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Doing e-learning – six rules

January 12, 2016 Leave a comment

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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. 

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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.]

After a long absence…

August 16, 2011 Leave a comment

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!

 

Just thought I’d say…

April 27, 2011 1 comment

… I ‘m still here. Just not blogging as much because I’m working hard on some new projects, some educational and some more speculative and fiction-based (I was tempted to day they’re fictional projects but that would give the wrong impression). As someone or other said on another blog I sped past the other day, I don’t have enough bandwidth to progress those projects and find interesting things to blog about. You don’t really want to know what I had for dinner and what time I got up this morning, do you? (If you’re really curious the answers are chicken risotto and 7am, which is uncharacteristically early for me since I’ve worked graveyard shifts for the last couple of decades – evening teaching, overnight editing, working until dawn to finish stories and so forth.)

One thing I have been tracking, though, is the ‘progress’ being made in universities to rationalise degree programmes (i.e. close many of them down), merge schools and faculties in order to effect budget cuts, and so forth. The Times ran a story last week about how some universities were likely to end up being taken over by private education companies. I haven’t seen other papers, even the Times Higher Education, run with that story though a more general one about cuts in humanities degrees is here.

It’s difficult to see quite how the government could force the issue (since universities are founded by royal warrants), though presumably reducing funding for selected programmes would close down financial options to the point that it becomes the least worst option for some institutions. How that would affect student experiences is a whole other question, I guess. In some respects it might make universities more ‘client centred’ though having worked with quite a few large companies in my time, I’m yet to be convinced that mainstream managerial culture is quite up to the job of managing degree programmes. Which is not to say some companies aren’t good at it – they are – but that it has very specific challenges that require specialised expertise to address.

I’ll add that to my list of things to blog about another time, though…

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?

Why tha kidz canrt spel

March 27, 2011 6 comments

Every1 sezkidz can’t spel cos of txt spk. May be that’s tru. But I blame da maufactras wot put krazy logos on stuf. Imagin u are browt up all thru yr child hood goin to a stor an wotchin advurts on TV. Stuf wots on the shelvs and on TV haz all kinds a ritin on it wot’s not spelt rite.

They do it to make a speshul brand name but u see it evry day an end up thinkin that’s how it shud be spelt. Plus wurdz get spelt diffrent ways on diffrent pakits. U mite think sumthin is crunchy but then u see it mite be crunchie or krunchy or krunchie. U can buy toffees or toffis (or tofu but that’s probly sumthin else). At skool u have to spell stuf right but go to the store, it’s always rite. They have exclusive offers but on the pakit it sez x-clusiv. No e’s. Stuf can be crazy or krazy or krayzee. At skool we hav high-powered computers but in the stor they sell hi-powered ones.

Plus companeys MiX uP BiG aN sMaLL LettErS 4 brand names. Like u cn buy iPod, iPhone, cars hav ritin like 16CDi on tham an loadsa compny names hav capital letters in the middul of them.

No wunda we carnt spel or rite properly. I blame kapitalism.

***

Examples of poor spelling in education – http://www.spelrite.com/

There’s an article at Ehow about how to teach children to spell through using brand names. That must add to the confusion unless the brands are picked carefully!

 

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?

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