When I first went to university I wrote all my essays on a typewriter. The desktop PC revolution and word processing programs were only just beginning. In fact, the typewriter held fast in universities throughout much of the 1980s; some universities having specific rooms full of typewriters for students to tap away upon. I had my own typewriter; but even that posed certain problems. One memorable comment from a lecturer on one of my essays was: “I think a new typewriter ribbon would have been helpful”!
The change from typewriter to PC and word processing was a massive change for students – a change for the best.
Nowadays, university students have it pretty easy when it comes to doing their university work. Students have laptops that can go anywhere and word processors that make writing and editing assignments relatively painless. Thankfully, computers made “white ink” corrections redundant. Students don’t have to queue for ages at photocopier machines to copy key journal articles anymore – almost all academic journals these days are available online via the university library.
University students today don’t even need to go to classes to listen to lectures since many lectures are now podcast, enabling students to listen to the material at a time most convenient for them. Moreover, podcasts overcome the multitasking dilemma we “older” students had when trying to listen to lecturers and write down salient points at the same time! Podcasting, like laptop computers, give students greater freedom and flexibility for learning.
Therefore it comes as no surprise that university students are spending less time on campus and more time online, according to this article in the Sydney Morning Herald. “Three out of four students use podcasts of lectures and a third believe online lecture materials can be a replacement for attending classes, according to the nationwide survey of 2422 first-year students by the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne”.
While we can say that technology has created the capacity for increasing a student’s online experiences, the other reason is financial. The cost of education is much greater these days then when I first went to university (in the days when university education was nominally “free”). Over the past 10-15 years, university students have had to pay expensive fees or take a loan to pay for their studies. For undergraduate students in particular, paying for education means there is a greater need to take part-time jobs to earn money to pay for fees, as well as the usual costs associated with text books and transport.
The negative side to all of this is the lack of on-campus activity that comes with university life. If students are learning by themselves via online services, podcasts, and even wikis, where is the social interaction that is also part of the educational experience?
People in the workforce do not work in social vacuums. The lecture, with all its ancient history behind it, acted as a focal point for students to meet before and afterwards. The death of the lecture means new focal points will need to overcome the loss of social interaction. And I don’t just mean the fun part of social interaction; I mean actually meeting with other students (both by design and serendipity) to discuss what they have learned and what needs to be thought through.
It is interesting to compare the university experiences of students today with what will be their work experiences. For the most part, employers want staff to be at work in a specific physical location. Despite all the hype, working from home is still relatively rare. Working with people at the workplace is still the fundamental organisational architecture that university students today will move into.
In the knowledge management industry, we are very supportive of face-to-face contact to establish trust to enhance workplace (working) relationships. Trust is integral to many of the knowledge management initiatives that we like to promote, especially in terms of leadership, communication, collaboration, people networks, and operational effectiveness.
Information technology gives us speed and scale that cannot easily be replicated in face-to-face environments. For example, knowledge management professionals like to promote online communities of practice, wikis, and podcasts too. We see that there are many different ways to communicate information and knowledge and we try not to rely on only one channel. We like to consider context and how our KM work best fits within that context. In many ways, we are like both the university students and university lecturers of today’s world.
Getting the balance right in the context in which we operate is the real challenge.