I had a discussion today over coffee with some people about the Internet and the role it will play in Higher Education. It got me thinking about this blog and my YouTube videos and podcasts. What if they are crap? Now, I'm not having an existential crisis or anything and I'm proud of most of the work I have online. But what if it is crap? I saw a statistic once that 90% of lecturers think their teaching is average or above average. But of course 90% of us can't be above average.
The Internet has transformed my dark and dusty classroom in an obscure outpost on an island off the edge of Europe that no one can see into, into a dark and dusty classroom in an obscure outpost on an island off the edge of Europe that anyone can see into. Little has changed as a result of this quiet revolution. If I was a really crap lecturer, these recordings of classes would be a problem for the Institute. All the glossy brochures, polished YouTube videos, and shiny happy clip art people on billboards, would be quite pointless if people could see into classrooms and see that what goes on in class is not quite perfect. Worse still, what if the material I was teaching was irrelevant, out of date, or at too basic a level? Everyone would know exactly what going on. I can see why that terrifies people who are responsible for developing and maintaining the Institute's image and reputation.
But these concerns raise some more fundamental questions. If everyone finds out that I am a bad lecturer, what's the real problem? That I'm a bad lecturer, or that people know? What if the courses are not relevant or the quality of the graduates poor? Is the problem really that people might find out? It was only a few years ago that there was consternation at CIT when it was discovered that the students' union had put past exam papers on its public website where anyone on the Internet could see past exam papers for CIT courses. People were genuinely horrified.
I am actually not that worried about where I am on the curve, mostly because at CIT I am pretty much the only data point on the curve. I haven't seen many other blogs, nor YouTube videos, and there are no other courses available as podcasts. I will happily accept criticism from any other lecturers who put themselves out there, but not from others. I am not Pat Kenny and can never be. I have some good days and some bad days. Everyone does. I have given some very dull lectures in my time, and some very interesting one.
I am concerned though that as the Institute's managers finally wake up to the importance of the Internet in Higher Education they may attempt to control how the world sees CIT by censoring which of the Institute's many voices the world may hear. Only approved messages via approved channels will be permitted. I think this would be a mistake. Allowing the world to see what goes on at CIT, warts and all, is hugely valuable. Consumers of information are increasingly sophisticated. They know advertising when they see it. People won't actually buy that CIT is populated by attractive shiny happy clip art people. Authentic credible information suggesting that CIT is well above average, is more valuable than fake bumf. If the truth about CIT is not good enough to attract students and command respect in the wider community, then the problem is the truth, not the discovery of it. If the reality doesn't cut it, then address the reality, not the perception.
One of the main risks the Internet poses to the shiny happy clip art world view is that the web provides a forum where people can criticise the Institute. This can make for an uncomfortable working environment for people unused to having to explain the decisions they make to those affected by them. However any organisation that prohibits criticism is unlikely to take corrective action when it is making mistakes. The recent banking crisis and consequent bankruptcy of the state are an excellent example of what can happen when dissenting voices are silenced. Fear is understandable. Exposing yourself to potential criticism is uncomfortable. But delusion can be dangerous. Does anybody really believe that North Korea is a paradise? Is our disbelief North Korea's real problem?
Which brings me back to my own delusions. I first started recording classes and putting them online just over 10 years ago. If I had a bit more time to prepare the classes could be better, but like 90% of my colleagues I still think I am above average. I think the online classes have been useful to students on the course. The classes have had a small audience outside of CIT. I definitely think that the knowledge that the recordings would be make public has had a positive impact on the quality. It has upped my game. I wonder if that tiny insight could be a lesson for the wider Institute. Does public scrutiny improve quality?
I don't believe that the best lecturer is the one that never says the wrong thing because he never says anything. But at least then all 100% of us would be above average.