Saturday, December 28, 2013

Unplugged schools

Quote of the day:

"The efforts to label and sort children while constantly seeking technical means to accelerate, enhance, and otherwise tinker with their intellectual, emotional, and physical development are acts of mechanistic abuse (there is really no other name for it) committed against children’s nature."

Acutely combines the issue of pigeon holing (by testing), and the processes used in schools. It's a long, long article, but worth reading all the way down.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

The Tao of Wikipedia

Strange things sometimes happen to some tutors. They turn into large toothy dragons (think Game of Thrones but bigger, scalier and hotter), their scales glow molten red, and they unleash gobbets of green fire from their nostrils which incinerate any poor student standing in front of them, leaving only enough ash to be put into a small cup and made into Greek coffee to be served to their unsuspecting relatives. What did you do to deserve this? You uttered one small word: “Wikipedia”.

So what are the problems with Wikipedia? And is it ever permissible to use it in an assignment?

Wikipedia is a wonderful tool. If I want to know about a topic, I generally start with Wikipedia. If I want to know more, I follow the links from the Wikipedia article (and often there is more than one article), or I google. But quite often Wikipedia is enough. I have what I want to do. And it is nearly always accurate. Probably as often as academically authoritative publications - though that is subject to much dispute and febrile deployment of numbers. The problem for students using Wikipedia to rely on in academic assignments is the problem of authority. So the issue is what does authority mean and what counts as authoritative.

Authority is what an expert has - someone who has studied the field for many years and produced research and material that is valued by their peers. Authority is socially constructed - there is no absolute definition, no set of criteria by which we can all be impartially measured. That is one of the reasons why theories and ideas come and go. That is also why the pinnacle of academic achievement is not writing books as you might think. It is having articles published in peer reviewed journals. You write an article; it is vetted by other experts in the field and if, in their view, it passes muster, it gets published.

When we look at material in a book or an article, we want to know how reliable it is. We can do this by examining the text in itself. We ask for instance whether what is said is coherent - do all the bits fall into a structure that makes sense. We ask if it is comprehensive - do the statements or suggestions offered cover all of the examples in the field or just some of them. We ask if it is consistent - does it work the same way in different circumstances; are the conclusions followed through properly. That is the kind of thinking that you as students are supposed to be practising. We talk a lot about active reading, and you may have been listening when we talked about it. Active reading is always asking this kind of question of the text.

Authorship also matters, though. Not just what is said, but who said it. Authorship is a proxy for reliability in the text. If this text was written by an expert acknowledged by their peers, then we can assume reasonably safely that what is said on the page is reliable. We can use it to back up our ideas in the reasonable certainty that no horrible accidents will occur.

If we had the time, we would read every paragraph of every page with proper, active thinking attention. We would examine every word, every nuance. We would test everything. We do not have that amount of time. Also, very often, we do not have the necessary level of skill or knowledge to be able to test the material rigorously. So we rely on proxies. We assume that what is in an OU textbook or web page is authoritative. We assume that what has been said by an acknowledged expert, or what has been published in a reputable journal, is reliable. We can still disagree with it. I give a hearty inward - and sometimes outward - cheer when a student for the first time disagrees with something they have read in an OU text (and gives reasons). It shows they are thinking independently.

But here is the problem with Wikipedia. We can test the words on the page in the same way as we test the words on the page of a book. But we struggle when it comes to authorship. We can examine the history of the Wikipedia page, and we can see exactly who has written what. But that does not necessarily leave us any the wiser, as we have no idea who Chris Bloggs is or what their record of achievement in the field is. Most Wikipedia pages are in fact, I would argue, authoritative, certainly reliable enough for all normal purposes. For instance, much medical information is now available via Wikipedia that would not normally reach the general public, and is put there by people who know what they're talking about. (See “Wikipedia: Meet the men and women who write the articles”) But to use it as a source for an academic argument, you would need to test both the text and its author in a way which you will not usually have the time or the tools for.

The overall temperature of academic debate about Wikipedia is changing. Here is a list of articles about various aspects.  I think the academic world is gradually getting used to the idea that they cannot control knowledge, and certainly cannot control students. But the deal is that students need to learn, from day one, that they must use their judgement on everything they meet, not just on the web but everywhere. You should read Wikipedia critically: you should read everything else just as critically.

Much of the learning students do never gets into their assignments. That is a good thing; I would hate us to kill our students with test fatigue. In my view much vital learning is interstitial: it happens in the spaces between assignments, when learners are using their own resources and their own roadmap to direct their studies. But testing, particularly via assignments, is also a valuable learning tool - it provides for different kinds of learning, the kind where distillation, selection and the making of arguments come to the fore. For the purposes of in between learning, Wikipedia is brilliant, provided you treat it in the way you should treat everything you read, keeping your wits about you when you use it. For the purposes of assignment learning, it is best left behind, underneath the text you write, unless you are confident you can defend the reliability of the evidence you use from it. That would also be a kindness: it will prevent some of my colleagues from imploding.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

On teaching about black people

In 1970 Frank Snowden published a pioneering work “Blacks in Antiquity”, examining the presence and lives of dark skinned people in Greek and Roman times. I began my degree in classics at Cambridge in 1970, and sailed (well, plodded) through the entire degree without ever being made aware of Snowden's work, or of any of his successors. I am not sure what to make of that now, apart form it being an interesting snippet of history. But there may be more to it, in the sense that I can remember learning that Roman historians tended to concentrate on Rome and on the doings of great men. (I am pretty sure I was not even aware at the time of the gender limitations implicit in the word “men”.) What seems apparent to me now is that the syllabus, though providing that critique of Tacitus' limitations, reflected it. Black people did not get a look in, any more than did women, slaves or indigenous peasants. And of course that was true of much of our teaching about the world at that point. The turn to oral traditions and of history from below has done much to widen perceptions, which I am thankful for. I am sure we are as much culture and time centric as we used to be, but today, I think, there is no excuse for not being aware of that fact.

Benin bronzes and African music

A parallel to the west's culture-centric response to the Benin bronzes can be found in the history of our appreciation of jazz and African music. Jazz was originally seen as primitive, as “natural” for the kind of people who had a natural sense of rhythm. Any sophistication in it was simply missed to begin with. It was particularly difficult for western students of music as it challenged the resources of traditional notation, as well as traditional ways of playing instruments. If you can't write something down, in our western research tradition, it is very difficult to study it.

The same problem was evident with African music. Western musical notation did not deal well with the “complicated polyphonies of African ensemble music, in which often each of twelve of more voices will go its separate way, weaving and interweaving.... nor could European ears catch the small rhythmic differences that were crucial to the correct notation of African song, as intervals of a twelfth of a second or less were routinely deployed by the African performer. European music simply did not operate with such small rhythmic intervals, so European-trained notators made errors.” Quote from Nussbaum, M (1998), Cultivating Humanity, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, p 163.

On teaching the humanities

From Nussbaum, M (1998), Cultivating Humanity, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, p147

“Our primary goal should be to produce students who have a Socratic knowledge of their own ignorance - both of other world cultures, and, to a great extent, of our own. These students, when they hear simplistic platitudes about cultural difference, will not be inclined to take them at face value; they will question, probe and inquire. Because they have a basic awareness of cultural and methodological issues, they will have a way of pursuing their questions further. They will approach the different with an appropriate humility, but with good intellectual equipment for the furthest pursuit of understanding. These traits, so important in a citizen of today's interdependent world, are very unlikely to be developed by personal experience alone. At present we are not doing well enough at the task of understanding, and these failures are damaging our nation - in business, in politics, in urgent deliberations about the environment and agriculture and human rights. We must, and we can, cultivate understanding through a liberal education; and an education will not be truly “liberal” (producing truly free and self-governing citizens) unless it undertakes this challenge.”

And she quotes from W. E. B. du Bois “A university in Spain is not simply a university. It is a Spanish university. It is a university located in Spain... It starts with Spanish history and make conditions in Spain the starting point of its teaching... In the same way, s Negro university in the United States of America begins with Negroes... it is founded on, or should be founded on, a knowledge of the history of their people in Africa and in the United States, and their present condition. Without whitewashing or translating wish into fact, it begins with that; and then it asks how shall those young men and women be trained to earn a living and live a life under the circumstances in which they find themselves or with such changing of those circumstances  as time and work and determination will permit” (from “The Negro College” 1933).

That simple task learning “ to earn a living and live a life” remains at the root of all university teaching, and especially the teaching of the humanities.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Challenges in HE

I was alerted to this by the effervescent Grainne Conole. Panos Vlachopoulos has asked these two questions:
1. What would you consider the top 3 challenges that the Higher Education sector faces in your country?
2. Do you see any value of the OER (Open Educational Resources) movement in trying to address any of the challenges?
He has posted a collection of answers on his blog.

My answers are as follows:
1. What would you consider the top 3 challenges that the Higher Education sector faces in your country?
The first challenge is that we are stuck with a certain kind of student arriving. I have no problem with them as people and their experiences so far. Similarly, I have no problem with the schools and teachers that turn them out at the age of 18. There is however something deeply wrong with the UK's educational policy, and has been for several decades. I have blogged about that in more detail here. In a nutshell students arrive having been taught entirely in a system which encourages only individual competitiveness and being told how to achieve grades. When they arrive with us, many of them don't have a clue how to take charge of their learning, or how to learn in a collaborative way. If we let them go on like that, they will emerge as stunted learners, not having achieved anything like their potential. So we need to put massive effort in during their first year to turn them into people who can take charge, and who understand and experience the value of working together with other students.

The second challenge is our obsession with technology. Many people will read that sentence and say either “Hooray, a man who likes pencils”, or “Oh dear, a man who likes pencils”. That's not my point at all. For the record I like what we call technology*, I work with it all the time. As my bio says, I live in my airing cupboard because that is where the computer is. But we tend to focus far too much on the technology and not enough on the teaching and learning that is going on regardless of the environment. As an example, I have done a bit of digging around on blended learning lately. Most of the discussions I have read base themselves on what forms of technology are being used, and are thus forced into the mould of whatever the technology is. We should start with the learning – blended learning is a combination of individual and collaborative learning. Once we have that firmly fixed as our base, we can consider how those forms of learning can be worked out with whatever student and teacher presence is available. I think we would get further than we do at the moment.

The third challenge is something specific to the UK, though it appears in other forms in other places. That is our class ridden obsession with the difference between “academic” and “vocational” learning. I've blogged about that before too. We have come a long way in this country since the beginning of the Thatcher era which finally prised loose the grip of deference from our economy. It hasn't worked so well on our society or on our politics unfortunately, and there is still a specific form which views anything manual as of secondary status compared to proper academic education. It is still evident in the solid support for bringing back grammar schools. (Nobody ever talks about bringing back secondary moderns, which are the inevitable twin of grammar schools, necessary resting places for the majority who fail the exams to get in to grammars.) It is not something that the HE sector on its own can do anything about – it is a society wide problem, but it is one which deeply affects the whole disciplinary structure, award structure and ethos of our profession.

2. Do you see any value of the OER (Open Educational Resources) movement in trying to address any of the challenges?
I cannot foresee what effect the OER movement is going to have. Other people seem to have a clearer vision, but I think predicting the future for OERs is fraught with imponderables. They are going to do things that we cannot possibly predict. Trying to target them would be like trying to target an atom bomb. To change metaphors rapidly midstream, suddenly a tiger has emerged. The best thing we can do is grab hold of the tail and hold on for the ride. Having said that, here are some things that I hope will happen.

It is a lot easier now for any teacher to produce learning material that is of high quality both intellectually and aesthetically. I have just learned how to make an e-book. Now that I know how to do it, I can produce one in five minutes – given that I have written the material – and have it loaded on my students' devices in ten. That has got to change the balance of power between the providers of content (the teachers) and the providers of distribution (the publishing houses etc). Not least, I suspect that there might eventually be a complete meltdown of the entire internal United States school textbook system, which will be watched with a certain amount of schadenfreude in many quarters.

But opening up competition doesn't deal with established interests. People who have power will hold on to it as long as possible. And nowadays knowledge is power. I don't expect to see the world opening up generally without a long and bitter fight. As an example I have an interest in the PACE trial, an investigation into the efficacy of treatments for people with ME. Published results suggest that CBT and Graded Exercise Therapy (GET) are the most efficacious treatments. They are, however, subject to controversy: considerable suspicion has been cast on the trial protocols and on the way the results were arrived at. The controversy could be resolved with publication of the raw data, which the authors are simply refusing to do. They have no interest in openness: they have an interest in keeping the results closed. Such interests will continue to work against openness in educational resources.

I work a little bit with people in Africa, primarily in the field of healthcare technology management (HTM). I (try to) produce learning materials which will enable technicians and engineers in low resource settings to become good managers. When we provide consultancy to hospitals and districts, the headline is about healthcare technology but the skills we pass on are the skills of generic management. A few years ago we wrote a policy manual. We did not realise at the time, but we were producing an OER, and one which is being used all over the world to help inform policy and train staff. We intend to build on this with more, and more specifically targeted, educational materials, which will perforce be OERs. For the organisation I work for, the advent of OERs is helping us to realise that the value in what we do is not in the content so much as in the process. I think that realisation is slowly percolating through many academic institutions, and I hope that it will eventually help us to move away from our reliance on assessment of product as the sole arbiter of the quality of a degree. This goes back to my first point about what students need to learn. They need to learn how to work collaboratively. Module teams in my institution recognise that this is important and work in various collaborative exercises, but many still provide marks only for written assignments. They need to twig that they should be marking process as well as product in order to make sure the students get the best out of it. An excellent example emerged the other day in some work on radiologists, and how they spot areas of concern. It built on the moonwalking gorilla video, which is still one of my all time favourites. I read a report on the BBC website: Why do radiologists miss dancing gorillas? The most important section was a side insert quoting from a senior radiologist Dr Antoni Toms “"How do you know when a radiologist has been trained? They sit an exam. But you could argue what you should do is get them to sit in front of an eye-tracking machine and if they have got a consultant pattern of movements they have seen enough cases. That's the future, but we're a long way off." Classic. It is a stretch from OERs to assessment methods, but the connection is there.

In short, my three problems were: students' ability to learn collaboratively, our obsession with technology and our snobbishness about vocational qualifications. I don't think we will overcome these with OERs, but OERs are going to blow a lot of things up, and they will undoubtedly be part of the process.

*People keep telling me they "don't like technology". My reply is always "A pencil *is* technology".

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

What people read

I have two blogs.

On Really Useful Knowledge I blog about educational things – pedagogy, philosophy of teaching and learning, stuff like that. On this blog one post is the runaway winner in terms of all time views. It could be about why we learn the humanities, the politics of education, the connections between history and geography, the place of elearning, the difference between deep and surface learningmedia powerdifferent tutorial techniques and their effects. It could be about any of these things, but it is not. It's about sodding word count.

On A Comfortable Place I blog about politicsdisabilityreligion, civil libertiesdrivingfilmthe NHSTottenham Hotspur and a whole variety of other things. I've done several posts lately on how Iain Duncan Smith's poisonous policies are hurting the most vulnerable people in our society. I am liberal, politically committed, religious, thoughtful, and I like to think my blog reflects this. So which is the most read post of all time on this blog? Well, for a while, it was “Spartacus – what next?” about how to handle the afore mentioned hypocrite and his policies. I was quite pleased about that – not about the policies, which I am very sad that my party supports, but about having made some sort of meaningful contribution to the debate. But it has been overtaken by the slow steady march of a consumerist rant about cavity wall insulation, my experiences when a certain company came to do mine, and my exhortation to my readers not to use that company. O tempora.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Educational policy

As a first year tutor with the Open University,  I am used to students arriving with a whole range of abilities and learnings.  What strikes me more forcefully as time goes by is that there are enormous variations in their ability to think for themselves and to take charge of their learning. I am driven more and more to the conclusion that where they have learned to think, it is in spite of rather than because of any education they have received.

Age is not a significant variable as far as I can see.  Like most generalisations that has lots of nuances, but the nub of it is that most new students, of whatever age, arrive expecting to be taught rather than expecting to learn. The result is that I spend a lot of my time trying to get them to engage with the module material and their own learning in an entirely new way. Some take to it fine, some resist – sometimes quite strongly. I have never had the experience that many of my colleagues apparently have of students assuming they have bought the marks they want, but it takes a lot sometimes to break down the expectation that they should be told what to think rather than how to think.

I don't blame the students for this. I remember my own trajectory through learning, primarily in the 60s and 70s, a golden age according to some, a mess of political correctness according to others. The school and the university I attended were among the “finest”, but it was only in my third year at university that I began to get a glimmer of how I could actually learn rather than just absorbing what I was told to absorb. I spent another couple of decades gradually understanding more and more that I could think for myself.

My students are smart, almost without exception. Even those whose modes of expression are, well, basic. The smartness has not been channelled, and in many cases has actually been compromised by the system in which they have been taught. This remains true with those whose schooling is very recent. Constant improvements in grades does not seem to be matched by students' ability to make use of their innate gifts.

It may seem paradoxical, but I don't blame schools or teachers for this. I think we have a lot of good schools, and I think we have a lot of good teachers. What we have, however, is a failure of educational policy, and a failure that has been persistent, probably for three decades. The be all and end all of a school's life is the league tables. The easy and false assumption that has been made by every education minister since Kenneth Baker is that good grades mean good learning. But the problem with target driven systems is that if you set people targets, they will ignore everything else in their determination to reach the target. It's bad enough if the target is just a bonus, as it is in so many flawed employee performance schemes, but when the institution stands or falls by whether it meets its targets, as is now the case with schools, everything else will go to pot. The average teachers, the good teachers, and the best teachers all know it doesn't matter a stuff what their pupils learn as long as they pass the exam. The result is pupils who are well versed in how to pass an exam without having having learned all they could of the unexaminable skills that good schools could give them. One student of mine last year, straight from A-levels, said that he didn't learn anything in his last three months at school - he and his classmates were getting nothing other than coaching in how to pass the exam. So much gets lost to the tyranny of measurement. And in fact I'm not sure that any recent education minister, Michael Gove being an egregious example, knows what education is for.

We need good citizens and good workers. That is, if there are any jobs left for them. Citizens need to be able to think. (A good citizen is a critical one, although the government thinks a good citizen is a compliant one.) Workers need, above all these days, to be able to think. The league table system seems designed to iron the thinking out of them, while ironing in the ability to pass exams, and to recite Cromwell's dates. Creativity, which used to be an optional extra, but is now a requirement of modern life, is stifled too often by inappropriate targets. It doesn't work. Not nearly as well as it should do. As I said, we have a lot of good schools and a lot of good teachers. They often succeed. But they do so in spite of educational policy, not because of it.