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Community, curriculum, open education and critical pedagogy

August 4th, 2010 · Teaching & learning

As I mentioned in the last post, I am much taken with David Cormier’s ideas on community as the curriculum.   In a number of posts in his blog, listed below, he first develops his ideas on learning communities and then extends this into what it means for open education. After reviewing and summarising (my understanding) of these  I will make an attempt to link the discussion to notions of critical pedagogy, what it is and how it could be implemented in the context of a critical learning community engaged in critical open education.At the moment I am writing this as a Word document but will post it here when it is reasonably presentable.

To be continued..





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Open Education content and resources as a continuum

August 3rd, 2010 · Teaching & learning

I have spent a  little time thinking about who the open learners are that will want to engage with open learning resources and content. In the discussions of open learning content within the formal education sector the emphasis seems to be mainly on how to encourage the release of formally written teaching materials (my own efforts here are some lecture notes for instance) into the ‘wild’ – the whys and the hows. I think a much larger range of ‘content’ can be seen as open education content – websites, blogs, journals and newspapers, TV and radio and so on. These are open (with the sad exception of most journals) in the sense that they are in the public domain and accessible. They are learning content in that they can be organised and exploited by individuals and groups in the service of some learning exercise or project. These projects may be focussed and clearly defined, for instance students researching a particular topic in line with the requirements of a course they are taking, or they may be informal, like an individual trying to keep up with current economic affairs, or even vicarious (and so not really a learning project at all) as individuals learning through listening to the Archers, watching the news, or even ‘reality’ TV.

Some of the types of the open learning content listed above are actually more like learning resources. In fact it is likely that what we to refer to as open education content and open education resources lie along a continuum. Where any particular object is located along the content/resource continuum depends on who is using it and how it is being used. What counts as open learning content or an open learning resource is not something intrinsic to the object –  it depends on its context of use. So, for instance, an article in a history  journal can be seen as content in the form of an authoritative expert account of some event or circumstance or it can be used as a resource to demonstrate the links between intellectual output and dominant ideological world views. What do we make of the account written by three prominent American historians that says for thousands of centuries both the continents of America stood empty of humankind and its works and that the story of the Europeans in the empty New World is the story of the creation of a civilisation where none existed before (an example taken from Noam Chomsky’s book Hopes and Prospects 2010)? This ‘content’ would be used as a resource very differently by different groups and individuals with possibly very different learning agendas and projects.

Then there is the example of a political blog in the Guardian. The words of our most  respected journalists would probably not be as unquestioningly and deferentially accepted as those of leading  academics and scientists.  Our personal value commitments would probably guide us in our attitude towards a particular piece of political journalism. Many formal educators would argue that it lacks the imprimatur of academic rigour and objectivity. But in some contexts blog posts can be seen as great open education resources. How we make use of them, positively or negatively, depends on our perceptions of the the reputation and authenticity of the writer and to what extent they align with our value preferences. The great thing about blogs is that, in the best cases, writers’ values are visible to open inspection along with the process of their thinking and ideas in the making. As learners we can share in the process of knowledge creation as writers struggle to articulate and clarify their ideas and sometime respond to comments from their readers. We can even comment ourselves if we wish and join the discussion. Personally (despite often being driven to near despair by some comments on political blogs) I find comments add significantly to the value of blogs as open educational resources – blogs can be content, process and community all rolled up into one potent resource.

Which brings me to community. It is quite clear that the community of other open learners and scholars that we engage with is one of the most important, even indispensable, open leaning resources in its own right. I am fascinated by David Cormier’s ideas on Community as Curriculum. I will return to this when I have read his writings on this  more thoroughly (rather than the quick skim I have managed so far), but I feel there is valuable insight here.  David suggests that the open learners can operate in some way as a community that sets the ‘whys’ and ‘ways’ of their learning for themselves. My own experience fits with this. The learning trajectory I have been following for a number of years now has certainly been influenced by the community I follow and like to think I am a part of on Twitter and a relatively small number of blogs. My interests have shifted, my thinking has changed and my personal learning goals have quite different motivations than was previously the case before. Can this be seen as the my adoption of a personal curriculum that has somehow been constructed for me or ‘secreted’ by my interactions with a learning community? I think it is highly likely that my own learning journey and my personal aims and objectives (to the extent I am able to articulate them coherently) have tended to align themselves with others in my community that have influenced me the most and whose values and concerns have chimed in with my own. Have we developed a shared curriculum? The trouble with the term ‘curriculum’ is that it normally refers to an educational process that is planned and guided with strictly delimited aims, objectives and outcomes. I am sure within the extensive possibilities that open education opens up there will be examples where curricula in this traditional sense may well be approximated. For me at least the process has been far messier, ad hoc and open ended than the word ‘curriculum’ would suggest. But we have to take the language we have got and modify and develop it to our new circumstances and experiences. Much of our thinking is still dominated by the concepts and language of formal education. Escaping the sometimes baleful influence of this is an important part of our struggle – personal and collective.

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Open education content disclaimer

July 30th, 2010 · Uncategorized

I’m thinking about prefacing any open education materials I make available with some sort of a statement concerning the context and values that have influenced the development of the content. We are encouraged to see authoritatively endorsed ‘expert’ knowledge as something we can build upon and use confidently without doubting or examining its providence, for instance the agendas that informed its development and the interests it was intended to serve. Although rarely obvious,  ‘expert’ forms of knowledge exude a common sense and a way of looking at and understanding the world that shape the ways it is subsequently developed and applied. This a complex process that tends to ‘work behind the scenes’ and can be difficult to expose. For instance, accepting expert knowledge means accepting the unstated assumptions and values that inform it. Accepting and applying expert knowledge therefore tends to unwittingly reproduce and reinforce (continues to ‘naturalise’) these unstated assumptions and values. Examples would be the methodological individualism and impoverished model of human nature and behaviour that informs some  sociology and social policy, or the model of the rational consumer and ‘satisficer’  that much economic theory is based upon.

I would like anyone interested in making use of open education content I publish to have a pretty good idea of the values and objectives that have informed it. Knowledge will hopefully be presented in a way that invites people to engage with it, critique and challenge it, and in the process help develop it. I would not want  people to take it as a finished authoritative product to be passively consumed or uncritically applied. Unfortunately we tend to expect experts to give us the right answers in the same way that pupils and students look to their teachers for the right answers. This is reinforced by our culture and our education system.

With this in mind I have been drafting a sort of disclaimer to preface open education materials I design. This is what I have come up with so far for the sociology lectures I will be publishing:

This course is an exercise in critical sociology. Many have argued, and I agree, that sociology is intrinsically critical. But there are still many that would argue against this and claim that sociology should aim to be ‘value free’ and objective. As a science, sociology should describe the world as it is and not presume to make moral or political judgements. Sociology simply describes the ‘way it is’ and it is a different sort of exercise when politicians use objective sociological knowledge to inform strategies and policies. However, an apparently neutral value free sociology is not in practice value free or neutral at all. ‘Neutrality’ and ‘objectivity’ are themselves values. They are the values of a form of science and knowledge that does not question the status quo. Rather it provides tools for its reproduction, tools for prediction and control. To put it somewhat dramatically, Adorno likened social sciences that try to be neutral, objective and value free “in the nature of the musical accompaniment with which the SS liked to drown out the screams of its victims.” (Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 365 quoted in J Holloway 2002 page 10).

The approach taken in this course does not strive for the impossible; to be value free and politically agnostic. Since value freedom is impossible, a discussion about values and value choices should be an important epistemological consideration for sociology. It is an explicit reflection on this question of values and how they underpin and shape the way knowledge is gained and constructed that makes a sociology ‘critical’.

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Academic blogging

July 29th, 2010 · Uncategorized

I am planning an informal one day conference on blogging for academics and postgraduates with some money I have been awarded as a C-SAP Associate. Depending on what is affordable I am hoping to attract some active academic bloggers to come along to tell us how they got into blogging and why and share their experience with us. The sessions haven’t been planned yet but hopefully delegates will go away knowing why they might get involved, some useful ideas about how to get started, and some of the keys to success – success depending of course on why they would do it in the first place. I aim to have a session on twitter if there is room for it in the schedule.

I want to put a resource pack together based on the conference sessions but including relevant and interesting articles and web resources. Found so far (both via Twitter and Cristina Costa)

I am a blogging researcher: Motivations for blogging in a scholarly context Sara Kjellberg in First Monday Volume 15, Number 8 – 2 August 2010

Academic blogging: academic practice and academic identity Gill Kirkup in the London Review of Education, Volume 8, Issue 1 March 2010 , pages 75 – 84

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Open Education – people, content, process

July 28th, 2010 · Uncategorized

A flurry of messages on Twitter has prompted me to revisit some of my ideas on open education. It is amazing how 140 characters can capture and condense thought provoking ideas, questions and possibilities and occasionally bring you  up short! This reflection has been prompted by Joss Winn’s thoughts on the problematic nature of ‘content’ as an open educational resource (OER). The problems are connected, I think, to the commodified nature of knowledge packaged as OE content and the way it is presented to us as an authoritatively endorsed product rather than knowledge generated by us, the open learners, in the service or our own objectives and agendas. This also chimes in with Richard Hall’s recent blog post Open education: the need for critique and Graham Attwell’s  post Open Education and Open Educational Resources. Richard states that open education is, or should be,  a critique of our formal, institutionalised systems of education. Graham endorses the idea of the necessity of critique with reference to the political economy of formal education and the sorts of social relations this engenders. However, as Richard says, “This cannot be done in terms of OERs without an engagement with critical pedagogy.”

Originally my interest in open education resources was conventionally mainstream in that I was looking for interesting and stimulating content for modules I teach at Leeds University. My focus was on the sorts of materials made available by the Open University, other higher education institutions and publishers. These are similar to the sorts of educational materials I produce, packages of predigested and bench-marked knowledge, the main difference being that someone else had prepared them! Other freely available resources I looked for to incorporate into my formal teaching where relevant web sites and materials that were not necessarily designed to be educational in a formal sense but could provide information and evidence. For instance, students would be directed to the web site of an environmental NGO or activist movement and ‘taught’ to analyse the site and its content in line with the aims and objectives of the module and its assessment criteria. This sometimes led to interesting discussions with and amongst  students about attitudes and values, hopes and fears, what can we do, what should we do, and so on. Enormously valuable, genuinely educational, but, strictly speaking, ‘off piste’ as far as the objectively specified and assessed learning outcomes are concerned. But it was off piste that we best worked together as a group, when we were all truly engaged  (me as well as the students), and when our work had most relevance for us rather than getting good marks and helping the University climb the league tables.

More recently I have become much more interested in what open education might be outside of a formal educational context, as that is where I will be in just over a year. What is meant by ‘open’? Who would be the open learners? Does it make sense to think about open teachers? Or does the learner-teacher dichotomy just reproduce the social and power relations of the formal education system? My experience of higher education has shown me that teachers are learners and learners are teachers but this fact is heavily disguised by ideologies of knowledge and the structuring of status hierarchies and expectations by the academic and institutional culture. Outside the academy in an open education context there is the opportunity to constitute learning communities, processes and practices that recognise the internal link between teaching and learning as mutually constitutive and shifting modes of engagement in a social process that creates communal forms of  knowledge. The activity we call teaching and the activity we call learning should ideally dissolve into one another but the constraints  imposed on our thinking and behaviour by the structuring of our lives, experiences and common sense repertoires through our formal educational experiences, and the privatisation of commodified knowledge makes this hard to think through and achieve.

It is tempting to think of the distinction and relationship between teacher and learner in formal education as somehow a distortion and inauthentic. This would beg the question about what an undistorted and authentic relationship would be. In fact the teacher-learner relationship is not distortion or inauthentic. It is just one of a vaste range of different possible relationships between human beings. The hierarchy of status and knowledge implied is real because it corresponds to the culture of formal education – its designated roles, processes and procedures.  The culture gives us our ‘common sense’ understanding of what we do and why we do it. As we enact these we reproduce the culture and the roles and practices that the system depends on.

The sort of relationships that are possible in an open education context do not have to be the same as in the formal sector but the concepts and ideology of the formal sector has colonised more general attitudes towards teaching, learning and knowledge. It is in resisting this that open education is potentially a radical critique of formal educational culture. In open education it may be possible to abolish the distinction between teachers and learners and the forms of social relationships the terms imply and often create. This is the heart of the potential radical critique of formal education mounted by open education. It provides the context for the development and demonstration of different forms of learning based upon different sorts of social relationships between people within a learning community. To some extent this is possible within formal higher education but the forms of control and accreditation are still there – from a student’s perspective getting a good degree and a return on investment in terms of employability and from an academics’ perspective the usual mixture of fear and debt, career success and prospects and growing private commitments. This is not to decry the sometimes heroic attempts of some academics to introduce radical notions of open education into their formal teaching. But I think the real advances, conceptually and in practice, are likely to take shape outside formal academia, at least while we try to survive the current neoliberal doomfest and its attendant cuts and restructurings.

All this still begs many questions about what ‘open’ means, who are the open learners, what are their objectives and agenda, and what does an open learning community look like? Does community or communal learning need a community at all? Does it only imply certain sorts of sociality and if so, what are these? Won’t the roles, hierarchy and statuses of ‘teachers’ and ‘learners’ tend to remerge and assert themselves within an open learning community even if we change the language? Also, for me at least, ‘critical pedagogy’ still needs more clarity particularly the practicalities of enacting it in an open educational context.  As usual, there are more questions than answers. But the answers will emerge through practice and experiment. Conceptual clarification can only go so far and is to some extent constrained by current social conditions. Conceptual clarification can be achieved in practice. In any case, if we wait for conceptual clarity we will still be sitting in darkened rooms while the rest of the world is getting on with it. Open education is, after all, a pragmatic political project, not the writing of a the Third Gospel.

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Radical alternatives to the ‘capitalist’ university

June 14th, 2010 · Teaching & learning

There has been a growing critique of the way Universities have been changing over the last 20 years or so and the current economic crisis and the funding cuts have served to highlight even more some of the things that have been causing concern. In a nut shell these are the ‘marketisation’ of universities, the embrace of what has become known as the ‘knowledge economy’ and the way that the neoliberal ‘business ontology’ has influenced nearly every aspect of the management and missions of UK HEIs. I thought it would be worth collecting in this blog and, from time to time, commenting upon, some of the ideas about what is going wrong and what sort of university education should we be aiming for. I would welcome pointers to any other resources or blog posts about this. So….

What is to be done? The University of Utopia Worth looking at the links page

Beyond Scholar Activism: Making Strategic Interventions Inside and Outside the Neoliberal University

The Really Open University

Scoping the relationships between social media and open education in the development of a resilient higher education

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Gramsci and the ‘organic’ philospher

April 3rd, 2010 · Uncategorized

While reading Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice, I was pleased to see his references to Gramsci. The passage on all ‘men’ being spontaneous philosophers seems to me to be modestly adapted to all men and women being spontaneous learners. In the following gloss on Gramsci’s idea I will simply substitute ‘learner’ for philosopher.

“It is essential to destroy the widespread prejudice that learning is a strange and difficult thing just because it is the specific intellectual activity of a particular category of specialists or of professional and systematic learners”.

“It must be shown that all individuals are learners by defining the limits and characteristics of the ’spontaneous learning’ which is proper to everybody”.

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Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World

November 20th, 2009 · web 2.0

Looks like JISC have copied the title of two workshops I am developing for next semester – ‘Researching in Web 2.0 World’ and ‘Learning in a Web 2.0 World’. Never mind. I probably pinched these titles from someone else. The full summary of findings and download of full report can be found at Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World . Highlights that caught my attention are:

Prior experience of students

Using Web 2.0 technologies leads to development of a new sense of communities of interest and networks, and also of a clear notion of boundaries in web space – for example personal space (messages), group space (social networking sites such as Facebook) and publishing space (blogs and social media sites such as YouTube)

There is an area within the boundaries of the so-called group space that could be developed to support learning and teaching

The processes of engaging with Web 2.0 technologies develop a skill set that matches both to views on 21st-century learning skills and to those on 21st-century employability skills – communication, collaboration, creativity, leadership and technology proficiency

Information literacies, including searching, retrieving, critically evaluating information from a range of appropriate sources and also attributing it – represent a significant and growing deficit area

Learner expectation

Imagining technology used for social purposes in a study context presents conceptual difficulties to learners as well as a challenge to their notions of space. They need demonstration, persuasion and room to experiment in this context.

Web 2.0 use in HE

Deployment is in no way systematic and the drive is principally bottom up, coming from the professional interest and enthusiasm of individual members of staff

Key fundamental issue –  the role of the tutor

Tutors are central to development of approaches to learning and teaching in higher education. They have much to keep up with, their subject for example, and developments in their craft – learning and teaching or pedagogy. To practise effectively, they have also to stay attuned to the disposition of their students. This is being changed demonstrably by the nature of the experience of growing up in a digital world. The time would seem to be right seriously and systematically to begin the process of renegotiating the relationship between tutor and student to bring about a situation where each recognises and values the other’s expertise and capability and works together to capitalise on it. This implies drawing students into the development of approaches to teaching and learning. [my emphasis]

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It’s Personal: Learning Spaces, Learning Webs (Steve Wheeler)

October 28th, 2009 · web 2.0

This says it all – each slide could be expanded into a dozen more.

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Pinging and private messages in Google Wave

October 26th, 2009 · Uncategorized

When Google first introduced Google Waves to the world it was claimed that the design had been to start from scratch and imagine what it would be like to reinvent email. This strategy is no doubt the reason that the gwave screen looks rather like an early prototype of Google Mail with its areas for contacts, and inbox and a viewing panel. So far at least it is difficult to see how gwave could be used as an email client, even if it were to be made available to all comers, in its current state of development. It needs for better functions for organising wave and for controlling access for a start.  I have been using waves so far mainly for collaboration and discussion and I must say it looks pretty promising. At the moment I am limited to working with other gwave account holders and these tend to be in the developer and edtech community. I am finding this to be extremely interesting and useful, even fun at times! But the acid test will be when academic colleagues and students can have accounts and we can put together projects and activities focused on everyday learning and teaching needs and scenarios.

The closest I have come to email like activity in gwave is pinging gwave contacts. All your personal gwave contacts are listed in the Contact panel. When a wave is open in the viewing panel of full screen, all the wave members’ icons are displayed in the wave’s header bar. If you click on a wave member’s icon in a wave header or if you click on a contact’s icon in your contact panel, a box will open giving you some details of the person and some options. If you have clicked a contact icon in the contacts panel the options are:

New wave
Ping [contact’s name]
Recent waves

Clicking on ‘New wave’ starts a new private wave in which you and your contact are the only members. This appears in both your and your contact’s in box. As far as I can see, clicking on ‘Ping..’  does exactly the same thing with the possible exception that the new wave opens for you and your contact (if they are on-line) in a pop-up window. Either way it still ends up in both inboxes. So this is a one-to-one private message appearing in both individuals’ inboxes. However, it is a wave so discussion can take place within the message and other contacts added to it (by either of you at the moment!). Clicking on ‘Recent waves’ lists any waves that the contact has been active in recently that your are also a member of so it is essentially a filter of your inbox. I have no idea the time scale of ‘recently’ but it fails to list some waves I would expect to see.

If you click on a wave member’s icon in the header of an open wave you get a slightly different set of options:

New wave
Ping [member’s name]
Remove [member’s name] – this is greyed out and doesn’t work at the moment

If the wave member is not one of your contacts you are also offered an option to ‘Add to contacts’ which will add the individual to your contacts panel. This makes them available to be added to your waves(or any other waves  you are a member of) if you wish. You can only add contacts to waves.

If you choose the ‘New wave’ option it works as described above – a new private wave is created and appears in your and the wave member’s inboxes. However, if you choose the Ping option a new private wave appears embedded in the wave at your insertion position. It is a ‘child’ private wave embedded in ‘parent wave but only visible to  you and the person you pinged. But like any other wave, you (and the person you pinged to create it) can add other members from your contacts panel. This ‘child’ wave is not listed separately in your and your contact’s  inboxes.

Now I know what you are wondering! What happens if you add a contact to a child private wave that is not a member of the containing parent wave? The answer is that it appears in their inbox just like any other wave. It will open just like any other wave and they can use it just like any other wave. For them it is just another wave in their inbox. However, if you subsequently add them to the parent wave, this will appear in their inbox in the place of the child wave and their access to the child wave will be as an item in the main parent wave.

How all this will work in the final release version of Google wave remains to be seen, but the ability to embedded waves with restricted visibility and access could be useful.

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