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.

Let’s all blame computers for everything bad. Again.

Picked up an interesting tweet that led to an article by Susan Greenfield about how computers may not be the most appropriate intervention in schools. Her critique  is that the way we use computers, essentially to graze for bits of information, is damaging our ability to think at length and in detail about a topic. You might be surprised to hear me say this but I think she has a point.  I’m largely unimpressed by claims that children and young people can “multi-task” much better than adults. All the evidence I’ve seen points to the fact that they are actually pretty rubbish at multi-tasking, if by multi-tasking you mean the simultaneous achievement of multiple and complex objectives. (That’s not a dig at the younger generation. I freely admit I’m rubbish at it too, but that is because it is an extremely difficult thing to do. In fact I don’t think I know of anyone who can do it)

Where I disagree with the article is that I don’t think its “computers” per se that are causing this rewiring of our brain. The key phrase in the above paragraph is “The way we use…”. I think it’s what we assess in schools, and what we value as a society that are at the root of the problem. In education we are forced to focus on the product, rather than the process of learning.  (Look at the press hysteria about ‘dumbing down’ that comes out every time the A level results are published for example.) It’s symptomatic of an obsession with “productivity”, which is  certainly not exclusive to education. If all we do is reward people for ‘producing’   then I suspect that “product” is all  we’ll get, irrespective of whether it’s any good, or any use to anyone. And if that’s all you want, then information grazing is a pretty good way to get it.

I blame the protestant work ethic! Work of the Devil if you ask me!

Predictions from the past.

The other night I found a slim volume dating from 1998, which I had quite forgotten about. Now, I’m always finding old books, but I mention this one because it was one of a series of books which attempted to predict what would happen over the next 10 years in a variety of fields, and given what I usually blog about, it seemed quite relevant. If you’re taking notes, it was entitled “Media” by Patrick Barwise and Kathy Hammond, and published by Phoenix Books, and dealt with what was likely to happen in the field of digital technology. (Full bibliographic details at

Well, the ten years have passed, and it was interesting to see what the authors had got right. Quite a lot as it turns out, although inevitably some of their forecasts do look a bit strange to our eyes. I’m not going to rehearse all that here. In the first place, they were the ones who stuck their necks out to make the predictions, and I’m writing with the luxury of hindsight so it would be churlish to point out what they got wrong, and in the second place if you care that much, you can always find the book through the library service, or one of the online booksellers and read it yourself. (It’s not available in e-book format, as far as I can see. There again, they did predict that books would still be around in 2010.)

What I did want to comment on though were some of the social implications. They did suggest that new technologies would increase communication between people, while implying that the quality of that communication may fall. I think they were right about that. Facebook and Twitter are no substitute for real human interaction. In a poignant coda to their section on work for example they describe “teleworking” as approaching the “grim type of life experienced by outworkers in the clothing trade (the PC taking on the role of sewing machine, with payment based on the number of enquiries handled). It could represent a backward shift in employee conditions: no office or canteen socialization, less chance of training, promotion or even “sick pay” (p42) Call centres anyone?

Secondly, although they don’t dwell on this they do identify the potential of digital technologies for increasing inequality. If you can’t access the technology, whether for economic, social or health reasons, and it’s the only way to get information, you are bound to be be disadvantaged. Barwise and Hammond thought you’d have to pay more to get your information in an alternative format if you fell into one of these categories. In practice, I suspect that even that might not be possible. In many cases alternatives do not exist. The problem is not the technology, but the value market capitalism places on human interaction. Not much, unless it can be monetized, it would seem.

It would be very interesting to see some of the other volumes in this series. Unfortunately the publisher’s web site doesn’t list them. I suppose they’re long out of print now.

What is educational development, exactly?

Well, I don’t know, exactly. But recently, I have been doing a lot of research into models of educational development units and I have come to the conclusion that slightly different perceptions are held by those who work in them, by those who pay for them, and by those who use their services.  This is actually a massive oversimiplification but essentially the first group see themselves as working collegially with academics to enhance the quality of learning and teaching, the second see the units as a mean to achieve specific objectives, (e.g. getting more students into university and keeping them there, or making more use of the technologies that institutions have spent a lot of money on) and the third see them as a sort of support service, especially with regard to using technology.  That isn’t a negative critique – there are valid reasons why they might hold such positions, but they do lead to misconceptions.

I raise this because this quote, taken from Jim Groom’s admirable bavatuesdays blog made me think a little bit more about how these different perceptions affect the technology aspect of our work. 

“For too long, instructional technology has been enveloped within the broader notion of information technology. We need to drive a permanent wedge between those two areas of university life in the understandings of our communities. Information technology makes our phones and networks and computers and smart boards work, and collects and protects student, staff, and faculty data so that we can get credits and get paid. This is crucial stuff. But it doesn’t foreground teaching and learning.

Instructional technology is about pedagogy, about building community, about collaboration and helping each other imagine and realize teaching and learning goals with the assistance of technology.”

Just as “information technology” is not “instructional technology”, “educational development is not staff development”.  Yes, of course they have things in common, possibly even a shared foundation, which is why I’m not entirely sure about the image of “driving a wedge” between them. But we still have work to do in getting the fact that they are growing apart (quite rapidly) to our colleagues.

Adobe Connect and Course Genie

I’ve been doing some research into the way Educational Development Units (or Academic Development Units, for the benefit of the search engines!) interact with their university. The actual research is discussed in a separate blog listed in the blogroll, but a couple of technology applications have cropped up in discussions with participants that might be worth a look. They are Adobe Connect and Course Genie.

I’m struggling to find a way of summarising Adobe Connect in a simple sentence. It’s a sort of desktop videoconferencing system, mashed up with a virtual whiteboard and meeting system. But it seems to be a bit more than the sum of its parts. The trouble is when I say “videoconferencing” people say “oh we’ve got that…” Well, we are about to sign up to the Access Grid, that’s true. But that’s limited to one room. This appears to be desktop based so you can have meetings from your own computer. I haven’t had time to look much beyond the demos on the web site. But if you’re interested have a look at  

The other product was Course Genie, and I have to say this made me smile. Essentially it’s a way of producing web documents from Word using Word styles. Old Teknical Virtual Campus lags like me, will of course remember the Teknical Converter, which performed much the same function. (Although, in my view output much nicer pages than Course Genie did) The first problem was that very few colleagues understood the concept of styles in Word so it never really took off. And secondly, when those who did use it produced some (I thought) useful material, students all complained that they had to print out multiple pages, so we had to provide links back to the original word document. Ho hum. Looking at the Course Genie demonstration, they don’t seem to have addressed this at all. Course Genie is now part of the Wimba suite and has been renamed Wimba Create, (Wimba is something else I’ll have a look at when I have time) – But you can see the demo here


Well, I don’t know where all the text from this went…

 But here’s what I wanted to say anyway. (If this disappears I really am going back to bed)

I’m not now going to the Bbworld 08 conference in Manchester because I am simply too ill to drive there. Which is a pity because there appeared to be some interesting looking presentations about using Bb to support assessment. This is something that does come up from time to time in Faculty teaching and learning committees (e.g. Health Life & Social Sciences the other day). We do have Turnitin’s Grademark of course, but the drawback with that is that it doesn’t really support double marking. (i.e. anonymous marking). Or, if it does, I haven’t found out how yet. I did dream up a baroque routine where students’ work could be submitted to different tutors by admin staff, but technology is supposed to make life simpler, so I haven’t mentioned it yet.

Leads to an interesting reflection on technology in learning though – it very rarely seems to automate a practice in its entirety – certainly some aspects of a process are very well automated – but human beings being what they are, there’s always some other aspect that they want to cling to that the technology doesn’t cover. So our job is really about changing perspectives, not teaching which buttons to press.