As you may know, I spend a lot of my time working on e-learning materials and tutoring distance learning students. And it strikes me that if you’re going to start an e-learning course, especially a degree course that’s likely to keep you occupied for several years, there are several habits you need to cultivate.
- Read compulsively. Unlike students in traditional higher educational institutions, you don’t get the advantage of face-to-face lectures, seminars, the ability to have a conversation with your lecturer after class and so on. You may have a ‘group learning space’ (a bulletin-board type of thing), tutors you can email and occasionally phone, and so on. But believe me, it’s a poor substitute for face-to-face. Instead, you have access to electronic libraries and (of course) the internet. And second-hand bookshops. And newspapers. Read everything. Try to understand how the world works. No one ever got that from reading a single textbook.
- Understand that in everything you read, knowledge has a price and that price is ‘spin’ – newspapers, media sources and everyone else is writing to persuade you of the truth of their views. Develop ways to understand what’s reliable and what’s bullshit. Develop that elusive thing we call ‘critical awareness’ that enables you to sense when you’re only being told half a story, and if you had the other half things would look a little, or a lot, different.
- Be compulsively curious. Curiosity is a great habit. If you’re not curious about your chosen topic, why are you even studying it? Being curious and asking questions about what you’re taught, going back to original sources, and searching out information to fill in the gaps is always worthwhile.
- You may not have much electronic contact with tutors but you live in the real world, among real people, in a community. That community is a microcosm of the problems in wider society. Pay attention to local issues. Understand your local community.
- Write. Develop the habit that says ‘I don’t know what I think until I’ve written it’. If you think you have a good explanation, argument, or whatever, write it down. Then leave it a day and re-read it. I’d bet that when you do that, you read what you wrote and then start thinking things like ‘I can express this in a better way’ – and ‘I didn’t explain the logical steps’, and ‘I forgot to mention X, Y and Z which are also important factors’. The way you get better at expressing your thoughts is through writing.
- Remember that the aim isn’t just to get a qualification, it’s to get the knowledge that justifies the qualification. And knowledge is a slippery thing, because you really start to understand something, you realise it doesn’t stand still. It’s not just a set of facts. It’s more like a roomful of people, all having conversations about different aspects of some subject. Of course there are certain basic agreed points – until someone comes up with a convincing reason why we shouldn’t rely on those points and rely on something else instead, which might happen once every few decades. Beyond that, there’s a lot of stuff where different views need to be weighed on the basis of evidence, and sometimes on the basis of the ‘best we can do with the evidence that’s available’. In short, by studying a subject you’re not just ‘learning the facts’, you’re engaging in a long, slow, drawn-out conversation with a bunch of strangers.
Just a few thoughts. I hope they’re helpful, but I bet you could add more ‘rules’ (or argue with mine) if you thought about these issues for a couple of minutes.
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 story of the last week can be encapsulated in two quotes.
The first is one that comes up on the front page of a freelance website I use: ‘The first 90% of a project takes up 90% of the time you allocated for it; the last 10% of it takes up the remaining 90% of the time.’
The second one is a quote from Douglas Adams. I already knew it but found it again accidentally when I clicked into a story about him: ‘I love deadlines. I love that whooshing sound they make as they go by’ (OK, it may not be an exact quote but you get the idea). So as far as I’m concerned I’m currently on last Monday’s work, it’s going slowly, and my own writing projects are similarly backed up.
The thing is this: if you’re writing distance learning courses you need to remember two things, really. One is that courses need to be regularly updated with old material replaced by fresher examples and all the dead links exchanged for comparable ones that actually work. And the second is that unlike a lecture situation, if you write something that glosses over a point you assume students know and they don’t know it, unlike a lecture there’s no row of blank faces in front of you to warn you that you might need to backtrack a little. It has to be right and it has to be properly documented, first time. And getting these things right does indeed take around 180% of whatever time you set for the job.
In other news – I’m apparently being torrented. I got a heads-up on this from a bit of spam I caught that was a link to torrentsradar.com. So the short stories and bits of flash fiction I put on here are being made available as pirated versions.
This is the first time it’s happened (that I know of), and I’m not altogether pleased. At one level it means the stuff I’ve posted will be more widely read, which is the aim of most writers – especially those who are relatively speaking unknown. However, it means people are reading my stuff without coming back to jonvagg.wordpress.com to find me, and possibly don’t even know I wrote it or that it’s freely available on jonvagg.wordpress.com. So writing stories may entertain more people but it’s not exactly going to work as publicity for me.
Moreover, while those pieces are short, free giveaways and I make no money from them, they’re clearly now a part of the ‘digital economy’ though I confess I don’t see how the torrent site makes its money. It appears to have no adverts and no membership fees, though it is affiliated to a trafficholder site that allows people to buy and sell clickthroughs. So at some level they’re making someone money apart from, presumably, WordPress whose business is hosting free content and which has probably made a tiny fraction of a cent off my content by now…
While I’m on that topic, incidentally, I also checked out Pirate Bay – something I last did about two years ago – and I notice they no longer have adverts from big-name banks, insurance companies and supermarkets as they did back then. When I first saw those ads I was very tempted to shop in the local supermarket and announce at the checkout that I was taking that week’s shopping as part-payment for my intellectual property rights… These days they seem to be taking ads from D-list dating sites, which suggests they’re experiencing hard times.
I’m also clearly now going to have to police Amazon, Smashwords and other places to see if other people have been ripping off my stories. So if you’re reading this blog as part of a torrent, just bear in mind you can subscribe to jonvagg.wordpress.com and get exactly the same content by Jon Vagg for free. If you’ve been trying to pass yourself off as the author of any of my stories, expect to get some grief about it quite soon.
And in future, while I’ll be posting ruminations of different kinds on here, and I’ll still post the occasional story, the stories will be in a format that won’t be quite so easily pirateable – not because you won’t be able to get the plain text, but because there will other things bundled with the stories that you’ll be missing out on if you don’t come to jonvagg.wordpress.com to find out about. Call it a proof of concept if you like, it’s a set of ideas I started working on for multimedia stories and while I haven’t had time to develop it properly, once I’m done with the current round of distance learning course revisions I’ll be able to spend a little bit of time bringing a year-old idea to fruition.
I haven’t done anything on here for quite a while. Two reasons, really – work and trips away.
Work – mainly academic and training. I seem to have written a couple of hundred exam assessments, marked several thousand scripts, and written several novel-length training packages and teaching modules. I say ‘seem to have’ because it certainly feels that way.
Around 20 years ago, a departmental administrator would email and ask for a new exam, and you’d sit down and ask yourself what you actually taught the students and write eight or nine questions. When the scripts came in, you’d scrawl on them and decide on a mark. A second marker would check a sample and maybe you’d end up having brief conversations about some of the scripts.
These days, you get asked for the exam: then you go to the module specification to see what students were supposed to have learned, write the questions, carry out a cross-check to ensure they cover the range of material in the module, check they’re not exactly the same questions you’ve asked in at least the previous two exams, write the indicative answers and check all the supporting documentation that students get, put everything into a word processing template and send it off. It gets signed off by the programme leader and the external examiner. When the scripts come back, there has to be a paper trail than includes comments students are able to see and a more or less transparent and documented process that’s capable of being audited. In principle, of course, the purpose of the paper trail and creation of auditability, along with the cross-checks, probably does make for a system that’s more resiliant to challenges.
Exams, of course, are about assessing students and doing it fairly. They’re not about inspiring them or opening up their imagination, which is really part of what the course materials should be doing – alongside making sure they have the basic principles, paradigms and knowledge. I don’t think anyone would argue that we should go back to how things used to be done. But it does mean writing exams and marking them is around four times as much work as it used to be. Part of me says that’s a good thing – we need to pay more attention to how we assess students and we do want procedures to be fair. But part of me wonders whether, in making procedures more fixed and managerial, we may have lost some contact with what students expect of us.
Writing training courses is interesting, because the people I’ve been doing it for are treating it as an interactive process. They tell me what they want: I write it; they come back to me having seen their ideas shaped up, and with new ideas about how that’s changed their thinking. Yes, it means many revisions, but it’s almost a model for how this kind of work should happen.
Holidays – I’ve been away a couple of times, and each time it’s been something of a ‘workation’ since I’ve had the laptop, a dongle, email and internet access, etc.
As a freelancer, I like the idea that I can work on stuff wherever I am and remain in contact with the people I’m doing work for. I imagine if I’d been in a holiday villa somewhere it would have been a case of doing a couple of hours each day before or after cooking dinner on the barbecue or walking in the countryside or on a beach.
It was a bit more difficult than that, though, because we were travelling around in a campervan and meeting up with friends in different places. Most days, a chunk of each day was taken up driving, while some of the places we went to see, like the Eden Project, really do demand all your attention for the whole day. I got a lot of inspiration, made a lot of notes and took a bunch of pictures. What I wasn’t able to do, of course, was a whole lot of work.
Riots – there seems to have been quite a bit of rioting while we were away, though being in the countryside we didn’t exactly see a lot of it, except for some of the media coverage. When we got home, which is a small market town, it turned out someone had put out a Facebook call for a riot in the town (meet in the town centre an 1pm – the person sending the message clearly didn’t understand the dynamics of formenting riots!) and no one turned up. The really big news of the week was that a cow was reported to the fire brigade because it appeared to be stuck in a canal, but it freed itself and wandered off before the firemen turned up to rescue it.
Fiction – that’s what I haven’t been writing. But I will… once I’ve got the marking and the training materials out of the way. However, it did occur to me, as I was looking at some plants at the Eden Project, that the world turns on narrative: not just the stories we tell each other at night, but the stories businesses and governments try to frame about wealth, power and justifying exploitation, and the stories campaign groups use to counter them. And the same is happening now with the riots. It’s hardly an original thought, and actually it’s one I’ve used many times before both in my fiction and my academic work. But there’s a whole other blog, though, or possibly more than one, in the idea and how to apply it to some of the stuff I see going on at the moment. I’ll see what I can scrawl down in the coming days… when the marking’s done!
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?
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.
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…