Archive for July, 2010

The Role of Vocational Training in Higher Education

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

The massification of Higher Education has effected a huge and seemingly irreversible shift in the custodianship of many former vocational training programmes. Recounting the pivotal moment polytechnics were given reign to assume university status and award degrees, Ilana Bet-El, writing in The Guardian, makes an impassioned plea for the sanctity of traditional university scholarship:

“The true and unchanging purpose of universities is to study, think and research: to be removed from the immediate demands and overwhelming directives of everyday life, in the so-called ivory tower, in order to better understand its logic, needs and possibilities. In this way it both enriches society and benefits state and economy.”

I studied Technical Illustration for my first degree; a highly specialised subject, requiring equally specialised studio-based and ICT-based training. At the time, Blackpool and the Fylde College was the only institution in the UK to offer it as a degree (amongst a smattering of purely vocational two-year higher diplomas elsewhere). Admittedly, the academic element of the degree was highly modular; sort of ‘tagged on’ rather than integrated into the formal programme, not least in the form of Contextual Studies, where Converse trainers-wearing John Donaldson taught us Berger, Fiske and Barthes.

I left Blackpool as a highly competent technical illustrator with computer software expertise that would be largely obsolete within a year. I also came away with an A+ dissertation on football fanzines (yes, really) and an appetite for academic study, which I was delighted to resume four years later. Whenever I’m asked what is the best thing about my experiences in Higher Education, I always refer to the opportunities I’ve had to study alongside people from other countries and cultures, and engage with people from different disciplines and with different perspectives. Whilst these conditions are not exclusive to a university environment, they form an important and integral part of the learning process and academic experience.

I appreciate not everyone is interested in academia, and that its inherent cultural inertia often inhibits attempts to justify its relevance to vocational training. But this does not mean it should, as Bet-El suggests, remain the exclusive pursuit of an elite. Regardless of whether our learning institutions are called universities, polytechnics or whatever, we should be ensuring that the increasingly wide berth of Higher Education provides flexible, transferable and inspirational pedagogies engaged in serving both academic and vocational learning needs, and attuned to inclusion and lifelong and life-wide learning contexts. I would like to think, for example, that today’s nursing students will become as technically competent and knowledgeable as their predecessors, in performing the vital medical procedures expected of them. If the more rounded education provided by an academic degree also affords them the skills and confidence to develop as independent, critical and reflective professionals, all the better.

Unfortunately, whilst I share many of Ilana Bet-El’s concerns about universities becoming ‘degree factories’, she totally misses the key point – that the migration of traditionally vocational courses to the Higher Education domain has not coincided with appropriate student funding provision. Instead she seems to be hankering for a return to the days when the top 15% are left alone to wallow in academic navel-gazing, while the rest of us get on with preparing for the real world through narrow-minded training regimes that do not allow us to think beyond the defined roles that society has deemed fit for us to pursue.

Social Media, Disciplinarity and Research Cultures

Monday, July 5th, 2010

A number of recent activities has made me engage with the issue of academic disciplines in relation to my work and studies.

At last month’s JTEL Summer School in Macedonia, I participated in a group task based on one of the three grand challenges, Strengthening Learning Contexts. In presenting disciplinarity as a learning context, I drew largely on Tony Becher’s book (revised with Paul Trowler in 2001), Academic Tribes and Territories, which adopts a geographical metaphor to describe how historically defined academic disciplines and specialisms are perpetuated by the cultural values, norms and traditions which reside within them.

I recently came across a paper by Kuang-Hsu (Iris) Chiang (2003), in which she proposes that disciplinary diversity in doctoral education is engendered by the research training cultures, which she argues, are highly influential, not only in establishing the PhD students’ research environment, but also in their research processes and learning experiences. Taking the research training in Chemistry and Education respectively as examples, Chiang makes a clear distinction between a ‘teamwork’ structure and an ‘individualist’ structure. The social media sessions I’ve been running with LeRoy Hill at Graduate Centres in the University of Nottingham have been delivered to cross-disciplinary audiences (PhD and Early Career Researchers) from a number of Schools and Faculties. There are clear indications that disciplinary cultures may affect (though not exclusively) their attitudes to adopting and using social media in their studies.

I’ve commented before on the ‘privileged positions’ those who work in or study learning technologies have in using social media. The advantage I feel, is not so much in our familiarity and confidence with using the technologies (though that is clearly a factor), but more so in the richness of networks and communities we can rely on in which to participate. If students from other disciplines and specialisms do not have access to critical numbers of fellow academics within their fields who are using these tools – a concern raised by a number of attendees at our sessions – should we expect them to engage with social media at all?

Neil Selwyn’s excellent keynote address to the Ed-Media Conference in Toronto last week no doubt ruffled a few feathers, but his remarks serve to remind us of the clear disconnect between the potential of social media for learning and the reality of current adoption rates. If we are to engage with students and educators outside the ‘ed-tech bubble’, we can demonstrate the tools and establish best practices, but these need to be contextualised within the academic disciplines and research cultures of those we are trying hard to convince.


Becher, T., & Trowler, P. R. (2001). Academic Tribes and Territories (2nd Ed.) Buckingham: Open University Press.

Chiang, K.-H. (2003). Learning Experiences of Doctoral Students in UK Universities. International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 23 (1/2). 4-32.