Dealing with new technologies in higher education: the analogy of road design

by Paul Maharg on 08/02/2010

I guess that, following on from my last rather downbeat posting of 2009, this is a much more upbeat appraisal of what technologies do to/for us.  I cycle pretty regularly to work, and on a variety of bikes — mountain bike, recumbent trike, folder, occasionally my trusty Mercian roadster.  Apart from the occasional bout of manic driving or unseeing driver the thing that irritates me is the design of the road.  Who was responsible for all these signs, traffic lights, road markings, most of them telling me the obvious?  Why do I feel like I'm a child in a kindergarten?  And on a machine as relatively harmless and lightweight as a bike, why am I subject to the same regime as lorries and buses?  Is there a better way of designing urban travel?  There is, and given my fondness for the Netherlands it will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that the Dutch are responsible for it.

Hans Monderman, who died two years ago, was a hero of mine ever since I came across his work about ten years ago, through a cycling group, if I remember right.  Monderman was an engineer and urban planner (driving instructor, too — more of that in a moment).  He had signed up to the same principles of urban road planning that blights our cities in the UK, and embodied in the Buchanan Report (1963).  But in the small town of Oudehaske in north Netherlands, faced with urgent action required on road safety due to recent fatalities (he was then heading up a team responsible for road safety in Friesland), and a cut in his budget, he did something unthinkable: he reduced road furniture and signage, erased cues such as kerbs, uprooted traffic lights.  To put it another way, he abandoned a key principle of road design, namely that vehicles are too dangerous to allow unenclosed into civic spaces, therefore one should design plenty of space for them, give them the dominating position on the road, and sign systems of precedence heavily.  By contrast, Monderman deliberately brought together vehicles (private and PSVs), cycles and people in ambiguous contexts, and in doing so transformed civic space.  He gave responsibility back to drivers and created environments where they needed to slow down because of the uncertainty of the context they found themselves in.  In Oudehaske, his approach achieved speed reductions well below those normally brought about by chicanes and other traffic-calming measure.  He developed the approach in well over a hundred civic spaces in the Netherlands, and abroad in the UK and elsewhere.  

One of the key issues was the psychology of driver perception.  With conventional signage, drivers can pay more attention to them than the safety context (especially if there is a speed camera around).  By removing signage, Monderman treated drivers as responsible adults, and forced them to pay attention to the relationship between how they drove and the immediate space around them.  His new approach took account of all road users, not just drivers.  If drivers had to become more responsible, so too did cyclists and pedestrians.  He used landscape, line of sight, desire lines, public art and novel road surfaces to re-orient road users by disorienting them.  Above all, he integrated traffic with civic spaces, achieving much more democratic spaces in towns.  

Monderman's interdisciplinary background helped give him the curiosity, it seemed to me, to turn away from the crude language of road signage and right of way to the much subtler and important elements of travel psychology — the crucial part that eye contact plays in road encounters as an indicator of intention, for instance, or the psychology of perception, or the role that taken-for-granted safety devices such as traffic lights play in decreasing road user attention and increasing risk-taking.  It's interesting that he was a driving instructor as well as an engineer and planner.  Being an instructor rather than just a road user would have given him the opportunity to observe how driving novices become socialised to the culture and semantics of urban driving as they learn to drive, and how they adapt to an environment designed to diminish responsibilities beyond the metal box they hurtle around in.  

I learned to drive a car when I was 33, around the same time I began to study law.  I'd had a motorcycle licence from the age of 18, and I learned to cycle around the age of 3.  I can still remember one of the striking impressions of my driving lessons: how easy was the code and culture of the road when you were behind a wheel.  It just all made perfect sense when you were in charge of a large machine, and the larger the beast, the more the sense of righteous dominance protected by code and physical environment.  As a cyclist, it's always seemed to me that a fundamental rethink of attitudes towards vehicles and travel was needed.  If I felt vulnerable as a cyclist, in part that was because drivers were too secure, and they were so because the road environment was over-engineered around them, not designed for cyclists or any other road user.  

What has all this to do with higher education, and legal education in particular?  There is an analogy, I believe, between the way that we over-engineer our academic learning environments with learning outcomes, module handbooks, reading lists, information on assessments and much else.  Helpful though much of this can be, I think that it can diminish student responsibility, curiosity and attention, and institutionalise the process and product of learning.  I deal with this in more detail in Transforming Legal Education — here's a passage on the subject from chapter four, '"By the end of the module": the intimate dimensions of ethical education':

A strongly competence-based education cannot provide an adequate conceptual structure for legal students or trainees. At best it provides second-order description of conduct and knowledge, as Stenhouse recognised more than 20 years ago, and Dewey before him. Alone, and acting as performance criteria or learning outcomes, such statements can become impositions on students, setting up a dialogue of learned helplessness. If these are the criteria of assessment, students argue reasonably, show us examples of acceptable performance that we may copy. For students, the focus thus moves from organic development of self to the copying of forms of behaviour and the rote resumption of knowledge. Performance criteria thus become ever more detailed, and student performance ever more baroquely imitative in order to comply with assessment criteria. In this environment the space for the growth and development of ethical awareness is diminished. What is required is the first-order ethical structure that arises not from the ethical intuitions of students or staff, nor from the impositions of a set of ethical guidelines, but from the moral dialectic of self, profession and society.

That 'moral dialectic', paradoxically, is not developed by putting up ever more signage saying do this, don't do that, be here at this time, study that text in this way.  If we want students to be responsible learners, civic citizens, just as we want drivers to be responsible citizens behind the wheel, then we need to re-design the learning landscape along the lines that Monderman advocated.  

Monderman references

Times Obit

Guardian Obit

Slowing down cars

Tom Vanderbilt, The Traffic Guru

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 John Mayer February 9, 2010 at 06:42

This explains why there are incredible mixtures of trucks, cars, cycles, rickshaws, yaks and pedestrians on the road of New Dehli and Calcutta and Mumbai and *not* daily cataclysms. Don’t get me wrong, there are accidents, but because everyone uses the road (both sides sometimes), everyone has to be a little more careful.
Fantastic insight.

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2 Paul Maharg February 10, 2010 at 18:08

Totally agree John. And on the same line of thought, see A portrait of the online tutor as Thelonius Monk, Directions, 11, at http://www.ukcle.ac.uk/directions/previous/issue11/maharg.html

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