Technology for teaching in public

I’ve been asked to contribute a chapter to a book on teaching in public, specifically concerned with how we can use technology to do this. Now, I could probably knock out something on the commons, open educational resources, web 2.0 and that stuff, but a) it’s been done, and b) I want to make it a bit more theoretical. I’ve been reading quite a lot about the neo-luddite movement,  which isn’t about machine breaking, but about critiquing the role of the machine in modern society. (So put that sledgehammer down THIS MINUTE!)

Anyway, I’ve just been reading about Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and that crowd, who began to protest about the effect that mechanisation was having on culture and the general intellect, and developed a philosophy that I understand (bear with me, I’m new to this)  is sometimes referred to as American Transcendentalism, evidently to distinguish it from more religious forms of transcendentalism.  Like the neo-luddites, they weren’t particularly anti-technology, but recognised that the changes it brought weren’t always beneficial.

I really haven’t got very far with this, but I’m dimly beginning to make some connections with Marx’s notion of mass intellectuality. We often hear claims that universities aren’t producing graduates with the skills that the economy needs, (although no-one seems to be able to describe those skills in any detail), but the kind of critique of industrial thinking that the ne0-luddites and the American Transcendalists were indulging in seems to be a profoundly useful counterweight to the idea that there are a set of tips and techniques that ensure national well being.

The problem is of course, is that if this is done in public, then it is vulnerable to critique  that if universities cannot directly benefit the state, or at least demonstrate how they are doing so, then there is no logical reason for the state to pay for them. Not that there’s anything wrong with critique and debate of course. But just as the Devil has all the best tunes, that’s an argument that has simplicity on it’s side. The rebuttal of that argument is complex, involving well rehearsed arguments about blue-sky research, the value of critical graduates, (both of which the state does benefit from) and  accepting that there might indeed be alternative funding streams . On the bright side, I guess the use of open shared technologies promotes the creation of far more ideas.

But I accept that I need to think a lot harder about this, and find some evidence of how universities are engaging with open technology.

Educational Technology Horizons

I’ve been reading the NMC “Horizon Reports” for 2009 and 2010 recently. These are surveys of new technologies that may have some impact on education in the next few years and they’re quite interesting reading. Here are some of the key points.

1) Mobiles

Might possibly have some value. However, as not a few other bloggers have pointed out, things like the iPad are essentially devices for consumption of information, not for production. If we’re serious about research engaged teaching, that is students doing something  collaboratively (ideally)  and writing it up, then I’d guess we still have some way to go. (That said, I’m completely blown away by my iPod touch, which I think is the best small computer I’ve ever seen).  Not that there’s anything wrong with consumption either.  You have to start learning somewhere and reading or watching some multimedia is as good a place as any. Which brings me on to

2) e-books.

There is obvious potential in being able to carry collections of documents around in the pocket, but I’d like to see better annotation tools. If you could use applications like Zotero or Refworks to create electronic card indexes of your references and concepts I think this might be the next killer app. In truth this probably isn’t far away and would go some way to shifting them more to the production side.

3) Cloud computing.

Well, it’s already happening. The OU has moved to Google Apps for its students which will put Microsoft’s nose out of joint. Or will it? There’s a huge cloud of inertia to shift first. For example I’m currently working on a paper with a colleague at a remote campus. Google docs seems ideal for sharing the document, but I’ve found it’s almost impossible to get my colleagye to remember their password, and to stop e-mailing multiple versions of the same paper. It will come, I think but it will take longer than we expect.

4) Open Content.

Not really technology, but there has been encouraging signs that this is being taken up by UK universities, largely encouraged by the JISC funded Repository Start Up and Enhancement programme. What I like about this is that it does encourage production and sharing of work and I think it will really make a difference to the way we think about how we access academic work. There are some issues to be resolved, not least that of quality. Should judgements be made about what we put in repositories, and who makes those judgements? Librarians? Well, they do make judgements about what goes in university libraries, I suppose, although these should be informed by requests from faculties.

Among the other technologies the Horizon reports identify are “simple augmented reality”, “gesture based computing”, “visual data analysis”, “geo everything”, “the personal web”, “semantic aware applications” and “smart objects”. With the possible exception of the personal web, all of these seem to me to have value for specific disciplinary niches, and as I probably won’t know what I’m talking about I won’t go on. (No, I know that doesn’t usually stop me!)  I include the “personal web” in this group because I do think that’s a different sort of niche. A lot of people still seem to me to be very reluctant to engage with this kind of thing, and are horrified by the idea of putting anything about themselves on the Internet. Media stories about identity theft don’t help of course, but as I’ve said before, we can’t be far from a time when not being findable on the web is regarded as the exception. If that’s so then technologies that can keep track of the media we post about ourselves will become quite important tools in sifting through this information. Because there will be LOTS of it.

The question is of course, what should we in educational development be doing about this stuff? I think (hope) we have learnt by now that we can’t just ram new technologies down academics throats, so the question is how do we encourage people who are short of time (and possibly short of inclination) to experiment with it?

I’m in the paper!

Although, in truth I doubt being  misquoted in the Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph is likely to be the first step on a glittering media career!

What I actually said was that a research project conducted by one of our doctoral students some years ago  on a pilot project in one  school in Cambridgeshire found that the school abandoned the idea because the children found the laptops too heavy. Which isn’t quite the impression the article gives. I suspect “schools in Cambridge” would be quite surprised to find that they had distributed laptops to their students.  And I dont’ remember saying that the presence of a VLE meant that students would get instant feedback on their marks. They can access the marks instantly once tutors have marked their work, but I think we’re some way from instant marking of written work. (On-line multiple choice tests  are a different matter of course, but we didn’t talk about them.)

I don’t really mind – the concern about overloading school children with extra equipment remains valid and the substance of the article is quite interesting. As an educational technologist, I think the project described sounds very promising and is worth watching. My reason for posting about this is to contribute to the debate about the accuracy and quality of material on the Internet as opposed to print media. Of course I could have made all this up.  I didn’t though.  A copy of the doctoral thesis I referred to is in the University library although the name of the author temporarily escapes me. But I guess the newspaper didn’t check it’s facts either.  You’d hardly expect that in a local paper filler piece of course, but the moral of the story is when you’re faced with a piece of information, wherever you read it,  don’t believe a word of it until you can back it up with some evidence.

Blogging in a photography course.

Well, I’ve recharged the batteries, and I’m now listening to Paul Lowe, photography lecturer and photojournalist is telling us all about how the London College of Communication is using blogs in their MA photography course.

( for more detail)

By the way, Paul’s use of PowerPoint was the best I’ve ever seen at a conference. Obviously Paul has the advantage of being a professional photographer, but I’ve always thought that this is exactly what PowerPoint was designed for. Here are the slides. (I guess it take’s some practice to have the confidence to do this though)

Course about building their repertoire – giving photographers an appropriate skill set. So what’s the point of reflection

(So far this a summary of the work of Schon)

In the real world, professional practitioners of photographers are keeping blogs (as are other professionals.) So students who want to keep up with the industry should do it. And bloggers tend to match the demographic profile of potential postgraduate students.

Very much about the process. Blog used as a primary source, but the students write a critical analysis of their work at the end of their course, drawing on the data in the blog.

But some students are very comfortable with the blog and they do use the blog itself as the vehicle for their critical report.

Shift from the download to the upload culture.

course uses several platforms – Wimba live classroom. (Synchronous delivery), A CMS where students can upload their pictures for discussion, a NING site, for social interaction, and finally they use the blogs.

How do they work in practice.
The blogs are about mapping the learning journey. Very much about personal experience – getting a whole person view of the learner. Gives the tutor an insight into the mind of the student which would not be possible in the short time you are with them in a tutorial. What movies have they seen, what exhibitions have they attended and what did they get out of them?

Also it’s about writing for an audience – and getting feedback from the audience. You can also mash and mix it up with other resources. You can tag your thoughts, which then becomes searchable.

Blogs offer room for emotion and play – they’re very informal.

Give a fantastic insight into how learners learn. What have they gone out and done to meet the assessment criteria.

Notion of e-e learning. (Experiential e-learning) . Blog is like having an open brain (Latest advance on open source)

How do they use blogs on the course

Firstly they replace the sketchbook/reflecltive journal,
Also become a real time archive.
Most students prefer to host their own blogs rather than the university owned ones. (Though they’ve just set up a WordPress farm (whatever THAT might be!) within Blackboard) But they use it to talk about what they’re doing in their assignments. They’re often quite critical of the course, and this is more effective than other ways, not least because the lecturer can respond quite quickly.

Blog is also a way of keeping tabs on students who might be away for a long time on a project.

There is an interesting concept of “blog buddies” – Groups of 4 who make a committment to read and post comments on each others blogs on a regular bases. Quite a lot of mutual support is derived from this practice

There’s a bit of a worry about lurkers – but this isn’t really a problem. Even if you don’t post comments on a blog you can still get something out of reading it.

Some ethical issues – they set out ground rules about netiquette and the level of public access at the start – about two thirds of the students do make them public. They have had a couple of experiences where bloggers had have adverse reactions from those they have blogged about, and while this is part of learning to work for an audience, they do now raise these issues with students at the beginning of the course. “They’re beginning to navigate what it means to be public and what it means to be private” Professional not confessional is a nice catchphrase.

Feedback from students has been generally very positive. But there are some issues

Staff time – has to be managed well. Set up RSS feed via Google Reader. Read the blog in advance of an online tutorial session. Nor are these academic essays
Quality – Some entries are better than others. But that’s true of any educational activity
Language – not the problem they thought it would be – you have to have good English to do a masters course.
access points


Brilliant at building a sense of community
Because they’re warts and all, you get a much better idea of what’s going on.
Good way to organise thoughts of students
Always on – view of the students daily lived experience is authentic.
Informal, so truthful
And of course, they form an archive. So you can go back to them and do something with them.