Retweet Culture

This week, my Twitterstream brought me the very wonderful Little People art project, so I retweeted the link.

Then I get a message from Harvey: One of my favourites. But hey, I already sent you that link, after our first ever meeting. And you liked it.

This is actually pretty funny, because Harvey and I have been chatting about how everything is being ‘re-found’ and retweeted instead of people actually making new stuff*. Ooh, new thing! Pass it on. Ooh, new thing! And because it’s interesting, we do pass it on, and so do others. BOOM — information explosion.

And because there is just so much information out there, everything old is new again. It’s like those chain-letter emails you get from your mum, warning you about something that everyone else on the Internet knew was a hoax like six years ago. You’d think that everyone would know by now and nobody would press the FWD button, but no, here it comes again, that one about how if you don’t forward this to five friends RIGHT NOW, Barack Obama will come over there and saw the legs off your hamster.

At best, rapid circulation of ideas can be massively stimulating: I find it exciting to be bombarded by quality content that makes me think about my teaching; exciting, and sometimes even inspirational. But there’s a danger that our culture is so obsessed with the next new thing that we are in danger of losing our appreciation of depth. If you want to be shallow in your leisure hours, who cares, right? But it’s switching off that mindset that’s hard, and I think we need to be wary of anything that precludes in-depth analysis or reduces our capacity for critical thinking. Look at the shiny shiny! .

Whether resources like Twitter actually contribute to our alledged attentional decline is open to debate. A much-cited study this week purported to show that Twitter, text-messaging and YouTube don’t stretch your working memory the way Facebook use can. From the Telegraph’s coverage:

[The study's author, Dr Tracy Alloway] said there was evidence linking TV viewing with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) while extensive texting was associated with lower IQ scores.

To be honest, I’d feel a lot happier if this whole story didn’t smack of correlational data being interpreted as causal in yet another attempt to show how society as we know it is circling the drain. Sure, I imagine if you use Twitter for nothing but exchanging 140-character messages, then it probably isn’t giving your brain the full workout. But what about those of us who use Twitter to pass along information about longer articles? I’ve read 10,000-word articles linked to from Twitter in a single sitting. Again, it’s all about how you use the software, a nuance that seems to escape the mainstream media most of the time. I really think that networking culture of the kind fostered by Twitter is a potential goldmine: there’s something there for everybody, and knowledge flow within a network is the future of training and education.

But we do need to consider whether the constant tweeting and retweeting of information might erode the time people used to spend making stuff. To avoid this, I think we need to get serious about blocking out time away from the infostream. There’s a huge temptation, if the tap is always running, to keep holding a bucket under it, but I think that way leads to madness. Step away from the tap and do stuff, don’t just punt ideas around. Otherwise you’re not an expert, you’re a dilettante (Trust that link and stick with it; it’s a good ‘un. Again, probably contains language NSFW.)

For me, the hardest part is finding the right balance between being stimulated by retweet culture into creating new stuff, and spending enough time away from it to actually do the creating. We’re going to have to move to a way of thinking in which infostream management is taught in schools; at the moment, most taught skills focus on how to find what you need, but I suspect that increasingly, what people will really want/need to know is how to manage the flood.

I saw a great tweet recently, but of course I can’t remember who it was, now (if you know, please tell me so I can attribute it appropriately). Someone was showing Twitter to their mother. The mother looked at it and said, But how do you make it stop?

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* Only this week, my brain re-found the term attentionomics. Of course, I didn’t coin it; a quick google will show that I am not in any way the first person to identify this term. Nevertheless, I am going to start using it when explaining what I do, because it’s a good word.

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Stealing From Geeks, Part 1: Educators need heroes too

When I was at school, geeks were social pariahs. They were clever, but not usually overburdened with social skills. Being a geek was pretty uncool, a fact only slightly ameliorated by the general loveliness of my final-year physics class.

But at some point over the last ten years or so, geek went mainstream. Sci-fi movies mostly stopped being referred to as sci-fi movies; they were just movies, and everyone went to see them. Superhero movies likewise flourished; it became socially acceptable to know who Peter Parker was. The Buffyverse demonstrated that geeks could not only be hot, they were also pretty adept at saving the world. (Yes, I know it’s not real. Hush.)

It has helped, I think, that the Internet makes it easier than in any previous time in history to find other people to geek out with, whatever your interest. If you want to find others with whom you can discuss the finer points of sculpting a model of your own cerebral cortex using only condensed milk, duct tape and that weird ash residue left over from setting fire to your entire manga collection after your girlfriend left you that fourth time, there has never been a better time to be alive.

Educators, who are themselves often pretty geeky, are starting to understand how to make the internet work for them, and there is phenomenal growth through platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn as people establish personal learning networks (PLNs) to connect with other educators, with the chief aim of sharing the challenges of communicating knowledge and keeping learners engaged — though naturally there is some socialising and social networking along the way. Hey, we’re humans too.

But, because a lot of educators have come relatively late to the internet, I think we’re doing this networking in often amateurish ways: fumbling around in the dark, trying to find people who can educate us.

Educators need role models, but there hasn’t been time to grow them organically, because as a sector we’re relatively new to the internet, and the idea of using it for our personal and professional development is similarly recent.

Consider the emergence of role-models in the technology sector, the spiritual and often actual home of bona fide geeks. What happened, roughly, was this:

● The internet was born
● Geeks (the only people using the internet at the time) started using it to talk to each other
● A shared culture was born around the technology industry and the internet
● A culture of commentary on that subculture emerged (which I’m sure happens with all subcultures, but geeks are particularly notorious for their analytical skills)
● Some high-profile commentators emerged
● Those high-profile commentators became role models within the technology subculture
● Geek went mainstream
● The same high-profile commentators are now role models to many people outside the technology subculture, because so many of us use technology.

Then consider educational subculture and its relationship with the internet:

● Education emerged several thousand years ago.
● An education subculture emerged and stayed largely unchanged for a very, very long time.
● The printing press was invented, so it became easier for people to get their hands on educational materials, but education subculture was largely unaffected.
● Literacy became more widespread, and seen as desirable; education started becoming less elitist, but still its subculture remained largely unchanged.
● The internet was invented. Most educators didn’t really notice, except for the additional demands placed on them by their email inboxes.
● As the proportion of educators with some degree of ‘net literacy increased, educators finally started using the internet to grow and modify their subculture.
● Now what?

I’m not saying there aren’t role-model educators out there, but they’re not there for me like technology role models are there for me. With rare exceptions, I can’t find them like I can the tech guys, because their stories aren’t woven into the fabric of my life and work.

Simon at Infinitely Orthogonal talks about the emerging culture of storytelling within the tech sector:

They write about coding – which I ‘get’ in the same patronising way that I ‘get’ Mondrian and Tarkovsky ie not in any real sense other than the purely personal, but I want to feel like I get it so I brush any misunderstanding under a mental carpet and bestow them with my attention.

But they also write stuff about work, recognisable human work. Which I totally get, grok and delight in.

These are people like Rands, Joel Spolsky, and Merlin Mann (the last better known for his work on productivity, but who still has one foot in tech culture). They got to where they are by being dedicated, hardcore geeks — but they are also, as Simon says, recognisably human. Learn why Rands is stalking your bookcase; watch Merlin Mann, dishevelled and unslept, explain that he’s writing a book. Read about how Joel Spolsky’s time in the Israeli armed forces informs his company’s product development strategy.

We — educators — don’t have role models like these guys*. Or if we do, I don’t know about them; they’re not part of my educational subculture. From where I am, I see:

● subject specialists who write about their specialism, often to the exclusion of the human element
● educators who were already famous and who are now using social networking software to grow their brands
● thousands, maybe millions, of small-time educators, each with their own tiny megaphone, all shouting “listen to me; my message is valuable.”

(I have no illusions; I’m firmly in that last category.)

We need to aspire to something; geeks already know this. It can be hard to honour your intellectual aspirations when you’re buried in admin and teaching preparation and grappling with the steep tech gradient between the stuff you’d like to use and what there is. But take a photo-tour of Joel Spolsky’s Fog Creek Software offices and tell me that’s not somewhere you’d want to work. And now transpose that to the educational setting: I want my Twitterstream to be flooded with examples of beautiful, well-thought-out university architecture, pictures that make me stop what I’m doing and think Wow, maybe one day. Sure, there’s a funding explosion waiting to happen in higher education, and it will never have money like technology has money, but a little bit of healthy jealousy can be motivational. I want to believe that one day, that will be me, because we are constantly bombarded by messages that education, along with the rest of the world, is going to hell in a handbasket, and that gets pretty tiring after a while.

We need storytellers to remind us, on those bad days, why we do what we do. We need passionate, articulate, geeky-as-hell educators who are funny and flawed and compelling to read. People we can point to and say “I want to be like her”.

Education needs heroes and leaders. Let’s grow some.

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* I’m not wholly happy to realise that it is mostly guys; someone please point me towards geeky, funny, tech-literate women who write about science/technology/education and how they learn from their screw-ups. Thanks.

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Teaching naked in the age of big education

PowerPoint is currently making headlines in education, though probably not for the reasons Microsoft would like.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that José Bowen of Southern Methodist University has banished computers from his classrooms:

Mr. Bowen wants to discourage professors from using PowerPoint, because they often lean on the slide-display program as a crutch rather using it as a creative tool. Class time should be reserved for discussion, he contends, especially now that students can download lectures online and find libraries of information on the Web.

That same article in the Chronicle cites research conducted by my colleague Sandi Mann, showing that many students find lectures boring, and that the most commonly-cited reason for this is use of PowerPoint.

So perhaps ‘teaching naked’ (sans PowerPoint, gentle reader) might cure students’ boredom and encourage instructors to write more creative, interactive classes?

Well, while I’m curious to know where José Bowen’s nebulous ‘often’ statistic comes from, it may be true that lack of confidence encourages instructors to rely more on slides: in a recent pilot study, Andy Morley and I found that of the university lecturers we surveyed, 91% said that since starting teaching, they had reduced the amount of text they used on their slides. We interpret this to mean that increased practice leads to increased confidence; the more comfortable you are with your subject, the less material you ‘need’ on the slide. However, it’s still a big leap from there to asserting that instructors routinely use slides “as a crutch”; there are plenty of other reasons they might choose to use slides, something Mr Bowen apparently chooses to overlook.

There are really two issues in play here: taking slides out of the classroom, and making higher education more interactive. They’re kind of all twisted up together, so here are my thoughts about teaching naked, and why student engagement and class size present such a knotty problem in this era of massification and McDonaldization in HE.

1. Large class sizes turn higher education into a broadcast medium

Maybe José Bowen only teaches small classes. If so, he is very fortunate, because small-group teaching is brilliant. It allows instructors to get to know their students and allows students to engage, make mistakes, and ask questions in a relatively low-pressure environment.

But try getting students to do these things surrounded by 300 of their peers — it’s like pulling teeth. Not to mention that you need a decent pair of lungs, or a microphone, to maintain order. On this scale, education is pretty much a broadcast medium, and there’s not much you can do about it except ensure that, when you are talking (which really shouldn’t be all the time), you have appropriate visual aids, since we know these benefit learning.

So no, teaching naked is not necessarily the best thing to do when you have really big classes, as many of us do. It might be appropriate, but then you also need to consider that:

2. Teaching naked is more suitable to some subject areas than others

Some of my colleagues teach slideless, and their lectures are enduringly popular, seemingly undiminished by the absence of visual aids. To take one example, material in social psychology is rarely inherently visual; what’s important is the ability to spin a decent yarn, and I am glad to know and work with people who exemplify this approach.

But when I give lectures (remember, 300 students) on neuroanatomy or the visual system, I show diagrams, because then students can see what I am talking about. I could, of course, describe the brain’s visual pathways in excruciating detail, but students would soon be adrift in a sea of unfamiliar anatomical terminology, and I expect my lectures would be bitterly unpopular. Why add unnecessarily to the lecture’s extraneous cognitive load? Writers everywhere know the answer: show, don’t tell.

Of course, I don’t have to use slides as my visual aids, but they’re a highly visible medium that I know I can use well in large classes, so I use ‘em. (Your mileage may vary.) But this then throws up a whole new problem:

3. Students expect that their classes are about information delivery.

Slides have become a big part of this expectation. Yes folks, we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t: students have been known to complain when staff don’t use lecture slides, or don’t make them available. There are probably many reasons for this (ease of note-taking, knowing how to spell technical terminology, zoning out and missing something critical, or missing the entire lecture and needing a frame of reference — and no doubt there are plenty more), but I think they all boil down to the importance of possessing information.

Implicit in this delivery model of education is the suggestion that students are passive vessels into which learning is transferred via their attendance at lectures, a situation which may be exacerbated by use of slide-based handouts. The Chronicle notes that:

The biggest resistance to Mr. Bowen’s ideas has come from students, some of whom have groused about taking a more active role during those 50-minute class periods.

Of course, if students are to take a more active role than sitting in lectures, this requires that they have done some reading around the topic. But getting students to do even basic reading prior to class isn’t that straightforward; for one thing, since the introduction of tuition fees, many students now hold down part-time or even full-time jobs to pay their way through university. I have known students choose modules on the basis of what will fit around work, rather than their own academic interests, and I have found out the hard way that even when you say “this prior reading is mandatory for the session”, you either quickly reduce the number of people coming to that class, or end up adapting the session to accommodate those students who have not, despite your advice, done the reading. So here too, ‘teaching naked’, if we take that to mean ‘facilitating student discussions of material they have read outside class, in the absence of computers or other overt delivery methods’, might not work well.

So, should I kick computers out of my lecture theatre?

My honest feeling is that that teaching naked, much as I admire the principle, isn’t always compatible with how big higher education actually functions. We do have small-group teaching, and we try to keep that as interactive as possible, but plenty of our teaching is still lecture-based, and I think it’s a mistake to rejected computers (and slideware) out of hand, no matter how cool it is to diss PowerPoint right now*.

Fundamentally, it’s dogmatic to apply any hardline approach, whether that be ‘no slides’ or ‘slides all the way’. Educators are supposed to be smart — so let’s act like it.

* Actually, it’s been cool for quite a while. Lincoln took some stick about the Gettysburg Address and it all sort of snowballed from there.

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Let’s diss incentives: why potential rewards are killing your creativity

Yesterday I got a good start on the day. I was working by about 8:20am, getting right into that early-morning productivity groove.

And then, at pretty much 11:20am on the nose, I fell out of it. Like, gone — and you know it’s not coming back.

Cut to the other day at work. Big meeting. Big meeting. One of those once-a-year, this-is-where-life-changing-decisions-get-made specials. We were discussing productivity, because as a school — as an institution — we need to publish more research. The bottom line is that research funding, not student numbers, is increasingly going to be where we get our money from. And, you know, most of us only have about 15-20% of our time allocated for research (not 50% or higher, as is the case at some other institutions). That’s tricky when we compete against colleagues at those institutions to get our work published; level playing field, it ain’t.

But we are where we are, and we have to make the best of that. So: productivity.

At this übermeeting, the excellent suggestion was made that staff try to ring-fence, for doing research, those times when they are at their most productive. Having tried that myself this year, I now know that my best times are between about 7 and 11am, and then again between 4 and 7pm. Oh, and also between about 10:30pm and midnight. (Not exactly compatible with the traditional working day, is it? You see why it took me so long to figure out how to get anything done.)

So, great: time freed up. Let’s do stuff, already.

Except that it’s 11:20am, and I’ve lost all focus. This is a very vulnerable time of day for me, productivity-wise; I need an incentive. Okay, so focus. Potential rewards of writing this paper include fame and adulation … No, seriously — it beefs up my CV and potentially buys me more research hours next year. Who wouldn’t want to sit down and get that paper published?

But … (you just knew there was a ‘but’)

Matthew Taylor writes about why cash makes you stupid sometimes. In sum, research suggests that giving people a financial incentive to solve complex problems actually makes them perform worse. [Edit: and more evidence just popped up in my inbox. ]When there’s something at stake, even if it’s as simple as losing a thing you didn’t even have in the first place, creativity goes to hell in a handbasket. The sheer potential of what could be is enough to make many of us lose our nerve.

Of course, the reward doesn’t have to be financial — just attractive. So, that paper I’m supposed to be writing? Not so much. Instead, hand-wringing. Fear of failure. Olympic-quality procrastination.

I’ve written before about how constraints allow creativity to flourish. And what is a conditional reward if not a constraint, right? Albeit a time- or outcome-specific one.

That may be true when you’re in flow, but when you’re at a low point in your productivity cycle, incentives are the enemy of creativity. They just sit there looming over you, putting you off. “You must know the answer, surely? Oh, come on!” It’s like having your very own Jeremy Paxman.

In the end, after several hours spent doing everything except the one thing I really needed to, I solved my productivity problem by going back (again) to 43 Folders, and finding what I needed: the dash. Half an hour of ten-minute timers later, my analysis was done. I love 43 Folders*.

Conclusion: when you know you’re not at your best, don’t focus on the reward; just knowing it’s there will eat you alive. Focus on putting one foot in front of the other. Repeatedly.

(The more driven and confident among you are probably wondering what the big deal is, here: “If you need to do something, just get on with it, right?” Sorry, maybe I should have said at the start: this post isn’t for you — though I think I want to be you when I grow up. But thanks for reading anyway :o)

* Seriously, go there if you get stuck, and Merlin Mann will kick your ass. For free!

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How my husband broke my brain: a user’s guide to cognitive load theory

It’s the weekend. Other couples tour Ikea, visit garden centres, wipe chocolate ice-cream off their children’s faces. My husband and I debate whether or not it matters that people don’t understand what a browser is.*

My argument is that if they can’t tell the difference between a browser and search engine technology, that’s just good design. Browsers, search engines … who cares what they’re called, so long as everyone knows how to use them?

His argument is People who don’t understand the simple fundamentals of the technology they use are only ever going to scratch the surface of what they can do with it. The full benefits of technology shouldn’t be the preserve of the few, but of the many, and people need to take responsibility for learning about this stuff.

Of course, we’re both kind of right … so we throw some ideas around, iron out wrinkles in the discussion. He can’t believe that people might not be interested in how their technology actually works; I point out that a lack of understanding of basic physics never stopped anyone from enjoying radio, television, or a movie.

And then he drops the bomb.

“I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate the benefits that have accrued from understanding of new technologies. For example …”

By the time he gets to ‘accrued’ in the first sentence, I’ve lost it. “What?

“It’s not that complicated,” he says. (My husband is frequently smarter than I am, and most of the time he knows whether I am genuinely lost or just being an intellectual slob.)

“It is if you don’t know what the idea at the end of the sentence is,” I say, miffed. “If I’d been reading your sentence, I could have gone back and parsed it again. But this … there were like four abstract concepts before it even began meaning anything.”

“Huh,” says my husband.

“You totally overloaded my working memory!” I say.

My husband, who is used to comments like this by now, says nothing.

“It’s the curse of knowledge,” I tell him.

“It’s what?”

The curse of knowledge. When you know what you’re talking about, but the audience doesn’t, and you can’t share their perspective, because you know it already, and you can’t put yourself in the position of un-knowing it, so it biases how you communicate. You knew where you were headed in that sentence, but I didn’t have a clue. I couldn’t activate a schema until I knew what it was about, so I was overwhelmed by the intrinsic cognitive load of what you were saying.”

“Okay,” says my husband. (Not “What?” or “It was just a sentence,” or “Do you have to bring your work home with you?” Reader, this is why I married him.)

There is a pause.

“I think,” he says, “I think I tend to do that a lot, because I like making people laugh, and the punchline always has to go at the end.”

He considers it for a moment. “The benefits of understanding new technologies cannot be overestimated.”

“Perfect.” And we go about our day.

There was a point to this story, beyond confirming your suspicions that my husband and I are perhaps not the sort of people you want at your dinner party. The point is simply this:

Give your audience some context from the outset, or you will lose them immediately. This applies in general, but especially if the information you want to convey is complex or abstract.

And never underestimate the curse of knowledge.

* My favourite bit of the video is the guy at around 1:19 who says he uses Firefox “… because my friend came over to my house and erased all my other browsers and installed it and said ‘you’re using this now.'”

[Edit: My husband wasn't entirely satisfied with how I had represented his argument, so I've reworded that section since this was first posted.]

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The McDonaldization of technology in education – do you want slides with that?

ICICTE is all about people who use technology in education. This is a pretty broad aegis, which I think is great — highly specialist conferences sometimes seem in danger of disappearing up their own abstracts.

So I went along to ICICTE last week to tell people about our work with lecture slides and lecturers’ attitudes to slides, but conferences are all about the exchange of ideas, and I spent most of my visit listening to other people talk about their work.

I’m always fascinated to watch others interact with slideware and their audience, and the breadth of experiences that ensue. Standing up, sitting down, talking around the slides, reading out bits from slides, skipping over the slides. One sentence per slide; 21 lines of dense text (yes, I am sad enough to count). Ten slides, forty slides; both for a 12-minute presentation. Once they know what my research involves, people sometimes get a bit twitchy about their own slides (now I think about it, not unlike the reaction when you tell them you’re a psychologist — apparently I’m building a career on making people nervous), but I try not to be judgemental: variety is the spice of life — and anyway, someone might turn my results upside-down tomorrow.

One speaker I particularly enjoyed was Kevin Burden, who talked about furthering educators’ personal and professional development using ICT. He talked about the need to filter technology by its qualities and suitability for the task at hand: for example, blogging is a great way to promote teacher reflection, but might not be such a great tool for peer interaction. Essentially, he was promoting mindful use of technology.

Mindful use of technology is a real issue in education. Kevin’s approach is much more considered than the kind often taken by institutions, which have the amazing ability to issue blanket edicts (e.g., “Thou Shalt Use Blackboard”) without necessarily considering whether it’s in the best interests of the staff or students involved. I have nothing against Blackboard, and I support wholeheartedly the emergence of VLEs, but I sometimes think their implementation would be better left to relevant teaching staff. (Then again, to get everyone on board, sometimes you just have to legislate, because nature abhors cognitive dissonance)

Kevin’s talk got me thinking — again — about use of visual aids in teaching, and why people started using software like PowerPoint in the first place. Obviously it looked much better, more professional, than scrawled or photocopied overhead transparencies — and, like other new media, it was easily editable, copyable and redistributable. All great reasons for adopting a new technology.

But how many people used the jump from one form of technology to another to pause for a moment and reflect on whether these visual aids were always the right tools for the job?

Not very many; we see that now in the near-ubiquitous use of electronic slides to support lectures. So prevalent is the notion that lectures must have slides that when students miss a lecture, they don’t ask what we covered: they ask for a copy of the slides. To students, the slides are the lecture.

Which does make me wonder what value anyone thinks we’re adding by standing there at the front and clicking now and again to make the slides transition.

Simon Schurville, in his ICICTE keynote,* discussed the massification and McDonaldization of higher education: the idea that to deliver the same experience to so many, a very simple, identical, easily-replicable product is required. He asked, Is this really what we want higher education to be like?

I thought about the McDonaldization of lecture slides. Do we honestly want students’ experience of university, the world over, to consist of staring at yet another mindless set of bullet-points? Do we really want to foster the expectation that a lecture is not a lecture unless every point is clearly laid out in 24-point Times New Roman, up there on the screen and right there in front of you in all its dead-tree reproduced glory?

In short, do you really want slides with that?

* Sadly, Simon was taken ill a couple of days before the conference; the keynote was delivered in his absence by Greg Anderson and Raymond Welch.

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Harvey: why every educator needs a pet pain in the ass

My friend Harvey is in the enviable position of being an instructor and having a job in the real world. (He insists he’s not an academic, but among his many other talents, he’s a damn fine educator.)

Harvey is routinely upset by the extent to which ostensibly prosaic ideas about education are treated as revolutionary. For example, I was tweeting about George Papandreou‘s speech at ICICTE, and how he was evangelising the need to empower people to understand and use technology, and the need to educate them about how to evaluate information and judge its authenticity. It was basic reportage; this guy might be Greece’s next Prime Minister — his father served as PM, by the way, so there’s precedent — and it was interesting to hear what he had to say about the intersection of education and technology. Asher Rospigliosi summarises the key points here.

I thought Papandreou talked a good game; nothing very new, to a conference of people already sold on the adoption of technology in education, but he expressed himself very clearly and seemed to have genuine commitment to change. He gave a brief nod to Barack Obama when he said that it was important to educate people about the coming changes and the responsibilities those would bring (he did explicitly mention Obama, though I’m sure I wasn’t the only one wondering whether Greece’s leader of the opposition is also a secret Spider-man fan).

So I tweeted some of the key points of George Papandreou’s address, and Harvey was all, like, “Yeah, and? This ain’t rocket-science.” (I paraphrase; I think his original tweet used the phrase “bleedin’ obvious”.)

This comes on the back of conversations with Harvey in which he was dismayed to learn that educators do not routinely make deliberate use of narrative in structuring their lessons; that they are not all aware of the complex attentional demands created by having to read dense text off slides during a lecture; that they are not, in short, necessarily all that educated about attention and learning, outside their own subject areas.

So by now you’re probably thinking that Harvey is a royal smart-ass and world-class know-it-all, right?

Well, yeah.

But the thing with Harvey is that he’s way ahead of the curve in terms of adopting narrative in his teaching, encouraging student interaction, making appropriate and minimalist use of visual aids, etc. Much of this is surely down to his non-traditional background and subject specialism, but a substantial chunk of it is absolutely down to his being a professional pain in the ass.

And I love it.

Because, when Harvey points out that this stuff is, to use his terminology, bleedin’ obvious, it encourages me to test the things he take for granted, to be able to demonstrate empirically that they work. I work in science, and we’re all about evidence; pretty soon now I hope to publish a paper on why minimalist slides are so important for learning, and then I can approach my colleagues and say “Look: here are the numbers. This really works.”

Critically, I know the concepts I’m championing are not in widespread use right now, else educational conferences wouldn’t keep inviting me to present my work. (Okay, so really, there’s nothing new under the sun; but maybe these ideas need to be recycled once in a while — we’re certainly in need of them right now as we struggle to avoid being derailed by the very technology we seek to promote.)

What I’m trying to say is this: having my ass kicked on a regular basis about the fundamentals of teaching, by someone with a bit of objectivity, galvanises me to educate my colleagues — because if I’m learning anything from my travels in educational research, it’s that there are many educators out there to whom this stuff is often far from obvious.

Thank you, Harvey; education needs more pains in the ass like you.

[This article has been edited since its original posting; this is what happens when your posting deadline is the lifespan of your laptop battery.]

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