30 September 2012

Items to Share: 30 September

29 September 2012

On a busman's holiday

I have delayed posting this for some time, because I don't want to point the finger at anyone, publicly. I debated whether or not to post it at all. As it stands it is merely opinionated commentary--a legitimate form of expression, but not one which can claim the interest of a reader. I am actually posting it to supplement my posting on a MOOC--where I have paraphrased and condensed some points, including events which happened after I wrote this version. Sorry--you didn't need to know that, did you?

I am on holiday; for once on a tour organised around a topic--the history of classical Greece. I won't go into more specifics for reasons which will become apparent.

On the whole it has been excellent. The site visits have been informative, and there is no substitute for going to the real locations. The organisation and the food have been almost exemplary. And the company of the other members of the party has been excellent.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the lecturer.

As I sat in the first lecture on the first morning, I berated myself for not having brought my trusty observation sheets with me. Had he been a student, I should not have been able to sign off on any item on my list. That is not in itself a problem (see here, for example), and indeed some of the things we are obliged to check would have been clearly inappropriate, such as "embedding functional skills". (It doesn't matter what that means.)

I note, re-reading the earlier post, that I commented then:
It was not about the tutor's technique... It was about "strategy", or really values.
And therein lies the difference. The lecturer started the session with the air of the whole thing being slightly beneath him--to think that it has come to this, to be hired by a package-tour company to lecture to a group of elderly people... There was evidence to support this, because he had clearly done very little preparation, despite--or perhaps because of--his apparent familiarity with the material. I say "apparent" because other members of the group who are more familiar with it than me have been more disparaging about his scholarship.

He did ask us who was in Greece for the first time. Otherwise he asked us no more questions. He said nothing about himself and his background, other than that this was the sixth time he had done this particular tour, and let slip references later to up to fifty years of visiting the eastern Mediterranean. He did decide not to undertake introductions, which was a fair call, probably; he obviously defined his role as an "expert" rather than a full-scale teacher. But it would have been interesting if he had shown just a small proportion of the interest in us which he clearly expected we would have in him. A show of hands on who were the old hands? On who spoke or read Greek? Considered themselves well-informed about the architecture, the history, the culture...? Five minutes would have sufficed.

He said he would get to know our names as time went on, and he did do that. (I could have said that he achieved this principally by counting us onto the bus, but that would be even snarkier than this account is already. Credit where credit is due!) But he missed out on so much information which could have been useful to a more confident and less arrogant person; there were people in the group with expertise from their professional backgrounds and travels who could have contributed fascinating material, which in practice was only shared with two or three others chatting over dinner.

Although I was not expecting and would not have wanted reams of paperwork, it would have been useful to have a list of titles of the lectures. However, it became apparent that in his view this was one long lecture which he would deliver in a series of chunks. Throughout the rest of the week, there was only the most token obeisance in the direction of a clear start and finish (except a sort of peroration in one talk given on the coach, but that was more about drama than structure).

He did supply a reading list; it was badly formatted and the bibliographical format was not standard. Who cares? Well, publishers and dates are quite useful. Perhaps more important, it had been corrected in long-hand and then copied without being re-typed. This clearly sends a message to the "class" that they are not worth serving properly; it amounts to an expression of contempt.

No visual aids. Well, he did have a carrier bag with some copies of picures from books, laminated, so he could hand them round. Given that all but the first of the talks were given on the coach, there might be something to be said for that, but the logistics of distribution and the number of copies, and their labelling, needs some thought. There was a single copy of each page to be shared sequentially among two dozen people, even if most of them were couples and would look at the page together.

He had prepared two pages on a flip-chart, though, showing a time-line. They were sloppily printed in marker pen, but they were big enough to read and he had covered them up with a blank sheet so they were not distracting until deliberately revealed.

So no presentation package, probably because of the setting of the talks, but also because I don't think he has the necessary skills to develop a slide-show. That might also account for the hand-written corrections on the book-list. Even so, the most important thing he could have achieved through a presentation, he could also have achieved for himself with a handful of 6x4 cards--a structure. But the consequence was that, together with a voice which sometimes descends into a mumble, and some irritating mannerisms, it was almost impossible to follow what he was talking about.

It is an egregious delusion that just because you know (or think you know) a lot about something, you can lecture about it. Even in an open-ended situation where the intention is to inform and perhaps entertain, where the group will not be assessed and they are free to take it or leave it at their discretion, where the language of "objectives" and "outcomes" is inappropriate--even then you need a structure. And when you are inclined to ramble on in a kind of drunkard's walk from one topic to another with little evidence of a theme, you definitely need a structure. I know because that is what I do, left to my own devices.

The simplest device of notes or a set of cards, each with only a key word or phrase on them demands some degree of planning. Cards are of course more flexible because you can re-order them, or take one out when you have answered a point in response to a question, earlier than planned...

So all this is very very basic. For most of the week I have been juggling hypotheses about what is going on. Is he merely incompetent? He is incompetent, but not merely so. His failings can be superficially rectified with advice, should he be inclined to accept it. But there is I think more to it than that; there's a fundamental self-absorption which suggests he hasn't got a clue about how other people respond to him and his work, and he doesn't care. (Apparently, nor does the company--I am led to believe that there has been critical feedback about him for years, but he is still employed.)

Beginning teachers are often very concerned about their own "performance" to the extent of not being able to pay attention to the students' performance; that's a natural stage which is soon overcome in most cases, and in any case their self-consciousness often makes them eager to seek and respond to feedback. For whatever reason, this guy is stuck...

But... all this does not extend to other aspects of his public role. Mingling with guests at social functions he is a little stiff and has to try hard to be charming. I empathise. I'm pretty inept at that, too: but then I don't set myself up to do a job which requires such skills. Tonight was a supposedly special dinner--characterised only by having to sit at long tables rather than self-selected small ones, and he was in "host" role. He was clearly not comfortable but he pulled it off quite well--better than I could have done, certainly. But his performance in making a simple vote of thanks for the organiser was largely about him and his next destination.

Something happens to this guy when he assumes the mantle of teacher or authority figure. What, why, how?

Thank goodness for local guides!

[There's no definitive answer, of course. But if you are tackling "the role of the teacher" on a post-school and adult education teacher training course, I think you might find this case-study stimulating.]

On the MOOC -- 3

This is one of a series of posts about participation in the free Massive Online Open Course [MOOC] on the History of the World since 1300 CE, from Princeton U via Coursera. Jonathan Rees, at More or Less Bunk, is also blogging his take on it. I'm sure he has more readers than me, so if you feel like commenting, please do there first--no objection of course to getting his leftovers!

I was going to talk about the forums this time, but an announcement tells us that they are still working on the "Global Dialogue", so I'll hold off that for a while.

This is getting harder work (and it is still only week 2). I started the first lecture of the week on Monday. I haven't been unusually busy this week but I didn't get to its third segment until Friday afternoon and its fourth on Saturday. It's not that the content is getting any more difficult, by any means. It's just that the prospect of another quarter-hour or so of Adelman's halting nasal sing-song drone is not exactly inviting. Nothing personal and not his fault, but putting him up as the presenter says interesting things about the course design.

We know that video lectures can be compelling stuff. TED talks are hugely popular, and perhaps the producers of this course have learned something from them in breaking the lectures up into chunks of under twenty minutes. But TED talks are rigorously rehearsed, with a professional director advising on expression, and pace, and visual aids... (Not to mention that presenters are presumably selected in part on the basis of their screen presence and articulacy, in the first place.)

Adelman has, in a sense, "rehearsed", in that he has delivered these lectures live, before. And to his credit he is not reading them from an autocue. But it doesn't appear that he has rehearsed specifically for this recording. And he is not in a lecture theatre with real live students around, just in a studio with his two assistants and a few technicians--and if he is in a studio, why is the assistants' sound hook-up so bad?  He may not realise it, but he is missing a whole world of feedback from his non-existent audience. Their posture, their expressions, their dozing disengagement, occasional blankness as they miss a point; the opportunity to focus on a particular student or two as barometers of engagement and interest--all that is missing, and a half-decent lecturer makes more use of that than she recognises. It is as if he were singing in an acoustically dead room, rather than in the shower... (I am giving him the benefit of the doubt here--his singing in the shower may well be as irredeemably dire as mine!)

There are two ways of re-couping that situation. Rehearsal and re-takes. They are basically the same thing--repeat performances until you get it right, either before the main performance or during it. When the main performance is a public event, retakes are difficult and so rehearsal is ever more important. But these are not public performances, and I have occasionally detected some continuity glitches in the lectures which suggest that there have been some retakes, but very few. (Lecture 3, segment 4 about 19:15m in)

This is not entirely straightforward. The faultless presentation becomes a "Spiel"--a slick salesman's patter which does not convince, and certainly lacks any sense of the thought and research and scholarship and debate which has gone into the considered and measured judgements of the lecture content. 
But... Academic presentation is not about the presenter, but the content. Sometimes the issue is about the academic superstar's "Look at ME!" obsession (I shall refrain from mentioning names...) This time it is certainly not that, but the way in which personal characteristics just obtrude into the presentation, unintentionally. Whichever way, we return to George Herbert, whom I quoted in the first post in this series--
A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye,
Or, if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav'n espy.
The challenge for the presenter is to get out of the way so the student can engage as directly as possible with the content/

And that requires conscious and deliberate effort. And if it doesn't happen, it sends a message to the student. You ain't worth it. There are 70k students out there, we are told. The lecturing style of this course so far might pass muster for a couple of hundred students, live in a lecture theatre--where as I have argued, the situation is much richer than on-line. But for 70k students trying to engage with the material without the supporting ambience of a university, and a library... they need so much more. 

I am reminded of a post I wrote but never published from almost exactly a year ago, about an archaeology-themed holiday in Greece with a tour guide who was dire.
He rambled almost incoherently at inordinate length over the PA system on some very long coach rides (600 km on one day), his reading list was hand-written on top of typescript (and the citation was awful), his maps were badly photocopied from some school textbook, it appears... On the final evening, I took him aside and gave him some professional feedback (rising to the challenge of hints from some of the other participants*, and admittedly assisted by moderate wine consumption). I pointed out--much more gently than I would with my own students--that such an unprepared approach communicated effectively to the guests that this kind of job was really rather beneath him, and they weren't worth any greater effort.

It was when he admitted that the maps were not very good, but that he had not had time to get better ones, that I probably overstepped the mark. I reminded him that he had told us this was the sixth time he had done this tour. He rose, said he did not have to listen to any more of this, and walked off.
It's probably just me, with my background and professional interest, but I can't look beyond the presentation and "espy" the academic content. And I can't imagine--well, I can, actually--what it must be like to be a student on this course, where you are being assessed, and it is important that you complete it, and you find yourself approaching each lecture with foreboding... It's not that the experience is so bad, it's that it does not facilitate engagement with the subject-matter, it hinders it. Better not to have it at all.

The other point worthy of comment is the use--or lack of use--made of the assistants, who are brought in very very occasionally to answer questions about the images, with one or two word answers, as a cue for the lecturer to build on. Socratic questioning, it ain't. And the acoustics or sound-rigging make those answers barely audible. This is tokenism.

Sorry to have become so relentlessly negative.

* I do keep falling for this.

PS  Do take in  this post and comments from Historiann.

A useful selection of articles on MOOCs from the Chronicle of Higher Education

23 September 2012

Items to Share; 23 September

Education Focus
Other Business
  • Being Defensive Clever! But neither verifiable nor particularly useful... A lesson to all of us who (like me) occasionally fall for the idea that if you can diagram it, it's true!

21 September 2012

On the MOOC -- 2

This is one of a series of posts about participation in the free Massive Online Open Course [MOOC] on the History of the World since 1300 CE, from Princeton U via Coursera. Jonathan Rees, at More or Less Bunk, is also blogging his take on it. I'm sure he has more readers than me, so if you feel like commenting, please do there first--no objection of course to getting his leftovers!

I've now read the recommended material (admittedly in an earlier edition), and "attended" the second lecture.

One of the first issues to strike me (and indeed Jonathan) concerned signposting--ways of helping students to keep track of where they are in the overall argument. There was a lot of verbal signposting in this lecture.
  • "Gold" --we'll come on to that, later
  • "China's approach" --later
...but still no visual depiction.

I wonder why. Indeed, the visual component seems to be deliberately minimal. Now, I hold no truck with the egregiously spurious bulls**t about sensory learning styles. (I hope that is clear!) But I don't really understand why state-of-the-art producers of these courses--and for better or for worse the technical complexity is such that the designer/writer/presenter/producer roles can only be held by the same person with great difficulty--why they don't make elementary use of simple tools.

To be fair, we do get to see the illustrations as free-standing screen images, before the lecturer re-appears and they revert to background, but...
  • The quality is strangely low. We know from the copyright acknowledgement at the end of each segment that most images originate from the textbook, so perhaps we are simply being trailed with images to explore in more depth at our leisure. The images in the textbook, however, are no better. On screen, of course, the potential for zooming in and out on the maps is great, for example--and generalising for a moment, it's really easy and cheap with a package like Prezi. Using the tablet to circle and highlight battles in the expansion of the Ottoman empire is OK, but it could be so much better...
  • And the visual content is unimaginative. I floundered through the first lecture because the time-scale meant very little to me. As Adelman admits, 1300 CE is not an intuitive starting point. So--using a very broad brush--he dipped back into Asian history BCE and up to the high middle ages. That is fine; but it would have been even better with a visualised sub-title or otherwise accessible time-line.
But that poses another question for me; what is the academic level of this course?  It's a big problem for such a course, and I don't want to be critical for the sake of it, but;
  • How much background knowledge can one assume? I've just been watching Wartime Farm on TV. This episode included a reference to children from towns subject to aerial bombing being evacuated to the country, together with film clips, a recollection and some photos from a local person who was a child at the time, and an explanation of how it all worked*. I'm not old enough to remember it, but it was common knowledge in my childhood, and "it made me feel my age" to realise that it would be effectively ancient history to most of the audience, and did need to be spelt out, despite my generation muttering, "Yes, yes! We know all that! Who doesn't?"
  • This is by definition an open-access course, and that means that it will lose people for whom it is too demanding, and also those for whom it is too basic. Adelman promises it will speed up later--when it may well lose me because it expects too much--but for the moment it is frankly boringly slow. 
    • A commenter on the previous post has helpfully pointed out that it is possible to speed up the playback (available via the "keyboard shortcuts" menu at the bottom of the playback window).
  • But that poses another question. Video plays at its own pace. And it is linear (despite Adelman's references to later and earlier lectures). The experience, like that of the lecture hall, is common, although not necessarily shared, when the presentation is virtual. I know in this case that had I had a transcript of the lecture, I would have preferred to have skimmed that, rather than listen to the professor. Do we know what video is more suited to--in terms of level of learning, take a bow Mr Bloom--or discipline? That is a real question--I've just consulted my own library, and not found any answers beyond the thoughts of Laurillard (2001), which are of course way out of date--so all leads gratefully received.
    • Actually, it is possible to access a transcript, in the form of the text for the sub-titles, on the right-hand side of the panel for each lecture segment, but they are unformatted .txt files, and thus difficult to read. I note that there is an announcement about editing and translating those files, dated 20 September. That's brilliant--perhaps someone could edit and format them to reflect the relative importance of topics? (No, sorry, I have other things on!)
  • Somewhere, there was also a point made about the quizzes at the end of each segment, and the lack of guidance about when there was a single acceptable answer and when more than one item could/had to be selected (but I can't find it again). I am not a great fan of multiple-choice examinations of any form, and several posts on the "lectures" forum show their limitations. But I must admit that these have been carefully designed so they are not merely tests of recall, but do require one to think back over the arguments and the less-than-obvious distinctions made in the lectures. The distractors (the suggested wrong answers) are the key to good MCQs, and these are well pitched.
Next time, unless something gets in the way, I'll try to engage with the forums--they are very important, but daunting on a course as big as this...

Jonathan's take--and interesting comments--are here.

* if anyone is interested, the best introduction to that snippet of history is probably Jack Rosenthal's wonderful 1975 BBCtv play.

Laurillard D (2001) Re-thinking University Teaching (2nd edn.) London; Routledge

On the ultimate campaign ad!

Thanks to Jamie Frevele at Boing-Boing: "While I don't officially endorse Bridget Mary McCormack, who is running for a seat on the Michigan State Supreme Court, I do endorse the viewing of the campaign ad she's running for her non-partisan race. As the sister of actress Mary McCormack, who played security advisor Kate Harper on The West Wing, she was able too hook herself up with her very own reunion of the cast of Aaron Sorkin's presidential series..."

We don't have campaign ads in the UK (unless you count Nick Clegg saying "I'm sorry") but if we had to, I wish they were all like this. (But how did Bartlet get re-elected for a third term, and how did he oust Santos?)

20 September 2012

On the MOOC --1

This is one of a series of posts about participation in the free Massive Online Open Course [MOOC] on the History of the World since 1300 CE, from Princeton U via Coursera. Jonathan Rees, at More or Less Bunk, is also blogging his take on it. I'm sure he has more readers than me, so if you feel like commenting, please do there first--no objection of course to getting his leftovers!

Day 1. I am emphatically not planning to live-blog this whole thing, incidentally.

This post is not enthusiastic, and given my track record, I really don't want to become a professional whinger. But writing this, I realise an important distinction--one which I engaged with almost every day when I was assessing the practice of learner teachers--between the perspective of the observer and that of the participant. (Etic and Emic ...sorry!)

Most people who take the course will not give a damn about its design and implementation. They will quite rightly be interested only in what they can learn through it. That preposition is apposite. [I love it when I can be so precisely pompous!] As George Herbert put it:
A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye,
Or, if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav'n espy.
I'm afraid that although I hope to espy the heaven, I cannot but stay my eye on the glass. And the glass is presumably the most refined, transparent, and distortion-free available.

I have indeed signed up for the course because I am quite interested in the subject, although it is worth noting that I have no extrinsic motivation at all (unless you count acquiring material for this blog).  The course carries no credit, which probably makes some difference to how it is experienced by its participants. But the majority of the 70,000 participants presumably could not care less about the features I shall comment on---until they pass a threshold beyond which they obtrude onto their learning experience.

My problem of course, as it is when I observe direct teaching, is to tell what matters and what does not.

I'm starting from the position that this is the best course its originators can design. It carries the Princeton brand--one of the most prestigious brands in US academe. It's far from an amateur (Khan academy in its early days?) production. I haven't seen a credits list, but I assume that it benefits from the input of very accomplished instructional designers, production staff and online developers.

The preface to the textbook (I wasn't prepared to pay £90 for the latest edition, and settled for £15 for the 2002 version--it arrived today) states:
"For an entire year we met to discuss [...] what global themes we wanted to stress. Only after intensive and sometimes contentious discussions were we able to decide on our over-arching framework, the chapter divisions[...]" (Tignor et al. 2002: xxv)
I'm assuming that a similar vigorous debate took place about the design of the MOOC (although probably not with the same team, and given the shift of focus, perhaps lacking some of the expertise?)

So what we are participating in is probably pretty well what was intended. I'm labouring this point not because I want to beat the authors around the head with what I see as their failures, but because I want to understand why they made the choices they did. This is the state of the art.


(* the single "l" is correct British spelling.)

I signed up easily, and the course details were accessible and adequate. I don't think the nature of the course contract was as clear as it could have been, in terms of probable time-commitment, assessment load, and so on.

In this case, as a free non-credit-bearing demo course, to emphasise such things could be overkill, and put off some prospective participants, but I noted some anxious questions on the forums---"I'm already juggling work and single motherhood, so I can't be sure I'll get the assignments in on time--can I still sign up?" (A paraphrase of several posts.)
    [Actually--off topic--that's not a problem for the course. The applicant has clearly not understood the nature of the contract. In this case, it is simply a gift. She can take whatever she wants, and there is no obligation in return.
    (Sweeping generalisation without evidence alert) We're not very good at gifts nowadays when they are so exploited commercially as portals to bait and switch deals. Even I feel a little "ungrateful" as I critique (not the same as criticise) this course. One shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth.]
The confirmation and welcome emails were really helpful, because just as you need to know what room your course is in at college, we need to know precisely where to go (url) actually to start this course. Fortunately, online you can't be late for the first class. The introductory page is clear, welcoming, and instils confidence.

The bottom line.

It's based on video lectures. That's a very conservative approach, and I'm trying to weigh up the considerations which may have been taken into account in going down this route. But a little more detail would be appropriate for any of you who has not signed up for the course;
  • there is one lecturer (Jeremy Adelman)
  • these are not videos of live lectures (I think--there are some token gestures to the audience and a grad. assistant, but the setup is more studio than lecture theatre).
  • the lectures are broken up into 10-15 minutes segments, punctuated by "quizzes"--Adelman admits he does not like the term, but he has put out a rather good explanatory email about them, presumably in response to confusion about how many of the multiple-choice responses can be chosen. Even so, I am struck by the contrast between the pace of this presentation and that of "factual" TV, which covers material about five times as fast, although of course its aspiration is to entertain rather than educate (perhaps--bear in mind that some of the best factual programming on the BBC is supported by the Open University).
  • they are supported with minimal slides, at the rate of roughly one every three minutes. So far they are only maps and pictures--no bullet points, thank goodness. Of course, whether the absence of text-heavy slides reflects a principle about presentation, or a pragmatic acknowledgement that it's not a good idea for an international audience, (or both/neither) I don't know.
  • but--the segments are crude divisions, and there is no sign-posting of topics being addressed--other than verbally. Adelman makes an effort to re-visit his points and itemise them, but without any visual anchors. There is a handout to accompany the first lecture, but it consists solely of a list of names, locations and terms which may be unfamiliar--it gives no guidance on what to expect when.
  • this links, too, to my recognition after a while that I had no temptation to take any notes (partly a reflection of the speed of presentation--see below). One reason for taking notes in a live lecture (at least before they started to be recorded and placed on the VLE) was of course to capture this live one-off moment (at least, for the student!) This time, I knew I could re-visit any time and re-play a segment so perhaps I did not concentrate in the same way. The way in which I did concentrate, however, has swings and roundabouts. 
    • however, the absence of signposting would make it difficult for me to select a point in time to revisit the video for clarification. A continuing sub-title, or a crib-sheet handout showing at what point the lecture moves on to a different sub-topic would have facilitated such re-visiting.
  • a participant commenting on the forums thanks the lecturer for not going too fast--her first language is not English. I appreciate that, but the pace in the first lecture is turgid (Adelman promises it will accelerate shortly). That is not a critical comment aimed at the presentation, just something to bear in mind about lecturing in English to an international and multi-lingual audience.
  • Sub-titles are available, but the synch leaves something to be desired.
So what does that say about the strategy of the course? I can only make inferences, but I need more evidence...

Until later...

16 September 2012

Items to Share: 16 September

 A little thin on the ground this week--I've been working...

Education Focus
Other Business
  • The Perfectly Fried Egg (NYTimes)  Not only a load of pretentious foody bullsh**t, but up to slide five, it is the prose the rest of us have been speaking for centuries. 

A History of the World since 1300 (Coursera): Just a reminder that the MOOC has started. I'd be interested to hear from anyone taking it.  

09 September 2012

On doing a MOOC

Fifteen years ago, I worked with some cutting-edge educational technologists to devise a module on "Resource-Based Learning"  for a Master's course which I directed. I rapidly found that even with small cohorts, the time required to tutor students and join in online discussions vastly exceeded my time allowance (even not counting the initial preparation time).

Ten years ago, a colleague and I launched an online Research Methods module for another Master's in Education, but I conducted mine as a blended course, using an early version of the "flipped classroom" approach as it is now known. Worked well, and was manageable for me, even allowing for a 110-mile round trip to get to the face-to-face sessions Perhaps now we would do it with Skype or similar technology.

And I worked with the UK Open University on developing re-usable interactice "assets" which could be incorporated into online practice-oriented courses in nursing and social care.

Around the same time, I wrote these pieces (here and here) on resource-based learning. I claim a certain  degree of prescience in them. And I've got a record as a designer, author and tutor...

But a few years later, I did an online course on online tutoring, as a student, and blogged it*.

I hated it.

I admired how it had been devised, and particularly the skill and patience of the tutors, dealing with obnoxious participants such as myself. No, to be fair, I was the only obnoxious participant. (The others were, I think, pre-disposed to enjoy/like/value/endorse it, because they [or--more likely--their institutions] had paid to participate. I got it free, as a part of my employment package; it seemed curmudgeonly to turn it down, but I did not approach it with high expectations.)

At the most basic level, all I can remember about it is resenting it. There was apparently some substantive content -- but most of it was about the management of online courses which frankly doesn't have much academic hinterland, and I won't mention the set text, because it was useless. So I'm a sceptic, even a cynic about online learning. Now...

Jonathan Rees (an historian) has long been a concerned observer of online courses on his More or Less Bunk blog. But with the advent of a free CoursEra Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on World History since 1300 (AD/CE it appears, although it doesn't specify) he is signing up and planning to share his experience through the blog.

So--- Let's join in! OK, the projected time commitment may be a little onerous (but not obligatory), but there are no prerequisites and it is free.

Sign up here.

I shall particularly be interested in:
  • how much difference it makes that the course will be much more information-heavy than stuff I have done previously, and therefore probably more suited to online delivery.
  • the experience of participation and whether and how any sense of community and mutual support develops.
Incidentally, it probably makes more sense to post comments on his blog rather than this one--the bigger the community the better!

*  [1]   [2]   [3]   [4]   [5]   [6]   [X]

Items to Share; 9 September

Education Focus

Other Business

03 September 2012

On instrumental learning (pardon the digressive memoir)

I passed the local branch of a chain bookshop on Saturday, now featuring the "back to school" window display. Prominent was a "study guide" to To Kill a Mockingbird --presumably a set text again for some exam or another.

Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, is 86 and reclusive*. I wasn't surprised to see a "study guide" in the window, but it did set me thinking about what had been made of her wonderful story, whose very accessibility and gentle power has conspired to its reduction to a commodity--knowledge about it can be traded for exam credits, while the point is lost.

I'm not merely speculating here. Robert Westall was my art teacher at school. We became friends and remained so for thirty years until his death. (He was my son's godfather and I was privileged to be an executor of his will). As the link shows, he was a wonderful author of stories for children and young adults, acquiring many awards for works from his debut novel The Machine-Gunners in 1975 to posthumous publications. The Machine-Gunners was serialised on BBCtv in 1983 --and of course found its way to being a "set book" for 16+ examinations...

I don't remember when it was first set, or when the first cribs came out (for examples of current stuff go here and scroll until you get to the title--I make no comment at all on the quality of the resources offered. They are simply an accessible example of the kind of material on offer.) But I do remember discussing it with him.

I congratulated him. He'd really made it! And--since he was always something of a contrarian--I didn't really take it seriously when he said he wished it hadn't happened, and that perhaps he had a right to be consulted about it. (As far as I can remember, the first he found out about it was from his publisher or his agent, because they had been warned to increase print runs and approached about annotated editions. But then, most set authors are dead already, so...)

But his argument was persuasive. He did not want young people to see his work as "the kind of stuff they made you read at school." Once they saw it in that light, he would have lost them.

And of course he was right.

Yesterday I was in Waterstone's--the last remaining book-focused chain in the UK--and a woman approached me, holding two paperbacks, face out. "Excuse me," she said, "I'm a visiting author, and I wonder if you would be interested in these novels..." To my shame, I was rather brusque. (In the unlikely event that she reads this, I apologise. I can't identify her because Waterstone's website does not mention previous "events". Sorry!) "I don't read novels." I said.

And I don't. The last novel I read all the way through (as opposed to started and abandoned, of which there are dozens) was Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go", which remains utterly haunting, but that was about 2006.

It was studying literature at university which did it for me, despite the quality of the courses and the teaching (memories and tributes here and here). I was fed up with reading literature instrumentally --for the sake of writing an essay or taking an exam or being able to escape humiliation in a seminar discussion.

Incidentally, in those days we took "Finals" at the end of three years. If we passed "Prelims" after our second term in the first year, there was no more summative assessment until then, when our degree classification was based entirely on --in my case-- thirteen three-hour unseen examinations over three weeks. And I tripped up. On the very last exam, I committed the silliest mistake. I did not read the instructions, and I only answered three questions instead of four... I only realised in the post-exam chatter, and I was devastated. I already had my rail ticket back home for that afternoon, so I went to the station bookstall to find something totally non-literary to take my mind off self-recrimination for my stupidity which robbed me of a first-class degree (as I later discovered). I picked up a pulp science-fiction paperback by someone I'd never heard of, called Isaac Asimov. This was 1966. Not a great stylist, and not strong on character, but the stories were amazing!

It was almost a decade before I went anywhere near mainstream literary fiction again.

In the early '70s, a friend let me in on a secret. Jane Austen is funny. How had I managed to read all her novels and volumes of critical appraisal of them, and write essays about them, and miss that fundamental point? I forgave her, as it were, but I couldn't extend the pardon.

I've since read a few recent mainstream novels, not totally contaminated by the academic stance/ frame/ discourse/ lens/ perspective or whatever bullsh*t term (I use the adjective advisedly following Frankfurt 2005) is current, but I can no longer recapture the innocent suspension of disbelief which is a prerequisite of sheer enjoyment. For a while I immersed myself in science fiction and fantasy, until the academic poison spread to "genre" fiction.

Why am I telling you all this? I hear you cry.

Because studying something instrumentally is quite different from immersing oneself in it expressively. Learning something in order to achieve something else is quite different from discovering that you have incidentally acquired enormous knowledge and skill --because you were just absorbed in something for its own sake.

And that has enormous implications for those of us who presume to specify what other people should learn.

(And just for the record, this is the 700th post on this blog.)

*  The website www.harperlee.com carries a disclaimer if you dig far enough; "Please note that harperlee.com is a private website, unaffiliated with Harper Lee or her representatives. Her reps cannot be reached through this site and we cannot forward messages to them."

    02 September 2012

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