Not everyone likes this new thing

Just following on from previous posts on my review of ‘podcasting’ literature, I want to illustrate a problem I find in the literature concerned with reviewing innovation. I have tried to avoid picking on people and do not intend to start here, so I apologise in advance for using this example which I feel bound to cite. I stress this is an example of the difficulty I have with academic literature on innovative practice in general. Also note, this example is out of context and so unfair.

I quote the last two sentences of an abstract. Here it is:

“…These findings reinforce the emerging concept that podcasts are not embraced by everyone. Despite the flexibility and mobile learning opportunities afforded by podcasts, significant numbers of students prefer to learn in face-to-face environments and by reading and/or listening in set study environments.” (Kazlauskas & Robinson, 2012 ).

The title of this paper is ‘Podcasts are not for everyone’. This is unhelpful. What are podcasts anyway? And my main points: is anything for everyone and should anything be for everyone?

I have already discussed on this blog about the imprecision of talking about ‘podcasts’ and how every implementation is not only different as it is inevitably defined by its context, and how podcasting is a technical concept – it says very little about how people may be involved per se. What, then, is it that everyone doesn’t like? A subtitle would have helped us here at least.

Then let’s look at the idea of everyone not liking something and a significant number of people liking or preferring something else.

To make my point I will rewrite that last sentence in a way that I think is equally valid. Apologies again to the authors. This is quite rude and I am not picking on you in particular (the study is actually very interesting):

“Because of the flexibility and mobile learning opportunities afforded by podcasts, significant numbers of students prefer to use them; however, in this study, more students told us that they prefer to learn in face-to-face environments and by reading and/or listening in set study environments.”

I think that statement is equally valid for this study, but now the type of podcasting (as it is later defined for this study) is not painted in such negative terms. After all the ideas of flexible and mobile learning are still thought to be important to the authors. We hear that some students do actually like or prefer ‘podcasts’ – and surely that is interesting and useful (remember it wasn’t a matter of every student not preferring them). We also hear, as we did in the original version, that most students (given the context of this particular study and the way podcasting has been used) did not prefer it. As a reader I am now curious about the study, what podcasting in this context actually involved, why this worked for some, and why it didn’t work for some others. Finally I would hope that the article would give me some ideas for what could be done to improve the innovation.

Why does this bother me so much?

It really does bother me a lot! The technical view of the world as described in the original statement suggests that simple understandings and implementations might work, without regard for context. Context is everything in the design of effective learning environments. Moving away from this particular example, let me do a quick listing of some of the factors that might have had a bearing on the successful implementation of a technology-enhanced pedagogy:

  • Intended outcomes
  • Readiness of tutors
  • Readiness of students
  • Readiness of support staff
  • Availability of guidance for all
  • The purpose of the media intervention (knowledge transfer, learner orientation, learner motivation, learner challenge, learner reflection)
  • The voice or voices involved (roles)
  • The duration of the media
  • The quality of the distributed media
  • The access to the media
  • The time to access the media
  • The social context in which the media is used or later referred to
  • What other media was available or conveyed along with the recordings
  • How the media was integrated into the course
  • Etc, etc

So you see, I need to know what is meant by this thing called ‘podcasting’ before I can form an opinion or expect others to inform an opinion about it. Though all this can’t be conveyed in a title the technical term ‘podcasting’ is a shorthand for something – there’s some kind of assumption about the reader’s preconception of what might be happening in this study.

The non-importance of preference
I’ll try to keep this short. Have you ever been in a learning environment that everyone liked? Let’s consider an alternative learning environment to the aural ‘one’ of podcasting – a classroom. Let’s add to that so we have something we can compare with the intended notion of podcast in this example. How about a class in which the teacher presents a topic in a classroom that has desks and chairs laid out in rows. They’re comfortable enough. Perhaps some windows, pictures on the wall, a large radiator, some fluorescent lights? No? OK, tungsten lights. Pale green paint on the walls. A projector showing some useful information. The teacher is a man, about 45 and has been here a while….

OK, you can see that I’m building up a picture and each element in that picture will work for some students more than for others. Some may really like most of these conditions. Probably some won’t. Maybe some who don’t like being there are just having a bad day or have had an argument with their best friend before they arrived. Some things we can control and some things we can’t.

But talking about everyone liking something is not realistic or particularly meaningful. I might not like the environment because I haven’t understood how to get the most out of it. Even before we look at the room and everything that’s happening in it, we can guess that something happened before these students and their teacher even arrived today. Expectations have been set, modified and some clarity has emerged we would hope through the course of being together.

Then there is the ‘should they like it anyway?’ question. Now I’m talking about something much more than podcasting – I’m referring to environment as in ‘comfort zone’. Should learning be comfortable? Can it be comfortable? Should we attempt to pander to preferences? Always? Or ‘learning styles’ even?! Shouldn’t learning be a challenge? Can you learn and not be challenged? How do challenge and preferences go together? They’re not opposites, but there’s some kind of dynamic there.

OK, we don’t want to actively make life difficult for learners. That’s not the point. But challenge is an important part of learner engagement (Chickering & Gamson, 1987 for example).

Apologies if this has read like a rant. This is not my intention. I do feel passionate about being open to ideas and being a critical and responsible thinker. Though I have to say, I wonder if I’m on my own when it comes to some of these thoughts. If you do agree or disagree please do let me know.

If we are talking about technology, behaviours and preferences we need to be careful about exploring the context, the environment and situation.

References
Chickering, A.W., and Gamson, Z.F. (1987) Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. Available online at: http://www.uis.edu/liberalstudies/students/documents/sevenprinciples.pdf
Kazlauskas, A., and Robinson, K. (2012 ). Podcasts are not for everyone. British Journal of Educational Technology, 43(2), pp.321–330.

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About amiddlet50

Educational developer working in academic innovation in higher education in the UK
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