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Discourses about homelessness

October 6, 2012 Leave a comment

I’ve lately been working on materials on the sociology of homelessness, in which context I came across this very wonderful YouTube clip.

The first segment is done cartoon style. In summary, the chair of a town council meeting says ‘Homeless people have been sprouting up all over the place – what can we do about it?’ Someone suggests giving them designer sleeping bags so they don’t look so untidy (I don’t think they suggest funding it through placing advertising on the bags – I think I heard that as a real suggestion in a real meeting at some time!). Eventually someone makes a liberal stand: ‘The homeless aren’t monsters. They’re people, like you and me!’

And the response? ‘You mean they’ve adapted? Copied our DNA?

‘Nuff said.

 

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?

Blogging and not blogging

March 11, 2011 6 comments

When I first got into the blogging thing, I found some places that gave advice on the whole business of ‘successful’ blogging. The tips included:

  • write several pillar articles – tutorials that offer useful advice or reference material.
  • write a blog post every day (and keyword/tag them well).
  • comment on other people’s posts.
  • link/trackback to other posts/websites when you refer to them.
  • encourage comments.

There was more, about getting onto blog carnivals, getting listed on blog listings, sending posts out to be used as ezine articles and such, but that was the top and bottom of it.

And, of course, I follow all this advice fitfully – there are probably four of five ‘pillar’ articles on here, mostly concerned with e-learning, written over a period of close to a year. And I certainly don’t post every day.

Mostly I post when: I have something to brag about; one of my friends has done something I want to publicise (which reminds me, Psy-tek has just composed and recorded two tracks if anyone wants to license their use); something interesting or humorous happened; or something has caught my eye, often an obscure or offbeat thing on a news report.

Mostly, though, I don’t post when nothing much has happened, or when I’m busy. I have a life. It may not be much of a life, but at any one point I probably have some distance learning material to write or update, some student work to assess, half a dozen stories in various states of completion that I may or may not want to submit anywhere straightaway because I have some longer-range plans, and ‘just normal everyday stuff’ that always seems to take a lot longer to accomplish than I think it’s going to. Plus, of course, there are occasional points when I’m actually away for a few days.

So basically, if there’s nothing new on my blog it probably means (a) I have a deadline to finish distance learning materials or mark student work, or (b) I’m on a roll with the writing and managing 1500+ words a day. That may not be a lot by some people’s lights – quite a few of the writers I know on here easily do double that, but it seems to be about my limit. All I can say is spending a couple of hours hung up on how to phrase a particular sentence does seem to mean I don’t need to spend ages rewriting and editing at a later stage!

For the last week or so the answer has been (b). In addition to the stuff I’ve been writing, late last night I came across a wonderfully surreal passage in a Thomas Pynchon novel that set me on a line of thought and by this morning it had become the solution to a plot problem in a piece I started writing in late 2009 but that hung fire for about a year because I didn’t have a way to develop the story. And now I do.

However, it will have to wait because right now the answer is (a): after a long lull, my email has suddenly filled up with student papers for assessment. So I’ll stop now…

Apparently you’re supposed to end with a question to encourage comments. Here’s two for the price of one. What, if anything, stops you from blogging? What do you see as a mark of ‘success’ in a blog?

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.

Ionesco and me: the quest for meaning

January 22, 2011 1 comment

Eugène Ionesco (born Eugen Ionescu, 1909-1994), was a Romanian/French playwright, known particularly for his 1948 play ‘The Bald Soprano’ (La Cantatrice Chauve).

Wikipedia describes the background to his writing of the play, which came about from his experience of learning English:

At the age of 40 he decided to learn English using the Assimil method, conscientiously copying whole sentences in order to memorize them. Re-reading them, he began to feel that he was not learning English, rather he was discovering some astonishing truths such as the fact that there are seven days in a week, that the ceiling is up and the floor is down; things which he already knew, but which suddenly struck him as being as stupefying as they were indisputably true.

This feeling only intensified with the introduction in later lessons of the characters known as “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”. To his astonishment, Mrs. Smith informed her husband that they had several children, that they lived in the vicinity of London, that their name was Smith, that Mr. Smith was a clerk, and that they had a servant, Mary, who was English like themselves. What was remarkable about Mrs. Smith, he thought, was her eminently methodical procedure in her quest for truth. For Ionesco, the clichés and truisms of the conversation primer disintegrated into wild caricature and parody with language itself disintegrating into disjointed fragments of words.

I came across this Wikipedia entry for essentially random reasons while researching something else. But it triggered a memory. A little over 20 years ago I started to learn German, using a series of workbooks with audio tapes. I ended up speaking a reasonable amount of German though these days I probably couldn’t do more than order a coffee or buy a train ticket.

The relevant thing is, though, that the workbook and tapes started with a German family – father, mother, son and daughter – who were returning to Germany after many years in Argentina. They rented an apartment, went to the shops, bought stuff and went to tourist locations. I don’t remember them having any visible means of income. There wasn’t any reason given as to why they’d returned to Germany, or what their plans were. Similarly, when their ‘uncle’ who was an ‘engineer’ arrived to visit them, it looked quite suspicious. Whose uncle was he, exactly? Since he was an engineer, that gave him licence to look at architecture, railways, and other facilities, but there was no indication of why he might have been interested in those things. Also, he had a number of packages in his luggage that weren’t easily explained.

So what was going on?

My imagination started to fill in the gaps. The parents might have been war criminals who’d emigrated to Argentina and lived a double life. Or they might have been part of some organised crime crime group, or terrorists. I was, after all, listening to the tapes only a few years after the Red Army Faction and the Baader-Meinhof group, while there were also stories circulating at that time about attempts to recover lost artworks looted by the Nazis.

So, I thought, they were returning to Germany with some nefarious scheme in mind. The fact they were a ‘family’ was just a cover, and they had to keep reminding each other of everyday details in order to keep their story consistent. The uncle was probably a minder, or handler, or courier, there to deliver items or have some part in whatever secret plot they were involved in.

And so it went on. My fantasy became far more elaborate than this and filled in many of the gaps in the language course ‘narrative’, to the point that it seemed the material in the audio tapes and workbooks were clearly there to mislead the reader about the real intentions of these characters.

This meant I learned a lot of German vocabulary that wasn’t in the language course, but ended up not paying a great deal of attention to the course itself… To this day I’m not sure whether an active imagination was a help or a hindrance. Possibly both, in equal measure but in different ways.

Unlike Ionesco I didn’t write a play about my experiences. Or even a short story. But since the Wikipedia entry triggered the memory, I might still write something about it, someday…

Anyone else have similar experiences?

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