Quality assurance and quality enhancement in higher education

The UK higher education sector employs a range of mechanisms intended to assure or enhance the quality of its teaching and, more broadly, its degree programmes. These mechanisms can often be seen to rest on assumptions, tacit or otherwise, about what kind of an activity teaching is. When considering the fitness for its intended purpose of this or that ‘QA’ or ‘QE’ mechanism, then, it can be useful to consider whether its assumptions about what teaching is are sound ones.

Continue reading

Jonathan Franzen’s description of a memorable teacher of his

His eyes gleamed with excitement and pleasure if a student said anything remotely pertinent or intelligent; but if the student was altogether wrong, as the six of us in his seminar often were, he flinched and scowled as if a bug were flying at his face, or he gazed out a window unhappily, or refilled his pipe, or wordlessly cadged a cigarette from one of us smokers, and hardly even pretended to listen.  He was the least polished of all my college teachers, and yet he had something that the other teachers didn’t have: he felt for literature the kind of headlong love and gratitude that a born-again Christian feels for Jesus.  His highest praise for a piece of writing was ‘It’s crazy!’  His yellowed, disintegrating copies of German prose masterworks were like missionary Bibles.  On page after page, each sentence was underscored or annotated in Avery’s microscopic handwriting, illuminated with the cumulative appreciations of fifteen or twenty rereadings.  His paperbacks were at once low-priced, high-acid crapola and the most precious of relics – moving testaments to how full of significance every line in them could be to a student of their mysteries, as every leaf and sparrow in Creation sings of God to the believer.

Jonathan Franzen. The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History. Fourth Estate, 2006.

The experience of time of an academic/parent

Writing is a form of therapy – Graham Greene

Anxiety and guilt are the two dominant emotions in my endless agonisations over how I spend my time.  In my academic life, I suffer anxieties about not using my time effectively or productively enough.  In my life as a parent, scheduling is unavoidable, but one of its side effects is that I am usually anxiously racing or watching the clock, and therefore out of sync with my very much immersed-in-the-present infants, a fact which makes me feel guilty.

At work, my experience of time is often as follows: I’m sitting at my computer.  I have my Outlook account (my work email) open.  Sometimes I try to ‘Work offline’, but I never seem able to manage it for long.  On top of the general compulsion to receive correspondence as soon as possible, often there’ll be something more specific I’m waiting for: a reader’s report, a message finalising an appointment, a reply to a message where I’ve tried to smooth over a delicate matter, and so on.  Often one of my Twitter accounts will be open too, and there’ll be a mini-cycle of refreshing going on there too.  Perhaps I’ll be preparing some powerpoint slides, or drafting an article.  Both of these activities involve the assembling of materials – any or all of the following: books from my shelves, photocopies of articles and chapters from my filing cabinet, online resources, DVD clips, former iterations of material I’ve produced stored on one of several USB sticks, or on my desktop, or the university’s virtual learning environment.  Each of those texts points outwards, either implicitly (‘That reminds me of…’) or explicitly (in the form of quotation or discussion) to any number of other sources, and it wouldn’t take long to use a search engine to check a detail or chase up a source.  These multiple labyrinths and trains of thought are perilous enough even if one isn’t also being led out of them by the window in the corner of the screen heralding the arrival of a new email that you may as well reply to now rather than have it hanging around in the inbox.  Then there is that intimate partner of perfectionism: procrastination.  I’ve gotten better at forcing myself to commit to formulations in my writing, or to concrete plans in my teaching preparation, but it is still done over a small, persistent voice suggesting to me, with me barely formulating it as a conscious thought, that if I postpone that commitment, my future self will be better equipped to nail that passage or slide and slay it first time (never mind that writing is rewriting, or that to begin is to be halfway there, or even that I personally find it much easier to edit a first draft than to produce it).  Perhaps part of me also thinks that it should take me, say, a day, if I’m going to prepare a decent set of sessions for one of the weeks of my module, so if I’m cruising through it in less time, something must be wrong.  I’ve gotten better at recognising and countering all this bullshit, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t still break off unnecessarily from what I’m doing to perform the check-the-online-communication cycle, or to go to the toilet, or to eat or drink something, more often than I should.  Very quickly, my brain is buzzing with half-finished thoughts and imagined trajectories for multiple tasks.  It’s impossible to keep either of my desktops tidy.  My PC’s desktop windows are closed down easily enough at the end of the day, but the migration of books and paperclipped piles of A4 paper from their homes to the surfaces of my office is harder to prevent, and very soon there are reproachful piles of various things to do all around me.

The productivity imperative even makes it hard to commit with a clear conscience and an uncluttered mind to tasks that one has allotted time for.  I’m working on an article at the minute that requires me to engage with a rather weighty monograph, so this reading is one of the things I’m committing my research time to at the moment.  But 100 pages in to its 500 page length, I’m already feeling the itch: surely I should now be writing something?

I won’t say too much about the time I spend with my wife and children here – that is, after all, my private life – but I will say a few things about domestic chores.  I don’t imagine many people like domestic chores, but, for me, in addition to the relative monotony of the time spent actually doing the chore (which can sometimes be quite pleasurable – and of course, some domestic tasks, such as cooking, are enjoyable, to me at least), I experience a resentment, which sometimes verges on anger, that this task is the thing that stands between me and my evening’s leisure!  The future that is within my grasp exacerbates my displeasure at the present.  (I experience the basic routines of personal hygiene that stand between me and my sleep at the end of the night similarly.)

Finally: books (and, to a lesser extent, DVDs).  Like most academics, and because I love books more than anything non-human, I have, by my estimation, more than a thousand books that I would like to read.  The anticipation of the pleasure of reading them is great, but so too is the despondent knowledge that I may in fact never find the time.

Recognising problems is said to be the first step to overcoming them.  The other piece of conventional wisdom I keep repeating to myself is that habits are hard to break but that one does it one day at a time.  I remain, for the time being at least, hopeful that I can do a better job of not robbing myself of productivity, pleasure and happiness.  I’ll try to start now.

Learning environments and learning experiences

If teachers were to live in constant full cognizance of the full weight of responsibility that they have, the result might well be blind panic, or paralysis.  I’m not referring to the quantity of work that many teachers experience, but rather to the fact that teachers take on the awesome responsibility of being the guides to particular fields of knowledge, and to the broader experience of learning as a whole.  As a result of one’s teaching, a student might be inspired to devote a lifetime to a subject, or equally might swear off it forever.  Few people emerge from their educations completely unscathed.  In my experience, teaching is second only to parenting as an activity which almost every day leaves you feeling that you failed in some small or large way, that you didn’t manage to provide what was needed in that particular situation, and that with more time, and patience, you could have done better.

Since this blog began earlier in the year I’ve been a pretty enthusiastic proselytiser of various pieces of education theory/scholarship.  And a lot of that theory itself radiates enthusiasm, if not zeal.  The parts of it that I have encountered are often very ‘up’.  In particular, books about teaching in higher education which are at once research-based and designed to offer guidance to teachers will be quick to point out where we have been going wrong up to now, but will also offer clear advice about how we can make things better, perhaps by moving towards a student-centred mode of teaching, and/or ensuring constructive alignment between learning outcomes, learning activities and assessment tasks, and/or ensuring that we create feedback-rich learning environments.  I have no doubt that thinking through all of these ideas and applying them to my own teaching has been hugely beneficial.  But I also have no doubt that in teaching there are no magic bullets.  Nothing I have learned or tried has stopped me feeling ‘down’ rather than ‘up’ about teaching a fair proportion of the time, and as I look back on my year of teaching there’s one thing in particular that I keep returning to.

I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better at getting students to participate in classroom activities, and at designing those activities themselves (the two things are of course related).  Reading Diana Laurillard’s Teaching as a Design Science was something of a ‘lightbulb’ moment for me in this respect; that book gave me a name for and a way of thinking about things I had been trying to achieve for a few years.  If something is well-designed, be it a public space or a domestic appliance, then one’s engagement with it will be smooth, natural, intuitive.  Few of us need to be told how to find a cash machine or a place to sit in an urban area, nor how to operate a microwave (some people reading may also detect the influence of Heidegger via Paddy Scannell here – another set of ideas I’ve been absorbing for the past two years).  In my classrooms, I consciously design things in order to encourage students to act in particular ways, to engage in particular activities.  Sometimes it will be a spatial matter: I will make students sit in a horseshoe around a screen so that the audio-visual sequence we are analysing is there before us, everyone can see and respond to everyone else, and so on.  Sometimes I will issue a set of instructions that create a series of steps for the students.  Sometimes, taking control of the learning environment will also involve, quite simply, holding one’s nerve in the face of initial reluctance to talk.  Teaching/learning is too inherently ‘sticky’ and ‘subversive’ to be as smooth as the other kinds of design alluded to above, but there are similar motivations at work.

‘So what?’ might be the response so far.  All teaching activities are planned and therefore by logical extension ‘designed’.  What gives me pause for thought is the element of coercion that goes along with certain kinds of learning environment design.  A big part of the job of all but the most fortunate teachers is getting students to speak more than they are naturally inclined to.  We smile while we do it (well, most of us, most of the time), of course, but we are applying pressure.  A lot of this can be justified in the name of getting the best out of students (notice the language of extraction), and again, it could not really be any other way.

And yet.  There are times, over the past eighteen months or so especially, when I have felt that my role as teacher was shading into something more like that of a ‘gamemaker’.  I think that, along with carefully-structured activities which assign students roles which are difficult to escape, things like provocation, persistent questioning, playing the fool, and even plain old goading all have their place in teaching and learning.  But so too do things like prolonged solitary reflection, letting a question or a piece of reading stew in the back of one’s mind for weeks (months, years), and the right to say ‘I do not feel ready to talk about this yet’.  If learning environments should be designed to cultivate in students the kinds of habits of mind they will require for ‘deep’, ‘life-long’ learning, then those environments should not just be about cut and thrust, wall-to-wall talking, and rapid cycles of feedback.  One of my teachers once told me, as I was about to embark upon my own teaching, ‘Don’t be afraid of silence.’  More and more, I see the value of such advice (especially when I consider that the filling of silence can often be as much about the alleviation of anxiety as it is about the contribution of something worthwhile).

It is good to feel permanently dissatisfied.  It is a sign that one is still learning, and still alive.  When my teaching resumes in the New Year, one thing I will try to do is let my teaching pendulum swing back (or is it rather a deepening spiral? – that’s the metaphor that most closely fits my pattern of thinking on the topic) a little towards a set-up that allows students more space and time to reflect, and to involve themselves in ways that may be less audible and visible to others, but may also be ultimately more beneficial to them, which is, after all, what it’s all about.

Spaces (and times) of television

I’ve been feeling increasingly bad about neglecting this blog of late.  My excuse is that I’ve had various other small writing projects on the go: 1. After seeing and enjoying What Maisie Knew at the cinema (thank you, Hull Screen!), I wrote two pieces about it for Alternate Takes, the first of which is up, the second of which is coming soon.  2. I’ve been trying to get a healthy amount of initial content onto another blog, the one I’ve launched for the Film Studies subject team at Hull, Thoughts on the Screen (complete with awesome Saul Bass-inspired design, courtesy of WordPress).  3. I’ve just finished a double book review that will (fingers crossed) appear in the next issue of Critical Studies in Television.  4. I’ve started work on a co-authored article about how time works in The Simpsons.  So far my grappling with the fiendish time scheme of the programme has given me a deepened appreciation for what Fernand Braudel said about being an historian: ‘My great problem, the only problem I had to resolve, was to show that time moves at different speeds.’ 5. In my quest to revive for myself the lost art of letter-writing, I have marked sheets of paper with ink and sent them in stamped envelopes to members of my family!

Another thing that has disrupted my usual routine is that last week I attended the ‘Spaces of Television’ conference at the University of Reading.  The event was chock-full both of great presentations and of lovely friendly people, some of whom I already knew and some I’m delighted to have met.  I won’t attempt to summarise the things I heard, partly because there is already a great summary of much of what went on at the event on this discussion forum.  I did want to write a few paragraphs about what was for me the most exciting and inspiring session.

The session was presented by Dr Andew Ireland of the University of Central Lancashire.  Andrew was telling us about – and then showing us – what he did for his PhD research.  He set himself the challenge of taking the script of a recent episode of Doctor Who, and then re-shooting the script under the conditions that would have existed had the episode been filmed at the BBC in 1963!  This implies some significant restrictions with respect to both space and time.  Andrew was able to use some footage shot on location – but that footage did not have any synchronised sound.  Being able to cut away to this footage occasionally bought precious seconds, but for the most part, the action had to unfold so that it could be captured by the continually-rolling cameras within a relatively small studio space.  This calls for huge amounts of ingenuity when moving from one scene to another (how do you make sure your actors are ready?), and also when lighting sets that, because of the small overall space available to work in, are often very close together (your ‘night-time alleyway’ might well need to be very close to your ‘daytime living room’: how are you going to manage that?!).  And if you make mistakes, you had better recover from them fast and carry on, because recording won’t stop!  When we were then shown the final product that Andrew and his collaborators had produced, I was amazed by how close to a 1960s product it looked (to my admittedly not optimally trained eye; I have seen a fair bit of television from these period, but not masses).  The working practices implied, almost entailed, certain ways of doing things (for example, having lots of frontal staging, with characters huddled around and all facing the camera), and just like that, a past style was resurrected.

It was a great research project, but what it got me thinking about were pedagogical possibilities.  Throughout his presentation, Andrew kept on emphasising that the important thing for him was not the product but the process, and he kept coming back to the idea of ‘embodiment’.  I think he was absolutely on the money on both counts.  If one asks students to reflect upon why certain stylistic elements are present in a television programme, or a film, the first kinds of answers one is likely to get, in my experience, are answers which think exclusively in terms of the experience of a viewer – and often, answers which treat style as a symbol-system (there are shadows on the character’s face to show that he is not to be trusted).  Such observations can be valuable, and they certainly have their place.  However, finding ways of getting students to think like practitioners, and thus to think in terms of restrictions, and problems and solutions (to invoke one of David Bordwell’s very productive schemas for approaching style, and stylistic change), and so on, greatly expands their perspective.  Not only this: it helps them to move beyond seeing style as a punctuation marks or flourishes that occasionally rise to the surface, and to appreciate that style is a system, that nothing appears on screen without being put there, that every shot involves a huge range of choices, and that those choices are confined by the prevailing mode of production, which comprises technology, working practices, and much much more.  That is, practical, studio-based work can help students to pull things together, and to become better and more reflexive theorists (and historians) of style.

When I first started teaching at Hull, a colleague and I experimented, in a final year television module, with getting students to try to recreate in our studio facilities a short passage from a particular episode.  Whilst the process was interesting, I don’t feel that the students got as much out of it as they might have done.  I now think that adding the ingredient of giving them a brief that tells them that they need to abide by a particular set of production conditions could provide exactly what is needed.  That way, it will be clear to the students that they are not being asked to replicate but to adapt.  The result (one would hope!) would perhaps be that instead of feeling disappointed about failing to measure up to the original, the students would instead be encouraged to think through (both in the sense of considering in a sustained fashion, and letting a system become one’s lens of the world, to use an appropriate metaphor), to internalise, one might almost say, different styles and modes of production, the different aesthetic effects they achieve, and the different but not necessarily unequal merits of these.

To the drawing board…!

Diana Laurillard, Teaching as a Design Science (Routledge, 2012)

I’m categorising this post as a review, but in what follows, rather than trying to summarise Laurillard’s wide-ranging achievements, I try to distil the heart of the book – the underlying principles upon which its vision of and suggestions for pedagogy rest.

Diana Laurillard, in describing teaching as a design science (as well as, not instead of, an art, as she is careful to note on page 1), wants us to see the similarities between teaching and pursuits ‘like engineering, or computer science, or architecture, whose imperative it is to make the world a better place’ (p. 1).

A design science uses and contributes to theoretical science, but it builds design principles rather than theories, and the heuristics of practice rather than explanations, although like both the sciences and the arts, it uses what has gone before as a platform or inspiration for what it creates.  Teaching is more like a design science because it uses what is known about teaching to attain the goal of student learning, and uses the implementation of its designs to keep improving them. (p. 1)

Paul Ramsden, in his excellent Learning to Teach in Higher Education (Taylor & Francis, 2003), sees moving away from a view of teaching as ‘transmitting knowledge’ and towards a view of teaching as ‘making it possible for students to learn subject matter’ as a prerequisite for improving one’s practice: ‘Success in learning how to improve your own teaching is related to the extent to which you are prepared to conceptualise your teaching as a process of helping students to change their understanding of the subject matter you teach them’ (p.17/8).  The focus, we might say, slightly crudely, is on getting students to do things.  However, as teachers, we have to do things to try to get our students to do things.  We have to create powerful learning environments, and we do this by designing our courses effectively.

In Teaching as a Design Science, Laurillard makes extensive use of the ‘Conversational Framework’ model which she developed in an earlier book, Rethinking university teaching: A conversational framework for the effective use of learning technologies (RoutledgeFalmer, 2nd edition 2002).  The Conversational Framework presents a model which separates out a student’s conceptual understanding and their practice.  In the case of dentistry, the practice would include giving a patient a filling; in the case of English literature, the practice would involve writing an essay.  Laurillard suggests there is an iterative cycle between concepts and practice.  Dissatisfaction with one’s outputs (conclusions, perhaps) can cause one to reflect upon and modulate one’s conceptual understanding.

Sometimes an activity will produce what Laurillard terms ‘intrinsic feedback’.  Examples are most easily found when we look at babies, children, and other young animals.  When a baby tries, and fails, to get some food into her or his mouth, then s/he becomes immediately aware that s/he has not succeeded (because s/he not eating), so s/he perseveres, practicing the motion until it is perfected (as my seven month old son is reminding me, this is a lengthy process, and there is a lot of crying – and mess – along the way).  However, not all activities are as rich in intrinsic feedback as trying to eat.  This is one of the differences between informal and formal learning which Laurillard usefully spells out, and spells out some of the implications of:

Our brains have evolved to develop our first-order knowledge of the world from the earliest stages of infancy. […] While the psychologist will investigate and celebrate the power of every human brain to learn how to apply the correct force to the muscles of the arm and hand to pick up a cup, the educationist has to grapple with the problem that very few human minds ever grasp the proper Newtonian concept of force.  This fundamental scientific idea cannot be accessed in the same way as the everyday concept of force, and our brains have not evolved to cope.  Informal, spontaneous, developmental learning is immensely successful.  Formal, scientific, educational learning is at best only moderately successful. (p. 41)

Laurillard points out that an experienced formal learner will be adept at driving their own cycle of modulation and practice through research, discussion, and so forth.  What teaching as a design science aims to do is to generate varied, rich and iterative feedback loops to motivate and drive these cycles for less experienced learners.  The teacher can provide this her/himself.  Laurillard conceives of this in two main ways: the teacher can share conceptual understanding, or s/he can model instances of practice.  A lecture by itself, by the way, will not create a loop if there is no way for students to try to formulate their own understandings which the teacher can then help them to refine.  There has to be some kind of communicative loop, otherwise there is just one-way transmission.

It does not always have to be the teacher who provides the communication/modelling cycle.  It can also be provided in a peer group setting.  This still involves the teacher in the respects that an environment that facilitates effective dialogue or other collaboration has to be created (a massive and tricky topic, which I am looking into in detail before making collaborative learning a larger part of my modules), and the teacher will probably have to intervene if and when misconceptions are taking hold amongst students.  However, the process of having to articulate one’s ideas or demonstrate one’s practice to one’s peers is intrinsically valuable – it forces one to formulate – and will probably generate valuable feedback too.

The power of Laurillard’s model (which is probably best grasped in its graphic form, and at the time of writing an image is available here) really shines through in the chapters where different types of learning are examined (learning through acquisition, through inquiry, through discussion, through practice, and through collaboration), and it is shown which cycles within the Conversational Framework they will typically activate.  I had fancied my seminar discussion techniques to be a powerful learning environment, but thinking of them in relation to Laurillard’s model makes me see how much more varied and iterative I could make my feedback loops with some redesigning.

In higher education it is easy to often think of ‘feedback’ as the sheets of paper you give to students after you’ve marked their essays.  But if that were the only source of feedback they received, that would be an emaciated learning environment indeed.  Formal learning should be brought closer to informal learning in the richness and frequency of the feedback it provides in order to motivate learners and develop their abilities. As Laurillard puts it, ‘The teacher’s design task is to create the practice/modeling environment that provides the feedback the learner needs’ (p. 170).   Discussion, practice, ideas, sharing, back-and-forth: these are the things I want to design more of into my modules.  The work starts here…

Teaching as a Subversive Activity

Good learners […] know how to ask meaningful questions; they are persistent in examining their own assumptions; they use definitions and metaphors as instruments for their thinking and are rarely trapped by their own language; they are apt to be cautious and precise in making generalizations, and they engage continually in verifying what they believe.

Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Penguin Education, 1969. Quoted in Diana Laurillard. Teaching as a Design Science. Routledge, 2012.

Personal learning environments: what are they, and what should they do?

The below is an edited version of one of my PGCHE assignments.  I’ve removed institution-specific data and some of the ‘answering-the-question’ signposting.  I hope the joins don’t show too much!

The term ‘personal learning environment’ has been a significant presence in education theory for fewer than ten years (see Fiedler and Väljataga 2011 for a useful overview of the literature).  If we ask what a personal learning environment is and seek to answer that question in terms of the ‘content’ of a PLE, then our answer will be outdated by the time what we have written is a few weeks old.  An internet image search will reveal that the most popular (and the most elementary) way of visually conceptualising a PLE is as a thing that comprises a series of radial elements.  Sometimes these elements are conceptual, but just as often they are web-hosted applications (Twitter, YouTube, Skype…).  These observations might already begin to suggest a few important things about how the relationships between a student, the student’s personal learning environment, the student’s higher education institution, and the student’s module support might best be configured.  Universities probably need to provide both less (at the institutional level, in terms of expensive infrastructure projects) and more (at the module level, in terms of support and ‘scaffolding’ – see below) in order to work towards optimising students’ uses of their personal learning environments.

What the University should provide

[At the Association of Learning Technology’s 2006 conference,] there was a buzz around the idea of Personal Learning Environments (PLEs). […]  Yet for all the talk there was no consensus on what a [PLE] might be.  The only thing most people seemed to agree on was that it was not a software application. (Attwell 2007: 1)

A powerful personal learning environment is not only driven by the innovativeness and quality of the software applications that help to constitute it.  Its power can also be measured according to the degree to which it promotes ‘connectivism’ (Siemens 2004).  As such, PLEs relate to the at least slightly longer history of ‘networked learning’ (see, for example, Steeples and Jones 2002, Siemens 2008, Drexler 2010).

In his discussion of ‘Learning networks in practice’, Stephen Downes (2007: 26-7) lists four factors that a good learning network ought to possess: diversity, autonomy, connectedness and openness.  Downes notes that ‘openness is what makes interactivity possible; barriers that make it difficult or impossible to communicate within the network limit the network’s capacity to learn’ (ibid).  Many university VLEs include significant barriers – most obviously, password-protected access, but equally importantly, barriers between module pages.  If a university curriculum ought to be designed to encourage students to think deeply and broadly across and beyond their subject, not to think in terms of discrete modules offering chunks of knowledge, and if the university experience ought to foster authentic and lifelong learning, then students’ PLEs should also facilitate these things.

In the introduction to an article based on their involvement in e-learning policy and implementation at the University of Southampton, ‘Making it Rich and Personal: Crafting an Institutional Personal Learning Environment’, White and Davis (2011: 24) observe:

While individuals can be agile in their response to technology changes, organisations are typically more constrained by the heritage of past decisions and previous investment. […] In a time of rapid technological development and adoption the gap between everyday practice and organisational provision tends to increase.

One of the diagrams in White and Davis’s paper (ibid: 35) displays the components of a ‘rich learning environment’.  The segment labelled ‘institutional space’ is conceptualised as providing ‘mainly admin and information’.  The ‘personal space’, on the other hand, is tagged ‘I choose, I use it’.

Clearly, there are some online services that a university will have to continue to provide by and for itself.  A secure database of students’ personal and registration data is perhaps the most obvious example.  It also makes sense for there to be a secure repository for the digital learning resources which the tutor chooses to share with the students.  However, this latter interface should not be confused or conflated with the VLE/PLE tout court, which, if it is to be rich and powerful, needs to be a much larger, diverse, open and connected entity.  Another thing that a university must also provide is excellent infrastructure: reliable, fast, wireless connection to the internet via whichever devices students choose to employ.  It is coming to look increasingly like a disastrous waste of resources, though, for universities to invest heavily in infrastructure projects designed to produce less good and more quickly outdated version of online learning environments than the ones that already exist ‘out there’ and which students actually use.

If the university’s facilitating role ended with the provision of technological infrastructure, then there would be little difference between an institute of higher education and an internet service provider.  However, there is a difference, and it is to be found in support and pedagogy.

Facilitating networked learning: the role of the subject tutor

Web 2.0 and all that goes with it is a threat to higher education if higher education is conceptualised as the transmission of bodies of knowledge to students.  If that is what education is, then it is just as effective, if not more so, to acquire the necessary information online as it is to attend lectures and so on.  (Siemens (2004) takes this argument one step further, arguing that Web 2.0 can act as a virtual and prosthetic memory, thus making the personal storehouse of knowledge of the expert less valuable, if ‘static’ knowledge is all that is offered.) Even using this limited, ‘transmission’ conceptualisation, there would still probably be a role for the university.  Of all the information out there, how would the student know which information was ‘necessary’?  Some training in digital/information literacy would still be required.  But what this immediately reveals is the broader point that learning is more than receiving information, and that students need to be helped to learn how to learn.

Before proceeding to the level of philosophies of pedagogy and the learning environments that best match them, it will be instructive to start at a smaller level, with a brief summary of an illuminating piece of research into the use of ‘wikis’ (websites or pages which can be easily edited by large numbers of people) in an undergraduate curriculum.  Judd et al (2010) tracked the behaviour of students who were set a task involving a wiki.  The intention was to develop skills of collaboration.  However, the result was rather different:

The timing and distribution of students’ contributions […] revealed a great deal about their capacity and willingness to cooperate and collaborate with other members of their group.  The two major findings from our analysis in this area were that (i) the majority of contributions were made late in the activity, which is not surprising given many students’ tendency toward last minute study […], and (ii) most students contributed to the wiki on a single day.  Both findings suggest that students would have had limited opportunities to interact, via the wiki, with other members or [sic] their groups. (Ibid: 350)

Technology is not a magic bullet.  Spector (2002: xiii), in the foreword to an anthology addressing networked learning, describes ‘the history of educational technology’ as one ‘filled with broken promises’.  ‘Many have implicit faith that technology will make education better’, Spector writes (ibid: xiv): ‘Such faith is ill-founded.’  What he means here is technology alone.  ‘While wikis include features that are designed to facilitate collaboration’, Judd et al (2010: 341) reflect in their abstract, ‘it does not necessarily follow that their use will ensure or even encourage collaborative learning behaviour.’  What is missing from the learning environment that might further encourage such behaviour?

In a subsequent piece of research addressing student use of wikis, Manion and Selfe (2012: 25) stress the importance of supplementing the technological with the disciplinary and the social.  They stipulate that tasks using wikis need to be ‘grounded in habits of thought appropriate for the field’, and also that ‘assessment should be distributed among a range of stakeholders and should be contextualized to give value to students’ work beyond the classroom.’

Writing in more general terms about networked learning and PLEs, Drexler (2010: 369) speaks of the need to strike a balance between ‘teacher control and student autonomy’.  She seeks to explain ‘how a teacher can scaffold a networked learning approach while providing a foundation on which students take more control of the learning process.’  By placing ‘the networked student’ at the centre of her approach, Drexler avoids the risk of abstracting or fetishising technology, of seeing it as an end rather than a means.  Drexler’s (ibid: 372) model of ‘the networked student’ offers an image of a smiling student sitting at a desktop computer, but the nodes that radiate from this student are not exclusively pieces of software (although there are these: blogs, podcasts, wikis, etc), but also human contacts (running from friends and family to classmates, teachers and experts).  As we have already seen Downes argue, a learning environment is powerful to the extent that it permits connections and communication – not only with static knowledge, but also with others one can enter into dialogue with.  Indeed, such is the basis of ‘communities of practice’ (Wenger 1998).

Drexler’s reference to ‘scaffolding’ points in the direction of ideas developed more thoroughly by Van B. Weigel.  Weigel (2002: 9), adopting a constructivist perspective, argues that ‘cognitive apprenticeship is the learning methodology best suited to achieve the aims of deep learning’.  He highlights ‘six teaching methods that facilitate cognitive apprenticeship: modeling, coaching, scaffolding [cf. Drexler], articulating, reflecting, and exploring’ (ibid: 10-11).  These activities, which involve a constant stream of mutual feedback between tutor and student(s), cannot be delivered as effectively or as fully by any piece of software yet developed as they can be by a human (with the requisite expertise). (These reflections also chime with a fascinating article by Johnson and Liber (2008), who in support of their arguments about ‘The Personal Learning Environment and the human condition’ adduce philosophy running from ancient Greece (Socrates) through to the twentieth century (chiefly, phenomenology and existentialism), and demonstrate that alongside ‘technological interventions’ there will continue to be ‘a deep need for teaching and learning’ (ibid: 10) provided by humans.)

Weigel’s ideal of ‘cognitive apprenticeship’ leads him to propose that classrooms ought to be reconceptualised as ‘knowledge rooms’.  He offers five models (2002: 18-23): ‘The Research Center’; ‘The Skill Workplace’; ‘The Conference Center’; ‘The Debate Hall’ and ‘The Portfolio Gallery’.  There is not the space here to describe each set-up; the names are evocative enough for my purposes.  What these names should make clear is that the environments Weigel envisages do not much resemble VLEs used as repositories for powerpoint presentations.  Nor do they resemble a search engine, or a piece of software.  (A contemporary parenthesis: It is worth pondering the extent to which the still-shifting idea of a ‘MOOC’ fits any of Weigel’s models.)  What the names should also make clear is that is that in each case, what is being placed front and centre is the exchange of ideas (often, also, with a community of practice).  This can take us back to Downes, and his prescriptions for powerful PLEs, whose words can serve as a fitting conclusion.

The knowledge produced by a network should be the product of an interaction between the members, not a mere aggregation of the members’ perspectives.  A different type of knowledge is produced one way as opposed to the other.  Comparing two points of view, for example, allows us to see what they have in common, while merely counting or aggregating views forces us to pick one or the other.  Web 2.0 software is about much more than listing connections or tallying memberships.  It is about the conversation that happens between individuals.  And so, too, the personal learning environment supports not just content consumption but interaction and communication. (2007: 26, original emphasis)

References

Attwell, Graham (2007), ‘Personal Learning Environments – the future of eLearning?’, eLearning Papers 2: 1, pp. 1-8. Accessed 8 July 2013.

Downes, Stephen (2007), ‘Learning networks in practice’, Emerging Technologies for Learning 2. Accessed 8 July 2013.

Drexler, Wendy (2010), ‘The networked student model for construction of personal learning environments: Balancing teacher control and student autonomy’, Australasian Journal of Educational Technology 26: 3, pp. 369-85.

Fiedler, Sebastian H. D. and Terje Väljataga (2011), ‘Personal Learning Environments: Concept or Technology?’, International Journal of Virtual and Personal Learning Environments 2: 4, pp. 1-11.

Johnson, Mark and Oleg Liber (2008), ‘The Personal Learning Environment and the human condition: from theory to teaching practice’, Interactive Learning Environments 16: 1, pp. 3-15.

Judd, Terry, Gregor Kennedy and Simon Cropper (2010), ‘Using wikis for collaborative learning: Assessing collaboration through contribution’, Australasian Journal of Educational Technology 26: 3, pp. 341-54.

Manion, Christopher E. and Richard ‘Dickie’ Selfe (2012), ‘Sharing an Assessment Ecology: Digital Media, Wikis, and the Social Work of Knowledge’, Technical Communication Quarterly 21: pp. 25-45.

Siemens, George (2004), ‘Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age’, elearnspace. Accessed 8 July 2013.

Siemens, George (2008), ‘A brief history of networked learning’, elearnspace. Accessed 8 July 2013.

Spector, J. Michael (2002), ‘Foreword’, in Steeples and Jones (2002), pp. xiii-xvii.

Steeples, Christine and Chris Jones (2002), eds., Networked Learning: Perspectives and Issues, London: Springer.

Weigel, Van B. (2002), Deep Learning for a Digital Age: Technology’s Untapped Potential to Enrich Higher Education, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Wenger, Etienne (1998), Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

White, Su and Hugh Davis (2011), ‘Making it Rich and Personal: Crafting an Institutional Personal Learning Environment’, International Journal of Virtual and Personal Learning Environments 2: 4, pp. 23-39.

Things people say at conferences

The modern conference resembles the pilgrimage of medieval Christendom in that it allows the participants to indulge themselves in all the pleasures and diversions of travel while appearing to be austerely bent on self-improvement.  To be sure, there are certain penitential exercises to be performed – the presentation of a paper, perhaps, and certainly listening to the presentations of others.  But with this excuse you journey to new and interesting places, meet new and interesting people, and form new and interesting relationships with them; exchange gossip and confidences (for your well-worn stories are fresh to them, and vice versa); eat, drink and make merry in their company every evening; and yet, at the end of it all, return home with an enhanced reputation for seriousness of mind.  David Lodge. Small World. Secker & Warburg, 1984.

The conference circuit is different things to people at different stages in their academic career.  Doubtless it offers pleasures (and irritations) at all of these stages, but perhaps it is most fun for those towards the beginning or the end of their careers.

At the beginning, it can be, as Ross Geller once observed, like being a regular person (I am paraphrasing) in the presence of celebrities (perhaps this never wears off entirely; it hasn’t yet for me).  ‘So that‘s what x looks like!’  If you’re lucky, you might even wind up sitting next to them at dinner.  There might be some nerves to overcome in the delivery of one’s presentation, but only the meanest of fellow attendees would give a really rough ride to someone who doesn’t have a PhD yet.  And a young academic need not angst over how well-known they are, nor too much over how well-received their paper is.  (One thing I remember about beginning to attend conferences, or dinners after a guest speaker visited a university, was being surprised that, instead of talking film studies or whatever, many of these big names/big brains would instead chat about the food they were eating, their journeys to the event, the weather, or their pets.  It was like having to learn all over again that these figures, like your parents and primary school teachers before them, are also people, with the same everyday concerns as other people.)

At the other end of the scale, there are the late-career academics, some of whom will be basking in the glory of keynote status and all the conference-related perks that go with it.  (People outside the academy are often still initially perplexed upon hearing that most people have to pay for the privilege of attending conferences – or rather, get their institutions to do so.)  What one also sees from some later-career academics and which I really take pleasure in, even to the point of having begun to harvest them, are off-the-cuff remarks offered from a position of no longer feeling a burning impulse of having something to prove.  I’m not talking about take-downs, although they can sometimes be pleasurable and/or warranted.  I’m thinking rather of the slightly salty, the plain-speaking, the rambunctious – comments usually offered as self-reflection rather than diagnosis of others.

One reason that this plain-speaking occurs is that when they make these utterances, these people are not expecting them to be immortalised in print.  It would therefore be ungallant of me to attach the following few quotations to individuals or events.  They can in any case stand on their own merits.  Here are just three little pearls of tough wisdom that were tossed out by some brilliant minds.  Words worth pondering, and sometimes worth living by!

1. (This was not in fact an academic, but a well-established director in conversation with a film studies person.)  ‘Mise en scene?  I just turn up with a few jokes.’

2. ‘People always talk about research agendas.  I never had a research agenda.  I just write about stuff.’ (That one is probably a slight paraphrase.)

3. (In response to the suggestion that censorship should be defined as anything that imposes limits upon the representational context of an artwork.)  ‘But that’s just life!’  (This one is my favourite of all.)

Perhaps readers have treasured, conference-culled phrases of their own?

Close reading; or, my teaching timeline

On the module of my PGCHE focused on classroom practice, one of the first activities we were invited to participate in was to draw up a ‘teaching timeline’.  We had to cast our minds back as far as we could remember, and map a chronology of our experiences of being taught, highlighting particular memorable moments, periods, or teachers.  It was a great activity, which I would recommend to anyone.  The first response it provoked in me, besides nostalgia, was immense gratitude.  My feeling is that I’ve been particularly lucky to have encountered so many great teachers, of so many different kinds.  (The first learning experience I remember in any detail is Mrs Reed, a semi-retired and quite elderly woman – or so she seemed at the time! – coming into one of my classes in perhaps my second year at primary school and teaching us some of the basics of grammar.  Those lessons have never left me.)

The main thing that I soon came to recognise, though, was the primary importance within what I might somewhat loftily call my ‘intellectual formation’ of one method of inquiry: close reading.

The apex of my experience of this method during my days of being taught was my two years studying A-level English literature at Ridge Danyers College (now Cheadle and Marple Sixth Form College), principally by two truly great teachers: Julia Wilde and Tony Cassidy.  We spent two years studying only a handful of texts: A Streetcar Named Desire, The Color Purple, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Bell Jar, Othello, The Tempest, and some Ted Hughes poetry (there may have been one or two others, but I don’t think there were).  That works out at just over one text per term (although in practice there were overlaps – meaning, in fact, that we spent longer than a term on each text!).  We were not given lectures, and I don’t remember much in the way of secondary critical literature (a point I shall return to later), though I do remember being chastised in the feedback to one of my essays for parroting a reading that I had found in a ‘Critical Guide to…’.  What we did, for two and a half hours, twice a week, was sit in a circle with the teacher, read passages of the set texts together line by line, and talk about what they meant.  It was amazing, and I still (that is to say in part, after a subsequent first degree in film and literature) count Cuckoo’s Nest, The Bell Jar, Othello and The Tempest as amongst the texts I know best of all, and admire the most (these two things of course being closely related).

University study (in my experience of the courses I’ve been on or looked into), and not just that of literature, tends to be very different from this.  For an undergraduate, a more typical pace is to have one set text per week of term.  Often, there will only be two hours of contact time per text, and one of those hours will be a lecture.  And that is per module; depending on the institution, a student may be juggling between four and six modules per week.

Another key difference that I found (in my particular but I believe quite widely-applicable experience) between studying humanities at A-level and at undergraduate level was that in the case of the latter there was a much greater emphasis upon engaging, both in the classroom and in one’s essays, with existing academic material on the topics and/or texts one was studying.  Again, this is a point I shall return to towards the end, after offering some thoughts on the issue of speed and depth.

The virtues of taking a ‘deep and narrow’ approach

I have offered above a general sketch of the way university teaching will often be conducted: one text per week, one lecture, one seminar.  However, there are of course plenty of exceptions to this general trend, and plenty of eloquent and prestigious voices in favour of close reading.  I’m not going to talk here about contemporary voices in educational theory that argue (correctly) that the pursuit of coverage is often at the expense of the cultivation of the skills that would allow students to stand back from the rapid-fire tour of modular copses the better to see the woods of the discipline.  (This is one of the arguments of those who advocate ‘threshold concepts’ – the topic of a future blog, perhaps.)  I am also consciously eschewing the ‘contemporary information overload’ argument (which re-emerges every time a new communications technology is disseminated, and is at least as old as the invention of writing).  I find Nicholas Carr’s article ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ interesting and provocative, but that line of argument is not the one I am pursuing here.  I take it that we live, as we always have, in a world where there is more information available than any one person can hope to become acquainted with, but that we also live, as we always have, in a world where there are a range of ways of responding to this fact.

In a previous blog entry I quoted a short passage from a great interview given by communications scholar John Durham Peters.  Here is Peters again, in the same interview, advocating reading in depth as a vital accompaniment to attempts to achieve breadth of coverage:

Truth is robust.  Though there is too much to read, many minds will light on common truths.  So instead of angsting about how to encompass it all, find an angle and start digging and you will soon discover roots and branches that connect you with other perspectives.  Dig into Weber far enough, and you’ll be able to figure out Marx and Durkheim.  This is the wormhole principle: the key thing is to figure out how to access the network.  So instead of dictating a canon of specific titles, I would encourage people to find their scripture, their text that can help interpret the world for them, and then read and reread it.

The main source of reflections upon this topic that I have been reading lately though, the one that prompted me to write this entry in the first place, is the introduction to Robert B Ray’s book The ABCs of Classic Hollywood Cinema (Oxford University Press, 2008).  One thing that Ray cites there as a way of introducing his own method is an interview with Carlo Ginzburg, an historian whose work I admire enormously.  Ginzburg is talking about the thing in his teaching timeline that led him down the professional path he chose:

I didn’t even consider history because I found it so boring.  What changed my mind was a seminar in which [I] was asked to spend an entire week analyzing only ten lines of a book written by a leading 19th-century historian.

It was the slowness that fascinated me.  Every phrase, every word had to be dissected for their possible implications.  I came to understand that texts can have hidden, invisible meanings.  It was not an easy lesson.  In my speech, my writing, my judgments about people, I tend to be very quick.  I learned the importance of reading and rereading one page, even a single passage, for days, weeks. (Qtd. in Ray, xviii)

Ray’s book itself abides strongly by the ethos of close reading.  Not only this: it arises from Ray’s experience of teaching film to undergraduates not by presenting them with a new film each week, but instead by spending fourteen weeks studying four movies (he describes his book, brilliantly, as ‘a kind of lab report concerning what can still be done with four famous movies and a few basic critical texts’ [xxv]).  His experience of this teaching was that, ‘[f]ar from wearing out the films under investigation, the intense scrutiny enhanced both my own and my students’ interest in them’ (xviii-xix), and that his students ‘produced the most consistently interesting work I have seen in my 25 years of teaching’ (xxv).  (I have, happily, experienced some measure of this closeness in my own university film education.  The University of Warwick’s Department of Film and Television Studies, as a rule, screens each module film twice to its students, and expects them to attend both screenings.  I found this to be a great discipline to cultivate, and looking back, I also see that it greatly enhanced the quality of discussion that occurred in the seminar room.  V F Perkins in particular would often spread the study of a single film across multiple weeks in his teaching.  One of my fellow Warwick alumni has since moved on to the University of Bristol, and has told me that there is a final year undergraduate module there on which students spend several weeks studying a single film from a range of perspectives.  I am sure this list could be extended further.)

The (secondary?) place of ‘secondary’ literature

I agree with Peters that it is not worth having a passing acquaintance with a huge number of texts if one does not also possess intimate knowledge of at least a handful of favourites; indeed, that a lack of experience in close reading of some texts will condemn one to a superficial grasp of all texts.

I mentioned that as well as not being diluted by greater coverage of a larger corpus of literature, my primary focus upon a small number of texts during my A-level literary study also largely eschewed any engagement with secondary literature on those texts, or on literature more broadly.  Looking back, do I believe that my engagements with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or The Tempest would have been deepened with the help of other critical voices, or that being taught, at that stage, how to stage a dialogue with existing sources would have made for sounder ‘training’ for the further studies in the humanities that I was about to embark upon?

I would answer each of those questions with a confident ‘no’.  I should immediately add that I believe that engaging with other voices, among them existing academic literature, some of which sometimes goes under the name of ‘theory’, is a fundamental element of study from the undergraduate level onwards.

There was a stage in my university studies where I was a close reading ‘purist’.  What I mean is that I, semi-unconsciously, measured the closeness of my reading by the extent to which I excluded references to ‘theory’.  Theory dealt with the abstract; I was dealing with the particular.  (I’m caricaturing slightly for the sake of clarity: my work was never ‘theory’-free; it was only during particular passages and for particular purposes that I would eschew secondary material.  I still believe there are occasions where this is justified.)  However, I do not see things this way any more.  I still think that ‘theory’, when used badly, can lead to what Kristin Thompson (I think) called ‘cookie-cutter’ criticism: every text that the theory comes into contact with comes out looking the same.  But not all theoretical writing offers its readers a reductive procedure for pigeonholing texts and their components, reducing them to deathly sameness.  As Terry Eagleton puts it in After Theory (Penguin, 2004),

At their most useful, critical concepts are what allow us access to works of art, not what block them off from us.  They are ways of getting a handle on them.  Some of them may be more effective handles than others, but that distinction does not map on to the difference between theory and non-theory.  A critical concept, even a useless or obfuscatory one, is not a screen which slams down between ourselves and the work of art.  It is a way of trying to do things with it, some of which work and some of which do not.  At its best, it picks out certain features of the work so that we can situate it within a significant context.  And different concepts will disclose different features. (94/5)

I still think that offering alive, detailed, sensuous descriptions of individual texts and the experiences they offer is one of the most important and valuable tasks of work in the humanities, but I now have no residual guilt or qualms about using ‘theoretical’ material to help me achieve that goal.

We are what we read, and as Carr suggests in his article (quoting Maryanne Wolf), we are also how we read.  I would go one further: we are the order in which we read.  I believe there is a big difference between, on the one hand, watching Vertigo and then reading ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, and, on the other, reading ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ and then watching Vertigo.  (The example is hardly random or innocent, but there are plenty of others I could offer, and I invite the reader to think of her or his own.)

I think, though (I recognise the possibility that I could be wrong about this), that without that crucial formative period of closely studying literature, largely untroubled by what others (beyond those others in the room discussing it with me) thought about it, I would not have the same respect for aesthetic texts and their autonomy (and what I am even tempted to call ‘rights’ in the face of hermeneutic endeavours directed at them), nor the same taste for losing myself in details and close analysis, nor the same primary reliance upon my own engagement with the text, as a first step, at least (to briefly invoke once again the ‘second screening’ system at Warwick: another part of its logic was that one would have the opportunity to watch a film once with only one’s own preconceptions, before hearing a lecture about it, and then again afterwards to allow one to measure the evidence of the text against the words of the lecturer, and to do so in light of one’s own initial response).  This is why, although one of the leitmotifs of my life is to find myself saying ‘I wish I’d known that sooner’, and although there have been darker moments in my university life where I have cursed my greenness in the face of certain types of academic cut and thrust, when I look back at my teaching timeline I am glad that the encouragements to adopt particular approaches to my objects of study came at the times and in the order that they did.