blog or forum, but who will certainly let others in their class and beyond know of their dissatisfaction. What do we do about this student? In the past we might have been able to hide, but not anymore – information on anything we do or are seen to do is publishable and searchable in an instant.

So let’s start engaging these people – let them help us, let them tell us what is wrong with what we might be doing, let’s see what we can do to change to mean that our students are happy. And if we keep this student happy – guess what? They are going to become one of our supporters and are going to tell their friends about how good we are! That’s why we’ve recently been going round talking to students to find out why they wrote what they did in the last survey. Very revealing – we knew that in general students are never happy about timeliness of feedback on work. Now we found out who hadn’t handed anything back to them from 10 months earlier!
Not difficult is it?


New Architecture – do what you do best and link to the rest

“Do what you do best and link to the rest”. This is common sense really – but this isthe key issue facing a faculty like ours. Thinking through this short phrase tells us what business we are in, and what we need to focus on, and which bits we can just link to elsewhere.

Reading any undergraduate or postgraduate assignment these days shows that students understand this only too well – anything we set that involves them demonstrating knowledge and understanding (instead of any higher order learning outcomes) will mean we receive a set of scripts containing material from Wikipedia and from the results of Google searches. Hardly surprising really.

What we need to do is think about what our function really is, and make sure we are really good at it.

Universities are seen as the gatekeepers of knowledge, and acolytes come to hear and learn from their masters – the university lecture hasn’t changed much in 600 years. But if the knowledge, the facts, the opinions, the analysis, the debate can all happen just as easily away from the University, what is our role going to be?

I see that the key thing we provide is accreditation of learning – that recognition that an individual has met a series of learning outcomes, that they are able to do a series of things. How they travel to that point is not as important as arriving.

That means that what we are here to do is not present information (unless it is so cutting edge no-one else has ever thought of it), but to show our learner which bits of information to use, to enable them to reach their goals, to enable them to meet their stated learning outcomes.

So we move away from being in the knowledge and information business, where that knowledge is our key asset, but to a business where our expertise is in helping students achieve and providing recognition of their learning that is accredited by us and by the learned societies (BCS and IET)

So.............what does that mean for the content of our awards? It means that the move to defining awards in terms of learning outcomes a number of years ago was remarkably prescient. Stating what students will be able to do, rather than what they should know fits the new reality perfectly. Our negotiated modules and awards are a clear example of this – awards that have no defined content, but anyone who studies on them will receive an award demonstrating they have met the outcomes.

We now need to look closely at our “normal” taught awards – how will these need to change? How important will it be that we write lecture handouts, create documents on secure sites and deliver standard lectures several hours a week? If the information is already out there, shouldn’t we be providing students with the information literacy skills to use it effectively? Shouldn’t we be setting assignments that truly test higher order learning outcomes, not just asking for a regurgitation of material readily available elsewhere?

And what else is our business going to be? Creating a community for all of us – teaching and support staff and students will be key. Where and how that community might be or how it might be supported is a related but different issue – let’s not forget our students already create their own communities on Facebook and Ning. We might need to question ourselves how much we need to have control of these communities. Again a big change from 20 or even 5 years ago, where we had control of the systems – not anymore.

More to follow


Jeff Jarvis continues his book with a consideration of : New Publicness; New society; New Economy; New Business Reality; New Ethic; New Speed and a New Imperative. I’ll return and look at these at a later date, and also try to expand the initial thoughts above.

40 comments:

Glynn is...Chartered Severalthings; day-job as a herder of learners. said...

I agree completely Mike. I had thought that, in large part, much of what you suggest we (or at least some of us) are already doing. Acting as facilitators of learning - signposting; hinting; contextualising; connecting the dots...all of these things are features of what some of us work at every day. Doing what we do best and linking/connecting to the rest.

Adding value to the testing of learning outcomes by using that process to foster and encourage learning...asking students what it is that best suits their learning styles for different things...isn't all this simply good 21st century teaching?

Maybe I'm missing something...well, CLEARLY I'm missing something...but Jeff Jarvis's philosophy, at least as far as you have expounded it, seems to me entirely the right approach. I just thought we, well, most of us anyway, were already doing that?

Just shows you what a sheltered life I must lead.

--G.

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