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Artefacts - why Physical Things are Important

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Edited by Anna Greathead, Tuesday, 14 Apr 2020, 14:21

Young woman with a degree dissertation and a glass of champagne

This is my friend Rachel. She has just finished a degree at Reading University in Biomedical Sciences. This is here posing with her dissertation - which has just been submitted - a celebratory glass of something bubbly and a big smile!

My first thought upon seeing her post on Facebook was 'wow - those three years raced by!' but that was quickly followed by some suspicion! All of the universities are closed right now due to the Covid-19 lockdown. So Rachel is having this photo taken in her own back garden, not on the university campus. Her dissertation must surely have been submitted online. Surely no one is expecting Rachel to post this using snail mail....

And then I thought - even if Covid-19 wasn't a thing then surely Rachel would not be handing in a wadge of paper with her work on. Surely every dissertation nowadays is submitted as a file transfer, an attachment... possibly a USB stick. I doubt any paper changes hands in the average submission!

So why is Rachel posing with a booklet? I asked - as suspected she printed off the front cover and put it in front of a few blank sheets of paper for this photo shoot!

It got me thinking about how the loss of 'submission' as a ritual has led to more loss in other aspects of the university journey. Clicking 'send' is not a photo worthy event, a large file on your laptop does not look like it has required as much effort as a pile of beautifully printed sheets of paper.

Every year Rachel will see these photos as her social media accounts remind her of what she was doing a year ago, five years ago, ten, twenty, fifty years ago. Rachel's dissertation will never exist as an actual physical document (most likely) but these photos remind her of the effort she spent on this dissertation and the satisfaction derived from handing it in.

I wonder if one loss in the move the doing all of this stuff more efficiently and with less complication is that we also do it with less fanfare and with less respect to the hours and hours of effort sunk into the product.

When I finish (and hopefully pass!) MAODE I will be attending a degree award ceremony. I know I could get a digital certificate (I probably will) and I know I could have a paper certificate mailed to me but I feel that the effort I have put into my studies, and the pride I will feel in having achieved the degree, must be recognized by more than a PDF attachment.

Ritual is still important to human beings. So are artefacts. Maybe we need to find ways to incorporate this human need into the world of online learning.

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