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‘Critical’ academic work

September 11, 2014 2 comments

One of the things I seem to have been asked a lot recently is: when academics use the word ‘critical’, what do they mean?

There are certain uses of the term that have very specific meanings, such as ‘critical theory‘ (a term in the social sciences that is most closely associated with the ‘Frankfurt School‘ of the 1930s and later – Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin and others).

However in more general terms, students are likely to be expected, in module or course learning objectives, to be able to develop a ‘critical understanding’ of a topic, ‘critically assess’ or ‘critically evaluate’ an argument or a situation, and so on. Then they are expected to be able to demonstrate their ‘critical understanding’ in assessments.

My usual first response is to draw an analogy. Let’s say you hire a tradesperson to do a job – a plumber, electrician, carpenter or whoever. You expect this person to be able to assess the nature of the job, including any problems it might pose. You also expect them to understand the materials they are working with and their fitness for purpose, the tools they have available and whether they are sufficient for the job, the health and safety issues involved, and so on. If they look at the job and say a particular cable needs to be able to take 60 amps rather than 30, or  can’t be routed through a space that exposes it to damp, or a section of roof needs reinforcement, or the saw they have isn’t good enough to cut through metal, or whatever, they’re making a critical assessment.

And so it is with academic work. If a theory requires data that isn’t available, or the available data doesn’t support it, or the analytical tools (for example forms of analysis that are available) can’t drill far enough into the available data to enable its interpretation, or (more commonly in the social sciences) the theory relies on untested assumptions that may have some political subtext or agenda, then a ‘critical understanding’ of the theory is one that acknowledges these shortcomings and a ‘critical assessment’ is that the theory is limited by such factors.

So, for example:

  •  a critical understanding/assessment of a theory means you understand what it can explain and what it can’t. For example in the social sciences, labelling theory can explain how the process of ‘becoming’ an offender works, but not why someone commits the acts that leads to that labelling process happening. It also can’t explain why particular acts are considered deviant or criminal; for this, you need another type of theory about how and why particular social attitudes exist or laws are made. So labelling theory is part of an explanation for crime, but not the whole explanation. The situation recurs continually in the social sciences, where most theories explain only one element or part of a situation and not the whole of it, or explain it in ways that rely on values and assumptions that are themselves disputed.
  •  a critical understanding/assessment of, say, a set of statistics means understanding what they tell you, what they don’t, and how reliable they are. For example ‘crimes recorded by the police’ are exactly what they say they are. They don’t include crimes that have been reported but not recorded, perhaps because the police don’t think the ‘crime’ happened or don’t think it was important. In addition they are subject to ‘counting rules’. If someone, for example, goes to a block of flats and burgles two flats one immediately after the other, is that one burglary (a single episode, because it was all one connected act) or two (because there were two premises broke into)? If a drunk person on a street assaults three people, is that one assault or three? These rules have changed over the years and this affects how we can interpret the figures. In general politicians now see police-recorded crime as unreliable, which is why they now rely more heavily on the Crime Survey of England and Wales (the new name for the British Crime Survey).
  • a critical understanding/assessment of an argument, perhaps about criminal justice policy, means understanding the strengths and weakness of both sides of the argument, deciding which side is right (or maybe that neither of them are because they both rely on questionable moral or political views) and being able to explain your decision.

I also, incidentally, tend to point out to students that demonstrating a ‘critical assessment’ or ‘critical understanding’ in a piece of academic assessment usually means investigating an issue to a point where is possible to write something rather more detailed than a Wikipedia entry (despite the Wikipedia links above!). Wikipedia is intended as an overview of the issue for someone who wants a fast briefing on a topic, and doesn’t usually give an in-detail discussion of the relevant arguments. Being able to demonstrate a critical assessment or understanding tends to mean being able to cite and discuss the important publications, arguments, datasets and so on in the field.

Another point I try to make is that this kind of critical thinking tends to mean developing and working through a series of related questions.  For example, a historical question about origins of the ‘Captain Swing‘ riots in the 1830s in England might point to a short answer – working conditions and wages in the countryside had declined over a period of several decades, and the introduction of threshing machines accelerated that by reducing opportunities for casual work over what is traditionally the busiest and best-paid time of the agricultural year, harvesting.

This raises additional questions, though, the answers to which provide evidence that suggests this general answer isn’t the whole story:

  • What’s the evidence for the reduction in earnings? Can we quantify this in terms of earning power, such as how much a loaf of bread cost as a percentage of a worker’s wage (there was the ‘Spleenhamland System’ and some other ‘bread scales’ which tried to do this for the purpose such as setting rates of Poor Law relief; the system essentially failed in its overall aims but that’s another story).
  • Alternatively, was there evidence of poor harvests which would have increased the price of staple products, or of inflation, and thus added to rural hardship? [see note 1 below]
  • Given that the use of threshing machines reduced the demand for farm labour, can we put any numbers on this? [see note 2 below]
  • Agricultural workers had many non-monetary practical resources and traditional rights that added significantly to their living conditions. Had conditions other than paid work deteriorated? [see note 3 below]
  • If conditions had deteriorated, was it easy to find alternative sources of income by, for example, moving to the growing cities?

If the example interests you, areas you might have wanted to explore include:

[1] The early 1800s was indeed a period of high inflation, graphically indicated by a Bank of England resource (note this is a summary illustration meant more for schools!). But ironically there had been slight deflation in the 2-3 years immediately prior to the riots, as shown on another web resource at safalra.com.

[2] There had been an influx of workers in the countryside – but that was over a decade before, after 1815 and the end of the Napoleonic Wars as soldiers were demobilised and returned home. So it wasn’t an immediate cause of the rioting. Insofar as we can put any numbers on the reduction in demand for labour, it’s based on small-scale and illustrative situations in individual communities rather than any comprehensive national statistics (as far as I know, but no doubt someone will correct me!).

[3] Conditions had been deteriorating for some time as a result of the Enclosure Act 1773, which had enabled the progressive taking over of ‘common land’ and ‘waste land’ by landowners. This shut people off from traditional sources of free grazing if they had any of their own animals, the ability to gather wood for fires, etc.; and it meant many people were required to pay rent for land they had previously accessed for free. There’s no evidence of a particular ‘tipping point’ having been reached in the 1830s, though, and enclosure accelerated with a series of new acts between 1845 and 1882 – so after the riots.

In short, the fact of the Swing riots is itself evidence that some kind of tipping point had been reached, but it may have been more symbolic (that is, the threshing machines themselves were symbols of economic threat) than directly linked to economic conditions in any particular year.

If you’re really, really interested in the Swing riots there’s a recently reissued book: Captain Swing, by Eric Hobsbawm and George Rudé, which originally came out in 1969 but appears to have been republished this year by Verso.

But whether you’re interested in the example or not, I hope it illustrates the ‘critical thinking’ process of working from simple to complex ‘critical assessments’ of a situation by asking a chain of questions about what evidence can be marshalled for different potential scenarios.

 

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.]

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?

Thinking about spending money!

April 6, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that I’m going to have to spend some cash. Probably. My wallet is famed for the number of padlocks on it, and I’m renowned for trying to find cheap solutions to problems. You know the kind of thing: the wall of your house is falling down? No problem, a bit of duck tape will solve that… But this time, I suspect I may actually have to pull some actual currency out. Maybe.

The problem is this. I want to create a PDF file with a movie embedded in it. And the various programmes I have available to me for creating PDFs won’t do it. When I export to PDF, what they do is give me a nice picture of the first frame of the movie. Some of the problem appears to be with inserting the movie in such a way that it’s not an inline file, but that’s proved beyond the apparent capabilities of the programmes I’m using. There are workarounds on some of the Mac forums but they appear to require me to know a great deal more about programming than I actually do. Having spend an entire day playing with half a dozen programmes I’m bored now, so probably paying money to solve the problem is the way to go.

Allegedly Acrobat will do what I want. And so will iWork (I hate that over-stylised lower case ‘i’; nO wOnder kIds don’t uNderstand wHere uPper-cAse lEtters aRe sUpposed to go but i rAnted aBout that a wHile back).

The one saving grace is that fortunately both have a ‘try before you buy’ policy so I should be able to assemble the stuff I’m working on and see if I can make it work. If I ever do, it’ll be here before it’s anywhere else.

Meanwhile if anyone has any ideas that would work on a Mac, are free, and don’t involve Word, OpenOffice or Scribus (which I’d thought originally would be the ones most likely to work), I’d be interested to know.

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?

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.

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