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500 words for Purpos/ed

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Purpose/edPurpose/ed aims to kickstart a debate about education, in 500 words. Although the scheduled posts ended last month, here’s a contribution from me.


As distinct from learning, education is more institutionally inclined, and so these 500 words are about learning institutions, and specifically higher education ones. The first #500words pieces I read were concerned with bringing about change or confronting the inevitability of change. As well as the transformation learners undergo, #500words contributors are also thinking about changing teaching and changing institutions. Undeniably, change is upon us. If you work in higher education, funding cuts and a consumer revolution confront you with two choices: change or watch things change around you. But that said, I’d like to give some attention here to durability.

As well as being places of innovation, universities are places of continuity. Ideas which shape societies are passed from one person to others, over generations. To maintain a principled, rather than expedient, sense of what it is in these changing times that’s important enough to be preserved, requires a vantage point, and the ideas which are dwelt upon in universities are such a vantage point. When academics in the arts, humanities and social sciences design a curriculum, that curriculum is designed around persistent stories, theories, practices and processes, not ephemeral ones. VLEs are famously inert and full of stuff – scanning the particular Moodle installation I administrate at Goldsmiths, it’s brimming with links to landmark writings, performances and artworks – by Freire, Benjamin, Kant, Weber, Kuhn, Behn, Kristeva, Piaget, Foucault, Arendt, Fanon, Walcott, Hobbes, Freud, Riefenstahl, Zizek, Abramovic, Popper, Pankhurst, the list goes on. And that’s to say nothing of the oral, or even unspoken, traditions passed down on some courses (pun intended, I’m not privy to those) nor the ongoing work in marginalised fields animated by small, committed groups of academics and their students, fueled by passion and an unshakable conviction of its human worth.

Academics are custodians of these ideas, texts, practices; by giving them consideration and bringing about their connection and reconnection to the contemporary world, education helps to constitute ethical humans with the integrity to imagine their way beyond change. One metaphor is a pivot, the permanent thing in relation to which you move if pushed; another is an orbit, the gravitational force exerted by something with enough mass to keep you in its field and prevent you from ricocheting into a collision path. Through studying humans and their ideas, society renews its knowledge of how to be humane. Education where I work is often like this, and implicitly or explicitly for this.

Held between this impulse towards conservation on the one hand, and the revolutionary goad of the Comprehensive Spending Review and coming White Paper  on the other, I’m drawn to examine where and how these persistent practices and ideas in higher learning might be threatened, and also where and how they might shade into small-‘c’-conservativism – the kinds of cynicism-inducing institutionalisation of power and attendant seizing-up and narrowing of aspiration, that others have mentioned. Somewhere in between is an educational/institutional sweet spot.

[490 words.]

I’ll be sorry not to be at the invigoratingly-titled Purpos/ed Summit For Instigators on 30th in Sheffield, and will be following the tweets and anything else that’s webcast.

Other 500words I enjoyed (and I haven’t read them all yet): Jenny Luca on encouragement and opporuntity; Christina Costa on character; Fred Garnett on education as soma, countered by the participatory affordances of technology; Leon Cych on a self-building, self-sustaining communities; Rab on dangerous liberation; Mark Berthelemy beyond the competitive sausage machine; Frances Bell‘s four pillars of learning; and particularly thought provoking, Graham Attwell on the contradictions in the debate about the purpose of education that rule out “simple compromise or reform minded tinkering”.

Later, as the mind-chains began to rattle, I got the urge to search the Purpos/ed site for the term ‘economy’. Only this was returned, with the bracing message:

“Whingers are happy with the status quo. Fact.”


Written by Mira Vogel

April 25, 2011 at 00:05

Posted in change

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Making presentations about e-learning – the rhetoric and the reality

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Returned from holiday to see there was a new Routledge book out, Giving a Lecture: From Presenting to Teaching, 2nd Edition by Kate Exley and Reg Dennick “addressing a number of rapid developments that have occurred since its first publication in 2004”. From this I deduce it’s more tooled up. On a similar theme, I also started reading Kay and LeSage’s recent paper Examining the benefits and challenges of using audience response systems: A review of the literature (Computers & Education;53(3):819-827), which includes the section Challenges to using ARS (we call this ‘Personal Response Systems’ or ‘clickers’).

How can different technologies improve the existing lecture or presentation format towards a better learning experience? And – given that not everything that works is good – are the improvements consonant with a better teaching experience?

Before my holiday, I’d posted (at his request) a question I asked keynote speaker John Connell at Brunel’s e-Learning 2.0 conference earlier in July.

“The vision of your presentation is far reaching and yet here we all are, sitting in rows facing the authority figure at the front, silent for an hour. It’s like the photo of the 1960s primary school in one of your slides. The difference between rhetoric and reality is stark. So my question is this. If all the constraints (about which we are all aware and understanding) were removed, would you change this presentation? If so, how? Is there anything you would try to preserve, and why?”

John paraphrased the question as “how do we square the rhetoric of ‘Learning 2.0′ with the ‘industrial-age’ pedagogy that is still the basic format of so many such events?” and solicited responses from his readers, which you can read below his post.

I wasn’t trying to make a point with the question – I found John Connell’s keynote pertinent and engaging and, in fact, all a keynote should be. When he asked me at lunchtime what I would have changed, I basically replied “Nothing”.

I agreed with the third commenter Greg Cruey when he wrote:

“…while it shouldn’t be the only tool you have, I really don’t feel badly about standing in front of a group of mature, skillful, willing, self-motivated learners and talking to them – especially with the help of a good slide presentation, especially if some discussion is allowed. This is particularly true if my goal is change the way they think about something or to persuade them of something. It is less true if I’m trying to impart a skill.”

But while I agree with John (different John) when he says (#7):

“Your audience will have come up through ‘industrial-age’ pedagogy successfully. They may be more comfortable with this than ‘learning 2.0′ experience.”

On the other hand, commenter Ruby:

“I often get “accused” of wanting to change everything to bring in new technology, but in fact I don’t have a problem with re-assessing what we already do and then deciding what is the best way, given the huge variety of possibilities now available.”

Other pointers – commenter Michelle Selinger links to the AACE online conference Spaces of Interaction which was about transforming the way conferences are run. See the conference archive for audio, slides and the archived (fossilised!) real-time discussion in text-chat form.

The best a presenter can achieve is to create the circumstances under which their audience can do the work of testing the logic of their arguments and thinking through the implications – “How does this fit with what I know already?” and “If that is the case then what else is true?” This is one perspective from which to evaluate potentially transformative technologies.

As a learning technologist with a practical as well as scholarly remit, the least I can do is try out promising new types of experience, shine a light on them and attempt to persuade colleagues to do the same.

It seems to me to follow from this that it would be helpful if e-learning conferences were supported to be experimental events, for the following reasons:

  • The organisers can be pretty confident that the audience comprises enthusiasts who will be understanding about cock-ups.
  • The presenters are sufficiently educationally aware to safeguard the learning experience of their audience, to avoid them being overwhelmed
  • I think it’s important – for the sake of empathy and (self-)credibility – that those of us who urge or welcome experimentation become proof of concept by experimenting ourselves in higher-stakes settings, with all the aptitudes, contingency design and potential pratfalls this implies.
  • We’d see new tools showcased by people invited for their vision and ideas, and it would be dynamite
  • We’d appreciate the barriers between how presenters do things now and how they might do things if we were unrestricted; it’s helpful to reveal the ducks legs paddling furiously.

I’m far from the first person to have formed this opinion, but again the reality is very different. Certainly, conservative expectations discourage experimentation, as John Connell implied in a further post triggered by an account, by another keynote speaker, of how he somewhat aggravated his audience by addressing them from the seating area instead of the stage.

There’s more to that but time’s up for me so I have to leave it dangling.

Written by Mira Vogel

July 27, 2009 at 14:23

Posted in change, event, technologies

British universities must become much more radical with technology, or sink into obscurity

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A salutory warning received by email from JISC:

“British universities will lose their leading international standing unless they become much more radical in their use of new technology, a JISC commissioned report says today.

British universities occupy four of the top ten world rankings and the UK is one of the top destinations for international students. But the Edgeless University, conducted by Demos on behalf JISC, suggests that a slowness to adopt new models of learning will damage this competitive edge.

The research showed that the recession has put universities under intense pressure as threats to funding combine with increasing demand. A wave of applicants is expected to hit universities this summer as record numbers of unemployed young people seek to ‘study out’ the recession.

The report says that online and social media could help universities meet these demands by reaching a greater number of students and improving the quality of research and teaching. Online and DIY learning can create ‘edgeless universities’ where information, skills and research are accessible far beyond the campus walls.

Malcolm Read OBE, Executive Secretary for JISC, which supported the research, said: ‘The UK is a leading force in the delivery of higher education and its universities and colleges have been punching well above their weight for some time.

Safeguarding this reputation means we have to fight harder to stay ahead of developments in online learning and social media, and embracing the Web 2.0 world.

‘This is a great opportunity for UK universities and colleges to open up and make learning more accessible to students who would not traditionally stay on in education. ‘Edgeless universities’ can transform the way the UK delivers, shares and uses the wealth and quality of information its institutions own.’

The report also calls for universities to acknowledge the impact of the internet by making academic research freely available online. Author of the report, Peter Bradwell, said: ‘The internet and social networks mean that universities are now just one part of the world of learning and research. This means we need their support and expertise more than ever. Just as the music industry may have found the answer to declining CD sales with Spotify, universities must embrace online knowledge sharing and stake a claim in the online market for information.’

The report makes a series of recommendations for opening up university education, including making all research accessible to the public. It says teaching should be placed on a more even footing with research in career progression and status and teaching which uses new technology rewarded.

Read the full report www.jisc.ac.uk/edge09

Read more about Demos here www.demos.co.uk

Written by Mira Vogel

June 23, 2009 at 16:59

Posted in change, research, technologies

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Brief-ing: Google Wave, a collaboration environment with playback features

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“Wave is what email would look like if it were invented today”, says one of its developers. Google Wave intends to be a radical departure from previous web-based modes of communication and collaboration, in two ways:

  • Working collaboratively has hitherto involved dealing with the risk that, if more than one person is working on the same thing at the same time, the person who presses Save last will overwrite the work of the person who pressed Save before them.
  • Another problem is continuity and the flow of conversation which is ruptured in instant messaging where you type and then send, read, and then reply.

In a nutshell, Google Wave is a collaboration environment which allows you to see edits in real time, and – to me this is the particularly exciting bit – to replay the collaboration process and see how the work developed. What this means is a) that the barriers to latecomers are lessened and b) that the process – very important in education – of creating the work is available alongside the work itself. There is much more. It’s possible to connect out with other environments a great deal – e.g. the publishing of a Wave to a blog, and the feeding back of any blog comments back to the wave.

First impressions:


  • Luke Daffron points out some specific barriers to adoption in Higher Education and some possible solutions from Google
  • Cole Camplese, is “stunned and impressed”:

“The timing is amazing as well … just as we and so many others are entering into transitional periods with our LMS/CMS [VLEs, online portfolios etc] environments Wave has come along and shattered our notions of what it means to use the web as a platform to empower real time conversations. I know the traditional systems cannot catch up to something like this in time, it is quite frankly just too damn insane of an environment for them to latch onto. This isn’t like bolting a blogging platform to an existing code base, this is about rethinking the way we do things together face to face and online. It is about completely rethinking learning, teaching, authoring, sharing, collaborating, and so much more. I wonder if the rest of you feel as energized by the potential? From where I am sitting, this could be the start of what is next on so many levels.”

Ah, change. Our constant friend. ‘Wave’ is a good name for this.

Although institutions will be able to host their own Waves, there will be a lot of questions about ownership, privacy, accessibility and more. But all in all this sounds pretty exciting, no? I’m thinking, off the top of my head:

  • incentivising students to play an active role in group projects by being able to identify and acknowledge that role
  • being able to play-back a creative process. As well as promoting the formative activity of actually doing a draft rather than pulling an all-nighter just before the deadline, this is potentially a very powerful plagiarism deterrent measure.
  • The connectivity between messaging, blogs and different media, and the seamless flow of the communication promises to be very helpful in improving the Web’s power to represent what its users (increasingly, dwellers, I think) hope to represent.
  • In conversations, Wave is reported to make it easier to respond to particular parts of a message; it helps to make arguments more apposite and potentially deals with the current situation where participants are referring each other to “statements” way back up the discussion thread.

Will think some more.

Bonus link I haven’t watched – Google’s own Google Wave preview.

Written by Mira Vogel

June 3, 2009 at 12:38