Still iPaddling (but up to my knees, now)

By Simon Inger, University of Bath

My daughter started secondary school this year. They all get iPads, at her gleamingly new, large comprehensive. Parents pay for them, on some scale of affordability so that everyone in a not-very-affluent catchment can join in, but basically everyone has one, and they use them in every subject, home and away. This has significantly changed the IT dynamic in a home that has been slow to build up its collection of devices, has parents that don’t do popular culture, and has very poor internet access.  Despite rural broadband, Minecraft has arrived.

I’ve also watched a change in the ODHE group since those days of Bex and the digital literacy project. For newer members, this was a project in which an expert came to our meetings for a couple of years and tried to help us understand and adopt digital ways of working. Small steps, little at a time, to get with the century. I still remember the debate at Storrs Hall in 2012; a very few members were using mobile devices, mostly laptops, and there was a strong majority feeling that paying attention to screens was disrespectful, that it signalled a lack of attention and involvement.  Doing your emails in a conference session was considered rudest, but there were even scowls of disapproval when a group looked up something that had been mentioned in the discussion, found something amusing and were stifling guffaws. One member was playing chess against a distant Bulgarian. But even then, people were starting to compare such behaviour with more traditional forms of disengagement like doodling and reading, or gazing out over the lake. Who were we, they said, to moralise about e-doodling?

Now we know, of course, that students are arriving in lectures with screens on the go, accessing multiple channels, and it’s normal, it’s the way life is and it’s our academics who have to deal with it.

So fast forward – no, you don’t need to fast forward any more, you can just swipe the slider – to an ODHE meeting in the Midlands somewhere. I walked in before the SIG to find a smattering of colleagues sitting around, mostly separated by several metres, mostly interacting with a screen. Oh, I thought, so we’ve all travelled from around the land for an opportunity to talk to people we rarely meet, for stimulation and enrichment, and actually the screen is more tempting. How far we’ve travelled indeed. I confess to being a bit depressed, but mostly because I didn’t have the techie know-how to send a mischievous message to them all saying “Hi, I’m the one standing by the door in the blue jumper.”

Douglas Adams said this about technology:

1) Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.  2) Anything that’s invented between when you’re 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.  3) Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.

For me it’s social networks that count under (3). Everything else is evolution (video games, the internet itself, music technology).  I still don’t really get it, why “likes” and “friends” are considered a better measure of status than actually having a bank account, for example.

But remember what Cliff Oswick was saying at the Glasgow meeting; organisations of the future will be more like networks than hierarchies.  People who aspire to lead, manage and transform organisations (that’s us) need to understand and work with that. It struck me only yesterday that even as we put more structure onto our academic endeavour, with management systems, QA frameworks and performance reviews, the world is moving towards what the most traditional academic would recognise and call “collegiate.”  People who talk to each other making things up as they go along to fit the needs of the moment. Sorry, I mean whole-system co-created emergent strategy. With agility.

Buzzword bingo aside, this is what has crept up on me as we’ve changed our digital practice in the OD community.  We work with connections, it’s axiomatic to the OD philosophy, but do we understand well enough how to do that when many of the connections are down a cable? What, in a nutshell, does a University fit for the 21st century look like, and what are we doing to build one?

Kids of today, eh? What are they going to expect of us when they become staff in HE?

Answers on a postcard…


You can read a bit more about my daughter’s school in the first part of this article; she does the orchids too (“Cool Asia” section; which catches the zeitgeist on the back of a hoodie better than “Cool Britannia”.)

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