Teaching, redundancy, technological change and globalisation

Talk to U3A tutors 23 November 2005 by Roy Hay, Sports and Editorial Services Australia and Deakin University.

I am extremely privileged to be here to talk to you tonight. That is not just a conventional sentiment, I assure you. For it is very humbling to be in the presence of a group of people who regard the pursuit of learning and the passing on of that learning to others as valuable, indeed vital, in its own right and for its own sake in a world where education is increasingly treated as a commodity to be traded in a market place. I share your enthusiasm for the project which is the University of the Third Age. Your role will become more important in the next generation. Demography is on your side. Whereas the popular press and some sections of the political classes are full of gloom and doom about the awful burdens which will fall upon society as the Australian population ages and the baby boomers retire, you know that this means there will be more people who will be seeking the kind of experience that U3A offers.

So I am very sanguine about your prospects, but tonight I want to talk to you about redundancy. Well about redundancy and role of the teacher and ask how best U3A might evolve in future. This will lead me on to mention some of the advantages which flow from two processes which are often excoriated by my friends on the left and which often mystify and frighten prospective students of U3A—these processes are the twin phenomena of technological change and globalisation.

First redundancy. I am sure you all have your own notions of what you think is the most valuable thing you can do for your students. It may be imparting specific skills and knowledge you have accumulated over a lifetime of learning. It may be conveying some of your own enthusiasm for the particular parts of the world of knowledge in which you have specialised. It may be increasing the self-confidence of students to tackle quite difficult intellectual puzzles. I want to argue that the greatest contribution you can offer is to make yourself redundant as far as each cohort of students is concerned. It took me a long time to realise that this encapsulated for me the philosophy which underlay my teaching in the range of areas in the social sciences and humanities at Deakin University and I would commend it to you today. So what do I mean by making myself redundant?

The notion is that the most successful student is one who is both an independent and a co-operative learner, someone who has found out how to find out, how to learn for him or herself, who is willing to combine with others to continue learning and who is willing to share that knowledge with others. Someone, in other words, who does not need me to teach them any more, but who can proceed to formulate and attempt to solve the intellectual puzzles which will drive this person for the rest of his or her life. This philosophy of life-long learning and the idea that when you stop learning you are dead is what drives me and, in my experience, is what drives the successful students I have known.

This is different from the Jesuit philosophy of give me the child for seven years and I will have them for life. My view is that I don’t want to have set students on tram-lines. People have to map out their own futures and all that I can give them are some of the tools and ideas which might help in the process. The model was once exemplified for me by a former colleague and fellow economic historian, the Yorkshireman Wray Vamplew. Wray and I go back to early teaching days in Scotland. He was at the University of Edinburgh, I was at Glasgow and also taught for the Open University. Later we both came to Australia where he was eventually Pro-Vice Chancellor at Flinders University before returning to De Montfort University in Leicester in England. It was while he was there that I remember him chairing a session of the British Society for Sports History Conference at Keele in which one of his graduate students, John Tolson, carefully and systematically undermined, corrected and amplified a number of the key conclusions drawn in Wray’s pioneering history of horse racing in the England. I thought at the time this is way scholarship ought to work, the new student shows his respect for his teacher by building on his research but overturning much of it on the basis of new knowledge. Joe Melling did the same for me in the area of company welfare policy.

I fell foul of the former Vice-Chancellor and President of Deakin University, John Hay (no relation, though I could tell you a few stories about him), when I insisted that we should send the brightest of our completed honours students to other universities to undertake their masters and doctoral research. He argued that Melbourne and Sydney were not likely to send their bright students to Deakin so we should keep ours to build up our graduate program. I clung to the mediaeval notion of the peripatetic scholar and the firm belief that after I had taught the student all that I could it was time he or she went elsewhere to see how knowledge was gained and disseminated by others. And so I commend to you that you treat your senior students in the same way. I know it is tempting to try to keep them in U3A but the health of this institution in the long run will be secured by sending them back out into the world as independent learners and perhaps future teachers in this university.

My next question is how is the next generation going to learn. And this is where technological change and globalisation come in. The world has changed and people learn in different ways, and while the young like to believe that they are the only ones who are up with the latest gismos and gadgetry and methods of gaining knowledge or information or entertainment, I think many of the changes which have occurred are of much greater benefit to older adults if properly understood and used. It is a far cry from Gavin Lyall’s Major Maxim series where the eponymous hero was accompanied on one mission by an ageing civil servant. This was about 20 years ago and they needed a video recorder to perform some activity or other. The mandarin bought one but complained bitterly that ‘they ought to give away a ten-year-old child free with every one of these they sell’. Now to me, computers, email and the internet are brilliant for our and for older generations and we ought to make far more use of them.

Computers frighten at first encounter. We have to jolly people through the phase where they believe if they press the wrong button inadvertently then the whole civilised world is going to collapse as a result. When my father died a few years ago, I suggested to my mother, who was 86 at the time, that she come out to Australia with me for our summer, then she could go back and pick up the threads of her life again in Scotland. The family were gobsmacked, but she agreed instantly and arrived just as we were about to move from suburban Highton to Teesdale. She watched my wife and I working away on our computers and then asked if we could teach her to use one. ‘I have all these letters of condolence to which I wish to reply.’ So we set her up with a template, answered questions, showed a few tips, but then left her to get on with her letters.

On the plane on the way back to Scotland she said to me, ‘I think I’ll get a computer when I get home’. So I rang my brother who used to be with BT (British Telecom) and told him to get her a good machine with all the ancillaries and ensure it was set up properly. ‘What does she want a computer for?’ he asked. ‘Never mind, just do it’, I replied. A couple of weeks after I got home a letter arrived, beautifully set out, with a little soccer player in a red top in the corner.

Email was designed for older folks. They can fire off a short message at any hour of the day or night, not worrying whether the recipient is in a different time zone or at home. The internet with its search engines provides a huge quarry of knowledge, far greater than we can create at U3A. I know a lot of it is dross, much is plain wrong, some is misleading and lots of it is pornographic—or so they tell me! But that means we need to teach our U3A students the same critical skills of discrimination and analysis for researching the internet which we try to put across when dealing with history in books and archives for example.

Then, when our students have developed their skills, they can write up their new-found knowledge on their computers much more easily than they could in the old days. Drafts are much easier to handle, pictures can be scanned and inserted, material can be moved around easily and you just have to learn about keeping back-ups. Modern keyboards for electronic machines don’t need any great strength in your little fingers and voice recognition software is improving by leaps and bounds and may enable those who have problems with motor skills or arthritis to reduce the amount of keyboarding to a minimum.

When the work is done it can be circulated through websites, which can be set up with great ease using tools which don’t require mastering arcane computer languages. I’m sure we have the expertise within U3A already to provide these learning experiences to the current and future generations of students.

But that does not mean we do without books! If like me you believe that the portable hard copy database is not obsolete—what did I just say? I meant a book—then modern publishing has been transformed by the capacity to print on demand and publishing services offered by a range of organisations. Let me tell you briefly about our experience. We were in Scotland in 2003 in part to visit my 89-year-old mother-in-law in Dingwall. Just before we left she said, ‘I am planning my 90th birthday next year and I am planning my funeral too.’ ‘Well done’, I said, ‘You are touching all bases, but let’s make sure it is the former not the latter.’ So we sat her down and I began to take notes about her interesting life, nearly all of which was spent within five miles of the centre of Dingwall. When we came back to Australia, each fortnight or so a letter would arrive with the contents written on the backs of scraps of paper and old envelopes, this being the next instalment of her life story. My wife is an editor and she edited the material while I put it on computer. We did a little extra research and filled gaps, but basically the story was Mam’s. Then we had it designed by a colleague and finally printed by Gardners and Anthony Rowe in Eastbourne in England. Gardners have a six-acre warehouse and in the middle Anthony Rowe has a set-up which will print a single copy of the book from the CD-ROM with its PDF files which we supplied. So you can walk into any bookshop in the United Kingdom and order one copy of Mam’s book and it will be back in the shop in 72 hours.

I haven’t quite found the same facility in Australia but in Geelong I can get copies printed and bound in batches of 50 so that you do not have to face the problem of producing a thousand copies and then wondering how you are going to sell them. Incidentally, this was my mother-in-law’s third book since she turned 86 and she has just finished her fourth. Not bad for the daughter of a farm labourer who left school at 14 and never had two pennies to rub together for most of her life. I commend her example to you and through you to your students.

So the message is clear. The new technology and globalisation are not the twin curses they are made out to be. They are resources and challenges which U3A can adopt and adapt for the benefit of all who sail in her. The future is yours. I wish you well.

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