29 March 2009

On writing well

I know, it's about time I did something more than merely point to other sources, but this is a piece which both exemplifies good practice as it explores it.

Other commitments are winding down and I am hoping to finish some interesting stuff shortly. Keep reading! Thanks.

27 March 2009

On a thoughtful piece about assessment

Colleagues in the UK will recognise the concerns about quality assurance bureaucracy, which we now take for granted. But there is more to it than that...

24 March 2009

On the perks of the job

My former colleague and I met for coffee today, and as ever the conversation turned to gossip/comparing notes--in the least salacious sense. Just in the past week:
  • FP has asked for a reference for doctoral research

  • RG got in touch to tell us about her new job at the OU

  • JS had a bad time and dropped out; she's OK now and wants to complete the course

  • JW asks if she can cite us as a reference for a new job; she moved 200 miles north about eight years ago
Keep it coming! It's what it is all about.

22 March 2009

On blogging as reflective practice

A useful account from Ken Ronkowitz which is about just what it says on the tin.

19 March 2009

On customised plagiarism and ghosting

This is the story of organised plagiarism, which is a not only a substantial business for providers, but also a gamble for clients and a big problem for colleges and universities.

See http://www.jiscpas.ac.uk/wp/index.php and of course follow up here. I must declare an interest in that I am currently working for the outfit which runs this course, but that aside, they are clearly at the forefront of this field. (Can you be at the forefront of a field?...)

About fifteen years ago, I gave (gave? No, frankly I didn't, because she did pay me, despite my protestations, an honorarium for my efforts. I can only plead that my contribution did not depend on her payment...) I "gave" quite substantial support to a friend undertaking a master's degree. It did amount to drafting some passages for her course work and dissertation, some of which she may well have used verbatim.

It so happens that her subject area was close to, but not the same as, mine. She was a social work practitioner, highly committed, highly skilled and highly experienced. She was also off work because of injuries incurred in the line of duty, so she decided to use the opportunity to get a master's. This information may or may not be relevant; have you noticed that is the way things are in the real world? It's only in academe that stuff is pre-selected for its relevance...

She had a big problem with organising her ideas into a coherent essay. She could do reports until they came out of her ears. The evidence for her arguments stood in foot-high piles on her spare-bedroom floor (in those days, my child, it was all printed on paper).

But she did not know how to play the academic game at this level. (Background; in those days the standard social work qualification was a Certificate of Qualification in Social Work at HE level 2/NQF 5 a.k.a equivalent to second-year undergraduate study. How she got admission to a Master's programme on the basis of that qualification, I do not know.)

I helped her to do that. I helped her very directly. Not only did I advise her, in the later stages I cut and pasted her points and re-assembled them and directed her to write a paragraph to argue such and such, and even got her to dictate that paragraph to me, while I typed it into the computer.

... you get the picture?

There was no "plagiarism" here, but was there "ghost-writing"? Where is the boundary of legitimacy?

(Incidentally, I took a keen interest in the feedback she got. I was appalled by its partisan nature, but that is another story...)

17 March 2009

On cables

A propos of nothing. Enjoy!

15 March 2009

On a master's level comprehension passage

This is a classic piece!* It's* not difficult to "understand"* apart from some grammatical jargon which of course* (should that interpolation have commas? It's a relevant question given that the passage [full stop?])* may be obsessively super-pedantic, a plea for clarity*, or a gigantic piss-take.

I could go on* but that would spoil the fun!*

But* it is here* as a candidate for a comprehension exercise which could work at higher HE levels. This is not a trivial point*. Testing comprehension generally involves selecting passages of increasing technical abstruseness in a particular discipline,* or of increasing obtuseness in a particular medium (e.g. the Waste Land).* This is a mainstream piece* (albeit from the New Yorker)* which nevertheless illustrates much of what* it critiques* at several levels.

* indicates what even I recognise as contentious grammatical and particularly punctuational usages for a "maven"* (Pinker, 1993).

13 March 2009

On differ-ability

The morning session of the workshop to which I was contributing today was about student "diversity" --which is of course the current buzzword for "irritating students who do not fit our standard expectations..." (If you are a po-faced PC fundamentalist who does not do irony--don't bother to respond.)

Both of the contributors wanted to emphasise that being different does not mean being a "problem". My post yesterday about "eccentrics" in academe underlines this, but this TED video by paralympic athlete Aimee Mullins makes the point vividly (although most "impairments" do not offer as many options);

12 March 2009

On the blanding of universities

"What we need are stratospherically intelligent semi-crazies. But what is left at the end of the modern process are hard-working, moderately intelligent dullards ... "

Similar factors, says Charlton, "apply throughout the educational system" to exclude those who are "too abrasive, impatient, impulsive". This approach would have left people such as Wittgenstein, F.R. Leavis in the humanities and many of the best scientists out in the cold.

11 March 2009

On tools for reflection 2

The linked post is about Brookfield's four "lenses" of reflection--a useful framework.

10 March 2009

On something for VLE people to bear in mind...

Don't worry. If the heading doesn't mean anything to you, ignore!

08 March 2009

On-line learning (aftermath 1)

First, given that part of the idea of this blog is to model "reflection", it is worth noting that while I got my previous posts in before the course window closed, the duration of the course is a quite artificial constraint. Reflection knows no such boundaries, for better or for worse.

Two themes have stuck with me;
  • First, the "group in the mind"; the phrase comes from Bion (1961), (as discussed here) who uses it in a slightly different way from what follows, but it still seems apposite. Bion suggests that once we have joined a group, it stays with us, and a fantasy image of it remains in the mind (and of course eventually fades with memory). Certainly that happens to me whenever I take a new class, regardless of its size. That image tends to be typified by some salient features; the faces of some of the members, the room in which it meets, even the temperature of the room. Any of them can trigger a complex set of memories and feelings related to comfort, discomfort, security, enjoyment, stimulating exchanges... which bring the group alive.
  • I realise I never got that with this exclusively on-line course. For all the ice-breakers and "arrivals lounge" and photos, even some synchronous chat, the group in the mind never formed. My interaction was purely task-focused, with no sense of relationship. I responded to posts on the discussion forum, and not to people.
And second;
  • Going back to my earlier reflection on the consensual nature of the interaction and the derivative literature base; the course was all about socially constructed knowledge. Crudely, if someone said something and everyone agreed, it became true. I don't think anyone was ever told (however politely) that they were wrong (and I certainly deserved to be told that on more than one occasion). This of course may be a function of the topic ("on-line tutoring" in case we've drifted too far to remember), which is pretty "soft"; but I also wonder whether it is not merely a matter of choosing the appropriate Web 2.0 tools to fit the topic and its implicit epistemology, but also of the choice of tools dictating how a discussion can proceed? That would after all be consistent with Berger and Luckmann's original argument in 1967, way before the web.

06 March 2009

On a potentially amazing resource

I don't usually simply plug other sites, but one cannot but admire the chutzpah of this site;

"Academic Earth is an organization founded with the goal of giving everyone on earth access to a world-class education.

As more and more high quality educational content becomes available online for free, we ask ourselves, what are the real barriers to achieving a world class education? At Academic Earth, we are working to identify these barriers and find innovative ways to use technology to increase the ease of learning.

We are building a user-friendly educational ecosystem that will give internet users around the world the ability to easily find, interact with, and learn from full video courses and lectures from the world’s leading scholars. Our goal is to bring the best content together in one place and create an environment that in which that content is remarkably easy to use and in which user contributions make existing content increasingly valuable.

We invite those who share our passion to explore our website, participate in our online community, and help us continue to find new ways to make learning easier for everyone."

05 March 2009

On mandatory Master's

Ed Balls (Secretary of State for Curtains and Soft Furnishings --sorry! Children, Schools and Families) has declared that social work (specifically children's services) should require a Master's degree, joining teaching as an aspirational occupation. Generally speaking I can't argue with that, having been continually frustrated in the 80s and 90s at the failure of government to grasp the nettle of making it a graduate occupation.

But, I am witnessing close-up what is happening with the Master's initiative in teaching, and standards are clearly being dumbed-down. The actual study requirements are being eroded by over generous accreditation of prior learning; the assessment load for modules and the contact hours (either face to face or on-line) are being trimmed... All in the interests of getting people to take the courses. One university with which I have some acquaintance is claiming that its numbers on Master's programmes will have increased twenty-fold (yes, not by twenty percent, but twenty-fold) in two years. The courses now cost teachers nothing, and ingenious arrangements confer credit at Master's level for the Newly Qualified Teacher (NQT) year, together with some components of the PGCE assessed at Master's level...

It's the educational philosophy of the Wizard of Oz;
Wizard of Oz: They have one thing you haven't got: a diploma. Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Universitartus Committiartum E Pluribus Unum, I hereby confer upon you the honorary degree of ThD.
Scarecrow: ThD?
Wizard of Oz: That's... Doctor of Thinkology.

This has got nothing to do with learning, and still less with demonstrably improved practice, or indeed with ability to work at higher academic levels... And attempts to align the latter two elements are flakey in any case.

But at least teaching has pretensions to academic underpinnings (if they are relevant and if the award of a diploma/Master's testifies to anything relevant). For twenty-five years I taught social workers at all levels from home helps (as they were then known) to senior managers, from day-release in-service introductory courses with no academic credit through qualifying programmes to post-qualifying courses for practice teachers and "approved" mental health social workers.

The correlation between effectiveness in practice and academic performance was--beyond a certain threshold--zero. Social workers require a vast range of skills and qualities, some technical and more personal. Their tacit knowledge and judgement, their empathy and their scepticism, their tenacity and perseverance and resilience... all these have to be demonstrated at high levels day in day out.

But there is little or no overlap with the demonstration of academic skills required by traditional Master's programmes, Raise the status of social work by all means (more pay and more respectful management, and of course more manageable workloads would be a start...) but to go down the Master's route risks disenfranchising some great practitioners, and/or devaluing Master's awards, and/or just missing the point.

04 March 2009

On catching up

I acquire a lot of stuff which I mean to write about, but real life tends to get in the way; every so often I'll pass on a list of things other people might find interesting, with minimal comment;
  1. Confusion
  2. Class position
  3. Indifference
  4. Emotional dependency
  5. Intellectual dependence
  6. Provisional self-esteem
  7. One can't hide

03 March 2009

On believing pundits

Given the extent to which we are exposed nowadays to toxic levels of punditry, it is gratifying to be reminded by Bryan Appleyard of Tetlock's (2005) psychological investigation of the reliability of pundits (New Yorker article on it here).

One of the findings was broadly that the more certain the pundits were, the more likely they were to be wrong, which is consistent with good old-fashioned cognitive dissonance.

This goes along, I guess, with another related issue I am exploring in my usual desultory way; the notion that the less meaningful a belief, the greater the passion and dogmatism with which it is held. This was observed by Swift (the war between the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians in Gulliver's Travels, 1726, ch. IV) so it's not exactly original, and of course as in that story, it is religious disputes which spring to mind as the most obvious examples. But there is more to it than that; Mary Douglas (1966) —if I understand her correctly, which is far from certain—came close to arguing that distinctions in the external world (particularly among, loosely, social artefacts) say much less about that world than they do about the sense of identity of those who make them. In other words, people and groups define themselves as "the kind of people who believe that..." and whatever it is that they believe is much more important than objective distinctions can sustain... I'm trying to follow this up in Douglas (1973) and one would think that returning to that book 35 years after I first read it, I would find it easier. No.

Any pointers gratefully received!

Douglas M (1966) Purity and Danger; an analysis of the concepts of pollution and taboo London; Routledge and Kegan Paul
Douglas M (1973) Natural Symbols London; Penguin