Education for whom and for what?

In his lecture delivered at the University of Arizona on 8 Feb 2012, Noam Chomsky brings his own historical analysis, wide reading and critical sensibility to the question of not only which purposes education serves, but whose purposes. He delineates two approaches to higher education:

  • The Enlightenment View: “laying out a string along which the student can explore and progress in his own way” (citing Wilhem Von Humboldt, the founder of the modern university system) [24’00]
  • The Transmission Model (my phrase not his): a method for imbibing students with a prescribed set of knowledge and procedures and testing them narrowly on their ability to recall these.

Recalling Dewey, he links the second approach to the preparation of children for an uncritical acceptance of their lot in the workplace. It encourages students to fake learning rather than to engage with it. He contrasts this with a HE course taking the first approach, where on the first day students are required to ask not “what will we cover in this course” but “what will we discover on this course?”. This, he suggests is the whole of the curriculum at a serious university [32’00].

These two ends of a pedagogic spectrum will  be familiar to anyone who has taught. It addresses the spirit of education: I would suggest that practice will range along the continuum from free inquiry to close instruction and that the two are not mutually exclusive.

Chomsky’s purpose is to place this dichotomy in the particular political and economic context of contemporary USA, in which public policy and priorities are increasingly set by corporate interests, so learning which doesn’t have clear economic benefits will be deprived of funding. The growth in tuition fees and student debt is part of a move towards an indoctrinatory system in which students will uncritically accept any education that leads to employment and then have an uncritical approach to that employment. David Harvey elsewhere has described as the creation of an indentured graduate workforce.

Placing this “education as social control” thesis in broader context Chomsky cites not Marxist theorists such as Gramsci or Althusser but Adam Smith on the immorality of a society where each is directed only towards their own welfare and Ralph Waldo Emerson for the necessity to gain the consent of the masses for privilege to be maintained.

Inevitably a narrative this wide in scope deals in generalisations, however the broad sweep of his analysis fits the picture both in the US and increasingly so in the UK. However, within the broad sweep there is wide variation and many educators are busy ‘laying out string’.

It’s interesting to ask in what ways the field of medical education, for example, with its guarantees of well-paid employment on graduation and hopefully high levels of ethical and critical thinking is able to buck the trend.

On my EdD, son.

A little over a month away from starting an EdD and I’m starting to feel pretty excited about it.

I’m a trainaholic, a study junky, I like the challenge, the sense of community, the chance to read stuff at last that I wouldn’t be studying if left to my own devices, the opportunity to write. A small but significant part of my motivation comes from the swotty 12 year old in me that got squeezed out by hormones and bereavement as a teenager; he is still wanting to make order with words, to find solutions, to get things right, still craving good grades. Having got a Masters more than a decade ago, I’ve been eyeing the next challenge for years now. Until this last year or so, I’ve been sensible, telling myself, I don’t have the time, or the money or the motivation, that life is too short and time with family and friends too precious. And yet, a month or so from now I’ll be learning about educational research methods and pruning my list of research areas.

What has changed my mind is the conviction that through the EdD I will work better, add to discourse informing the teaching and learning of my School and contribute to the knowledge of other practitioners in the field of technology enhanced learning and in particular learning at a distance.

My thinking on this was brought into focus today by watching this talk by John West Burnham, someone whom I must confess to not having heard of before. In addition to useful tips for thesis writing he makes a pretty good moral case for practitioner research.


Learning about audio and electronics with Coursera

I’ve recently revived my college punk band and discovered some interesting things such as: I can’t play any more, I look really old, jumping around with a guitar looks silly if you can’t actually get off the ground. But I also found that it’s pretty difficult to set up a PA so that it doesn’t feedback constantly unless

    a. the singer is in another room or
    b. somebody gives the drummer a powerful sedative.

Why is this? How come the band down the pub doesn’t have this problem? I decided to find out. Obviously I couldn’t take the simple route of asking the band down the pub, oh no, I was going to do an online course.

I am a learning technologist, thus any online study serves more than one purpose. With a single stone I kill two birds:

    find out how to set up audio equipment properly and
    critically appraise somebody else’s course (what fun!) and build an amp.

Three birds in fact, which just proves what a good idea this is.

I’ve studied with Coursera before, and even completed one course. In my experience, what works well with Coursera is that they have some fairly undemanding content which is well supported by videos and text and then use MCQs as a way for you to check your learning. This is supported by discussion boards, but so far I have found these unusable. As Stephen Downes says, “numbers change everything” – several thousand people on the same discussion board leads to a kind of solipsistic chaos, and where students use pseudonyms, some pretty unpleasant trolling. I’m keen to see if Coursera have found any tricks to fix this problem, surely they’ve been working hard to make student to student interaction more reliable and useful?

Well, we’ll see…

Jaron Lanier on Digital Economy

Having read “You are not a gadget”, I was pleased to see an article by Jaron Lanier on the BBC website yesterday. Was he still warning of the perils of Web2.0, or had he decided it wasn’t as bad as all that?

In “You are not a Gadget” Lanier made cautionary points about how software design decisions lock-in styles of interaction, expression and thereby thought and self-image. In web2.0 he sees our representation of ourselves as a piecemeal stream of check-box statements to nobody in particular. The fragmentation and re-constitution of intellectual artefacts render authorship a side-issue as knowledge becomes the homogenised, crowd-sourced soup we see on Wikipedia. The individual is eroded as a felt presence along with intellectual property rights; mob behaviour is ever a risk in environments where anonymity is preserved as a legacy of the days when ‘virtual identities’ were thought the way forward. He tends to make the same point several times, but I had the feeling that there was a point to make, particularly about how digital interactions affect our notion of who we are.

The article for the BBC, entitled “Sell your data to save the economy and your future” serves up the same enjoyably pessimistic dish as before. The article seemed to have suffered some aggressive editing leaving it less than entirely coherent. In particular, he gives causal precedence to technology for what are economic effects of normal capitalist processes (increasing automation in the pursuit of efficiency) and neoliberal policies (export of industries to developing nations, growing wealth and income inequalities). Having shared the article with a colleague, an email conversation ensued, my own part of which was more admiring of Lanier’s article than hers. Here is my final email, trying to summarise my thoughts:

“I think he does have a point, which is that we should be wary of certain trends in the digital economy. After that you kind of have to finish his arguments for him. He’s a software developer, and so focuses on the tech, but to me he’s writing about corporate monopolistic tendencies: disproportionate power and influence resting in a few hands. When he talks about threats to democracy, he’s echoing a concern that goes back to the concerns of Thomas Jefferson and other US presidents 200 years ago who brought in anti-trust legislation to guard against monopolies.

“He has the technological egg coming first and the economic chicken back in the coop but this is understandable given his background. As someone who worked on Internet technologies going back a long way, including at Microsoft, he’ll have seen how wide-scale tech adoption can lead to lock-in (e.g. the peculiar permanence of Word, but also network effects that make an alternative to Facebook difficult to develop even for Google). He seems to view this as the driver for monopolies. When data about how to perform surgery, build houses, knit socks or whatever is accessible by smart machines, when machines can rebuild and fix themselves, high value nodes become significant monopolies.

“He worries how automation will affect employment, a concern as old as capitalism. This is exactly what the Luddites were protesting about in the mid-nineteenth century and the same pursuit of efficiency led to progressive de-skilling and automation of manual labour throughout the 20th century. As more productive capacity is achievable by fewer people, what happens to the people who used to do those jobs? So far new types of employment have come along to replace them, but he perhaps is concerned if this going to continue in an era where dominant economic forces have little stake in maintaining high levels of employment (at least I think that’s what the austerity reference was about).

“I can remember when a million unemployed was a scandal that helped to bring down a government, now 2.5 million unemployed doesn’t merit a mention in the papers. 45 million people in the US are on food stamps. I think Lanois is right to try to connect the dots even if his aim’s not great.

“There’s a bunch of other stuff in there as well: like he thinks we should get a small payment everytime somebody uses our data: an interesting idea but looks unworkable.

Connectivism – still crazy after all these years?

Like you, perhaps, I have two large plastic containers under my bed. Each one holds beneath its dusty lid an assortment of things which, for whatever reason, I have no particular immediate use for but feel reluctant to exile to the attic. The newspapers from the days my kids were born are in there, some articles from .net magazine and even more articles from Guitar Techniques. I was looking in one of these containers the other day and came across George Siemens’ “Connectivism: Learning as Network Creation” (2005): printed out, stapled, unread.

It was like finding a photo of an acquaintance who, despite promising beginnings, never quite became a friend. Connectivism has been around for as long as I’ve been a learning technologist, it has always fascinated me and twice I’ve started MOOCs given by its leading lights, George Siemens and Stephen Downes. I find their ideas exciting, their personalities compelling, their approach to learning and teaching refreshing and certainly useful, but their insistence that learning and most everything else was a network seemed like a kind of ideological OCD. This causes me some regret since connectivism could provide both practical approaches and theoretical tools which would be very helpful to me and those I work with.

In the following posts I will attempt at last to consider how connectivism is relevant to my work as a learning technologist and how it may be useful in helping teachers teach and learners learn.

What Learning Design Means to Me

OLDS MOOC is making me think about learning design. It’s a course in Learning Design, after all. Don’t get me wrong, I think about learning design a lot: I design materials to aid students’ learning and academic colleagues’ teaching, but I don’t often reflect on this process itself. It feels difficult and awkward to be reflexive, to be inquiring about my practice.

There was an interesting discussion on Google Groups entitled “What does learning design mean for you”, with references to some old friends (Kolb’s Learning Cycle, Stephen Downes) and some new theories. As a teacher I liked methodology (I entered TEFL at a time when there were approaches galore), but felt that a little theory went a long way: it can occasionally become a kind of self-aggrandising navel gazing or a lexical stick to beat other teachers with. I don’t think that’s happening on oldsmooc, but I think it’s a danger with this kind of course.

All of which is a long run up for the short jump of my very personal statement about learning design:

There is so much great debate and links to promising resources in this thread that I can add little, except my own personal account as someone who does learning design with teachers but doesn’t teach. A strange position, granted, but there you go.

For me, learning design is multi-faceted and malleable. Learning design is not an individual endeavour, it’s a team effort involving teachers, students, admin staff and sometimes learning technologists. No two courses, teachers or students are the same and so it’s important to have a range of options, to have a fluid mix of elements. To do this it’s important to keep learning, keep trying new things and try to keep an open mind.

For me learning design is about taking in the context of a learning situation as fully as possible: the politics, personalities, subject domains, skills, attitudes and dispositions of stakeholders to begin with. Then the educational context: how is it assessed; is assessment fixed or can we change it; how many students are there; what if we end up with a much larger cohort than anticipated, or much smaller? Do we know what tends to work well for these types of students in this subject domain – what are people in other settings doing? What kind of tasks and interactions might promote learning? What kind of learning do we value most? How will we know if learning is happening? How do we promote peer support? How can we introduce ‘authentic’ activity into the learning and assessment. Can we trial new ideas with colleagues or small groups beforehand?

It begins and ends with people.

Sometimes what seems important turns out to be impossible, sometimes beautiful things happen spontaneously.

OLDS MOOC, New Tricks

Reflections on my first day in OLDS MOOC

I’m starting to lose track of how many MOOCs I’ve joined, but it’s certainly a lot more than I’ve participated in actively. I’ve completed one. Of close colleagues and friends, this achievement stands matched only by my esteemed colleague Ashley Towers. The suspicion that the MOOC craze is just educational planking is hardly helped by the fact that Coursera and Udacity are pedagogically threadbare. If only someone would get involved who understood online  learning.

Enter the UK Open University with OLDS MOOC, (Open Learning Design Studio). The OU has been doing great distance learning for decades.  My wife’s first experience of HE was with the OU  and its books got me on the right side of database design during my Masters. I joined the OLDS MOOC with warm feelings tempered by bad MOOC experiences. My “hello OLDSmooc message” was entitled “sceptical late arriver says hi“. Gratifyingly, Joshua Underwood, one of the course team soon replied. I felt better already. This was a MOOC with a human face beyond video lectures.

New Tricks?

  1. Google Groups for discussions. “Courserans” are encouraged to go down this route, but it’s an optional extra and when I tried it our group found little use for it. On OLDSmooc, Groups are a key tool for collaborative work. What’s not so great is the long list of discussions you’re faced with on the OLDSmooc Open Discussion. On tutor-led questions (e.g. “what does learning design mean for you?”), you get overlapping soliloquies. Nothing compared to the raging solipsistic chaos seen on Coursera Discussion boards, but I suspect that’s more due to the truly massive scale of those courses than anything intrinsic to Google Groups or the OLDSmooc approach.
  2. OLDSmooc uses Google Sites as its foundation and glue. Course details, timetables etc are here or embedded here. The design and navigation is clear and if you are so minded, you can click ahead to see skeleton versions of what future weeks hold.
  3. “Cloudworks”. I’ve never had a clue what Cloudworks was, despite creating an account some time ago. I’m still not sure what I make of it – that will have to wait for another post. What I can say now is that splitting the course between Google Sites, Google Groups and Cloudworks gave me usability friction burns. When I got to Cloudworks I felt lost. There were instructions on the main site, but the transition to an unfamiliar space (I don’t think there’s anything else quite like Cloudworks), made them hard to remember or apply.

I want to go home!

I thought about giving up. Having started late, I couldn’t find a group to collaborate with. I  was using a novel site with little guidance, I was unsure why I was doing the course at all: curiosity had got me into it, but I needed more than that to stay. I felt like a new kid in a playground where everyone was busy with unfathomable stuff. I was going to have to meet some like minded people if I was going to stick it out.