Reflection in action: professional development study visits

How close to the moment can you get? “Be here now,”  urges 1960s psychologist Richard Alpert. A mythical Google aspires to a perfect concurrent rendering of this reality: in real-time, in software. How much rewinding can we do before anyone notices the pause for thought? Reflection in action often has the effect of: “Oops! Don’t do that again.” Have we all heard ourselves tell ourselves, “Don’t say that,” and then hear ourselves say it? The warning reverberates like a slow bell buoy. It fades until the next wave makes a ding! Good learning is sometimes referred to as “authentic”. What is this but being “in the moment”?

I have been invited to “Listen to and comment on” a number of presentations this morning. These presentations will be made by participants on a study tour for Chinese academics and higher education professional and student-support services staff.

I received the invitation yesterday morning in a hotel dining room in Cardiff, shortly before co-facilitating a workshop for newer academic staff at the University of Cardiff, who may be new to teaching and leading study modules.

So this is a note to myself, in the moment between. My colleagues at OCSLD and I use a phenomenographic approach to analysing learning events and the work of those who lead, teach or otherwise facilitate learning in higher education. Try to distinguish between event and judgement. There is data. And, there is analysis.

I have engaged with four one or two-day events organised by Oxford Prospects Programmes. Two events were for about 50 “senior academics” (n=100) from a number of Chinese Universities. One event was for about 45 professional and student-support services staff. One event was a symposium on “Education and Social Governance” jointly organised by Beijing Normal University and the Department of Education at the University of Oxford. At the symposium, academics from both institutions, eminent local government officers and representatives of the British Embassy in Beijing and the Chinese Embassy in London addressed contemporary socio-economic impacts of higher education and the role of education in social governance issues such as rural depopulation, industrial development and teacher education.

I am seeing these events all through a professional development eye as an authentic opportunity to consider where a globalising academy sees itself going next.

Beginning of term

Shamanic meso-american woman playing the earth as a computer keyboardSystems or people? We can model learning in order to develop ways for our machines to acquire, store, process and apply data: information gathered from the world around. Although I put it as a vague question of preference at the start of this essay, it has many ramifications. Are people not just quite complex systems? And is complexity simply a diversion? Is it not a more simple question? Where are the boundaries and limits?

I ask this at the beginning of term because this is hurricane season for university administration people and systems in general, and has been in particular for my university at this moment. We are building a new student record system. Well, we are acquiring, localising and implementing a student record system consisting of many new – and large – components. And, it is the system we use to manage relationships.

Which means, for the moment at least, we need to manage relationships in a different way: through people not systems. Or at least we have – for the moment – to act as though people are different to systems. Or, maybe that systems are people?

One thing we do know about people is that they feel things when they are under stress. They feel things like anger, anxiety and fear. Can I repeat that, please, using “I-statements”? I feel angry, anxious and fearful when I am under stress. While I want to be careful about projecting those feelings onto colleagues, I also want to attend to others with empathy for the possibility that they might also be angry, anxious and fearful.

One notebook warning

One notebook

One notebook

I write. Not as much or as well as I should. But I write. Two very broad forms interest me: poetry and philosophy of learning, knowledge, theory. What is true and good?

Do these concepts mean anything? I believe they do. My job, and much of this writing, here, has to do with trying to explain – to myself as much or more than anyone else – what it means to learn and do “well”, that which is “right to do”: Plato, Aristotle, Chuang Tzu, Lucretius, Karl Marx, Julia Kristeva, Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire, Bob Dylan, Paul Eluard, Alain Badiou, Bob Marley, Slavoj Žižek and Mikey Smith mashed up.

Žižek, late in this monologue, says the real artist does not add, but takes away.

I used to keep a separate notebook for work and a different one for poetry. I took it away  one and a half notebooks ago.

I am adopting that principle here in this blog. Over the next few weeks I will be on a rescue mission to a few old websites.

And the warning? You might come across some poems. You might come across some philosophy. You might come across some teaching. My honest intention is to make connections. To converse. It is all dialogue. And, a story.

A hidden curriculum

Published on: Jan 18, 2018

I examine two related concepts: hierarchised identity formation and the enclosure of desire as a hidden curriculum.

A hidden curriculum is, I suggest the collection of assumptions, often about power (Brookfield 2017, chapter 2) that is communicated alongside and through the practice of overt curricula. A hidden curriculum is conveyed through implicit biases by teachers and education institutions. It is delivered alongside more overt curricular elements such as subject-specific knowledge and skills, as well as “transferrable skills” and “graduate attributes”. There may be many, indeed there are many hidden curricula which work with and against social norms beyond the institution and largely outwith the control of the institution or its agents. I will suggest that hierarchised identity formation is one of the hidden curricula of higher eduction. I hypothesise that this might be felt more acutely in the UK because of England’s tradition of a landed, aristocratic and military gentry related by ancestry to the head of state. But, it is felt elsewhere than Britain: “Rich man goes to college, poor man goes to work” (Charlie Daniels Band, “Long haired country boy”). In Britain the green and white papers leading to the current Higher Education Act 2017 declared universities to be engines of social mobility. Social mobility for these purposes is conceived primarily as a private (not public) good and is ranked in a categorical hierarchy consisting of education attainment, occupation type and lifetime earnings expectation, ranked in quartiles and centiles. The concept of social mobility is applied competitively as a finitely resourced, zero-sum game with winners and losers and movers.

Continue reading “A hidden curriculum”

Tinkering with algorithms

I read Franklin Foer’s Facebook’s War on Free Will the Guardian’s “Long read” for Tuesday 19 September 2017.

He recapped a familiar argument: you are Facebook’s product. But when he hit “data science” I turned up my sensors. He says, “There’s a whole discipline, data science, to guide the writing and revision of algorithms”. Then he picks up on Cameron Marlow, “the former head of Facebook’s data science team”:

Facebook has a team, poached from academia, to conduct experiments on users. It’s a statistician’s sexiest dream – some of the largest data sets in human history, the ability to run trials on mathematically meaningful cohorts. … Marlow said, “we have a microscope that not only lets us examine social behaviour at a very fine level that we’ve never been able to see before, but allows us to run experiments that millions of users are exposed to.”

The point the experimentalists miss is that the experiment is directed towards outcomes already. The ethics are, at least, sensitive. Continue reading “Tinkering with algorithms”

Backpacks, badges and epistemology: an interesting conversation that leads to happily ever after

Grant (2014) asks in the title to her book about digital badges, “What Counts as Learning?” This succinctly expresses the question of higher education and explains the continuing interest in badges, and in learning technologies in general. The fact this is less explored, gives me an opportunity to explore both learning technology and epistemology.

I have developed a new MA Education course module, “Philosophy and policy of higher education”. In this 20 credit level 7 module the question: “What counts as learning?” will be explored. That is the seductive game higher education plays: a chance at determining or being among the determiners of meaning – what counts as learning – for a generation or so. To extend the “play” metaphor to a stage on which higher education acts, higher education as an institution and its practitioners as individuals seek to occupy the limen, the space on the edge between consensual suspension of belief in order to “live the dream”, and the world as it is, explained. More critically for those in the game it poses the question about one’s own underpinnings, one own “will to power”, or academic identity or even life.

Badges are something like brand propositions and to some extent depend on other similar propositions. Like many brand propositions their link to truth is explicitly unattested. The badge can only serve as a conversation starter. Like travel badges on a backpack seen on an overnight Eurail while sleeping in the vestibule: “So when did you go to Sweden?” Most universities have a t-shirt and sports kit with a name and often a crest or logo. Some might serve the question: “Were you at Malmo?” To which an answer might be “No, it is a good hoodie.” But could also be, “Yes, for ice-hockey in 2009.”

Possibly the internet will work like the cold vestibule of a Eurail under an ex army coat, and when we see badges on a site we may start that interesting conversation that leads to happily ever after: life, love, career, changing the world? Or same as it ever was. That conversation about changing the world? Because as it is now, the foundations of meaning sometimes appear both unsound and cruel, not just one or the other.

References

Grant, Sheryl. 2014. What Counts as Learning: Open Badges for New Opportunities. Kindle. Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub. http://dmlhub.net/publications/what-counts-learning/.