Saturday, 25 April 2009
My decision to review this book arose out of my frustrations at finding a decent review prior to buying this book. Tara Brabazon is professor of media at Brighton University. Her book, The University of Google was published in late 2007. Most reviews focus on Professor Brabazon's quote that "Google is white bread for the mind" (p.57). This then opens the door to all sorts of commentators who haven't even bothered to read the book to depict Brabazon as some kind of digital Luddite trying to turn the information tide back to the good old days of analogue. This is at best unfortunate and at worst downright wrong. Far from ignoring the information thick (note she uses the word thick rather than rich) world, Brabazon highlights the diversity and complexity of information which is available to the student and argues that each format, digital or analogue, deserves its own literacy to decode its message.
The University of Google is written against a fluctuating and demanding backdrop: In the world of information, there is an explosion of different media, each competing for our attention, each demanding a separate way of understanding or reading; in the higher education world, however, there is an explosion of students from diverse backgrounds, cultures and expectations and a corresponding decline in financial and teaching resources to assist these students in their learning.
The answer to this situation, according to educational managers is to transfer more learning materials online thus creating a flexible solution to the diverse nature if the students. Brabazon uses her book to destroy this argument. She counters that the diversity of students (whether they are working-class; foreign; part-time or just plain lazy) mean that they actually require more support not less; and that the diverse nature of the forms in which information can now be communicated means that critical literacies need to be learnt and understood.
Following a dense introduction, the proceeding chapters form a steady and coherent argument consisting of a challenging polemic supported by very detailed footnotes and testimonies from her students.
The University of Google draws upon the failures (and successes of the past) to illustrate the present. The failure of flexible learning, distance and correspondence courses was a result of massive assumptions: the assumption that students could take notes; follow an argument; regulate their own learning and manage their time. The need to make these assumptions explicit is paramount to Brabazon, in much the same way as we assume that today's "Google generation" can search effectively, assimilate and evaluate this information.
Brabazon is clearly a good teacher who cares about her profession. For non-teachers like myself, there is much to recommend this book in introducing pedagogical methods: for instance, as already stated, the need to acknowledge assumptions "and teach them overtly" (p.148). Similarly, to start where the student is, rather than where we would like them to be; using popular cultural references as a start and then take students on a journey from passive consumers to more critical appreciations. The chapter on podcasting could easily be removed from the book and used as a stand-alone essay on the use of sound in education. Throughout, Brabazon gives considered comment to many education standards such as VLEs, Powerpoint, and even overhead transparencies - "cheap, flexible, mobile and can be very effective" (p.175).
The references to Google itself are not all bad. She recognises the extraordinary way Google attempts to bring order to the world of internet information. Yet she is aware of its limitations - of delivering out of date, trivial, unauthorised, irrelevant and misleading information. Her critique of Google's ranking system, based on popularity not relevance will surprise many and act as a warning to others. The lesson here (and throughout the book) is not to dismiss Google but to use it as a starting point - to take students from information to knowledge. Google Book Search for instance can be the starting point for a literature search using library catalogues; similarly Google Scholar can lead students to e-journals and journals held by our libraries - if our own infrastructure allows space for such instruction. In Professor Brabazon's own words:
"To repeat: the problem is not Google...the concern is that teachers and librarians are not being given a chance to instruct the literacies required to transform Google from a leisure application and into a starting point for a critical and reflexive research process" (p.145).
There is plenty to recommend this thought-provoking polemic, not least Professor Brabazon's championing of librarians. Any librarian who has to challenge preconceived notions in academic board or senior management meetings, would do well to be armed with some of the arguments from this book. It is rare to find a champion of librarians from outside the profession who can articulate the challenges we face. This is far more than the usual "libraries are a good thing" sympathy vote we often receive.
The book is punctuated with testimonies from her students. At first I misinterpreted this as vanity - "look what a good lecturer I am". Yet as the book's argument begins to gather pace, these quotes are more than illustrations of Professor Brabazon's beliefs; they are confirmations of good pedagogy. All good teaching and learning must start with one thing - the student. As I begin work on preparing materials for next year's student inductions, I have a feeling that Professor Brabazon will play an important part in their construction.