Are We Human, Or Are We Dancers? #edcmooc

Humanity-2.0I’m not quite on my knees looking for the answer, but the second (and final) block of study on the E-Learning and Popular Culture MOOC kicked off this week with a challenging look at what it is to be ‘human’, how that definition has shifted throughout the ages, the ways in which it is perceived to be under threat from the advance of technology, and the implications for the future of education. To listen, as we have done, to Professor Steve Fuller’s wonderfully erudite and idiosyncratic take on the history of ‘being human’ and to reflect on whether the ‘humanist project’ as it is described is still worth pursuing, click on this Tedx Warwick lecture from 2009. Believe me, you will be a better person for it.

In the Encyclopaedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory, Nimrod Aloni tells us that the term ‘Humanistic Education’ is generally used to designate a variety of educational theories and practices that are committed to the world-view and ethical code of Humanism; that is, positing the enhancement of human development, well-being, and dignity as the ultimate end of all human thought and action – beyond religious, ideological, or national ideals and values. Historically, humanistic education can be traced back to the times of classical Athens with its central notion of Paideia, a few centuries later to the times of ancient Rome with it central notion of Humanitas, then the Renaissance’s Humanists, and in the early 19th century it was the German educator Neithammer who coined the concept of Humanism as indicating liberal education toward full humanity. Today, you will often hear this expressed in terms such as, ‘the need to educate the whole child‘. UNESCO, in its Education For The 21st Century, talks about being ‘committed to a holistic and humanistic vision of quality education worldwide, the realisation of everyone’s right to education, and the belief that education plays a fundamental role in human, social and economic development.’

The question before us now is this: does technology enable or inhibit such an ideal? There is no doubt that it is new technologies which allow us to connect and to network, and to provide access for many of those people who would otherwise be isolated from mainstream educational institutions – otherwise there would be no such thing as the MOOC – but for some, losing other ‘human’ attributes as a result of our over-dependence on machines is too heavy a price to pay. For my generation, this topic first arose as a serious concern with the introduction of electronic calculators in schools, and the debate shows no signs of abating. Consider this, from a 2004 article called ‘The Human Touch‘ by Dr Lowell Monke, an assistant professor of education at the University of Wittenberg:-

“A computer can inundate a child with mountains of information. However, all of this learning takes place the same way: through abstract symbols, decontextualized and cast on a two-dimensional screen. Contrast that with the way children come to know a tree–by peeling its bark, climbing its branches, sitting under its shade, jumping into its piled-up leaves. Just as important, these first hand experiences are enveloped by feelings and associations–muscles being used, sun warming the skin, blossoms scenting the air. The computer cannot even approximate any of this. Here we encounter the ambiguity of technology: its propensity to promote certain qualities while sidelining others. McLuhan called this process amplification and amputation. He used the microphone as an example. The microphone can literally amplify one’s voice, but in doing so it reduces the speaker’s need to exercise his own lung power. Thus one’s inner capacities may atrophy.

heartThis phenomenon is of particular concern with children, who are in the process of developing all kinds of inner capacities. Examples abound of technology’s circumventing the developmental process: the student who uses a spell checker instead of learning to spell, the student who uses a calculator instead of learning to add–young people sacrificing internal growth for external power.

Often, however, this process is not so easily identified. An example is the widespread use of computers in pre-schools and elementary schools to improve sagging literacy skills. What could be wrong with that? Quite a bit, if we consider the prerequisites to reading and writing. We know that face-to-face conversation is a crucial element in the development of both oral and written communication skills. On the one hand, conversation forces children to generate their own images, which provide connections to the language they hear and eventually will read. This is one reason why reading to children and telling them stories is so important. Television and computers, on the other hand, generally require nothing more than the passive acceptance of prefabricated images.”

I wonder how Monke would respond to this recent television advertisement to promote an Indian mobile communications company, which plays with the concept of a born-digital baby.

I believe that Monke is setting up a false dichotomy here, and that developing children need a balance in their lives between technology-enhanced learning and healthy physical activity, wherever possible in an outdoor environment. Nor do I accept that television and computers ‘require nothing more than the passive acceptance of prefabricated images’. What they require is that the viewer has the literacy skills necessary to understand how, why, when, where and by whom the images were created, and most importantly the purpose for which they were designed – in other words, that they learn to become digitally literate. However, in the interests of fairness, I will leave the final word on the matter (for now) to Monke, who is ready for the ‘all about balance’ argument;

“The response that I often hear to this criticism–that we just need to balance computer use in school with more ‘hands-on’ activities (and maybe a little character education)–sounds reasonable. Certainly schools should help young people develop balanced lives. But the call for balance within schools ignores the massive commitment of resources required to make computers work at all and the resultant need to keep them constantly in use to justify that expense. Furthermore, that view of balance completely discounts the enormous imbalance of children’s lives outside of school. Children typically spend nearly half their waking life outside of school sitting in front of screens. Their world is saturated with the artificial, the abstract, the mechanical. Whereas the intellectual focus of schools in the rural society of the 19th century compensated for a childhood steeped in nature and concrete activity, balance today requires a reversal of roles, with schools compensating for the overly abstract, symbolic, and artificial environment that children experience outside of school.”

Footnote:

It would appear, from what I have learned this week, that in a recent blogpost, The Power To Make A Difference, I was espousing Aloni’s fourth form of humanistic education, that which is most often identified with Radical Education or Critical Pedagogy and with the counter-hegemonic pedagogical theories of Freire, Apple, Giroux, Simon, and Kozol. From this vantage point, to consider educational issues independent of the larger cultural, social, and economic context involves either serious ignorance or cynical, if not criminal, deception. Poverty, crime, homelessness, drug addiction, wars, ecological crises, suicide, illiteracy, discrimination against women and ethnic minorities, technocratic consciousness, and the disintegration of communities and families, to name some of our most pressing problems, are facts of life that effect directly the physical, emotional, intellectual, and moral development of the great majority of children in our culture. Hence, radical educators argue, ‘pedagogy should become more political and the political more pedagogical’. This implies three major changes in our educational system. It requires:

  • that educational discourse, policy, and practice would deal directly with the notions of power, struggle, class, gender, resistance, social justice, and possibility;
  • that teachers would aim to emancipate and empower their students towards the kind of critical consciousness and assertive point of view that allows people to gain control over their lives; and
  • that teachers, in the words of Giroux, ‘would struggle collectively as transformative intellectuals. . . to make public schools democratic public spheres where all children, regardless of race, class, gender, and age, can learn what it means to be able to participate fully in the ongoing struggle to make democracy the medium through which they extend the potential and possibilities of what it means to be human and to live in a just society.’

 

To Boldly Go. One Step At A Time. #edcmooc

“What is a television apparatus to man, who has only to shut his eyes to see the most inaccessible regions of the seen and the never seen, who has only to imagine in order to pierce through walls and cause all the planetary Baghdads of his dreams to rise from the dust.”

Salvador Dali

television

 

I suppose it is entirely appropriate that the first week of my MOOC coincides with a week away from home. I am currently in Girona, where the people are preparing for an ‘illegal’ referendum on independence for Catalonia. It really is a beautiful city, but it means that I am at the mercy of the hotel wi-fi to access the course materials: so far it has been impeccably-well behaved. With so many strands to the course it would be easy to be overwhelmed, or to try to cover all the bases simultaneously, but fortunately there is good advice from the course tutors:

Last time we ran the MOOC, some key strategies emerged on how to manage it as a learner:

  • Read selectively: you are not expected to engage with every single area of course content
  • Choose one or two media streams only to focus on: you can’t be everywhere at once
  • Let go of the notion of ‘being on top of things’ – this is also impossible – instead, enjoy the serendipity of the random encounter
  • Relax, select, investigate, think, write when it makes sense to write, and write in a space that you enjoy
  • Forget traditional online teaching methods: there are around 7,000 people on this course, only 5 teachers and 6 Community Teaching Assistants

Many of these strategies are of course counter-intuitive to traditional learners and teachers, where ‘being on top of things’ is essential to survival. Which again has me wondering whether, and how, these principles could be applied in a secondary school setting.

tv-future2In terms of personal learning, we are still in the early days of the course, but I do like the use of short films as media artefacts, and already I am beginning to recognise some of the main themes and concepts coming to the fore, and to relate them to much of the reading I have done quite casually in the past. For example, Dr Daniel Chandler‘s term ‘technological or media determinism’ sounds quite daunting in itself, but it isn’t too difficult to find examples when you understand the definition (see below). Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows immediately springs to mind, tending as it does towards a dystopian view of the internet and its effects on our ability to read and think effectively.

“According to technological determinists, particular technical developments, communications technologies or media, or, most broadly, technology in general are the sole or prime antecedent causes of changes in society, and technology is seen as the fundamental condition underlying the pattern of social organisation… As an interpretive bias, technological determinism is often an inexplicit, taken-for-granted assumption which is assumed to be ‘self-evident’. Persuasive writers can make it seem like ‘natural’ common sense: it is presented as an unproblematic ‘given’. The assumptions of technological determinism can usually be easily in spotted frequent references to the ‘impact’ of technological ‘revolutions’ which ‘led to’ or ‘brought about’, ‘inevitable’, ‘far-reaching’, ‘effects’, or ‘consequences’ or assertions about what ‘will be’ happening ‘sooner than we think’ ‘whether we like it or not’. This sort of language gives such writing an animated, visionary, prophetic tone which many people find inspiring and convincing.”

Daniel Chandler

You recognise any of that? It is a tone adopted by many bloggers (including in all likelihood this one!) which may suggest that it is linked to the quality of writing, where the author has a pre-conceived view of technology in the classroom and is determined to stick with it, no matter what.

Now we are asked to consider two other perspectives on the web and e-learning, alongside Chandler’s technological determinism (No.2). These are posited by Dr Lincoln Dahlberg of the University of Queensland and summarised as follows.

  • Uses determination: technology is shaped and takes meaning from how individuals and groups choose to use it. Technology itself is neutral. An example of this way of thinking can be seen in the educational mantra: ‘The pedagogy must lead the technology’.
  • Technological determination: technology ‘produces new realities’, new ways of communicating, learning and living, and its effects can be unpredictable. This is the position Chandler explores in detail in our core reading.
  • Social determination: technology is determined by the political and economic structures of society. Questions about ownership and control are key in this orientation.

future1Dahlberg argues that none of these perspectives, on its own, is enough to explain everything that needs to be explained about the internet. Each is useful, and each is overstated. Depending on the questions we need to answer, different approaches may be necessary. The same could be said about e-learning – that we need more complexity, more nuance, than any one determinist position can offer us. It’s therefore extremely useful to be able to identify these positions, and in particular to know what we are dealing with when grand narratives are told about how great, or how terrible, technology is.

I have to say that many of the blogs I read, and the educators I follow on Twitter, tend to adopt the ‘uses determination’ approach, but we are inclined to follow those who are in broad agreement with ourselves (or in fact those in direct opposition). Perhaps we are all guilty to a greater or lesser extent of technological determinism. Which of these three perspectives do you lean towards in your understanding of the relationship between technology and pedagogy?

Footnote:

Everything is connected. Earlier today I visited the Salvador Dali Museum in Figueres. For me the most interesting part of the collection was the jewellery, which is quite exquisite and includes a pair of ‘telephone’ earrings which it would be easy to dismiss as frivolous, but about which Dali himself had this to say:

“The Dali jewels are totally serious. I am pleased if my telephone earrings bring a smile. A smile is a pleasing thing. But these earrings, as with all my jewels, are serious. The earrings express the ear, symbol of harmony and unity. They connote the speed of modern communication; the hope and danger of instantaneous exchange of thought.”

Return To The (Flipped) Classroom #edcmooc

Today sees the start of my E-Learning and Digital Cultures Mooc and I’m really looking forward to the adventure. The topic for Block One is an exploration of ‘Utopias and Dystopias’ – more of that later – but this morning I have been watching some introductory video clips about the course and about the nature of Moocs themselves, which is one of my main motivations for enrolling on the course, to explore what the future of ‘formal’ education looks like, and whether it has  a future at all! The concept of the ‘flipped classroom’ is one which I have discussed before on the blog (see Flipping Socrates), so my curiosity was aroused again by this Ted talk from Anant Agarwal of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the growth of online courses.

A few key questions remain unanswered for me in relation to blended learning, and I would like to explore these issues further in the next few weeks. They could be summarised as follows:

Most of the references i have seen to the flipped classroom appear to relate to aspects of mathematics and science. Do the principles apply equally to the arts and humanities?

Agarwal talks about ‘instant feedback’ and computer-generated assessments. Is that possible, or even desirable, in relation to non-mathematical subjects?

This kind of ‘blend’ – combination of online and face-to face interaction – seems to work well for post-compulsory education, but can it work equally well for 12-16 year-olds, or even younger?

Will e-learning ultimately sound the death knell of compulsory schooling?

Learning Independently – Together

“School is broken and everyone knows it. Public schools from kindergarten to graduation have been crumbling for decades, dropout rates are high, and test scores are low. The value – in every sense – of a college education and degree is hotly contested in the news every day. Students face unprecedented debt in an economy with a dwindling middle class and lessening opportunities for social mobility. This has a significant effect on lives and the economy itself.”

KioThus begins, controversially, Don’t Go Back To School – A Handbook for Learning Everything by the American writer, teacher and graduate school dropout Kio Stark, a comprehensive examination of the alternatives to long-established and formal educational pathways. I should point out before proceeding further that ‘school’ in this context is used to denote formal education in the broadest (American) sense, and mainly in the context of higher education, rather than ‘high school’ or ‘secondary school’ as we in the UK would understand it.

The text consists largely of a series of interviews with successful entrepreneurs – over 100 of them – who have, for a variety of reasons, eschewed expensive university courses in favour of independent learning. And herein lies the interesting element of the book for me – Stark’s definition of ‘independent learning’.

“Independent learning suggests ideas such as ‘self-taught’ or ‘autodidact’. These imply that independence means working solo. But that’s just not how it happens. People don’t learn in isolation. When I talk about independent learners, I don’t mean people learning alone. I’m talking about learning that happens independent of schools. Almost all of the people I interviewed talked about the importance of connections they forged to communities and experts, and access to other learners. Anyone who really wants to learn without school has to find other people to learn with and from. That’s the open secret of learning outside of school. It’s a social act. Learning is something we do together.”

The author goes on to reveal from her research four important features of almost every form of learning outside school:

  • It isn’t done alone
  • For many professionals, credentials aren’t necessary, and the processes for attaining credentials are changing
  • The most effective, satisfying learning is learning which is more likely to happen out of school
  • People who are happiest with their learning process and most effective at learning new things – in any educational environment – are people who are learning for the right reasons and who reflect on their own way of learning to figure out which processes and methods work best for them.

The final section of the book provides practical advice on where to find online collaborative learning systems, free and low-cost online learning platforms including MOOCs (see below), how to access scholarly publishing and academic research, and a ‘further reading’ list.

By coincidence rather than consequence, and as a firm believer that you can, in fact, teach an old dog new tricks, I made the bold move last week of signing up to take part in my first ever MOOC, which, for the uninitiated, stands for ‘massive, open, online course’, or, as Wikipedia would have it, ‘an online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. In addition to traditional course materials such as videos, readings, and problem sets, MOOCs provide interactive user forums that help build a community for students, professors, and teaching assistants.’

This particular course, E-learning and Digital Cultures, is being offered by the University of Edinburgh and Coursera, one of the biggest of the MOOC providers, and runs for 5 weeks through November and December, with a commitment of 5-7 hours a week. The course tutors promise that it is ‘not about e-learning’ but ‘an invitation to view online educational practices through a particular lens – that of popular and digital culture’.

“E-learning and Digital Cultures is aimed at teachers, learning technologists, and people with a general interest in education who want to deepen their understanding of what it means to teach and learn in the digital age. The course is about how digital cultures intersect with learning cultures online, and how our ideas about online education are shaped through “narratives”, or big stories, about the relationship between people and technology. We’ll explore some of the most engaging perspectives on digital culture in its popular and academic forms, and we’ll consider how our practices as teachers and learners are informed by the difference of the digital. We’ll look at how learning and literacy is represented in popular digital-, (or cyber-) culture, and explore how that connects with the visions and initiatives we are seeing unfold in our approaches to digital education.”

The plan is to take my friend Inanimate Alice along to find out where she stands in relation to e-learning, and indeed digital culture. Having just returned from an interesting and fruitful tour of the Frankfurt Book Fair and the Dutch Game Garden, we are keen to explore further how Alice’s personal journey could be used as the starting point for engaging young people (particularly girls) in the creative industries, and how this relates to the current seismic shift in publishing trends.

Should be fun, and I will of course be reporting back. After all, there really is no such thing as a free education, is there?

Footnote. In the course of writing this blogpost, and with half an eye on Twitter, as you do, my attention was drawn to this post by Will Gayhart on The Death of Graduate Schools of Education.