Tag Archives: education

The search for context in education and journalism (wicked problems, Wikipedia, and the rise of the info-ferret)

It’s a January evening, a schoolnight, and I’m sitting on my sofa thinking Stuff it. I’m tired and it’s dark and I worked hard today, damn it. It’s pretty hard, at that moment, to engage with with the things I know are really good for me, like going to the gym, eating right, and engaging with decent journalism that actually says something worthwhile about the state of the world.

Ah, journalism. Why is it so hard to engage with good, wholesome news? You know, instead of the junk-food variety?

Well, for starters, it takes effort; something in short supply when you consider that UK academics apparently rack up an average 55-hour working week. So if I sometimes choose entertainment over learning, maybe it’s because I’ve been thinking really hard for 11 hours already.

Here’s the more interesting question, though: why should it take so much effort to engage with the news? I think the record will show that I did okay in school and that I know a few long words. I can follow an argument; on a good day, I can win one. But watching or reading the news and really, really getting it (not just at the who-shot-whom level, but understanding why), frequently eludes me.

For the longest time, whenever I read the news, I’ve often felt the depressing sensation of lacking the background I need to understand the stories that seem truly important.

I didn’t write that, but I could have. By the time I’d got old enough to be properly interested in the ongoing story that is Northern Ireland, no newspaper was interested in explaining the context to me. I knew it had to do with territory, nationality and religious differences, but who were ‘republicans’? What did they want? The newspapers all assumed that I knew a whole bunch of stuff that actually, I didn’t know. The dictionary was no real help, the Internet was still in short trousers, and Wikipedia didn’t yet exist. (Not that we had the Internet at home. We didn’t even have a computer.) And I was at that delicate age where I didn’t want to look stupid by asking what might have been a dumb question. (Actually, it wasn’t a dumb question at all, but I didn’t know that then.)

We would shy away from stories that seemed to require a years-long familiarity with the news and incline instead toward ephemeral stories that didn’t take much background to understand—crime news, sports updates, celebrity gossip. This approach gave us plenty to talk about with friends, but I sensed it left us deprived of a broader understanding of a range of important issues that affect us without our knowing.

Secret-that’s-not-really-a-secret: the guy who wrote this is a journalist. His name is Matt Newman, and he’s reporting here for Harvard’s Nieman Foundation about how modern journalism bypasses context in favour of immediate, juicy details..

News is complicated. To make sense of complicated things, we need context. And the newspapers aren’t delivering that context; even journalists say so.

In fairness, context is hard to come by when — as with Northern Ireland — your story pretty much defines the phrase wicked problem (see also its big brother, The Middle East). How much information is ‘enough’? How much background would you need to really understand the issues surrounding Obama’s healthcare reforms? Or the debate on university fees?

We need something, and traditional news media aren’t providing it.

But we have Google and Wikipedia, right? So there’s really no excuse for not being able to find out at least something about nearly everything. Apparently, when a big news story breaks, people really do converge on Wikipedia, looking for context; we are a generation empowered, as no generation before us, to find stuff out.


Except that I still get emails from my students that read What does [word from the course materials] mean? I used to write lots of replies of the biting-my-tongue variety, politely suggesting that the student take advantage of the resources at their disposal1, but eventually I got fed up with this, and wrote an FAQ in which I was somewhat more blunt, though I hope in a kind way.

My favourite was a student who emailed me after a deadline, apologising for the poor quality of the coursework he had submitted, and explaining that he hadn’t known what one of the words in the essay question meant — so he had just tried his best and hoped. This wasn’t a word that was archaic or obscure. This was a word widely employed in psychology and related subjects. It’s not in the paper dictionary on my desk (which, admittedly, is 20 years old), but it’s very, very easy to find and learn about online.

It’s not about having access to the information; all my students have Internet access at least some of the time. Too many (N > 0) of my students are just not in the habit of looking for information when they get stuck, like someone forgot to tell them that the Internet is good for more than just email and Facebook.

But students will surf Wikipedia and YouTube all day long, given half a chance, so what’s that about?

At Playful ’09, Tassos Stevens talked about the power of indeterminacy, and whether, if someone throws a ball, you can look away before you find out if the other guy catches it. Suspense is immensely engaging.

Wikipedia is like this: it’s a barely game, where the idea is to answer as many “Ooh, what does that mean?” questions as possible, using only the links from one article to the next. In suspensefulness terms, Wikipedia is an infinite succession of ball-throws, sort of Hitchcock: The Basketball Years. (Okay, so Tassos was talking about cricket, but my point stands.)

But education obviously doesn’t feel like a barely game, because students don’t behave there like they do when they’re surfing Wikipedia. So I guess we need more suspense. This might mean being less didactic, and asking more questions. Preferably messy ones, with no right answers.

I think that if we really want to turn our students into information ferrets, running up the trouserlegs of their canonical texts to see what goodness might be lurking there in the dark [This metaphor is making me uncomfortable — Ed.] then maybe we, like the news media, need to get better at providing context.

If students email me with simple queries rather than trying to figure things out on their own, maybe it’s because the education system hasn’t been feeding their inner info-ferrets. (Note to schools: teaching kids how to google is a completely different issue from teaching them to google and making it into a habit, and some days, it feels like you only deal in the former.)

We exist, currently, on the cusp: everything’s supposed to be interactive, but not everyone’s got their heads around this yet. (“Wait — you mean we’re supposed to participate? Actively??”) The old-school, didactic models of education and journalism (“sit down, shut up and listen; we know best”) are crumbling. And some of the solutions about how to fix journalism look a lot like the arguments being rehearsed in education about how to make it valuable and keep it relevant: develop rich content that your customers can help build and be part of; accept that you might need a model which permits the existence of premium and budget customers. (This is going to be highly contentious in higher education, and I still don’t know what I think about it. But I don’t think the idea is going away anytime soon.)

I ran one of the many iterations of this post past Simon Bostock and he wrote back: Newspapers have learned the wrong lesson of attentionomics. I think they’ve got it bang-on as far as briefly grabbing our attention goes,2 but I don’t think it’s doing much for our understanding of the news, and some days, I worry that education is headed the same way.

Jason Fry asks, if we were starting today, would we do this? This is a great question for journalism, but it’s also pretty pertinent to education: we still teach students in ways that make only marginal concessions to the Internet’s existence, treating it as little more than a dictionary, encyclopedia, or storage container.

Given that nearly anything can be found with a few keystrokes, if we had to redesign education from scratch, what would it look like?

More like Wikipedia. More ferret-friendly. And maybe upside-down.


[Acknowledgements: major kudos to Simon for linking to Ed Yong’s great piece on breaking the inverted pyramid in news reporting, for reading drafts of this post while I was losing my mind, and for the juicy, lowbrow goodness of LMGTFY, below.]

1 I suppose I could slam my students with Let Me Google That For You, but I prefer to save the passive-aggressive stuff for my nearest and dearest.

2 If this post were a headline, it would read STUDENTS TOO LAZY TO GOOGLE. (Admittedly this would be closely followed by SUB-EDITOR TOO DRUNK TO CRAFT ORIGINAL HEADLINE and BLOGGER CHEERFULLY IGNORES CLICHÉ.)


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Everything is upside-down: turning lectures into homework with problem-based learning

The other day, I stumbled (via Tony Baldasaro) on this gem:

How much more could happen in our classrooms if we created more opportunities for students to learn basic skills and content outside of class? … Class, rather than being a time when all kids sat and received instruction, could be the time when they reinforce skills by doing problem sets, worked on real-world application projects, collaborated with teachers to reinforce concepts, etc…

The post is called Inversions; go read it, it’s only short.

This is such a wonderful, simple idea. And of course, many good instructors and educators are already doing just that — as Chris Lehmann points out, this is essentially what happens in English class when kids read a book as homework, then discuss it during class time. Students use out-of-class time to acquire content, freeing up class time for process. Because processing, doing, is how we learn, and students can get instant feedback from the instructor. Dialogue happens; moreover, students have the opportunity to learn vicariously from other students’ participation.

But this isn’t happening enough in universities, for reasons I have written about before. Big classes and a student body working to pay university fees — or to be able to afford food — mean that often, lectures become an info-dump, because you can’t guarantee that the majority of students have done the reading — and in my view, good teaching takes up from where the student is, not where they should be.

And I do get tired of the sound of my own voice in a two-hour lecture. Oh, I can teach for two hours; this post isn’t coming from a place of laziness. On some level I am probably even a bit of a show-off, or I probably wouldn’t enjoy teaching as much as I do. But, you know, no matter how enthusiastic I am, just talking for two hours is going to lose even the keenest student for periods of time, as their attention ebbs and flows. Estimates of attention span vary wildly, and a big chunk of that is about whether you are in flow.

Passive listening probably does not encourage flow in our students.

Attention span also varies as a function of ability, which is one reason why it’s so important to teach in a way that reaches everyone. And it’s unreasonable, I think, to expect anyone’s attention to last for a two-hour lecture, which is why so many of my colleagues are currently trying to think of ways to break up the time a bit. (The university schedules two-hour lectures in the way that many people schedule one-hour meetings: it seems to be a convenient and universally-understood unit of time, but may not be exactly what is needed.)

So how about we approach this problem from the other direction: make the classroom about practice, and perhaps we can nurture people’s curiosity in the topic and encourage them to pursue the more detailed background content afterwards?

Obviously this strategy is not without risk. Techniques like problem-based learning (PBL) have been found to improve students’ engagement and critical thinking skills, and students who have used PBL seem to hold their own against students educated more traditionally. But I have heard many concerns expressed that PBL can lead to patchy subject knowledge, though I am having trouble digging up much in the way of evidence for that (if you can help me out here, please leave a comment!). Wikipedia has a nice section on the cognitive load issues around problem-based learning; the key thing seems to be to start gently and gradually withdraw support, with the instructor increasingly becoming more of a facilitator.

I wouldn’t necessarily have tried this with first-year students, who perhaps haven’t acquired enough basic subject knowledge. But final-year students have been up to their elbows in the subject for long enough that I figured I could probably meet them halfway.

So, I rewrote my lecture.

In fact, my slides didn’t actually need a great deal of reworking, though I took some more of the text off them. I made lots of duplicate slides: the first with an image, and a question or two; the second, with simple labels. It was a pretty basic format: here’s some stuff — now figure out what you’re looking at.

PBL hippocampus question.png

And then, when they’d had a few minutes, in small groups, to try and work out what was going on, I’d ask for suggestions, and we’d talk a bit about those, and then I’d show them the second slide:

PBL hippocampus answer.png

… and we’d talk about that for a short while. I started off with some basics, and then we got into more and more complex stuff. Occasionally I would remind them, “start with what you already know.” Students had a worksheet that duplicated the images and questions, so they didn’t waste time and attention copying things down, and could concentrate on the what and why.

We did this for two hours (with a break), in a warm lecture theatre, in the afternoon, and nobody fell asleep. Students asked questions, made guesses. It was genuinely interactive.

In many ways, I was lucky. This lecture was all about the visuals: pictures of brains with stuff wrong with them. Had I been discussing highly abstract and theoretical concepts, it may not have worked well. Further, the lecture theatre was pretty much exactly right for the size of class: small, with about 60 seats and an aisle up the middle. I could, and did, reach all the groups; had we been in the 450-seat lecture theatre with people sprinkled everywhere, much of that class dynamic and atmosphere would have been lost.

Of course, not everything went brilliantly. There was a little too much content, and what I should have done was set the remainder as homework, rather than trying to cram it all in. I lost one group at the break, though this isn’t uncommon and you never really know why they’ve left; often it may be nothing to do with you and everything to do with their personal circumstances, and I never like to ask, in case it really is the latter and they are mortified that you’ve brought it up, or noticed their absence.

I won’t really be able to gauge the success of the session until the exam results, and student module evaluations, are in. But overall, it felt right. It felt like a good way to teach, and I really, really hope it inspired students to tackle the background reading. The explicit feedback I have had from students so far has been pretty positive, and a colleague who sat in on the session to observe seemed to really enjoy it, and said some very nice things. All of which gives me a little more faith in my own experience and enjoyment of the session.

Next stop: trying this again, with a bigger class. Anyone want to play along?


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Stealing From Geeks, Part 2: Educators need to geek out, big time

Other people’s presentation slides used to drive me crazy. “You’ve got Arial and Times New Roman and fifteen lines of text in 14-point font! Those colours are hideous! Stop with the serif fonts already! Are you going to read aloud every point?”

Then I gave up caffeine.

No, really — about two years ago, a casual conversation with my colleague Andy about minimalist slide design in teaching suddenly sat up and grew legs. We went from idle discussion to brainstorming ideas to me going home over Christmas wondering if I would get my brain to slow down to less than 1,000rpm. We managed to secure funding from the Centre for Research-Informed Teaching, and for the last 18 months, we’ve been exploring the effects of using minimalist slide presentations on people’s memory for information. I blog about it, think about it, and chase down ideas that might relate to it. I have even — *shudder* — acquired new skills to pursue it.

In short, I have well and truly geeked out over my research. And it feels great.

I posted last(ish) time about how education can learn from the technology sector by growing its own storytellers and role models, but I think there’s plenty more to take away from the home of geek, starting with trying to become one.

Here’s the thing they don’t tell you in school: your inner geek is the most powerful learning resource you will ever have. It’s the thing keeping you at your computer or from putting down your book until well past bedtime; the thing needling you with “Hey, that’s interesting …” It holds your attention when you’re unfocused; delights or enrages you in the face of apathy or exhaustion. Your inner geek won’t rest until it consumes you in the fire of your own attention.

Harness this awesome power, and you can do nearly anything you want: a geek illuminated from within by the source of their own geeky pleasure is one of the brightest lights in the universe.

Geek, should you need to know how to get there, is basically a place where your interests and your strengths meet:

your geek space.png

(And since we’re on a Venn diagram jag, why not check whether you’re a dweeb, a geek, a nerd, or a dork?)

Getting in touch with your inner geek is the fast track to achievement. Over the last two years, I’ve worked harder than I ever worked in my life — yes, even during my Ph.D. — and I’ve loved every minute. Hard work isn’t all that hard if it’s doing something you love. I also got to take our work to conferences in San Francisco and Corfu; being a geek comes with some pretty cool perks. (Okay, so I also got to go to Milton Keynes. This was a useful exercise in humility.)

Geeking out provides students with good role models, giving them permission to indulge their own intellect and curiosity. Show me a good educator, and I’ll show you someone whose teaching involves some variation on “Hey, look at this — isn’t that cool?” Students need to see that geeking out can lead to rewarding careers. Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman of Mythbusters have become poster-boys for scientific curiosity, but they also get invited to the Emmys. I want to give them both a big hug for making being a geek cool; the cooler being curious and knowledgeable becomes, the easier it will be for students everywhere to own their inner geek and move forward in the world.

Education can help shape a culture in which geeking out is not just socially acceptable, but actually desirable. One of the big lies often peddled about geeks is that we’re happiest alone. I don’t think that’s true: the internet in its current form basically exists because geeks liked talking to other geeks. (Or at least reading about them from a safe distance.) When geeks hook up and reinforce their shared geekiness, amazing things happen. You see this in academic departments and at conferences where conversations blossom into full-on nerdouts as two or more people realise they have an interest in common, often kicking off with “Hey, do you know if … ?” It happened to me; you wouldn’t be reading this if it hadn’t.

Most technological developments of the last two decades (centuries? millennia?) were created by geeks who didn’t care whether people knew they were smart; who didn’t worry about looking cool, because they were too busy chasing down their idea. Education needs to reclaim that indifference to what’s “cool” and set about showing that growing and following a passion is one of the most rewarding — and genuinely cool — things you can do.

We don’t geek out enough; we certainly don’t let our students see us geeking out enough. Understanding and enjoying focused obsession is far too good a thing to keep all to ourselves.

Geek out, and don’t look back.


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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.


* 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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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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