Two discourses on 2020 remote learning…

The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic is being talked of in higher education as a big experiment in teaching online but my observation is that two perspectives are emerging.

  1. Technology enthusiasts who have for many years evangelised that all of higher education should embrace technology are getting more exposure and informing bigger audiences of approaches and research which are well established and now getting more attention.
  2. ‘Online’ is second best, but has been ok in an emergency, and we’ll be back to normal as soon as all of this is over returning technology to ‘support’ learning on the fringes.

Of course there is a lot of nuance here and if we are going to talk of 2020 being a huge experimental lab for adoption of digital communication technology in higher education then we need to acknowledge that students on campus were not expecting campuses to be closed and universities had little notice to ‘pivot’ online.

Lots of good work was done before the pandemic in terms of advice and support from learning technologists and instructional designers and this fringe are now the conference headliners which produces the first discourse. The second discourse emerges from the ‘product’ and ‘experience’ of higher education which looks much more at the political and social move from tuition fees to the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 and more broadly referred to the marketisation and neoliberalisation of higher education.

Both of the discourses above treat technology, higher education and humans as separate entities. Terming technology and education as ‘virtual’ learning ignores the embodied nature of any learning and virtual feels like it’s not really learning in line with discourse 2. There is some more critical and connected views where these elements are pulled together as relational rather than substantial (treating technology and higher education as two seperate entities). This approach looks to assemblages and networks of interconnection between humans and non-humans.

Robots v humans

Here are two images that I think sum up the two divided discourses.

Photo by Rock’n Roll Monkey on Unsplash

Photo by Zhanhui Li on Unsplash

Playing out these two discourses for the post-pandemic university I see as problematic if digital technologies are going to be fully embedded into the infrastructure of higher education.

Bridging the gap between humans, technology and higher education in a more balanced manner will make a change in the post pandemic university. If they don’t discourse 1 will move back to the fringes and digital and remote aspects of learning will be seen as the mass produced ‘second best’ to further stratify the elite picture of higher education. Those of the discourse 1 stance need to acknowledge the social and political of the past and present as to how there work in the past can be moulded into something suitable for a brand new context.

I am paying £9,000 for a university degree that is causing me nothing but anxiety and stress

Covid: £9,000 for ‘anxiety and stress’ university degree

If discourse 1 ignores these news stories which have dominated since the pandemic, any good work and advances made will be lost as students and parents see online as second best. Universities and politicians aren’t coming up with a response to these views of students and the public. Yes, this is an opportunity but the context is different to what has gone before and trying to create the Open University in a Russell Group university just won’t work.

Pre-pandemic, part-time undergraduate degrees were in steep decline and characterised as not the opposite of the elite on campus residential product in higher education. This may well have contributed to the reaction to remote and digital. It feels like as we emerge from enforced remote and digital approaches that there are several directions of travel. If both discourses can come together in a more relational way with infrastructures of technology, ways of working and promoting the benefits to the wider public then ALL students and staff will benefit. A continued argument and divide has the potential to reduce the digital and the remote to the second choice and further stratification.

Automation need not impoverish education: we welcome our new robot colleagues

The Manifesto for Teaching Online


The Social Dilemma

The Social Dilemma arrived on Netflix at the end of 2020 with a clear message… Technology is controlling us. Here I share my thoughts on the film and some impacts on Education and how we might reframe and resist such controlling discourse.

If You’re Not Paying for It, You’re the Product

If you haven’t seen it, The Social Dilemma is a docu-drama showing the impact of social media on our lives. The film paints a dystopian future of social media and more broadly the huge Silicon Valley ‘Stacks’ (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google etc) being able to dial up and dial down the actions and emotions of whole populations. A big 21st century issue is defining ‘Silicon Valley Big Tech’ which in essence are huge advertising companies and by failing to label them as such hides within them a black box of technical wizardry.

Former employees from Silicon Valley ‘whistle blow’ some of the techniques from platforms such as Google, Facebook etc claiming that addiction and nudging practices are in built by design. Should these methods be ported to education does that mean that education as a purpose is reframed as changing behaviours in a particular binary direction? Google have a classroom of over 100 million students and many have claimed that porting such ideas wholesale is a return to 60s behaviourism.

In essence any device that we use collects data about us and then presents us with content that the algorithm ‘thinks’ we might like. More on agency below, but consider the agency of the algorithm here. This is what is termed personalisation – you see adverts tailored to you and content which the algorithm decides is for you. In Education, technology and personalisation is lauded as the next technological development. Whilst having lots of potential, critics cite personalisation as each individual having their own ‘truth’ – consider your own social media timeline (that agrees with you and you agree with it) in comparison to someone else’s (who you probably don’t agree with) and consider which is the truth? It’s not that there has ever been one ultimate truth, now everyone has their own individual truth. This, the Social Dilemma presents as a problem for shared communities, compromise and democracy.

I mean it’s what our life has become in the 20th century, we live and assume our morals and our stances from the fragmented pieces of information that we glean from the media.

David Bowie – David Bowie Verbatim
Is Social Media Zombifying the Youth of This Generation?

Social scientists interested in technology (Science and Technology Studies/ Science, Technology and Society) term the view presented by the Social Dilemma as technological determinism – technology determines what we do. This approach has a long history with Marx critiquing the zombifying effects of the industrial revolution led by capitalist factory owners where craftspeople and artisans went from making the whole product to a small part in a production line of monotonous and repetitive labour which has since been termed Fordism after the economic success of the car production lines of the mid 20th century. This was brilliantly satirised by Charlie Chaplin in 1936 in Modern Times.

Other 20th century philosophers analysed and critiqued the controlling and dehumanising effect of technology including Heiddegger and Ellul.

So, what we see in the Social Dilemma is not entirely new and I argue not wholly technological and treating it as such leaves technology as a neutral and tool-like instrument to be used. Instrumental ‘use’ of technology is the opposite view of technological determinism and hits at the foundations of sociology – structure and agency – does the ‘user’ of technology have agency to use the tool for their own exclusive desired ends or is the social structure of technology controlling us all as to what we buy, what we believe and who we vote for (the overall premise of the Social Dilemma).

In Higher Education terms, the artisan craftsperson is characterised by the elite professor (disparagingly in the Ivory Tower University) with few of the population attending university. Conversely, the Fordist model is characterised by an often derided view of organised production line and factory underpinned by technology. A very real dilemma to be negotiated here is similar to the mass production of cars and other expensive artefacts in that mass production drives down prices and increases access but for many an exclusivity has been lost to the artisan and craft approach. For example, part-time and flexible access to higher education aided by digital technologies is encouraged but it’s not the exclusive and ‘premium artisanal product’ or the much quoted full ‘student experience’.

Some balance…

Technological determinism and instrumentalism use give us extreme perspectives with which to analyse such situations. More recent work by social scientists and philosophers have moved to balance such structure and agency beyond media responses to developing technologies as dystopian and utopian. For example Andrew Feenberg terms a wider societal move towards technology and rationalisation as the Technosystem which is not just the technology but incorporates markets (capitalism and neoliberalism) and administrations (governance and policy). Take for example the now widely used (in the UK) phrase of ‘Computer says no’ (from comedy, Little Britain). You’re being told no by the computer but somebody has made a policy or rule denying you your request (administration) and/or it’s not financially viable (markets). It’s not somebody or an organisation denying your request but the rational decision of the computer – or so it is presented.

Dystopian and utopian views tend to produce the best headlines and film narratives but those working in Science and Technology Studies (STS) term this hype which is not particularly grounded in reality but rhetoric, often with a vested interest for the author or organisation making the claims (on both sides of the debate). Lee Vinsel describes both sides of the utopian and dystopian view as You’re Doing It Wrong: Notes on Criticism and Technology Hype.

A more balanced, non-deterministic, perspective is offered by an approach which states that technologies mediate our experiences, for example, if we didn’t have a car or other such travelling technology it wouldn’t be possible to travel long distances to holiday or work. Reading an ebook is different to reading a physical book – the medium mediates our experiences of the text. Media theorist Marshall McLuhan famously stated that the Medium is the Message. In education terms, an exclusively online course must then be different to an exclusively classroom one – one of the reasons why direct comparisons are problematic.

Are we controlled by technology?

It is a question that has been asked for a long time and will continue to be asked – what is technology doing to society – but we shouldn’t be drawn down into binary and dualistic paths which result in us smashing up our computers and burying them or putting everything online without question.

Here are some recently completed and published works which elaborate these points further around agency of humans and non-humans.

Sociotechnical imaginaries in the present and future university: A corpus-assisted discourse analysis of UK higher education texts

Rising to the pedagogical challenges of the Fourth Industrial Age in the university of the future: an integrated model of scholarship

Blurring boundaries between humans and technology: postdigital, postphenomenology and actor-network theory in qualitative research

If you do not have full access and would like to read further than the abstract please get in touch.


Don’t just #pivotonline, question everything…

Why have an exam? Why have a lecture? Why have a seminar? These learning activities in their traditional sense are not available right now so pretty much every education institution in the world are looking for alternatives…

Exams, lectures, labs, seminars are deeply embedded into higher education culture. I have long been a proponent of the digital being embedded in the whole learning experience, whether that be on campus or in the kitchens, spare rooms and train journeys of learners. I have worked in digital learning since 2006, completed my undergraduate degree ‘online’ with the Open University and without the internet certainly wouldn’t be 4 years into a part-time PhD. A simple and coherent approach to accessing learning materials I believe shouldn’t distinguish between education administrative systems of ‘part-time’, ‘full-time’, ‘distance’, ‘campus’. After all, every student when they leave the campus (for the holidays or during the outbreak of a global virus pandemic) becomes a distance learner. Let’s be clear, I’m not a digital or nothing evangelist here. I don’t think Microsoft Teams will revolutionise education anymore than the face to face ‘experience’ is the premium. Maybe it’s finally the time to have a balanced perspective with some nuance.

Education is currently a socially distanced experience through no choice of universities, teachers or students. Schools are in the same position. Despite some initial huffing, puffing and will power not to scream ‘I told you so’ when it comes to digital and distance learning, those working in digital education across the sector are playing a huge part in helping to drive and support creative ways to get learning and teaching far and wide in these difficult times.

Martin Weller, Professor of Educational Technology at the Open University originally expressed some cynicism about distance learning’s  “enforced” rise to prominence in 2020, but then saw the current crisis as an opportunity to share experience, knowledge and skills to help. Professor Weller’s first blog on Covid-19 offered support for educators with a whole host of resources to ‘#pivotonline’. Martin also recognised that many students were also new to online distance learning and provided some great resources for them too (gen z, millennials, digital natives etc, also need help with digital technologies. They aren’t born with the skills of a computer programmer and digital designer as some might have you believe). The flood of great advice and support continues on Twitter with #pivotonline.    

It is difficult to add to anything that has not already been said by the Twittersphere or my colleagues over in University of Birmingham HEFi digital and many others. The great news is that there is some great advice and support out there for academics and students.

I would however, like to stress that this is not something new

“The shimmery hope is that free courses can bring the best education in the world to the most remote corners of the planet, help people in their careers, and expand intellectual and personal networks.”

New York Times, 2012

Yet, still ‘online’ is perceived as second best by many, fine for those who can’t take the premium on campus ‘experience’. Extreme, binary discourses such as this and the polar opposite of digital technology fixes everything regardless of the social, surely in 2020 should be blurred, nuanced and part of just what we do – the postgital.

Author, journalist and ‘ping pong guy’ Matthew Syed is equally interested in such rebel thinking. Here, Syed writes for the BBC on some of the innovations that are taking place at this time of worldwide crisis. He looks at “assumption reversal” which the ‘why’ people are constantly doing, asking why something is the way it is and then coming up with creative responses.

We are all being forced to do things differently which are a bit out of our comfort zone but this is an opportunity for a new conversation about digital, not extremes of arrogance and physical classroom superiority or technology fandom which solves every problem we have without regard for social impact.

Why have an exam? Why have a lecture? Why have a seminar? We can, but are they the right way of doing what we want to achieve in the best way? They may well be, but let’s ask ‘why’.

Stay safe everyone.


The part-time undergraduate puzzle

This blog was written for HEPI, the Higher Education Policy Institute following the publication of UK university part-time higher education: a corpus-assisted discourse analysis of undergraduate prospectuses

Popular culture has painted and represented the part-time university graduate as successful in various fields. The institutions offering these opportunities have all been heralded as success stories and sites of opportunity and development for those who, for whatever reason were not able to, or chose not to study a three-year degree in their late teens. Policy over the last 50 years from varying political perspectives has championed part-time education and lifelong learning alongside promoting the uptake and use of new and emerging technologies to facilitate these opportunities. In 2020, individuals are not short of learning opportunities but the puzzle of the decline of part-time higher education feels no closer to being solved.

The puzzle of the demise of the part-time university student is a complicated one which researchers, universities and Government are still grappling with. Reasons cited have been increases in tuition fees, lack of financial support, the equivalent or lower qualification policy (in 2007 state funding was withdrawn for those wishing to study for a qualification of equivalent or level level) and lack of employer support. The 2015 HEPI report It’s the finance, stupid! called for improved financial support, better course design, increased employer engagement and improved information to help to revive part-time numbers. The 2020 follow up, Unheard: the voices of part-time adult learners looks at a loss of diversity in the student body and students perspectives on transformative learning possibilities for adults who missed out at 18.

My recent research with Dr Ben Kotzee looks at the discourse around part-time undergraduate education and how UK universities themselves promote part-time study. We conclude that part-time is seen as something different from full-time which needs special attention for a different kind of student and part-time options are very rarely promoted – and sometimes discouraged! This contrasts with specialist distance and evening universities and a group of global online platforms offering short free courses (often by universities) through to fully online degrees who promote and market themselves as sites of opportunity for career and personal development.

I myself studied part-time with the Open University. My studies informed my work and my work informed my studies. A kind of a DIY degree apprenticeship. I wrote about this when I graduated in 2016. I am now a part-time PhD student at the University of Birmingham and my own experiences have driven me towards asking questions of the contemporary university and some of the discourses around issues such as part-time, technology, research and teaching and the future of the university as we know it. The part-time university student hasn’t been invisible in popular culture over the past 40 years and the Open University is widely cited and celebrated as a huge success story.

The 1983 hit movie, Educating Rita, encapsulated the romantic vision of self-improvement and development. Julie Walters played a 26-year-old working class hairdresser from Liverpool embarking on an English Literature degree with the Open University, opening up opportunities socially, academically and professionally. The 1983 trailer for the film feels nostalgic and romantic in the current era of league tables and employability. Part-time academic study and its benefits can also be found in the unlikely environment of a Premier League football manager’s dug out. Graham Potter, the now Brighton and Hove Albion Manager studied with the Open University for a social sciences degree and then a masters in leadership and emotional intelligence at Leeds Metropolitan University, transforming him into a ‘scholarly manager’. The Open University, in the UK, has been at the heart of a vision of flexible education for all, celebrating 50 years in 2019. Birkbeck in London has also specialised in evening study for those working in the capital with support from current Prime Minister Boris Johnson. It is hard to find a bad news story about the part-time student in popular culture, and UK Government policy is a similar story.

The 1963 Robbins Report outlined the expansion of UK Higher Education and is characterised by soon to be Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s ‘White Heat of Technology’ speech. The famous speech described how new technologies such as TV and radio could take education into people’s homes as a ‘university of the air’ (becoming the Open university in 1969). In 1998, The Learning Age: a renaissance for a new Britain outlined the challenge for the changing needs of the knowledge economy and technological developments in the workplace and society more broadly. The foreword by then Secretary of State for Education and Employment, David Blunkett stated that learning throughout life would increase human capital by acquiring knowledge and skills with the emphasis on creativity and imagination. Blunkett enthused that these enquiring minds would foster a love of learning and contribute to the UK’s future success.

In 2012, the coalition Government commissioned a report titled: Expanding and Improving Part-time Higher Education. The supply of part-time provision was identified as complex, ranging from issues with defining part-time, the focus of part-time to specialist institutions and the need for change for traditional universities to offer part-time, ranging from online materials, infrastructure, extra support mechanisms and the over subscription of full-time courses. The report even went as radical as to say that in the future the line between full-time and part-time could become blurred. The gig economy and changing employment landscape, along with the complex nature society, work and education and their own blurring lines show similarities with this idea. Much of these broader societal changes have been facilitated by digital technology, all of which policy has pointed to as opportunities for education more broadly but especially as an enabler for flexible part-time and lifelong learning.

Harold Wilson in 1963, called for the UK to take advantage of the ‘white heat’ of technology to take education to people’s homes through radio and TV. We now have the technology to take learning to the smartphone, laptop and virtual reality headset. The growth of online opportunities could possibly be another factor at play here in the part-time puzzle. 2012 was coined the year of the MOOC – the Massive Open Online Course by the New York Times.

The shimmery hope is that free courses can bring the best education in the world to the most remote corners of the planet, help people in their careers, and expand intellectual and personal networks.”

New York Times, 2012

Low completion rates and concentration of middle-class graduates characterising those who sign up for MOOCs has dampened the 2012 enthusiasm. In 2019, the term MOOC is just part of the offer from global platform providers such as Coursera, edX, XuetangX, Udacity and FutureLearn. These platforms have over 100 million students registered, working with more than 900 universities and over 11,000 courses. The MOOC is the entry point into many other emerging and changing forms of online courses. Beyond the free MOOC, learners can purchase a certificate, complete a microcredential, build credit, make these up into a degree or take a corporate training course. Microcredentials (5-15 UK credits) are small, specific task orientated modules which can be ‘stacked’ into qualifications or to show employers evidence of professional development. The Common Microcredential Framework (CMF) allows for all of these smaller learning credits to be built up into qualifications, potentially across different institutions, should the learner wish to. Add LinkedIn learning and other similar platforms into the mix of options for learners who want to develop new skills linked to their careers or interests with access to a huge repository of learning resources. We can see that those thirsty for new skills and knowledge are not short of options. This diversity and choice in higher education has been coined the unbundled university.

What would the 2020 reboot of Educating Rita look like? A tale of a series of short online courses all stitched together to make up a qualification for career development? Or simply task-based learning ‘just in time’ at the point of need to complete a task. The modern-day Rita might become a coder or data scientist working in the gig economy and not the Bohemian literary graduate of 1983.


Data or intuition for design?

Data is everywhere but can it inform design decisions?

What implications does this have for learning and teaching in higher education? The options are endless and how these current and new technologies are implemented are decisions which are being made across the sector. In my own research, I am particularly interested in the field of design and design theory for learning. You might ask, is design a science or an art? A quantitative science based on numbers and statistics, or in contrast, based on a creative, intuitive, qualitative process. This thinking can be applied to how we go about the design of our programmes, modules, lectures, seminars and resources.

The proliferation of big data gives us the ability to process this data to inform us about our behavioural trends as well as modelling, to predict future behaviour. This includes how we interact with the web and social media but also how we interact with ‘things’. The Internet of Things (IoT)  puts data collection in everyday objects and can tell us where the closest car parking space is in a busy city to reminding us when our fridge at home is running low on milk.

Already we can mine huge amounts of data regarding learning and teaching:

  • How many times, for how long and when a video (lecture) recording is watched
  • Which online pages have been most visited and when
  • How often and when books have been taken out of the library
  • The number of online resources such as journals and ebooks which have been downloaded and when

Analysis of data such as this is revolutionising design practices in many fields to give ‘users’ a truly personalised experience. The field of User Experience Design is one that is harnessing and using much of this type of data. We are now seeing the emergence of Experience Design as a field in its own right, moving from industrial design of ‘things’ (objects) to products, services, information  and  organisations.

Returning to Design Theory, and a positivist movement of Design Science in the mid-20th century advocated that artefacts are designed using quantitative data. Here you may see design as taking analytic data from website visits and clicks and creating the ‘optimal’ website based on data. In learning and teaching this can translated into the field of Learning Analytics. Carnegie Mellon University are trialling their OpenSimon Toolkit which collects data on learning activities. On the flip side we have the work of Donald Schön who studied professional practice and how designers went about their work in a more implicit and idiosyncratic way. Designers may come up with designs seemingly without an evidence base but based on experience, built up over years of practice. This in the field of design has been termed ‘designerly ways of knowing’ by Nigel Cross. Cross enthusiastically called for design to be part of education and the missing piece between science and the arts.

The data driven approach versus the more intuitive ‘gut feel’ is not an uncommon one in business and sport. Data is used in a variety of contexts to evaluate and improve. Sport widely use a huge amount of data to analyse performance, from Team Sky collecting huge amounts of cyclists performance and health data to the selection of baseball players. The Oakland Athletics Baseball team most famously used data analysis to draft their 2002 team and against the odds won the American League West. The general manager who masterminded this approach, Billy Beane, was played by Brad Pitt in the film, Moneyball. In golf, Bryson DeChambeau is known as ‘the professor’ for his collection and analysis of data. In cricket, data collection can provide objective data rather than what may be conceived as opinion.

There are those that are not convinced by such data and its analysis. The more traditional football pundit seemingly doesn’t want to look at expected goal statistics. In business, a similar debate can be seen where some are using data to make decisions and automate in contrast with those that feel that experience and intuition are what really matters for business leaders and decisions.

So, how in practical terms can this help learning and teaching at the University of Birmingham? As designers of programmes, modules and learning resources should data rule our thinking or should we follow our experienced intuitive ‘gut feel’?

Or is there an opportunity for both to inform our design decisions?


What are universities for? An epistemological view on learning – A tale of extremes.

It’s not a new question – What are universities for?

Mark Leach of the excellent WonkHE has summed up where the narrative currently stands from a political and policy perspective. In the impassioned  The Enemy Within – why the narrative about universities and students went so wrong Mark ties together political discourse of the past, from Newman and to the present culture wars characterised by Trump and Brexit.

In mainstream media, the picture isn’t very good:

  • Vice Chancellor pay hits the headlines as university staff strike over pensions.
  • Political battles over tuition fees.
  • Short term and part-time contracts become the norm for university staff.
  • Government continue to push through regulation based on employability and data which attempts to tell the story of your future salary depending upon what you study.
  • A generation of 30 somethings are living in a post recession, Brexit dominated world in which they were promised graduate pay after three years of hard work and a sizeable debt – many have been disappointed and are not happy about it.
  • Part-time higher education for enjoyment and for those who can’t study full-time for whatever reason is down by half.

A rarity at the moment is a balanced analysis of what the university is for. Step forward Radio 4’s Analysis. A balanced analysis which looks at the complexity of not just higher education but post 16 education in general. Are students really that informed about the decisions they are making about choices? Many seem to feel that they simply must go and get a degree at the age of 18. Who can blame them? That’s the message that they have had from universities, schools and government. I may be biased but what’s wrong with going later in life? A part-time option or spending some time working before deciding upon which subject is for you feels like not an option on the table for teenagers.

In 1854, John Henry Newman, an Oxford Don was tasked with setting up a new university in Dublin. In doing so he delivered a series of lectures on what a university should be. This later became one of the most famous books on the philosophy of higher education, The Idea of a University. Clearly, these ideas were written of their time, a time when very few went to University, a time when those chosen few were the most upper of upper class members of society or the church. Newman was very clear, a university education was to enrich the mind of the individual across a broad range of subjects and was not at all anything to do with vocation or getting a job.

Clark Kerr’s 1963 book, The Uses of the University describes how the higher education environment has become so involved with so many aspects of education and society that it has become a ‘multiversity’. This rings true with the complexity of what higher education is in 2018, described by Sonia Sodha in the Radio 4 Analysis. Is it for research? Research for teaching? Research for social impact? Economic development of the local area (the civic university)? Should universities be at the cutting edge of technology, creating the next cure for disease, solutions to climate change and making sense of the political world? Is teaching for students for a liberal education about the world? Or for getting a job and paying your way? Some might say, it’s all of these but it doesn’t make a great headline in The Sun or Daily Mail.

Jim Dickinson in WonkHE reviews the Radio 4 analysis and sums up the two extremes of the debate on teaching and learning in higher education:

Rattling through what the sector would consider to be familiar arguments about massification, mission diversity, and the associated problems with justifications for it all remaining lodged unhelpfully in Newman’s “Idea of a University”, the show is much more likely to have left listeners outside of the HE bubble discombobulated than disgusted. Powerful exposition on the value of vocational HE, via a partnership between Coventry and Unipart, won’t have fitted the frame either of the lazy liberal left with their harks back to Newman, or the unpleasant right that believe that anything done with hands can’t possibly be done in a “university”.

Here, we seem to hit the nail on the head. We are debating on extremes. Vocational versus academic education doesn’t seem to fit together in any narrative that we can see coming from inside our outside universities. This looks at the epistemology (what is knowledge?) of teaching and learning.

Philosopher of pragmatism and writer on education, John Dewey offers a solution by talking about the purpose of education in real world experience. He looks at a continuum between academic and vocational where every subject has both aspects. Dewey advocates education as a ‘doing’ experience in the real world.

Keeping with the theme of extremes. When it comes to teaching and learning more broadly, not necessarily in higher education we see the extreme theories of constructivism and behaviourism. I have written about this in this blog under a series of posts called The process of learning. Constructivism can be linked with Newman’s idea of a liberal education which formulates views of the world, linking a broad range of subjects to construct one’s own view of the world in a critical thinking manner. Behaviourism, often frowned upon in higher education and more commonly used in vocational workplace learning measures what the end result is, what can this person produce? Can they achieve these standards? Can you make a product which does these things? Here again we have two extremes but Dewey’s pragmatism would say that these are not mutually exclusive. Creative assessment in any discipline can produce products or things that can be measured for usefulness – software, e-portfolios, research posters, start up business ideas, even essays which can be treated more as journal articles, students as co-creators, the list is endless.

Maybe higher education needs to accept that we do make things, we do produce a whole host of things that can be measured and evaluated in a behaviourist manner but also a whole lot of critical thinking and creativity has gone on in a constructivist way to get to that final thing, whatever it may be.


The myth of meritocracy and education

Meritocracy is the idea of opportunity for all regardless of background but based on ability. Sounds fair? Maybe not…

Both sides of the political spectrum in the past 20 years have hailed meritocracy as the goal for social mobility. A meritocratic society is said to be one in which if you have the ability, given the right opportunities you will achieve your goals – whatever they may be. Policy and social changes to attempt to make society more meritocratic have included widening access to education and offering more choice in marketising public services . If everyone has the same opportunity then it’s an equal playing field, right?

The widening of opportunity for all treats each social interaction and decision as a calculating decision with no concern for the individuals past experience and background. Rational choice theory describes this calculating move through life’s decisions. In contrast social and cultural reproduction says that we are products of our background and past experience which influence all future decisions and paths, regardless of an ‘equal’ meritocratic playing field. For example, someone who comes form a background where higher education and achievement is seen as the norm will continue these life trajectories as business as usual. Someone from a background of non participation in education will treat these exploits as new and alien to them and there background. So, does a level playing field for all create a meritocracy? Or do we need different policy and social interactions to meet different needs?

Here’s an infographic to contrast the ideas.

Assignmentposter Blog


Heaven knows I’m stoic now…

If you’re someone who dismisses The Smiths as ‘miserable’ and are prone to a continually positive outlook, dismissing any negativity, here’s a different perspective.

Svend Brinkmann in his tongue in cheek resistance of the self-improvement craze, Stand Firm asks us to stand firm against continual development and the latest fad. Using modern world examples and ancient Greek Stoic philosophy we can stop demanding instant success and positive thinking and live with things occasionally being a bit rubbish and then maybe try and fix them rather than ignore it in a sea of saccharine. In a world of constant self improvement and ‘finding ourselves’ to go out and conquer the world, Brinkman offers 7 steps to take a critical look at the positivity at all costs and expensive gurus.

  1. Cut out the navel-gazing – it’s not all about you! Don’t always listen to your gut feelings – do some thinking.
  2. Focus on the negative in your life – If something’s not working, recognise it.
  3. Put on your No hat – If it’s not right or you can’t do it, say so!
  4. Suppress your feelings – Toddlers have tantrums in the supermarket, you don’t have to even though you feel as though you want to.
  5. Sack your coach – Stop paying someone for coaching or therapy. Coaching or trying to find the answer from within is all well and good but there’s lots of information and research out there. Thinking and reading instead?
  6. Read a novel – not a self-help book or biography – Novels give us lots of different viewpoints and deal with joy, love, frustration and pain. Looking at many perspectives gives you a broader view of the world. Brinkmann says read at least one a month.
  7. Dwell on the past – The past has lots to be learned from unless of course you listen to motivational quotes and self-help gurus.

The book should be read with an open and inquisitive mind with the intention of Brinkmann looking at the extremes of self-help and constant development. From a sociological perspective it is interesting to look at the idea of individuals encouraged to go out and get whatever they want, regardless of others. Examples of the awful pick up artists book, The Game or motivational millionaire Tony Robbins (see below) promoting the individual trampling over others to succeed, throw a serious side to the self-help craze of the individual over society.

Image result for NLP guru Tony Robbins

Brinkmann takes the ideas to extremes but next time you’re wrapped in a ball of positivity or told to keep your negativity in check – get some critical thinking done.


Let’s take our thinking beyond learning ‘styles’

As long as we accept that our knowledge and understanding is in constant beta and that there is no simple answer, we’ll be just fine. This week the argument against learning styles has gone mainstream.

The Guardian ran an article this week on how teachers must ditch learning styles. This gets a massive hurrah from me. My only criticism is that the letter should not just be aimed at teachers and schools but everyone who ever tried to learn anything, ever. The article is based on a letter to the Guardian signed by 30 academics from a variety of institutions. The Guardian also follow this up with some interesting letters on the subject as part of brain awareness week.

“We wish to draw attention to this problem by focusing on an educational practice supposedly based on neuroscience that lacks sufficient evidence and so we believe should not be promoted or supported.”

The academics from the fields of education, psychology and neuroscience talk particularly about the VAK ‘learning styles’ – visual, auditory and kinesthetic. This is just one of many models. Another popular go-to model is that by Honey and Mumford which divides learners into activists, reflectors, pragmatists and theorists. At the time of writing (March, 2017) Wikipedia offers an excellent overview of learning styles. The Teaching of Psychology journal also gives a good overview.

If educators believed in these theories so much then why not divide up learners into groups and provide learning material specifically for them?

  • Road signs being read out to auditory motorists?
  • Visual film goers preferring silent Charlie Chaplin movies?
  • Kinesthetic learners insisting upon any instruction having a detailed story with a plot and emotional ending

The widespread adoption of learning styles is worrying in that they have been taken on face value and so widely used. But why? We do like things to be nice and simple and it seems to be that a nice simple formulae to explain things makes us comfortable. I believe the widespread adoption of the ideas are down to commercial learning products and cognitive dissonance. We seem to have gone too far down the road of implementing and using these models to inform many areas of education that we cannot go back. And there appears to be a lot of money in selling these ideas to unsuspecting believers. Cognitive dissonance says that we make decisions based on long held values and beliefs. Once we have decided that we believe something it can take a lot to disregard this belief and change our minds. Many theories such as learning styles were devised in the mid 20th century when psychology and other social sciences were in their infancy. These initial ideas hadn’t been challenged despite often being made with good intentions. Research and insight is an ongoing building of human knowledge – we know a lot more now than we did in the 1950s. Ultimately the field of education, neuroscience, psychology and other social sciences cannot provide simple answers. We must employ critical thinking to any research or new ideas that we are presented with.

So, if not learning styles then what? Again, learning is complicated and every situation is different, every individual is different with a wide range of variables taking place at any one time as we formally or informally learn.

The basics of cognitive psychology can help us – attention, perception and memory have a big part to play. The VAK model it seems, focuses on our senses when the real learning goes on in the brain and the senses are collectors of information. The real processing takes place cognitively.

Examples of using comic books as ‘dual coding’ can increase memory and learning. This is just one model that can form our education practices. There is no simple answer out there but there is constant questioning, testing, reading and reviewing. I’ve written a few posts on learning more generally.