Monday, 16 April 2012

Finishing my module on e-learning

The hardest thing about the coursework was trying to keep to the word limit. There were so many more things that I wanted to say. In the end I have a very long word document with all of the discussion board points that I wanted to use and I have not been able to fit any of them in. Like all academics it is a case of why write 2,500 when 10,000 is even better. I did not get to add anything from the Experience Designer or Academically Adrift. I did not get to say anything about Fox and his different types of tutors. I did not get to say anything about deep and surface learning and Marton and Saljo. I did not get to say anything about the experience of wikis, the net delusion and the growing polarisation of views brought about by the internet. I did not get to say anything about Marshall McLuhan who everyone quotes and I never quite understand. Then there is Foucault, Kuhn, Feyerabend and Popper and the different approaches to epistemology and ... well maybe Eco, Borges and semiotics. I didn't even mention Terry Pratchett and the idea of Narrativium.
I think I feel a thesis coming on ...

PS I forgot Joseph Campbell and Peter Gabriel other inspirational figures (Campbell inspired George Lucas but don't hold that against him).

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Education: Teaching is not a Science

Teaching is not a science; it is an art. If teaching were a science there would be a best way of teaching and everyone would have to teach like that. Since teaching is not a science, there is great latitude and much possibility for personal differences. ... let me tell you what my idea of teaching is. Perhaps the first point, which is widely accepted, is that teaching must be active, or rather active learning. ... the main point in mathematics teaching is to develop the tactics of problem solving. G Polya


One of the possible ways forward that "The Experience Designer" feels has been neglected is Edu-tainment. The problem has been that people have tried to create games out of education rather than using entertainment/games for education. There were a few courses where the Matrix was used to look at consciousness and ideas in philosophy. There are also books, such as the Physics of Star Trek and the Philosophy of the Simpsons but are these being used for education? I wanted to set Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen's series of books on the Science of Discworld as a course text but I never had the courage, and not everyone is a Discworld fan. A good example of edu-tainment for a younger audience is Horrible Histories, which my children love and a lot of others seem to as well. We used to have "Think of a Number" and "Think Again" for maths and there was "How!" for science. There is Bang Goes the Theory but The Big Bang Theory might be more popular!

Edu-tainment could be very useful online as this is one thing where people interact often and people are prepared to commit a huge amount of time and effort to their Farms, Sims, Moshi-monsters or whatever else they are playing. If we could harness that enthusiasm in an edu-tainment context then we would have a much more dynamic course. The Sims are a good place to start or Civ as gaming environments. I have tools like StarLogo and NetLogo but these are much less games and too much entertainment. People can learn even when they don't think they are learning if you can generate the right outcomes.

Friday, 13 April 2012


 I had never really thought about this insidious growth in education. It is the manifestation of commercial interests driving how we educate. The recent scandals from the exam boards and their links to the publishers are a good example (Pearson and Edexcel). 
The content that they produce is mostly awful. They produce test banks to make life easier for tutors to set online exercises but these are often poorly worded and next to useless. All the textbooks come now with "online content" as a step towards e-learning. Most of them have modules that you can plug into Blackboard or WebCT. They have even developed AI algorithms to automatically mark student work according to their criteria. All of this is information and machine inspired learning. We are creating robots and losing the ability to actually think outside the box. If you want to see an apocalyptic world like the Matrix or Terminator then this is the fast way to get there. We are trying to turn students into computers and losing our humanity and most importantly our ability to think and be creative. They will never and can never make a creatively emergent AI (Herbert Simon was wrong).

Online learning means using the internet as a tool to help learning. It does not mean subjugating yourself to these edu-commerce giants. Companies like Barnes and Noble and Amazon try to create brand loyalty by building courses onto their products - how long before you will need to have a Kindle in order to read university textbooks. The textbook companies have even started legal action against authors of open textbooks as these would damage their markets. 

I do not mean to single out Pearson, McGraw Hill is just the same. They have seminars with business where they promote their courses and texts for employability, but they are trying to turn soft skills into an information skill. For all these companies, Thomson-Reuters McGraw-Hill, Pearson they all have to persuade that information is all you need as that is what they sell. McGraw Hill owns Standard and Poor one of the rating agencies, Reuters like Bloomberg made its name in business information, Pearson owns the FT again business information. But information is not learning and so we have to resist their interference now that we have an opportunity to develop new approaches. We must not keep doing the same bad things in new ways!

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Ground Rules and Bullies

When I was at school bullying was done at the end of a pair of Doctor Martens behind the school shed. One day I was very upset because of the name calling and a sympathetic family member replied "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me". This was not what I wanted to hear and left me angry with them for a long time. But now looking back and putting things into proportion I think we have become too over-sensitive to words, especially in social media.

Last week a stupid drunken idiot student was jailed for 56 days for tweeting racial hatred against Fabrice Muamba. He has also been expelled from his university where he was a final year student, destroying his career. Some years ago I was at a magistrate's court watching a case where a youth had been carrying a knife on a Friday night and he was not given anything more than a caution. One of these people is a threat to the community and one is a stupid ignorant fool who needs to spend some time in counselling and less time in the pub.

For my discussion board entry about the saboteur I had zero tolerance as this is someone who tries to destroy learning for the group and who makes people feel bad. But I think I was being far too harsh. As others said there is often an underlying cause that you need to try and understand and address. There are students who you cannot reach but they are rare. In most cases you can find something to bring them back into cooperation. The question is about an individual attack. Racism and sexism are not things we can just sweep away by pushing a button. They are often hidden in attitudes. I was always proud of Leicester's race relations history as I come from that part of the country. But I was talking to one of the students from an Asian background whose family had moved from there because it was so racist!

Online we need to have ground rules for within the learning environment and these can be and should be quite strict. We should work hard to stamp out bullying and anyone making anyone else feel bad about themselves in any way. But we also have to strengthen how good people feel about themselves, so that people can deal with criticism, fair or unfair as that is what we all experience. The world is not a just place, and there are a lot of bullies who you will have to work with.

By building this confidence and security inside the learning environment this can be carried outside to the social networks. Here we have no control and the nastier side of human interactions can proliferate. On Daybreak they had everyone's favourite psychologist talking about bullying. The presenters said that because of the anonymity of the web and the inability to see the reaction people act in worse ways and are more likely to bully. Historically this is not really true. We have had no problem trading insults face-to-face and if you look at the barbarism of ancient times this was often at the point of a sword or blade of an axe. Steven Pinker argues that we are improving and becoming less violent and less nasty and I hope he is right

Monday, 2 April 2012

Student Online Attendance

I was delivering my last few weeks of F2F teaching and in one class I had 7 out of 70 and in another 20 out of 100. This does not annoy me as students are responsible for their own learning. If they do not take opportunities for learning they either do not need them, or they are making their lives harder later.

For the online learning I have found that there is also a problem with regularity of attendance. I had a few problems at work that have increased stress levels and meant that I have not been as committed to the course for a few weeks as I had been before. This was compounded by problems with the internet. In F2F you can see that people are not there and you can know what commitment they are making. Online it is harder to know. We need better tools to monitor student activity on the course. We need to make sure that is is spread evenly over the different components. So for example if students do not access learning materials this should be flagged up by the system to the tutors. Tutors need an effective dash-board to help them manage the course. Without this finding out how students are doing will be too time consuming and this leads to disaffection with the course on the part of the tutors as well as the students.