From Agent Smith…. “Woah, I know Macro Economics!”
Recall that scene from The Matrix where Neo (Keanu Reeves) begins his training to become The One. In order to save us all from Agent Smith, Neo requires a number of virtual skills, and so his teacher Morpheus places Neo in a special chair. A plug is then rammed directly into the base of Neo’s brain, and presto, the process of downloading knowledge is underway. Swiftly, the download-progress bar fills up. Is Neo a Mac or a PC? We’re never told, though by the download speeds at which Neo “learns,” we can at least be certain he’s not in Australia. As soon as the download is complete, Neo utters one of the greatest lines in cinematic history. “Woah,” he says, “I know Kung Fu!”
Part of the appeal of this scene comes from the fantasy of effortless learning that it represents. Sure, Neo still needs to practice a bit with his virtual tutor in his virtual classroom, but the overriding message is that Neo is practicing what he already fully knows. Knowledge, in other words, is detachable from practice in this fantasy world, and the acquisition of knowledge is simply a matter of logging in and accessing the appropriate data. That might very well be true of kung fu. Unlike Neo, I do not know kung fu. What I do know, as a university lecturer, is the difference between knowledge and data. Another thing I know is that a university education means a lot more than access to “content,” whether that access happens online or face-to-face.
When news of the Ipad initiative broke, I realized that the people in charge of UWS live in the very same fantasy world where Neo and Morpheus happily hone their Kung Fu skills. The Vice Chancellor’s Office is guided, or rather, misguided by the narrowest, crudest idea of what it means to get an education. To them, the pursuit of higher learning has nothing to do with reflecting on big ideas or making unexpected discoveries. Education to them = the most cost-efficient ingestion of facts by the maximum number of students. Yes, they really and truly believe that everything you the student are ever going to learn in a course can be enumerated in a series of predetermined “learning outcomes.” In this fantasy land of theirs, all you need to do is access the content (wherever, whenever and however you choose!) and these outcomes will all be yours. Then just like Neo, at the end of each term you will be able to declare, “Woah, I know how to apply key theoretical concepts to real world examples!” Or “Woah, I know why multilateralism matters in contemporary international relations!” Not as cool as Kung Fu, I know.
Most of my fellow academics think this is a marketing stunt, pure and simple. They think UWS management has made the ugliest of wagers that you, the modern “wired” student, are such an utter simpleton that you will actually choose where you go to Uni based on a $500 toy. I only wish that’s all this ipad stunt said about the state of education at UWS.  Everyone needs to keep in mind, this is only the tip of a pedagogical iceberg that has been growing for years now. Every single teaching initiative imposed by these “innovative” educators – from standarized unit outlines, to standardized assessments, to reducing weekly tutorial hours, to reducing unit offerings, to blended learning, to ipad access of content – has made it that much harder for you, the student, to get a real education. So please do yourself a favor and practice your Kung Fu elsewhere.  Go to a real Uni.  Not this virtual one.
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