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The usefulness of useless degrees

May 14, 2013 Leave a comment

I’ve just been reading some news articles about ‘useless’ degrees. They include a two-year foundation degree in heavy metal (the music, that is) at New College Nottingham, a BA in Comedy Studies (though technically it appears to be listed as a BA in ‘Performance’), Enigmatology (i.e. puzzle setting and solving – however only one person ever graduated from the one course offered, by Indiana University in the 1970s), and assorted qualifications in areas such as puppetry, parapsychology and Viking re-enactment.

The thing I’ve been asking myself is this: in the 1980s, Thatcherite policies demanded that degrees should be ‘relevant’ to career choices and employers’ demands for skills. Various degree courses disappeared, for example language degrees in Farsi and some African languages – ironically enough leading to later problems within the intelligence community when groups speaking some of these languages came to be considered as security threats.

However, the current spread of ‘weird’ degrees isn’t all that strange. We live in a knowledge-based economy and in the UK at least, much of our economic output comprises cultural rather than physical goods. So having a supply of graduates with specific expertise in science fiction, horror, comedy, different genres of music and all the rest is very likely a good and useful thing for the economy as a whole, in addition to the ‘generic’ skills they offer in terms of academic research and practice, and the interests they offer for students. Of course these things don’t need to be learned through degree type studies, there are many other forms of learning. But there’s also no reason why they shouldn’t be degree studies if enough people want to learn in that format.

And if that isn’t a good enough argument, bear in mind that the University of Derby’s MA in Horror and Transgression, which covers diverse forms of film and literature alongside the works of writers such as Nietzsche, Bataille, Foucault, Kristeva, and Deleuze, and transgressive writers such as Burroughs, Ballard and Burgess, lists a number of possible post degree careers. Among these is public service administration. Which is as clear a sign as I can think of about what the experience of public service administration will actually be like in the future.

[Edited to add: of course there will always be a need for degrees in traditional subjects - medicine, engineering, maths, history, biology, languages, computing and the rest. But consider the needs of, say, a computer gaming company or a movie production company that needs to find a new and credible way to develop a fantasy, scifi or horror conceptual world. Consider the needs of, in fact, almost any company looking for its 'next big thing'. The people with the design and production skills, etc., are clearly necessary to that process. Some of them may even need to make puppets, re-enact Viking dramas, tell good jokes or write and perform music to get to the point at which a product is made and marketed. But no product does well unless it links with human fantasies. Successful products also need their dreamers. Postmodernity (are we still in a 'postmodern society'?) has sometimes been described as the society in which the old modernist order of narratives has been corrupted, and that's a reasonable if overly general assessment. But that makes the ability to weave old narratives and create new ones all the more significant in contemporary society. Hence the need for studies that appear niche, marginal, or just plain odd.]

Learning, humour and irony

September 23, 2012 Leave a comment

This last week I’ve been rewriting some material on sociology, which prompted me to investigate what’s available on Youtube. I was intrigued by some of the stuff I found.

Here’s one, 3 minutes or so long, on the sociology of the family for A-level students. Things I liked about it: the flat, emotionally unengaged voice of the character that keeps repeating ‘I feel your pain’; and the punchline at the end. Wonderful.

And here’s another, on homelessness and poverty. Six minutes in total, but the best bit is the cartoon at the beginning. One character argues that homeless people are real people, like you and me. And another asks, with a note of incredulity in his voice: You mean they’ve adapted? Copied our DNA?

Humour and irony as tools for learning. Excellent stuff.

The toading of Mr Bungle and why it’s still relevant

March 5, 2012 Leave a comment

It may well be a case of small things amusing small minds. But I’m midstream in the process of updating some criminology teaching materials, and it both amuses and pleases me that in a section discussing the ethics of criminal justice, I’ve legitimately been able to ask students to consider and discuss the following question:

- Do you think Mr Bungle should have been toaded? Why, or why not?

Note for those who don’t get the reference: ‘Mr Bungle’ was the username of an individual in a multi-user chatroom who committed a ‘rape’ of another character there, essentially through a series of textual descriptions of actions. This wasn’t, clearly, a ‘real’ rape of an actual person but nonetheless had a significant impact on the real person whose online identity was the target of the descriptions. It was the first time this online user community had encountered this situation and they had to create rules for how to behave in the virtual environment. And, yes, he was toaded (slang used at that time for being thrown off the site).

More information:  Dibbell, J. (1993) ‘A Rape in Cyberspace: How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit, Two Wizards, and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database Into a Society’. First published in The Village Voice, December 23, 1993; available online at Dibbell’s website. And yes, the students were supposed to read that article before answering the question.

A serious point underlies the arcane frivolity. Most of us, these days, lead at least a proportion of our lives online and some of us invest a great deal of our personal identity in our online presence and avatars, in forums and chatrooms, social networking websites, Second Life and so forth. We’re also hooked up to mobile phones, text messaging, emails and other computer-based communications. What happens over the wires and airwaves and in these virtual locations can and does have an impact on our ‘real’ selves. Ask anyone who’s been cyber-bullied, flamed or harassed online.

Of course part of the point of Second Life is that we can do things we wouldn’t necessarily want to do in our first lives, and there are people who actually seek out the role of victim in ‘nonconsensual’ sex scenarios (you can also, incidentally, be impregnated by a devil and spend the next few months being pregnant and then giving birth to demons: I’ll avoid the obvious quips about that…). However, those who don’t want and aren’t expecting online nonconsensual sex can still be distressed by the experience. Quite a lot of effort and technical advice has been expended on SL in particular to ensure users’ avatars aren’t suddenly subject to such things.

On a side note, there are also articles pointing out that a great deal of SL is depressingly like the real world. See more on this at Dangerous Ideas and the architecture blog Archinect.

However, the point underlying all this, I guess, is that humans spend a lot of time imagining things, manipulating symbols, investing them with emotional significance and incorporating them into their own identity. And when that happens, ethical problems emerge that can spill over into real life. There are some old but still interesting discussions on this in Wired and TheFWord, from 2007. And the question I posed to my students about Mr Bungle and whether he should have been toaded? That was one of the first cases where the ethics of online interaction became a widely-discussed issue.

Cafes and munches – a new strategy for education outside traditional structures?

April 9, 2011 6 comments

This is really just a brief note. The higher education sector in the UK is going through a period of more than usual austerity, and the funding of universties is about to be substantially shifted to students who will later be are faced with massively increased student loan debts.

In the face of this, part-time distance learning degrees may well become a much more viable, thinkable option for many intending students. It’s not exactly a ‘study at your own pace’ and ‘pay as you go’ model these days, because once you commit, you may be expected to complete a module within a defined period of time and complete your degree within a specified time period. That said, a degree that can be completed while working and where study materials can be delivered online may be attractive for many people.

Distance learning degrees these days aren’t the solitary pursuit they were in the past. There are online discussion forums, tutors available by email, phone and Skype, webinars, and in some cases even lab situations can be recreated in Second Life.

The book situation is easier as well, in the UK at least. Institutions offering degrees should have facilities enabling access to journals via ATHENS, and inter-library arrangements enabling students at any one institution to visit university libraries elsewhere. As many books go online, university libraries are making arrangements for online access to them. Though Google Ebooks is still in its infancy, Amazon, Alibris and other portals enable buyers and sellers of secondhand print books to connect.

What’s missing from all this is face to face human contact. And that may be the key factor that remains a barrier to distance learning. Places like the Open University have for years – decades, even – solved this by running summer schools, but if you’ve got a job and a family that’s a hell of a commitment.

There are halfway houses, though as far as I know distance learning providers thus far haven’t experimented with them or explored their possibilities.

One is the idea of the ‘munch’. Munches – informal meetings in pubs or cafes – started in the US, where they were a way for computer geeks with broadly similar interests to know that at a particular time and place every week or month, people like them would be hanging out. Just about every subculture and specialty interest you can think of has, or has had, its own set of munches, meets, moots, gatherings, community evenings, or whatever name the particular subculture wants to apply. They’re informal: one or two organisers who will show up regularly and maintain a discussion group on a social networking site, and maybe some regulars who become sociability stars, paying specific attention to new attendees and performing a ‘meet and greet’ function. For those in distance learning, the likelihood that they’d find someone else studying the same programme as them in the same place is perhaps quite low, but the likelihood they’ll find others facing the same issues and questions is high – and the simple fact of knowing that there are other people around them who are also involved in the same activity is often a support in itself.

Another is the idea of the informal university. When I was a student, which is now some years in the past, there were spasmodic, occasional ‘pub universities’ in which someone or some group made an informal arrangement to run a seminar series in the back room of a pub. It was, perhaps, the French who developed this idea most fully with the Café Scientifique and Café Culturel (NB these are UK sites and the latter is a link to one near me – there doesn’t seem to be a specific national website for Cafe Culturel that works. But here’s a regional one for the northeast of England). These run, not just in France but the UK and many other places as well, and usually comprise a seminar series run in a café once a month. Often the scientifique and culturel – and maybe philosophique and politique as well – are run by the same group of people at the same place, at different times.

There are two places near me that run such events though they seem at the moment not to be as well publicised as I think they should be. In fact there appear to be around 60 running up and down the UK at the moment. Many of the speakers are invited lecturers from local universities, and often the topics are those of current interest that have attracted some media attention. Again, where these exist they’d be an ideal place for distance learning students to plug into and meet people who, again, may not have precisely the same interests as them but would certainly be able to hold up their end of an academic conversation and be interested in what other academics/students are doing.

So what can I say? While these types of events, whether munches or cafes, have historically been dependant on individuals taking informal initiatives, maybe round about now, when more traditional education is feeling the pinch, is the time for distance learning providers to put a bit of institutional support behind these things. They’re largely run at already-existing venues, glad to support them because they bring in people who buy drinks and food. Their expenses are covered from a small entrance fee, and they’re run by volunteers. What they need, really, is simply public statements of support, advertising on student materials and institutional websites, and maybe a little seedcorn money or expenses for volunteers would come in handy. The return might even be better support for existing students and maybe even some new ones. How about it?

Not letting meaning get in the way…

February 19, 2011 6 comments

According to this story on the BBC, ‘A number of made-up words such as “koob” or “zort” are to be included in the government’s planned new reading test for six-year-olds in England. The idea has drawn criticism from literary experts who say the approach will confuse those beginning to read. The UK Literacy Association said the plan was “bonkers” as the purpose of reading was to understand meaning. The government said non-words were being included to check pupils’ ability to decode words using phonics.’

Apparently “The test is trying to control all the different variables so that things like meaning don’t get in the way.”

Now Urban Dictionary may not be the most authoritative source, since it includes many slang words that are coined and used by small coteries of American teenagers. But that said:

Koob (verb): Happens whilst you are consuming something, when you get an overwhelming feeling that you don’t want to finish what you started, but you do anyway for some reason.

Alternatively, as a noun: ‘A person who is often intelligent but showing a level of intelligence severley [sic] below an average level.’

Zort: four meanings of which one is an acronym (Zombie Outbreak Resistance Tactician); one is ‘Chicago American-Italian slang for money’; one relates to a character in the World of Warcraft game, and one… let’s just say it would appear out of place in a test for six year-olds.

Alternatively, if the real intention is to test whether kids can read without things like meaning getting in the way – is this really a skill we want to encourage? Don’t we already have enough people who can write and talk without meaning getting in the way? What do we call those people? Oh, I remember – koobs. Or politicians.

Maybe the entire plan was thought up by a vindictive civil servant who wanted to find new and interesting ways to embarrass ministers? In many ways that would be the most charitable explanation.

[Edited to add] – koob is also a spelling variant of kubb, a lawn game that originated in Sweden. The rules are here.

The thing is, almost any collection of consonants and vowels that’s vaguely capable of being pronounced will either be a word in some slang or dialect, or will become so as soon as it’s created. Language is dynamic like that. I’d think since ‘koob’ and ‘zort’ have been proposed for a reading test, either can now be defined – indeed in future may be defined in dictionaries – as ‘(noun) a word coined by a government minister, official or advisor that is deliberately intended to be vague or meaningless’. They might then go on to cite the term ‘Big Society’ as an example of a koob.

Oh, and how many mothers would be happy to explain the fourth meaning of ‘zort’ to their six year-old?

Learning and knowledge, a never-ending challenge

February 17, 2011 4 comments

I’ve been thinking about ‘knowledge’ a bit recently. My interest in this topic was piqued by someone posing the question ‘how do students decide what is and isn’t relevant for them to know?’

For example, in the social sciences and humanities, while there will be a ‘core’ of material that we expect students to have some mastery of, there’s also a mass of material that might be more or less interesting or relevant, depending on students’ own interests, backgrounds, self-identities, ambitions, aspirations, and so on. In a lecture or seminar situation, incidental stuff may also affect learning – the personality of the lecturer, the use of particular diagrams, Powerpoint vs whiteboard, other students, etc. In a distance learning situation incidental stuff will also be important and probably less controllable – the demands of family, work, everyday routines such as commuting and supermarket shopping and cooking, and so forth.

And for me, there are the more philosophical questions to address here as well – what is ‘knowledge’? can we distinguish ‘knowledge’ from ‘opinion’ or ‘judgement’? how is it possible to make choices about what might or might not be ‘relevant’ knowledge (and to what) in advance of actually knowing the stuff?

I can’t offer good, definitive answers in a short(ish) blog. But here are some thoughts.

Two kinds of knowledge?

First, there’s a very interesting piece in the Huffington Post, by Stephen Downes: ‘Two Kinds of Knowledge‘ (Nov 18, 2010). Headline details: if you want people to follow rules, focus on ‘repetition of the symbols and codes that constitute explicit knowledge’; but if you want people to learn, it’s necessary to have them understand a wider range of concepts, skills, procedures, and things that underlie, generate, or enable people to use the knowledge they acquire. Think of it in the context of, say, learning another language. It’s not just a case of getting students to learn phrases by rote, it’s a case of getting them to a point where they can hold a conversation.

In doing this, teachers basically produce artefacts. Exhibits. They might be tables, diagrams, charts, bullet point lists, photos. In medical school, maybe things like bodies for dissection. In architecture or surveying or building, bits of buildings. I used to know someone who taught surveying: in one of his classes he brought in a load of bricks of different styles and periods to pass around and explain their different properties.

The world, however, is more full of artefacts than any classroom can be. And people will respond to artefacts, in or out of the classroom or lecture theatre, with differing levels of interest depending on a huge range of factors. Downes argues that as teachers we need to be aware of this and be aware that students are learning from everything around them, not just the things we exhibit. How we do that, exactly, remains an open question.

More kinds of knowledge?

You’ll note that Downes relies on a simple distinction between explicit and tacit knowledge. This can be a useful distinction but it’s hardly an absolute one.

‘Explicit’ means shareable in some form – words, equations, formulae, manuals, recipes or whatever. It also tends to mean that things ‘mean what they say’ and ‘what you see is what you get’. You may need some prior specialist knowledge to decode the information (being able to read French to read a manual in French, for example, or understanding that an arrangement of black and white squares is a QR code and having the means to read it). ‘Tacit’ knowledge is not so easiy visible or capable of being articulated. It may be a personal insight, the intuitive ‘how to’ knowledge of a musician or a craftsman, the ‘coding’ of a particular world-view in a painting, or even how one can walk into a bar and read the mood of the people there.

We all rely on some level of tacit knowledge, in pretty much any situation. Often the business of learning a skill set, as in an apprenticeship or an internship, involves not just learning the explicit material but being exposed to situations where one can ‘absorb’ relevant tacit knowledge in a relatively unstructured way through a series of informal social interactions.

By way of an example, many years ago I was interviewing some police officers in a police station canteen when news came over the TV in the corner of the room about a police operation that had resulted in an apparently innocent man being shot. The details were sketchy, but their reactions to this headline and their speedy construction of a scenario of what ‘must have happened’, relying on their own tacit knowledge of police procedures and ‘working culture’, revealed more relevant material about the (very different) topic I was actually researching than any of my interview questions did.

Is there knowledge that is neither explicit nor tacit? There’s certainly plenty of knowledge that’s only ‘explicit’ if you’ve had several years of the relevant training. There’s some permeability of the boundary – a lot of psychology and some sociology is about exploring how people construct, negotiate, interpret and use tacit knowledge, and those explorations are about creating an explicit, formal or formulaic knowledge of ‘tacit knowledge’ in particular situations.

That said, there may be some advantages in recognising the broad distinction and also the complexity of real life  – where one might have layers of knowledge, such as explicit sociological knowledge of the tacit knowledge that actors in a particular situation use in order to manipulate what is conventionally described as the explicit knowledge applied in that situation. This might be true when looking at psychological/sociological analyses of scientific research, medical decision-making, or the strategies of prosecution and defence in a court case. I’m thinking here – certainly in sociology – of the kinds of areas investigated in symbolic interaction and ethnomethdology.

So in summary, the idea of explicit vs tacit knowledge itself requires some tacit knowledge for one to be able to use it properly… but then recursive and self-referential properties do tend to be normal and natural when we start looking at this stuff seriously. Conclusion, for teachers and learners? Just be aware that whatever you’re teaching or learning will have this recursive element to it. You can never say everything you want to say in so many words. It’s the stuff that’s left unsaid that may be the most interesting, and/or the most problematic.

I could go on and describe three or four other categorisations of knowledge, but there’s not a lot of point because they have the same rather ambivalent and vague characteristics.

Three types of knowledge?

There’s another categorisation of knowledge that I’ve found useful, and maybe it’s a good one to end with. It’s simple, slightly humorous, but with a very real and important point to it.

The three fundamental catagories of information are: (1) the shit you know, (2) the shit you know you don’t know, and (3) the shit you don’t know you don’t know. In any given situation you can assume you know about 5% of what’s potentially relevant. The stuff you know you don’t know, and think it would be a good idea to get a handle on, is probably 10% of what’s relevant. And that means about 85% of what’s potentially relevant to a situation is stuff you don’t even know exists. (Are those percentages accurate? I don’t know. Do they look about right to you? Treat them as symbolic rather than real!)

The only way to handle this situation is to (1) be open about the fact that you’re never going to know as much as you should (2) work diligently to get a handle on the stuff you know you don’t yet know, and (3) remain open, all eyes and ears, all communication channels open, to see if you can detect the stuff you never even dreamed could be important – then at least you’re going to have a list of more stuff you’ll need to find out about. It will be an ever growing list. A life’s work, or more. But maybe that’s what learning is.

Study guides and ‘entertainment’

January 18, 2011 2 comments

I had a conversation over the weekend with a singer, and we were talking about parallels between the entertainment business and teaching.

Her job is to get out on a stage and make people look at her and listen to her. In the days when I was doing actual lecturing, I’d walk into a lecture hall and there might be 300 students – criminology is a popular subject – waiting to be intormed, but also expecting in some measure to be entertained. Otherwise their attention would wander, they’d whisper to each other or fall asleep, or whatever. And yes, I was once a student and I did that too… The most important theoretical revelations and research findings will bypass students unless they’re presented in a way that grabs their attention.

Face-to-face with students as a lecturer, you develop tricks to keep people’s attention.  The usual strategies, or my usual strategies anyway, included the classic formula of ‘say what you’re going to say; say it; then summarise it’ which simultaneously allowed me to keep a fast pace because my audience knew where the lecture was going; liberal use of overhead projection, including humorous material such as cartoons as well as charts, graphs and ‘academic’ stuff; involving students with opinion polls based on a show of hands, etc., and using topical real-world illustrations (for example, in lectures on white collar crime I had actual examples of letter fraud emails I’d received).

The purpose of the ‘performance’ was to make what I’d taught memorable, because students would tag the content to a phrase, a joke, an image, an illustration – something, at any rate, that would stick in their memory and trigger that academic content when they thought about it. It’s almost parallel, when I think about it, to the way any professional entertainer (a standup comedian?) operates, and with some elements of the kinds of techniques you might expect in hypnotherapy, or in some forms of counselling. A strange mix, but there you go.

However, in distance learning things are a little different.

Distance learning can be delivered in a variety of ways: printed or downloadable study guides, email support, audio and video, phone conversations, Skype tutorials and seminars. But whatever the methods, there isn’t the same level of immediacy, the same sense of ‘teaching as performance’, the ability to engage with a student ‘audience’ in quite the same way.

The result is that students need to be ‘entertained’ in a rather different way. This is, frankly, hard. Writing a study guide is simply not the same as writing an academic text. Arguably it’s a little like writing a textbook, though a study guide will typically discuss and direct students to textbook readings, perhaps ask them to compare accounts in different textbooks, and it will be more focussed on the specific demands of a particular course or module. It’s also somewhat like writing popular journalism, in that it needs to have the readability that good journalists accomplish, though it may also try to tell a more complex story than a lot of journalism does.

I don’t have any world-shattering revelations about the art or science of writing study guides. They have to follow what we think are established patterns of learning (PQ4R, for example). They need to be structured in terms of the classic overview/body content/summary format that allows readers to navigate easily through written work. But that said, it’s often useful to try to engage students with:

  • The use of ‘lighter’ moments with some wit and humour.
  • The use of relevant examples and illustrations – often with links to stable URLs that will allow students to go off and explore in useful directions. Preferably some of these are to video or audio content.
  • Content that puts the reader ‘into the situation’, understanding more of the emotions and motives that might be present in the situation or context they’re studying.
  • The use of some more light-hearted examples – again, plenty of content available on the web (though check for permissions and rights to include them, or just cite URLs!)
  • Challenges – not necessarily formal ‘exercises’ or ‘activities’ but for example posing questions in different ways and looking at what assumptions and values might be behind different ways of asking questions.

The key things, though, will be:

  • clarity of writing;
  • the ability to give readers mental images that should stay with them over time and be attached to particular pieces of knowledge, argument or critical ability; and
  • the ability to make students interested enough in what they’re reading that they want to find out more, to go beyond the confines of the study guide and explore independently.

The more I get involved in distance learning, the more I consider it a technical speciality in its own right, and an arcane art!

This is, I guess, a fairly general post and I might add some more thoughts when I’ve cogitated more…

 

Distance and blended learning – the way forward

December 9, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking about the whole idea of ‘distance learning’ and ‘blended learning’ a great deal more of late. Distance learning is where you sit at home and study materials come to you in the post, or these days increasingly by email. Blended learning is the new big thing, and involves a mix of distance learning and some face-to-face contact.

My principal conclusion is this: the difference between on-site learning and distance learning is really a question of access to the library and to labs, and these are things that can be fixed in a blended learning model with a little ingenuity and institutional collaboration.

This is my reasoning:

In the dim, distant past I was a student. At the beginning of a ‘term’ (like a semester except there were three of them in a year) I’d turn up at the first lecture for each of my ‘courses’ (this was pre-modularisation). I’d get a reading list and details of tutorial and seminar groups. However, in the humanities and social sciences there weren’t a whole lot of lectures, seminars and tutorials – the amount of time I was supposed to attend some place at a given time typically averaged around six hours a week. The rest of the time I spent in the library, reading or investigating what else might be there that was more interesting. Or I was drinking coffee and debating stuff with other people on the course.

This is the thing about being a ‘full time’ student on a campus: what’s full time about it isn’t the number of contact hours but the fact that you have the opportunity to read a lot and debate a lot. The library is the critical part of the process.

If the lectures had been available as videos or podcasts I could have listened to them when I felt the need, and maybe gone back to them later on as well – it would have been a great asset. Tutorials and seminars were generally more interesting if I’d had a chance to read papers in advance and make notes for discussion, but if we’d had the internet in those days it would have been as good, or even better, to have used a discussion board. Some of my best learning experiences were actually casual one-on-one discussions with lecturers, and though I valued the face-time, emails and phone calls would have worked pretty much as effectively. If e-learning had been available when I was a student, apart from wanting to live independently from my parents (and find a way not to have a job!) I could happily have commuted between working via the internet at home and exploring the university library for stuff that piqued by curiosity and interest – mostly, though not exclusively, course related. That’s the beauty of libraries, I find – those opportunistic, haphazard stumbling across books you’d never have found through an internet search but somehow turn out to be crucial to your learning.

Moreover, in a strange reversal, in the institutions I’m working with, it seems full-time students are availing themselves of exactly the same VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments) that are accessible to the distance learning students, and find them very convenient ways of learning. These days, your average VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) has downloadable course content, announcements, a calendar of events, some system for chat/discussion boards/email, lists of useful URLs, and stuff related to assessment (e.g. arrangements to submit coursework via Turnitin).

The only parts of the ‘student learning experience’ that a VLE can’t re-create, and I’d suggest the only part that distance learning misses out on, is the physicality of going to a library and investigating what’s on the shelves, skim-reading and checking a wide range of stuff to determine what’s going to be useful.

The nearest you’re likely to get to that is a library pass to your local university library, reading articles online via ATHENS or browsing books via Google Books, usually with critical bits missing.

Science subjects are different, I know, because of the commitment to hours working in labs etc. Some universities have developed fully-equipped experimental labs in Second Life primarily for distance learning students (though I’d wager full-time students use them as well) but again, I don’t imagine you get the same level of physicality you’d get in a real lab. I don’t, for example, imagine it would replicate a lot of the feelings, emotions and muscle-based sense of the tedious processes of creating an experiment, or building a device of some kind, in real time and with other people you converse with while you’re doing it.

The library and the lab experiences are, though, things that can be somewhat fixed in a blended learning model. University libraries have reciprocal reading (though not lending) facilities and lab sessions may need to be organised say at weekends to complement what can be done in Second Life. So my bottom line on this is: blended learning is going to be the big way forward.

For universities, I think, the major issue is going to be capturing teaching in forms that enable it to be available on the web, whether as PDFs, PowerPoint presentations, podcasts, or short videos (think of the amount of stuff available now on Ted.com, for example).

Finally, here are some useful reference materials:

Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration – I was particularly struck by the article ‘Where’s Walter?’ by Maryann Lamer, about student retention. I’m writing this from memory but the key point seems to be that these days people have an expectation that any query they have will be answered really quickly, so in distance learning, regular communication and speedy replies to queries are a must.

The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning

International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning – I was particularly taken by ‘Improving the Service Quality of Distance Education’ by Rui-Ting Huang (May 2007) – not because of the main argument but its attempt to describe different distance learning structures.

Electronic Journal of e-Learning – there’s a very useful article in Vol 6 issue 3, ‘Navigating the e-Learning Terrain: Aligning Technology, Pedagogy and Context’ by Mandia Mentis. Also in Vol 6 issue 2, Apr 2008, there’s ‘Engaging the YouTube Google-Eyed Generation: Strategies for Using Web 2.0 in Teaching and Learning’ by Peter Duffy – when I first read this I thought it posed challenging ideas for future development of distance learning, but a lot of them have come to pass already.

That’s enough educative stuff for now. I’ll do a few more light-hearted posts before hitting you with any serious stuff again.

Effective study techniques

December 5, 2010 2 comments

Acronyms for effective learning

This post is about effective learning. How can you learn stuff more effectively?

I’ve never been keen on acronyms and jargon-based abbreviations. Maybe I just don’t remember them very well. Maybe a lot of them just wrap up the latest management technique in some flash nonense word. But here are some acronyms I do remember, because they’re about how to learn effectively.

Effective learning is learning that involves, and supports, critical thinking: questioning evidence, assessing its strength, comparing and contrasting arguments to identify strengths and weaknesses, etc. The methods below are intended to help you think critically. If you’re read my previous post about learning styles, bear in mind that the strategies below will work with all learning styles and most kinds of material.

The strategies were developed for studying written material but should work with anything – if you’re looking at a DVD or PowerPoint presentation, remember DVDs usually have chapters in the menu (and if not, use the fast-forward button) while PowerPoint enables you to scroll through, scroll back, look at all the pages on one screen, etc. to get a sense of the material as a whole.

PQ4R

PQ4R summarises the steps people typically take in learning effectively. It comes from Thomas and Robinson (1972). It stands for:

  • Preview – with any learning materials, start with the highest-level headings and any text that is emphasised – e.g. bullet points or bold text. These should give you an idea of structure and key topics or concepts. They might be chapter headings, introductory material, lists of key points, executive summaries, etc. People who start this way understand the structure and organisation of what they’re reading and tend to have better recall of it later.
  • Question – the preview will (or should) raise questions in your mind. These might be technical (‘how did they define this concept?’ or ‘what is the difference between a Type 212 valve and a Type 312 valve?’), or more general (‘how do EU fishing policies affect the price of fish?’). Or maybe you’re reading something because you already have questions in your mind. A random example of a question might be this: a book on my desk has a section headed ‘Rough sleepers and the hidden homeless’. What do these terms mean? Do ‘rough sleepers’ and the ‘hidden homeless’ between them include all types of homelesness? You get the idea. In general terms, reading with questions in mind is claimed to roughly double the amount of material you will be able to recall after reading a report, book or other text. Useful questions tend to be ones that ask who, what, why, how, where.
  • Read – when you read,  look for answers to your questions. Also make notes of anything you regard as key points, concepts, phrases, quotes etc. Writing notes improves the amount of information you retain. More notes does not equal better notes – try to capture what you see as the essential details in as clear a way as possible.
  • Reflect – spend time thinking about the material. Does it relate to other knowledge you have? Transform the way you think about a topic? Can you use the information in a practical way?
  • Recite – try to put key points and arguments in your own words. Writing about what you’ve read, or discussing it with others, will make you do that.
  • Review – this is a form of self-testing. Invent questions and try to answer them. Have other people ask you questions about the topic you’ve been reading about and see if you can remember points that answer their questions.

Reference:

Thomas, E. L. and Robinson, H. A. (1972) Improving Reading in Every Class: A sourcebook for teachers.  Boston: Allyn & Bacon

More info:

Susan Bovair at Mindspring

SQ3R

You can think of SQ3R as the forerunner to PQ4R. It was developed in 1946 by Francis Pleasant Robinson and based on earlier, 1930s, research on school students. His book, Effective Study, went through four editions of which the last was in 1970.

The difference between PQ4R and SQ3R is that while the four Rs in the former are ‘read, reflect, recite, review’, there were only three Rs in SQ3R – ‘read, recite, review’, though the ‘recite’ stage arguably covers more ground.

  • Survey (or Skim) – look at major topics and structure of the material through headings, sub-headings and any other outstanding features in the text. The same as ‘Preview’ in PQ4R.
  • Question – this is a little more content-focused than PQ4R since the questions Robinson suggests are along the lines of ‘What is chapter X about?’ and ‘What question does this chapter answer?’, though he also mentions questions that relate the material to your personal experience – e.g. ‘How can this material help me?’ Again, this stage includes the technique of turning headings and other emphasised material into questions as discussed above with PQ4R.
  • Read – reading is done only once you have acquainted yourself with the major topics and organisation of the material and identified questions (S and Q above).
  • Recite (also wRite and/or Recall) – identify answers to the questions raised in the Q step above. Again, note-taking and discussion is important to aid recall.
  • Review – self-test in relation to the questions and notes from earlier stages. Recalling key phrases and revising any that have been forgotten is highly recommended.

Reference:

Robinson, F. P. (1970). Effective Study (4th edition). New York: Harper & Row.

PQRST

Perhaps the easiest acronym to remember, because the letters are sequential in the alphabet, this method varies slightly from the others in that it is designed to be used as a revision aid when the material studied will be examined in a test. If the test concerns a number of large topics – which would be the case in, say, criminology where many exams address quite large and wide-ranging topics or policy issues – you may need to repeat the sequence over several times, once for each of the topic areas.

  • Preview – look at the selected topic; the major heads and subheads in your materials, bullet point lists, etc.
  • Question – identify the ‘key’ question areas, debates and issues within the topic. Develop questions based on these.
  • Read – read through reference materials, study guides, your notes etc. on the topic and identify what information best relates to each question you have chosen.
  • Summary – summarize the available information. Preferably this is done through developing your own summary methods. These might be bullet point lists, perhaps using a mnemonic that aids memory; for example functionalist approaches in sociology can often be reduced to GAIL – Goal setting, Adaptation, Integration, Latency). Equally importantly information can be summarised in diagrams (spider, flowchart, matrix, pyramid, Venn…). Some sources suggest saying the summaries out loud, maybe to another person. Some people find audio helpful, e.g. recording summaries for later playback.
  • Test – answer the questions from the question step above as fully as possible, perhaps in the form of a self-set mock exam that can be reviewed later. This can also help avoid diversions, irrelevant material, inadvertent changes of subject, ‘blind alleys’ etc.

KWL

This is a simple table that enables you to identify where you are and what next steps you need to take in learning. It is often useful for brainstorming in small groups, or to address specific problems. It is also useful when starting a new reading, usually at the point that you have completed the P stage of PQ4R or the S stage of SQ3R, when it becomes an aid to developing questions in the Q stage of either model. It was first developed by Donna Ogle (1986).

  • Know – what do you know? Just list keywords, tags, topic areas, questions that have been answered. This is intended to cerate some engagement with the topic and develop ideas about how the new material might be relevant to prior learning, motivations etc.
  • What (or Want) – what do you want to know? Based on the K part of the cycle, what are the next steps to tackle? This set of points is essentially an agenda for what questions to tackle next.
  • Learned – what have you learned? Complete this step to summarise what you found out from working through the questions in the W stage.

Teachers, trainers and tutors can use this model to drive how they tackle each stage of a training course or educational programme and modify their approach to address questions students want to cover.

Reference:

Ogle, D.M. (1986). K-W-L: A teaching model that develops active reading of expository text. Reading Teacher, 39, 564-570

WTF

An abbreviation you might see in your notes – often with a question mark or exclamation mark after it – against material you haven’t understood. Following the PQ4R, SQ3R, PQRST or KWL strategies will minimise the likelihood of you writing WTF in your notes!

More info on all strategies discussed is at the Study Guides and Strategies website.

Learning styles – what works best for you?

December 3, 2010 Leave a comment
Learning style header image

What's your learning style?

I’ve noticed people coming to this blog through searches about learning styles, so I thought it would be worth writing specifically about them.

The comments below can be applied to situations as diverse as planning a new diet or slimming, learning rock climbing, starting a new job, studying for a degree or writing a novel.

How you learn best is influenced by different factors. Some are specific to the situation. If you want to learn rock climbing, the best way to do it is to climb a rockface, as part of a group, with an instructor – there isn’t really any other way. Some, however, are specific to you. These might include your personality, strengths, resources, prior skills and so on, but also your motivations and aspirations.

In addition, you’re likely to find that learning is a process and you learn different parts of a new skill, technique, job, etc. in different ways.

There are half a dozen ways to describe learning styles and I’ll mention two below. Don’t think of them as worlds apart, because they’re not. They’re just two out of several more or less similar ways to describe the same basic issues and processes. If you want to see a longer list, have a look at the Rapidbi website, or this article on Wikispaces. It’s important, though, to appreciate that what descriptions of learning styles generally do is identify two things at the same time:

  • the learning style you as a learner may be most comfortable with, and
  • the ‘learning cycle’ as a whole, which usually involves more than one style as the nature of learning changes from initial interest to figuring out specific problems and mastering different sets of skills as you work through a new topic.

Honey and Mumford

The best known description of learning styles is by Honey and Mumford. They point out that learning takes place in a cycle, but most people prefer one part of the cycle to others and work best when they’re at that point. The cycle looks like this:

Honey and Mumford learning cycle

Honey and Mumford learning cycle

No one learns exclusively in one style but depending on which part of the cycle you find easiest to handle, you may be:

  • Activist – oriented to immediate tasks, works flexibly but may not think about future consequences and may be self-centred. Probably learns best by practical experimentation and experience, e.g. as an assistant or apprentice.
  • Reflector – observes and collects information before acting, acts cautiously and keeps the ‘bigger picture’ in mind. Probably learns best through individual research.
  • Theorist – works logically, in an ordered sequence, builds information into a theoretical or rational structure. Works best on the basis of principles, models and systems. Probably learns best through structured interaction, e.g. a training course.
  • Pragmatist – deals with immediate issues, is ‘hands on’ and wants to experiment. Enjoys applying theory to practice. Probably learns best by doing the job, but with a mentor.

Although you may be able to identify your own ‘style’ from this list, Honey and Mumford have questionnaires you can complete that will tell you with more certainty which style (or sometimes styles, plural) you are most comfortable with.

Knowing your preferred learning style helps you because it gives you self-knowledge of the kinds of situations in which you learn best and most quickly, and you can use that knowledge to get the best out of yourself. For example if you’re not confident with individual research, find someone you can discuss it with; if you learn best with hands-on experience and are on a training course, explain this to the trainers and ask if there are any activities they can build into the course to help you.

While most people prefer one style, remember that your preference may change depending on what you’re learning. For example many people find that legal issues are best dealt with in a structured ‘theorist’ way, but computer work is better if learned in a hands-on ‘activist’ way.

The 4MAT model

Honey and Mumford are popular, but there are other descriptions as well. Bernice McCarthy (the 4MAT model) proposed four learning styles that are slightly different to the Honey/Mumford ones:

  • Type 1: Innovative Learners – need to have reasons for learning that connect with the individual’s motivations and how the learning will be useful. Good methods for learning with this type include workshops, co-operative exercises, brainstorming, and anything that enables the learner to understand how new information fits in with, and can be used in conjuction. with some practical tasks they undertake.
  • Type 2: Analytic Learners – interested in deeper understanding of concepts and processes. Many different learning strategies will work, but preferably a mix of different ones – lectures, independent study, data analysis, seminar type scenarios where they can see experts discuss relevant topics etc.
  • Type 3: Common Sense Learners – interested in how to use information in a practical way. Best approaches are hands-on, learning on the job and learning to resolve issues/problems as they crop up.
  • Type 4: Dynamic Learners – independent and self-directed learning, often based on their own curiosity and instincts. Almost by definition this type of learning is individual and independent, and again a mix of different types of input will be stimulating.

Again, while people have their preferred style, all four parts together form a learning cycle that moves through:

  • Meaning – ‘why’ questions. Understanding the significance of a topic.
  • Concepts – ‘what’ questions. Finding ways to gather and analyse information.
  • Skills – ‘how’ questions. Learning practical ways to work in a situation, influence outcomes etc.
  • Adaptations – ‘what if’ questions. Refining understanding and looking e.g. at how different decisions/factors/resources can impact on a situation.

McCarthy has a good video presentation of this cycle and what the different sections involve.

You’ll note that she orders the sequence a little differently to Honey and Mumford. I’ve never regarded the difference as important, though, because people will want to jump into studying a topic for a variety of reasons: curiosity or academic interest, ‘need to know’ because they’ve just started working in the area, reflecting on being in an area and wanting to develop knowledge of the bigger picture, etc. The reason will influence which part of the cycle you’re likely to start on. Where you start is less important than completing the different stages of the cycle.

As with Honey and Mumford, the 4MAT model implies that while you may have a preferred style, you need to recognise what part of the cycle you are in and find appropriate ways of addressing it. If you’re taking a training course, discussion with the trainer should be a good way to do this. If you’re in a job, you can talk to co-workers, find out what training is available, or start investigating issues independently (online, libraries, etc.). And if you’re just curious, you can get a long way through independent study but at some point will need to connect with others who are also studying it, teaching it or working in a relevant area.

Trainers, meanwhile, should recognise it is their responsibility to take account of students’ learning styles and the type of material they are trying to convey, and use appropriate methods at each stage of the cycle.

Next

The next blog will cover some related but rather cryptic topics – SQ3R and PQ4R.

Reference

Honey, P. and Mumford, A. (2000). The Learning Styles Helper’s Guide. Maidenhead: Peter Honey Publications.

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