Real or Synthetic?

Haggans in PDU 130226Two recent events have brought the paradox of the 21st century campus into sharp focus for me.  First, I taught one of my courses remotely via Google Hangout.  Second, a seminar class allowed students to have an in-class conversation with a veteran Minnesota campus planner and later to engage in a discussion of Mission and Place by Kenney, Dumont and Kenney.

In the first case, technology is pulling us away from the traditional model.  In the second case, the values of the traditional model pull us back to the chairs and tables of three-dimensional space.  Technology is allowing us to reinvent many aspects of what has traditionally been the exclusive domain of higher education as they are pulled into a synthetic digital domain.  As this happens many educators are seeking and often struggling to retain the unique values of the real face-to-face experience.

Paradox of the 21st Century University (Seminar video, 02/26/13)

The experience of teaching via Google Hangout was better than having no class.  Inadequate bandwidth made screen sharing difficult and it compromised audio quality.  While better than nothing, it was still a long way from the face-to-face experience. I did find it wanting, but that won’t last for long.  Bandwidth and resolution are improving rapidly.  In fact, a better technology was available from the university, but I wanted to experiment with the lowest tech option available.

My students did not like the digital experience.  Some of this can be fixed by improvements in technology, and some by improved planning and teaching preparation.  Even though the class was synchronous and the students were in the same room and I was on the big screen, they considered the experience to be synthetic, while our face-to-face classes are real.

Increasing global demand for access to higher education suggests that synthetic experience is gaining higher levels of acceptance.  Experimentation and proliferation of synthetic options can be expected to continue.  The number of students utilizing digital courses is still expanding within traditional institutions.

The cost of being in the same room (including the cost of the room, furniture, equipment and cleaning, and the energy to heat, cool, and light) is an easy accounting topic.  Yet the benefits of being in the room face-to-face are difficult to quantify.

We are in that moment of pedagogical transition before a conventional balance has been struck.  The synthetic is dismissed as being insufficiently “real” and the real is dismissed as being too quaint for the 21st century.

Educational Theory – Buckets and Application (Seminar video, 02/26/13)

I anticipate a period in which more and more synthetic options are developed.  Eventually, I think that a new consensus definition of “real” is likely to emerge in a balance of two-thirds face-to-face and one-third digital.  Business models with physical environments that begin to be tuned to this new real will have a competitive advantage.  Individual students may choose to strike a different balance for themselves, opting for more or less face-to-face.

For now my students prefer more face-to-face time.  For this year, that is okay with me.  Soon enough students will expect more bandwidth and reserve the time of face-to-face experience for situations that make a “real” difference.

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