Every July now for quite a few years, I have been attending the e-learning conference at the University of Greenwich. It is always a feast of new ideas, news ways of doing things and a chance to talk to inspiring people about how education might move forward. It is always centred around the learners, but it always gives a boost to the educators too.

Orlovsky and the talented alternative

This year the theme was employer engagement in a digital age. The day started with a powerful presentation from Marcus Orlovsky of Bryanston Square, a private consultancy that aims to enhance learning across all sectors.  The talk concentrated on two main ideas – that there are creative and talented people (students and kids) out there whom universities may be under-selling and secondly that these creative and talented people are getting together in their thousands to make opportunities aside from mainstream education.

A second point that Orlovsky made, in quite a dramatic fashion, was that most businesses in the world and the UK in particular, are not major corporations but are small outfits with less than 250 employees. It is these businesses that most of us will work in or for, or perhaps start. So why do schools and universities ignore these in order to focus on the larger ones? Does employability education serve its clients as well as it might?

Orlovsky hates podiums and all the sorts of furniture and trappings that make schools, colleges and universities look like places of worship! He waves his arms a lot, stands right up next to the audience and holds attention. It’s a breath of fresh air that makes you ask if you are doing the right educational thing? I felt that we were being told off, but with wit and kindness. Orlovsky is an entrepreneur with charisma. He feels that everyone should get the chance to be so too.

This is the kind of student that Orlovsky likes…..watch this clip if you believe in the power of the learner to change the way we teach: http://www.hermanmiller.com/discover/i-study-in-my-bedroom/  Anyway, it is fun and I bet that you will be singing this to yourself later!

More about Orlovsky and Bryanston Square here  http://www.marcusorlovsky.co.uk/

Other interesting things from the day, in no particular order:

A project in which early years teacher-learners chose for themselves what medium in which to submit their assignments – these ranged from videos to comic books. I applaud projects like this when the learners can decide things for themselves as they might do in the world of work.

Blended learning, a mix of online and face-to-face, is perhaps the best way of learning? Any thoughts on this, folks?

Information literacy

Learning in a digital age is about learning to handle “information literacy”. That is “the adoption of appropriate information behaviour to identify…information well fitted to information needs, leading to wise and ethical use of information in society” (Webber, Johnston, 2003). I agree that learners of all ages need to explore and develop the habits of personal engagement or rejection of material. Too much censorship from educational organisations (and dare I say it, parents) does not enable a young person to make those informed choices about resources. Knowledge is a tool to be utilised and we need to understand contexts of information.

People who teach, academics, should not assume that everything is cut and dried – we need to explore and research, especially about the topics and methods we expect our learners to use. I truly agree with this from two points of view. Firstly, it takes away the uninformed assumption that our teaching methods always work – we need to find out what learners think (hello Stephen Boyd bedroom study guy!). Secondly, researching makes us better educators. I’ve just done a little research study on graphic design students and blogging. I confirmed some thoughts and I learnt a lot that I didn’t expect; and I enjoyed the investigation for its own sake too.

Researching digital needs

One research study, as discussed by Dr Mark Kerrigan, into what learners really think provided a lot of food for thought. Some snippets were about Mac users being more advanced and open to new digital ideas and techniques, yet most educational institutions only provide them with P.C.s to use. (Here many graphic design students may have an advantage as Macs are the industry standard and so they might be provided with them.) The conclusion is to go with learners frameworks not to pull them to yours. I’m thinking Stephen Boyd again!

Many university courses have a huge chunk (perhaps over two thirds) of untutored learning time per module – how do educators and students fill this time usefully?

In year one of a university programme students are learning to learn; in year two they are understanding professionalism and in year three they are young professionals. University students rely on their staff to inform them about what digital literacies employers want, but do the staff know the answer to this?

Creative work in a digital age

Creative work is nowadays transitory with many “creatives” not having full-time jobs. Instead they may have several part-time jobs or flit between work. Designers, artists, musicians and dancers, for example, may find that defining their own professional status is not as easy as it might seem. If you have to work in a supermarket all day to enable your art or performance at the weekend are you a cashier or a creative professional?

Work is trans-global and creative work looses boundaries. We heard about a case study where a Sydney photographer took photos in China that were exhibited in Berlin. This is quite typical these days, where cultural and logistical factors enable or even force an international outlook.

Creative output is also trans-discipline with areas cross-fertilising and merging. It is harder to state that you are a practitioner from a certain field. Actually, this goes back to the early years of graphic design when artists began to make magazine layouts to disseminate their output. Designers were often architects as well. This, I think might be a good thing.

It is also trans-professional. The boundaries between amateur and professional are blurred. Anyone with a Mac can design (outcry???)  and you don’t have to go to college or university, do you, to have a stunning portfolio? How do you learn to be a professional then? What distinguishes a professional from a hobbyist? Does it matter?

All of this should change the face of university education. There are already moves away from it altogether, with books like  Anya Kamenetz’s DIY U. University fees in the UK and USA have already made a large proportion of would-be graduates think, “Actually, no thanks”.

As Orlovsky pointed out so forcefully at the start, with videos of super amazing App-building 11 and 12 year olds, people are already changing attitudes and needs before they get to university. What could or should be done about it?