The proper function of a university is the imaginative acquisition of knowledge

I was reflecting on the above statement from A.N. Whitehead – quoted by Paul Ramsden (who draws deeply on Whitehead’s process philosophy in his own relational perspective on student learning) – at our annual Vice-Chancellor’s Teaching Excellence Awards today.  As the new incumbent of the role of ‘Director of Learning and Teaching’ it was my task to do a short welcome for the award recipients and the audience, and feeling somewhat unsure of what to say I turned to my own mentors – who mainly exist as words on a printed page – for some guidance.  I didn’t want to make any grand statements about the function of a Centre for Learning and Teaching (CfLAT) – it’s a bit early for that – and wanted to explain that any vision I had for the role was – at this stage at least – very much a mirage on a distant horizon.  But there are signposts towards that horizon, and patterns forming in the haze, and so I rather disjointedly tried to summarise Ramsden’s argument about formal and informal theories of teaching, and why the relationship between them is central to any approach towards improving learning and teaching and indeed the ‘practice of excellence’.  This should surely be an item high on any agenda for a new CfLAT ….

As an aside – I guess I was thinking about learning as the ‘imaginative acquisition of knowledge’ in response to a short dialogue between Paul Left and Stephen Downes about the ‘iPad and the LMS’.  Left and Downes agreed that learning was about the generation of information rather than the consumption of information and how important it would be that devices like the iPad enabled the former rather than the latter. All good constructivists would surely agree (but be also be mindful of Sfard’s two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one).

Now in my enactivist mode of thinking, I see learning as inseparable from teaching, where teaching/learning is an ecosystemic process of transforming information into knowledge, in which teacher-subject-student relationships are embedded or situated in a context where complex interacting influences shape the quality of learning outcomes.  Thus the process of knowledge formation in a university is the transformation of information into knowledge by embodied human minds in socially-mediated acts of learning as enquiry into a particular subject. I guess that Downes and co would argue that this process of knowledge formation is no longer confined to a university because of the connective affordances of the internet and new modes of knowledge production – and I would tend to agree – but practically until we get past the accreditation issue the university will continue to be the only place where new knowledge is generated, validated, taught, assessed and accredited (in the sense of an academic qualification) in the same setting.  So for me it’s not about learning as the ‘generation of information’ by inputting, connecting, or mashing up digital sources but rather learning as the transformation of information into knowledge – or echoing Ramsden / Whitehead – the imaginative acquisition of knowledge.  We have really cool tools for extending our consciousness to enhance this process nowadays – but the ecological/biological process is still the same.

Anyway there was no way that I was going to rave on about all that at an official awards ceremony – so just tried to make the point that all the recipients of the excellence awards had in their own way displayed an exciting dialogue between informal and formal theories of teaching – and it was the encounter and grappling with the formal – either as the participation in a qualification in education or tertiary teaching, or formal learning linked to a funded project to develop elearning – that had assisted in the practice and attainment of ‘excellence’.  I also pointed to the fact that all recipients had also done innovative work with wikis, blogs and other social media and had blended the best of the more traditional approaches to teaching with the new.

Sensing that my time was up I left it there, but my internal dialogue continued with Ramsden’s words resonating in my mind ‘the aim of educational development is to develop that integrity of purpose that constitutes excellence in teaching’ – which is just as true in the 21st century digital university as it was in 1993 (why does that seem so long ago ?)….

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