Chris' public learning Wk 1

Week 1 in retrospect

I was late getting things going. Smack! So it seems only fair that the students respond slowly! I've gone back over the notes I made last year for this 1st week. My main concern is about asking for two new, to some, many? folk in the course to be accessed.

I'm still convinced that working with current software is more valuable to professionals than software that is long past its use by date. No prizes for guessing.

The interesting thing is that last year, students made use of these platforms to do the projects they worked on and they worked really well.

It is so difficult to know what it is like for folk who are unfamiliar with the use of any new piece of hardware or software. It's a little like trying to remember what it was like before you could read. It's easy to simply determine this or that piece of software and then try and support folk as they work their way through it. I find that there are three broad classes of software for me. Those I know zip about, i.e. never used, perhaps don't know it exists. Then there is the software I use infrequently and, like many, I rarely resort to reading the manual1 :). The third group is the stuff I use regularly. This worries perhaps more than any other group. This is the automatic group. They are used with little thinking or perhaps I'm not doing the thinking I need to do when I use it. These are things I still puzzle about. I doubt they will ever go away. My concern more broadly is what we delegate to machines, mostly in an unthinking way.

I've recently moved to doing most of my writing with Scrivener. I find MS Word just too clunky, too feature loaded and MS has the wonderful habit of changing the easy shortcuts you had learned in an earlier version to something they think is helpful for the user. Courses are like that. They are designed with the best intentions but you only ever learn what it is like for students when they take it for a test drive. You just hope that the driving is easy but also challenging in terms of the ideas.

What I'd really like is a very simple, even elegant platform to do this work. It may pop up one day but right now we live in LMS land. Argh!

While the clan is hopefully wading through some of the older stuff, I think it is important at some stage to get them to read David Gelernter's recent piece. It would be easy to see digital culture as the broad set of practices that has grown up around the rise of the digital. The rise of the digital is commonly seen as some kind of ongoing process more or less an improvement of what went before. Gelernter's piece posits less of more of the same. He writes:

Until now, the web has been space-based, like a magazine stand; we use spatial terms such as “second from the top on the far left” to identify a particular magazine. A diary, on the other hand, is time-based: One dimension of space has been borrowed to represent time, so we use temporal terms like “Thursday’s entry” or “everything from last spring” to identify entries.

DG goes on to argue about the importance of metaphor in computing. If we see computing as some kind of basis for the practices that grow from metaphors, they become important in thinking about digital culture2.

I think learning is also time-based and my affection for notebooks and journals seems to line up with DG's sentiments. There is an implicit time-base to learning. Students do a course. It takes time. At the end of that time they are assessed. We ask them to demo what they have done/learned. More often than not these pieces of work are done on wet weekends with little recollection of the journey, however brief that they have undertaken. The products are so often the poorer for it.

I've begun to add some notes about writing, largely inspired by Helen Sword's recent book. Too many myths about how to write academically. The clan needs to learn how to play the game but also how to conform when faced with a curmudgeon academic who believes in things like writing in third person passive as some indication of objectivity. Argh!

A few folk are taking a bit of time getting organised which in part is my fault given how late things appeared. Will probably have a bit of catching up to do. A number of students mentioned that other courses they have taken have used Google hangouts/communities. No bad thing. The transition from the horse-drawn LMS to simpler systems will be messy and add to the technical overload for some students.

I've been thinking about the notion of course as game. There is a guy in the US who teaches explicitly like that, students have to level up to obtain particular grades. We are some way off that. What, to me is still most interesting is that what has been the province of the academy, secret academic business, that only appears in books and published papers has become a good deal more open and blurred. There is a lot of high quality academic writing going on outside the normal formal avenues. Some of it attracts much more comment than papers that are only read by a handful. Interesting times. I'm musing but I think some courses3 need to allow for new, emerging kinds of pedagogy that don't rely solely upon a top-down, narrow and are supposedly expert driven.

I'd like folk, if they don't already, have a sharper sense of what the rise and rise of the digital is translating into across a broad spectrum of human activity. This Couros piece is not a bad grab of it.

I've been thinking that when students come to a course it is not dissimilar to the way anyone would approach a new game, on computer or otherwise. I've been skimming a book called Gamestorming4. The authors make a nice point at the beginning to distinguish play from games.

Imagine a boy playing with a ball. He kicks the ball against a wall, and the ball bounces back to him. He stops the ball with his foot and kicks it again. By engaging in this kind of play, the boy learns to associate certain movements of his body with the movements of the ball in space. We could call this associative play.
Now imagine that the boy is waiting for a friend. The friend appears, and the two boys begin to walk down a sidewalk together, kicking the ball back and forth as they go. Now the play has gained a social dimension; one boy's actions suggest a response, and vice versa. You could think of this form of play as a kind of improvised conversation, where the two boys engage each other using the ball as a medium. This kind of play has no clear beginning or end; rather, it flows seamlessly from one state into another. We could call this streaming play.
Now imagine that the boys come to a small park, and that they become bored simply kicking the ball back and forth. One boy says to the other, "Let's take turns trying to hit that tree. You have to kick the ball from behind this line." The boy draws a line by dragging his heel through the dirt. "We'll take turns kicking the ball. Each time you hit the tree you get a point. First one to five wins." The other boy agrees and they begin to play. Now the play has become a game; a fundamentally different kind of play.

I'm wondering that if I write about doing a course as akin to playing a game whether it will send the wrong message to the good folk who have just signed on.

To me, so much of what Helen Lees5 calls mainstream authoritarian schooling (MAS) is very much about students learning how to play "the game", be it in High School, as an undergraduate or a postgraduate. The only problem is that more often than not the rules that students see are incomplete, the information about the scope of the game is fuzzy and so on.

The other recurring thought is that the book, O'Reilly and so many other players are all doing education. They just don't call it that. They tend to do it a lot better than MAS does.