In A Student’s Head – Mine From 26 Years Ago

I attended an Australian Council of Deans of ICT Learning and Teaching Academy event run by Elena Sitnikova from the University of South Australia. Elena is one of the (my fellow?) Fellows in ALTA and works in Cyber Security and Forensic Computing. Today’s focus was on discussing the issues in ICT education in Australia, based on the many surveys that have been run, presenting some early work on learning and teaching grants and providing workshops on “Improving learning and teaching practice in ICT Education” and “Developing Teamwork that Works!”. The day was great (with lots of familiar faces presenting a range of interesting topics) and the first workshop was run by Sue Wright, graduate school in Education, University of Melbourne. This, as always, was a highly rewarding event because Sue forced me to go back and think about myself as a student.

This is a very powerful technique and I’m going to outline it here, for those who haven’t done it for a while. Drawing on Bordieu’s ideas on social and cultural capital, Sue asked us to list our non-financial social assets and disadvantages when we first came to University. This included things like:

  • Access to resources
  • Physical appearance
  • Educational background
  • Life experiences
  • Intellect and orientation to study
  • Group membership
  • Accent
  • Anything else!

When you think about yourself in this way, you suddenly have to think about not only what you had, but what you didn’t have. What helped you stay in class?What meant that you didn’t show up? From a personal perspective, I had good friends and a great tan but I had very little life experience, a very poor study ethic, no real sense of consequences and a very poor support network in an academic sense. It really brought home how lucky I was to have a group of friends that kept me coming to University. Of course, in those pre-on-line days, you had to come to Uni to see your friends, so that was a good reason to keep people on campus – it allowed for you to learn things by bumping into a people, which I like to refer to as “Brownian Communication”.

“Hey, Neutrino 3 is trying to put together a Learning and Teaching Grant. Who’s in?”

This exercise made me think about my transition to being a successful student. In my case, it took more than one degree and a great deal more life experience before I was ready to come back and actually succeed. To be honest, if you looked at my base degree, you’d never have thought that I would make it all the way to a PhD and, yet, here I am, on a path where I am making a solid and positive difference.

Sue then reminded people of Hofstede’s work on cultural dimensions – power distance, individualism versus collectivism, and uncertainty avoidance. How do students work – do they need a large ‘respect gap’ between student and teacher? Do they put family before their own study? Do they do anything rather than explore the uncertain? It’s always worth remembering that, where “the other” exists for us, we exist as “the other” reciprocally. While it’s comfortable as white, culturally English and English speaking people to assume that “the other” is transgressing with respect to our ‘dominant’ culture, we may be asking people to do something that is incredibly uncomfortable and goes far beyond learning another language.

One of the workshop participants was born and grew up in Korea and he made the observation that, when he was growing up, the teacher was held at the same level of the King and your father – and you don’t question the King or your father! He also noted that, on occasion, ‘respect’ had to be directed towards teachers that they did not actually respect. He had one bad teacher and, in that class, the students asked no questions and just let the teacher talk. As someone who works within a very small power distance relationship with y students, I have almost never felt disrespected by anything that my students do, unless they are actively trying to be rude and disrespectful. If I have nobody following, or asking questions, then I always start to wonder if I’ve been tuned out and they are listening to the music in their heads. (Or on their iPhones, as it is the 21st Century!)

Australia is a low power distance/high individualism culture with a focus on the short-term in many respects (as evidence by profit and loss quarterly focus and, to be frank, recent political developments). Bringing people from a high PD/high collectivism culture, such as some of those found in South East Asia, will need some sort of management to ensure that we don’t accidentally split the class. It’s not enough to just say “These students do X” because we know that we can, with the right approach, integrate our student body. But it does take work.

As always, working with Sue (you never just listen to Sue, she always gets you working) was a very rewarding and reflective activity. I spent 20 minutes trying to learn enough about a colleague from UniSA, Sang, that I could answer questions about his life. While I was doing this, he was trying to become Nick. What emerged from this was how amazingly similar we actually are – different Unis, different degrees, different focus, one Anglo-origin, one Korean-origin – and it took us quite a while to find things where we were really so different that we could talk about the challenges if we had to take on each other’s lives.

It was great to see most of the Fellows again but, looking around a large room that wasn’t full to the brim, it reminded me that we are often talking to those people who already believe that what we’re doing is the right thing. The people that really needed to be here were the people who weren’t in the room.

I’m still thinking about how we can continue our work to reach out and bring more people into this very, very rewarding community.


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