Exercises: Collaborative Curation

As part of this blog I’m trying to briefly write up and assess various exercises, workshops and other learning activities I’ve been involved in, either as a teacher or a student, and to think about how they might be improved and reused in future sessions.

I sometimes hear lecturers in the arts complain that one of the downsides of teaching is it getting in the way of their own creative practices. While I understand the complaint (there are only so many hours in the day) the logical response to this would seem to me to be to look for ways to teach that are mutually creatively beneficial to students and to teachers. Last year a colleague and I curated a large-scale exhibition and have since been discussing an idea for a new one. We thought it might be a great test of this idea of mutual benefit to organise a workshop around this new exhibition idea with our students. We resolved to do a one day workshop with the aim of planning and installing an exhibition on our chosen topic in that space of time.

For the students, we hoped it would be usefully practical introduction to curation and exhibition installation, for us we hoped it would be a chance to try out existing ideas and generate new ones for the exhibition concept we are working on. For everyone it would be an interesting test of the dynamics of collaboratively putting together an exhibition as a large group, something which each student group has to deal with eventually anyway when they come to their final degree show. In preparation for the day we booked a space in the college and collected a small amount of suitable work from artists we knew, some reproductions of materials from the Stanley Kubrick archive (which is based at the college), and also some props we thought would work well for staging and transforming the space.

The Workshop:

We opened the day with an hour-long briefing on the idea, an overview of the aims and intended outcomes for the workshop and a discussion of some of the common steps one might go through when curating an exhibition, from approaching a gallery or a space through to planning how to show the work and finally installing. Next, we had a visit from Richard Daniels, senior archivist at UAL’s Special Collections archive who showed some original materials from the Kubrick archive. Following that we had planned to break into groups each of which would focus on a particular area of the exhibition, for example groups dealing with press, design, curating the printed photos, organising video. Instead we had an impromptu further discussion and viewing of some of other pre-selected art works, and then broke for lunch.

After a brief lunch, we divided into groups as planned and the students set about developing the space. One group set about planning where to display the art. Another focused-on press and advertising for the show. Another one still decided to gather data and visualisations about our topic and another group gathered and edited video to create several video pieces which we displayed on a flat screen TV and several laptops appropriated from the group. We were on hand to help out but generally weren’t really needed, the students collectively set about transforming the space and after two hours the show was complete and we ‘opened’ it to the public with a few beers. The opening was a nice way to round off the day, and the term, and we even had some curious passing visitors drop in to see what we were doing (the beer may have helped). Finally, we took the show down and cleared up the space.


My colleague and I felt the day went really well for something that was a complete experiment. It clearly helped to be working with a group of very engaged and enthusiastic students who completely got behind the rather strange idea of the workshop (and to some extent ignored our curatorial suggestions, sometimes for the best!). I think we both left feeling like the our original exhibition idea had been reinvigorated by the workshop and given new purpose, and so in terms of the initial idea of undertaking a teaching exercise that benefits student and staff alike it seemed like a great success.

Feedback from the students was generally positive but there were some comments for things to change next time. One was that it would have been good to have a clearer outline for the day at the start, something we had actually included in our initial briefing but forgot to cover because of running short on time. Another was the suggestion that if we ran the workshop again we should plan and advertise it far enough in advance that the final exhibition could actually be advertised around the college to an audience beyond the student group, a nice idea to try and make the exercise as real as possible and get more of a real life audience for the ‘private view’ at the end of the day.

Exercises: Zine Making

As part of this blog I’m trying to briefly write up and assess various exercises, workshops and other learning activities I’ve been involved in, either as a teacher or a student, and to think about how they might be improved and reused in future sessions.

Recently Monica Biagioli, a colleague from LCC’s design school ran a session with my MA students on using zine making as a means of reflection. As the name suggests, the collaborative unit puts an emphasis on students forming connections either within or without the course and then making work through them. The students were in the process of finishing off assignments for this and were at the stage of reflecting on their projects and how they had gone. We thought zine making might be a nice way to both get them thinking about this process and to some extent also slightly reward them after a term of rather more heavy going lectures with something a bit more practical and fun. We also thought that zines with their counter-cultural and sometimes quite collaborative history would be an appropriate medium.

The Exercise:

We provided cutting matts, scissors, scalpels, glues and a mix of papers, Monica brought examples of various zine structures and we asked the students to bring imagery from their projects if they wished. Monica and I began the session with a quick talk through the reasons for the session, and a little on the history of zines. I also emphasized the way zine can be a great basis for developing more complicated books because they allow you to make a large number of experiments very cheaply while still getting a good representation of how a finished book might work. I also talked a little about the extensive zine collection held in the college library. Monica showed some of her own examples to the group, gave them some suggestions for sources of different book structures.

From there we dove in to making. Me and Monica were both on hand to review how things were going and provide any assistance. Having two tutors was great and meant I was able to dive out to print materials for students who had forgotten to bring imagery but wanted to print materials from their computers. We had about an hour for making before the session ended.


Befitting the aim of the session partly being to offer a bit of decompression after a very busy term we intentionally avoided telling the students that they had to approach the exercise in a very specific way and left it rather open to them to explore zines as they wished. Some intended to submit books for their assessment and used the session as an opportunity to try out structures that they were considering using. Some used the session as a way to reflect and explore what they had done over the term. Others went in very different directions and just embraced the idea of cutting and pasting whatever they had to hand in order to make a cohesive little publication in an hour.

In all the session seemed to go well, everyone got involved and I could certainly see the results in tutorials that week. I think in another session, particularly if we were running the same exercise with undergraduates, we might set clearer goals and been more specific about people using the zines they made for reflection (with some clearer strategies and examples for how this might work). I think it would also be nice to build in time at the end of the session to review what people had made and debrief on how students felt the session had gone, new questions and so forth. Even so, considering how open ended the session was however I think it worked very well and would be an exercise I would definitely run again in the future.

Reading: Internationalisation

Our latest assigned reading for our Teaching and Learning unit was several sources looking at ‘internationalisation’ and the way higher education has come to be viewed as an export. We were given four sources and asked to read two of them and respond to three questions. I read three in the end, Vision 20:20: Forecasting International Student Mobility: A UK Perspective. Report by the British Council,  then a 2011 paper by Uwe Brandenburg and Hans De Wit and a 2011 article in the Guardian by Peter Scott. The questions we were asked to consider were; Firstly, if higher education is an export, what are we exporting? Secondly, what should we be exporting? And thirdly what does that second question assume about our aims/purposes (or those of higher education)?

First of all, if higher education is an export what are we exporting?

Considering the focus of the Vision 20:20 report there is actually surprisingly little about what exactly it is we are exporting through internationalisation. The report initially discusses the benefits of an international focus for UK institutions including improvements to their learning culture, the greater variety of courses that can be made available to home students, and obvious cash injection that overseas students provide. There is also interesting reflection on changing demographics of overseas students in the UK, from Greek students as the top group (27,000) in 1998 to Chinese students (32,000) in 2003, perhaps reflecting changing geopolitics and economics. The report is primarily concerned with how the UK higher education sector can maintain it’s overseas profile and mitigate risks and changes in the field, including the growth of transnational education (i.e. overseas teaching), new technologies (which the report says are yet to be fully exploited) and the changing aspirations of international students themselves. The report forecasts a few different scenarios for how these things will change, ranging from optimistic to pessimistic and also considers changes relating to particular issues like the UK’s relationship with Europe (clearly dating it, there is no discussion of Brexit). Beyond practical benefits however there is little discussion of what exactly it is we export through these practices and no critique of the practice of internationalisation itself.

By contrast in Brandenburg and De Wit’s paper they argue the explosion of internationalisation in universities has not kept pace with questioning of the ‘why and wherefore’ of these practices. They see distinct parallels with the notion of globalisation in the same time frame. It is argued that the two are in fact closely related, with internationalised higher education regarded as a globally tradeable commodity (somewhat echoing Collini’s ideas about a global multiversity). But just as globalisation was sometimes uncritically heralded as a means to prosperity, peace and international understanding by advocates in the post-Cold War era, for Brandenburg and De Wit there has been too much rhetoric about internationalisation from it’s acoyltes and not nearly enough cold scrutiny of the claims made for it. Brandenburg and De Wit also argue that internationalisation, far from being the progressive agenda it once was, has become part of the dogma of HE, and its proponents have gone from relative radicals to conservative defenders of tradition.

Writing in the Guardian, Scott argues that ‘Internationalisation is a clumsy word used to describe a wide range of activities, some of which we should be very proud of, and others best left in the shadows.’ Scott particularly objects to ‘managerial-bureaucratic initiatives to “internationalise” the university’ and argues that universities have always been international instituions (a claim one might question in light again of Collini’s argument that universities have always been in flux and that such generalisations are therefore unhelpful). Scott argues that we are less concerned with what we are exporting than our desire for cash ‘The bad aspects, sadly, are the mainstream drivers of internationalisation. First is the pressure to recruit international students, almost entirely because they can be charged higher fees.’ This includes uncritical relationships between the HE sector and countries and governments with poor human rights records, for example China. Scott’s message seems to be that what we are often doing through the rush to internationalise is exporting the message that we value money above principles.

Next, what should we be exporting?

As previously stated, the Vision 20:20 report seems more preoccupied with practicalities and perceptions than anything as ideological as this question implies. The report views internationalisation and higher education through the prism of a market, and in terms of adjustments to what we export it’s prime concern appears to be that universities appeal to this international market rather than meet an ideological informed notion of the purpose of international university education. Universities need to anticipate changing desires amongst international students and changing economic situations, not attempt to act as beacons for certain ideas about how the world, or education, ought to be.

Again in contrast Brandenburg and De Wit argue for a review of internationalisation practices and a move towards what they call a ‘post-internationalisation age’. For them this means moving away from the dogmatic, conservative practice of internationalisation which has developed in higher education, and replacing this with a new stance that views this practice as a means to an end rather than a goal in itself. This means critically asking why we internationalise and what benefits it really provides to students, staff and institutions. It also means reassessing the value of different forms of international exchange, and acknowledging that some practices and programs are more useful than others.

Turning to Scott, he advocates internationalisation’s ‘potential to transform the lives of international students; its role in sustaining, and growing, science and scholarship through vigorous academic exchanges; and its potential to build social and economic capacity’. However he also makes the point that some of these things occur more or less easily in the current climate, writing that ‘the first of these will always endure. But the second nowadays often seems a contingent effect of other, less wholesome, objectives; while the third, I fear, is dwindling into insignificance.’ Echoing his earlier comments on human rights, Scott also seems to view internationalisation as a way to export a certain ideological agenda, but also fundamentally sees universities as a national endeavour, ‘founded and funded with national purposes in mind’ who should have their core priorities focused on their home countries.

Lastly, what does the prior question assume about our aims and purposes for higher education?

The Vision 20:20 report basically presents a market led view of higher education. I am reading between the lines somewhat when I summarise it this way, but the report could be seen to be arguing that changes should only be made to mitigate risks and maximise profit, not in order to have any sort of ideological influence in the world (which might after all make the former aims harder). Analysis for example of the changing numbers of undergraduates and post-graduates have nothing to do with the question of why and when people choose to study, but rather the report argues are ‘important for a number of reasons, including decisions regarding allocation of international marketing resources, as well as influencing how an institution or country perceives or would like to perceive itself internationally’ [p.25]. This is interesting given the British Council’s origins and history, although clearly though even such an apolitical stance on higher education is itself political, and ties in neatly with criticisms made by the paper of the next two authors.

Brandenburg and De Wit clearly see internationalisation as a concept which carries as much problematic baggage as it’s more politically unpopular partner, globalisation. They call for a movement away from the concept, arguing that ‘what we need are people who understand and define their role within a global community, transcending the national borders, and embracing the concepts of sustainability—equity of rights and access, advancement of education and research, and much more.’ While they call for is familiar, and echoed by many advocates of internationalisation what is telling is their view that the dogmas and ideologies this practice brings with it in fact end up standing in the way of a great deal of the things they are supposed to enable.

Finally turning to Scott again, the view that universities might be used as a form of ideological soft power, or a carrot to engage states towards better human rights records is an interesting one. As the LSE relationship with the Gadaffi regime indicates, these relationships can also become a public relations fig leaf for unpleasant regimes, and can enable and train people who may ultimately return to support and maintain those same regimes. In either case this view makes certain assumptions about culture and knowledge as a component of propaganda, rather recalling the view of initiatives like the BBC and particularly the World Service during the twentieth century, or the purpose of the education system in the context of the British empire, as a tool to educate a foreign ruling caste in a particular set of ‘British’ values. One could argue this is no less problematic than the pretence of apoliticism one finds in the Vision 20:20 report. In all Scott seems conflicted between on the one hand a view of universities as a national utility, and therefore which should have a national focus, and on the other hand viewing them as a form of soft power for influencing other countries.

e-Learning: Power in the Online Classroom


Online technologies are frequently spoken of in democratic and liberatory terms, and clearly many have such potential in the classroom and beyond. As I’ve noted here before, one of the things I really enjoy about teaching on the part-time MA Photojournalism and Documentary course is engaging with course groups made up of students from across the globe, who might not otherwise be able to study our program because of geography and their commitments elsewhere. This geographic diversity is reflected in the work that is shown in our sessions, where even quite prosaic assignments (for example to take a portrait of a stranger) can result in an incredible diversity of subjects and approaches. While similar financial barriers might remain as those that curb access to traditional face to face courses, the democratic possibilities of online teaching are clear, even if they are unevenly realised.

Beyond overcoming the tyrannies of geography, online teaching can be seen as more democratic in some other respects. Since recently rereading and writing about Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, I have been thinking about the ways in which the online classroom challenges the traditional hierarchies of the classroom, in particular the spatial hierarchy of tutor and students facing each other apart, or at least with arrangement of the space focused on the teacher. These are arrangements which, as I noted in a piece on Focault’s text, have certain panoptic qualities. These hierarchies are so familiar and expected, ingrained into us practically from the moment we first enter school, that I think they often hardly register on students, who obey them without thinking. I have few fixed teaching rooms and often arrive to find rooms laid out in a wide variety of ways. Almost regardless of these arrangements, or where I decide to position myself in a classroom, students have a tendency to array themselves around the teacher as they have no doubt been taught to do from an early age. This tendency is something I’d like to explore and experiment with counter-acting  in the future.

The online classroom clearly dispenses with this student-teacher arrangement, and the hierachical and panoptic qualities that come from this, but there are questions about the extent to which these tensions and tyrannies are replaced by new ones. These feed into wider questions about the extent to which the liberational or democratic qualities of these technologies are tempered by other more authoritarian characteristics. While we might worship the cult of the small tech startup and the innovative entrepreneur, the reality is that technologies are still invariably developed and deployed by those with greater power than those who actually use them  on a day to day basis. Because of this I think it’s always useful to ask questions about the extent to which old and new technologies incorporate elements of the power relations of the time and place that given rise to them, or the ways initially positive innovations might open up repressive possibilities in the future. As an example Facebook have recently announced plans to use artificial intelligence to detect suicidal users, a move which to me smacks of rolling out ubiquitous surveillance disguised as humanitarianism (it’s notable they are also looking at ways to use the same technology to detect potential terrorists).

In the context of online teaching these issues seem very important and yet not all that much discussed. In some respects you can see online classrooms as functioning in a way which is very top down and controlling. In the online classroom, physical hierarchies might be dispensed with, but I can see them being replaced by a different set of challenges, new hierarchies and forms of control which are in many ways more total, and more unchallengeable for students (and perhaps for tutors also). In contrast to the physical classroom, where sessions are always something of a negotiation between teacher and taught, in the online classroom the teacher/moderator is given a far more complete control over the session. Through the various options afforded me through the classroom software I am able to control what the class sees, who participates, who speaks, and so forth. This control is also highly limited of course, and in practice I have no idea of what a student on the other end of the connection is actually doing, indeed whether they are even still there or have left to make a cup of tea or hang out their washing. At the risk of getting making predictions best left to science fiction, one could see future iterations of such technologies seeking to address these blind spots, for example giving tutors live feedback on individual student engagement based on techniques like cursor or eye tracking. This could massively improve teaching and learning, but it could also be worryingly authoritarian.

This connects to the broader issues of the type of information we are generating through our interactions in these online environments and how that is being used. Data, like heat, is generated with almost every movement in the modern world, and like heat, data is highly persistent. It would be naïve to think there is not a certain amount of data logging taking place in the online classroom, whether by the software developer (perhaps to aid in future development or troubleshooting) or from the institution who operates it. Tutors are sometimes rightly concerned about the prospect of their online sessions being recorded and reused, but at least it is clear when it is taking place. What is less apparent is what other information we might be generating and what it might later be used for. This article suggests some of the end applications will be benign, indeed educationally powerful. However, the issue with individual data, rather like the technologies that generate it, is its ready applicability also to more malign purposes. What this means is that not the online classroom is not only a space where I as a teacher have an enlarged set of powers over my students compared to the real world, physical lesson, but it is also one where as a group we are caught within a large network of technologies and operators which may be monitoring our teaching, learning and more besides.

e-Learning: Social Media in the Classroom


After discussing our recent experience’s with MOOCs, the last part of our third Technology Enhanced Learning session focused on the use of Twitter. For homework, we’ve been asked to engage in a Tweet Chat, a group twitter conversation on a particular topic, thoughts on which come at the end of this post. Before coming to that I thought I’d highlight a few of the conversations that emerged in the classroom as a result of the request that we all sign up to Twitter and use the platform for this exercise, because I think they are interesting exemplars of the frankly rather old fashioned attitudes to technology and social media in higher education.

When this assignment was introduced our tutor asked how many people in the class were already regular Twitter users, the result was only a handful of people out of the twenty or so present. This opened up some interesting conversations about people’s attitudes towards social media, both as teachers and users in their own right. The familiar reasons for not wanting to use social media were raised. Issues of data privacy and online footprint (echoing the residents and visitors exercise done in our first session) revealed that for many people there was concern about how much information could be deduced about them from their social media accounts. Another issue raised was that of the noise of social media, and the fact that 99% of what occurs on Facebook or Twitter is completely inconsequential information which only serves to distract. Both of these concerns are legitimate, but also I think represent a fundamental misunderstanding of how to use social media.

As well as learning to use a social media platform the way it was intended, part of your responsibility as a user is to get to understand what risks a given platform presents, what information the owning company is looking to extract in return for your use of it, and finally how you can game the platform to use it for purposes other than its original intention. Keeping these in mind I think you can start to mitigate the inherent risks involved in social media (and the web in general) while also looking for ways to maximise the potential benefit. Clearly if the benefit dosen’t exceed the energy you put into it (at least over the medium term) then either you’re not using a platform the right way or it’s not the right platform for the sort of thing you do. I’ve found Twitter pays off in terms of the work that goes in, whereas some other platforms like Facebook usually don’t. Likewise in terms of the amount of useless content on social media, I see my accounts as projects in curation where I filter what comes through to me through the tools available. I’m fairly ruthless about who I follow on Twitter, and a large part of that is trying to keep my feed to mangeable flow of useful information. That’s still an ongoing project and something that might sometimes lead to hurt feelings if I don’t follow someone back, but it’s key to getting the benefit from these products (and they are products, not services).

From here the classroom conversation developed into a bigger one of the behavioural impact of technology on students and the learning atmosphere. It was a commonly held view in the room that mobile phones and their like have no place in the classroom. It’s an idea I have often encountered in higher education but still can’t completely reconcile myself with. As someone who has doodled his way through more than his share of lessons, I know that anything can be potentially distracting, and my secondary school maths workbooks are testimony to this. Banning pens and paper because of this capacity to distract would be considered inappropriate, and I see phones and other technologies in similar terms, as something which can and should be used to further learning and engagement in the classroom even at the same time as acknowledging that some students will allow themselves to be distracted by them. Besides being impractical, banning these things also doesn’t show much respect for students who are after all adults who need to learn to take responsibility for their own behaviours (but that’s not to say I won’t sometimes challenge or call out a student who I think is using their phone for something unrelated to the current classroom activity). It’s also worth not underestimating the ability of students to multi-task, I spent most of this third TEL session working on my laptop, taking notes, looking up references and so on at the same time as following along with the discussion.

One such reference was to John Locke’s book Why We Don’t Talk To Each Other Anymore, which I haven’t yet read but seems to make a familiar argument for the importance of speech and the challenges posed to it by technology (this superficially calls to mind Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep which makes a similar argument about another core human practice). While there are certainly arguments against technology in the classroom, those I heard during this session felt too generic and draconian, and didn’t readily enough recognise the benefits these technologies can have if you’re prepared to make them part of the session, I also think it’s important to challenge the notion that spoken conversation is intrinsic to forming trusting relationships. As part of my online teaching I work with the same students sometimes over the course of two years, never having met and sometimes not even knowing what they look like, but I would still say the connection can sometimes be as strong as those I have with my full time face-to-face students. In other words, perhaps we actually need to widen our definition of ‘talking’ rather than trying to desperately preserve it as the domain of direct unmediated speech alone.

Turning back to Twitter, on Wednesday evening I joined the Learning and Teaching in Higher Education Tweetchat. Started in 2014 this weekly session brings together teachers from across the globe to discuss a particular topic related to Higher Education. In this case the topic was e-portfolios, quite relevant to some of the other research I’ve been doing on online collaborative platforms. Like most social media platforms Twitter has it’s own etiquette and I quickly discovered the Tweetchat’s have their own in turn. It felt like a bit of a free for all at the start but gradually made more sense with people prefixing their tweets to make it easier to follow what questions they were responding to. One thing that was notable was that while people responded to questions set centrally and posted by the LTHE Tweetchat account, these responses didn’t seem to engender that many conversations. I have to admit that for my part I didn’t really help with this, as after a solid days teaching I didn’t really feel I had the mental energy left to do much more than lurk and read people’s Tweets as they came in. I wonder how typical this is of these Tweetchats or whether people are normally more discursive. In conclusion, devoted Twitter user though I am, I can’t see myself becoming a regular Tweetchater, but it was still a useful experience and one I might refer students to if I come across relevant discussions in the rather enormous lists of Tweetchats that exist.


Reading: What are Universities For?


As Stefan Collini notes in the introduction to What Are Universities For? attempting to define these institutions might seem superficially simple but quickly becomes complex and political. Universities combine a staggering array of facilities and abilities, and fulfil a huge number of functions. In some respects they are progressive, far seeing institutions, in other respects they are conservative and incorporate practices firmly rooted in their distant past. In tracing these contours and attempting to answer the title question, Collini is neither nostalgic for a lost past nor entirely negative about the future (although I think he clearly sets out his views on the current direction of higher education, for example the neoliberalisation of universities). The result is an engaging primer on the current educational landscape and a compelling argument for the importance of universities in a time of immense change. What Are Universities For? is broken into two sections, of which the first half really felt the most relevant and so I’ll primarily discuss that here. The second part appear to be reprints of earlier essays on higher education and at least from a skim read these chapters felt less relevant than those that preceded them.

In the first chapter Collini discusses the university in light of globalisation and the rapid expansion of the university model. In doing this he begins already to question the virtue of trying to define universities, institutions which may need to differ greatly with geography. He also notes the tendency to attempt to define university’s in relation to other organisations and institutions, and points out that while they might sometimes overlap with the activities of other organisations they will rarely operate in the same way. Collini cites the similarities and differences between university research and that of the private sector research labs as an example of this divergence. The second chapter is a short overview of recent university history, with Collini observing the tendency for contemporary commentators and politicians to view higher education as having lapsed from a former glory and being in desperate need of return to that state. As well as charting the evolution of the modern university, from the University of Bologna to the English polytechnics via Humboltd’s University of Berlin, Collini effectively demonstrates that universities have undergone such rapid change in the last century or so that it’s difficult to speak of any era when it was a stable institution on which today’s institutions might be desirably modelled.

Next, Collini revisits John Henry Newman’s 1852 book The Idea of a University. Newman, a priest instrumental in founding the Catholic University of Ireland, argued that a university’s focus should be on its students and that education should be broad in subject and liberal in atmosphere. These ideas have been highly influential, but for Collini their influence and repetition is itself problematic, evidence that thinking about higher education practice can become bound unquestioningly to a canon consisting of thinkers and texts which sometimes predate the foundation of modern universities by a considerable time. Collini while admitting he is not impervious to the book’s charms, offers a critique of Newman, attempting to strip away the class and gender assumptions of Newman’s era. Chapter four continues some of the threads begun in the previous chapter, of the supposed distinction between useful and useless subjects of study. Some of Newman’s arguments would seem to suggest that if education is to be more than a process of simply credentialing people for future jobs then no such distinction between useful and useless is really possible at all. Collini continues this idea, discussing the public misunderstanding of the form (much less purpose) of the humanities and the common pressure for these subjects to make themselves less esoteric and more accessible (while in doing so paradoxically often opening themselves indeed to the inverse criticism of being lightweight subjects). His conclusion in defence of the humanities, that it is really ‘an end in itself’ [p.85], feels rather weak even though I agree with his view that these subjects are as much about learning to understand others and live your life as they are about more practical or emplotable skills.

For the final chapter in this first section Collini summarises some of the previous points and makes a case for universities as a public good in spite of their ‘semi-marketized, employment orientated’ [p.87] condition today. Collini argues for the importance of defending universities from their sceptics, but also warns any attempt to justify something is bound to look rather defensive, and that therefore the ways that universities are defended must be carefully considered. Equally in the urge to defend universities we may end up inaccurately defining them to satisfy their critics, in effect making matters worse by giving people an unrealistic sense of what universities are for. Collini in the end seems to suggest that a good strategy is to challenge the terms of the question, particularly the tendency to measure university value in economic terms, and to view economic output as an end in itself. If, he argues, the purpose of a strong economy is that it allows us to do the things that matter, then we need to be clearer about what these things are, and perhaps the pursuit of knowledge for it’s own sake is one of them. All in all Collini’s book makes for insightful and informed reading on the evolution of university’s into their present state and attitudes both within and without about what these diverse institutions might be for. While I sometimes sense he falls into his own trap of feeling under pressure to overly defend universities to a sceptical audience, and while he also writes inevitably from a very specific political standpoint, What Are Universities For? is a thoughtful and at times quite beautifully argued case for higher education as economic stimulus, social good, and end in itself.

e-Learning: Joining a MOOC II


Last week I enrolled in Rice University’s Introduction to Python Programming MOOC. This was an assignment for my elective in technology enhanced learning but I thought I would take advantage of the task to start learning something which has been on my to do list for sometime anyway. I’m under no illusions about becoming a great coder (or even a functional one), I don’t really have the time or I think the brain for it, but I like the idea of having a grip on the fundamentals if only so I’m a bit better able to talk to someone who does understand how to do it. I began with the introductory session, which sets out the structure of the course, teaching materials. and offers a very basic introduction to Python.

The introduction was very clear, introducing the staff, covering what the course would cover and also critically setting out the course ethos (something I didn’t really expect). The tutors seemed to try hard to establish a relaxed atmosphere to the course, not least by centring the projects on some nerdy pop culture references, the first project for example was titled ‘We Want a Shrubbery’ in homage of course to Monty Python. This is a tricky calculation and of course there is the risk that for some students this sort of obscure humour will just fall flat. For me this reflects one of the issues with MOOCs. Teachers to some extent adapt their style to the class (I quickly learn with a new group of students if they find my jokes funny or just painful), but that of course isn’t possible with these courses. You either take a calculated risk or guess at the type of students you might have (in this case I think they’ve guessed that most would be rather nerdy men) or you go for a monotone neutrality that ought to appeal to, and bore, everyone more or less equally. As one of tutors for this MOOC admitted during the introductory video ‘sometimes we’re lame but we’d rather be that than boring’.

Diving into the basic lessons, the pace was gradual enough for me to follow along without getting too lost. It is supremely useful that you can return, rewind and revisit anything unclear as many times as you want. For me trying to get my head around coding for the first time this is pretty vital. A transcript of the lecture is also avaliable and this is particularly useful as I found the Cousera site rather tedious, continually hanging and with Firefox occasionally failing to respond at all. I also realised pretty quickly that this was going to be far more of a weekly commitment than I’d realised, partly because the classes were more in depth than I expected and because of my basic maths skills which required a fair amount of refreshing.

In the lessons there was a nice use of a digital whiteboard to spell out information as introduced. An advantage of pre-recording these sessions is obviously that a tutor can appear to do a lot of things simultaneously which have in reality been produced separately and combined. This makes the classes feel very fluid and professional in a way real life classes rarely are. Also interesting that one member of the course team had developed a platform called CodeSkulptor specifically for the course (perhaps not so surprising since they’re all coding professors) but a nice surprise. This allows remote access, saving and editing of code via a web browser, and makes the learning and sharing process feel much more fluid and interactive than I had expected. Video instruction gradually introduces this platform and simple expressions, with tests scattered in to the video to help reinforce the ideas asked for. Finally after covering the expressions we were presented with a series of practice exercises to try out and reinforce what we’d learnt.

So the first session was an interesting introduction both to basic coding and to MOOC’s. One of the course tutors prefaced his class by telling us that ‘by the time you’ve taken this class you will know enough to be dangerous’. While I doubt I’ll ever know enough Python to be a danger to anyone (apart perhaps from myself) the smoothness of the all important first session definitely encouraged me to continue with this MOOC.

e-learning: Collaborate Ultra


I’ve been teaching online classes through LCC’s MA Photojournalism and Documentary Photography part time program for several years now. The part time program is taught entirely remotely, using a variety of platforms but with most sessions taking place in an online classroom environment somewhat akin to a group Skype call. As a teacher, this online environment poses quite different possibilities and challenges to a face-to-face lesson, but I have to admit I hadn’t thought that much about the effect of it for a student beyond the relative convenience it offers for people unwilling or unable to relocate to study in London. Anyway as part of my PG Cert I entered the online classroom as a student for the first time recently. Aside from the actual content of the lesson the experience of being taught online was both slightly disconcerting and rather useful, and gave me some cause for further thought on the advantages and disadvantages of this form of teaching.

For this session we were working in a virtual classroom platform called Collaborate Ultra. This was quite different from the regular Blackboard Collaborate I’m used to using, with Ultra being browser based, and rather very shiny and slick looking but also it seemed not quite so fully functioned as Blackboard. The session was crowded, with about twenty participants including speakers. While this would hardly be a large class by conventional standards it felt large in online terms. I’m used to teaching online classes of rarely more than about ten people. Having so many more can create some minor problems, for example when a question is asked the rush of answers in the text box comes so thick and fast that it’s hard to read them as they rapidly get pushed up the chat box.

Other shortcomings are ones I’m already rather aware of, the reduced possibilities for presentations and embedded media like audio and video for example are a shame, and something I hope the platform evolves to accept in future iterations. Most obvious to me though was just how easy it is to get distracted as a student participating in online sessions. Besides the multitude of locations that a student might be logging in from and all the environmental distractions that might pose there is just the ever-present temptation to check e-mails, social media and so forth during the session, and I have to admit I didn’t fully resist these temptations.

In terms of our speakers and the actual lesson content; James Swinson took us through some examples of innovative uses of the Workflow platform. Then Tim Morgan talked to us about the use of Moodle in the context of teaching an online only course and also about Padlet, a platform for e-collaboration (Google docs also works well for this I’ve found). Also worth noting was that Tim was speaking with webcam video. I never use it in my classes so it was an interesting chance to assess whether I’ve been missing something in the process. In this case I don’t think so, at least for talks that simply involve talking. It did occur to me that this might be a useful tool though when talking to students about things like books where the webcam could be used to show something physical and explain how it works, pointing out interesting details for example in a way that would be difficult in a real-world classroom.

Finally Tim Williams spoke to us further about some of the tools used for e-learning, including ways for collecting information on student usage of the platforms. With my interests in data and surveillance I found this a little alarming and it took me back to some of my thoughts about the power dynamics of teaching, when I mused that it was worth thinking about power relations also in relation to the online teaching space. Of course, this data could and should be used to refine courses and teaching to the advantage of students and teachers, but I also worry about ways it might easily be misused (it also inevitably makes me wonder to what extent similar monitoring goes on of staff usage of these platforms).  In all though it was a useful session which gave me reason to think more carefully about how I prepare online classes in future and an awareness of the need to find ways to engage students as fully as possible during my own classes.

Reading: Lucky Jim


Alongside reading the mandated texts for my PG Cert and writing up thoughts on them here, I’m also noting down my responses to any other volumes that I’ve happened to read along the way that have in some way proved illuminating on the subject of teaching or universities. The first of these was Michel Focault’s 1975 tract Discipline and Punish, and the latest is Kingsley Amis’s 1954 book Lucky Jim. Often cited as one of the first examples of the campus genre, the novel follows the exploits of the eponymous James Dixon, a young unenthusiastic medieval history lecturer working at an unnamed university in the midlands. The book follows his struggles as he is caught between the demands of his students, superiors, his own inadequacies as a teacher and the general chaos of his personal life. I enjoyed the novel when I first read it when I was a history undergraduate at a somewhat similar university. On a second reading it struck even more of a chord, I suppose partially because I now find myself in a professional position while not exactly comparable to Dixons, still not also not entirely removed from it either.

Lucky Jim was written and is set at a very particular time, in the early stages of the expansion of the university sector that followed in the wake of the Second World War. In this sense you could view it almost as a historical novel, a work of fiction written about and to some extent from within an era and place of some interest. This historic moment of expansion is evident in various subtle ways throughout the novel, for example in Dixon’s recruitment (in background he doesn’t exactly fit the profile of a traditional lecturer, a fact which results in much self-doubt through the novel). It’s also evidenced in the character of Dixon’s students. One of them, Michie, is a decorated former tank commander in the war, who has returned to university as a mature student. Michie equally irritates and terrifies Dixon because of his superior military record, his apparent surfeit of historcal knowledge and his constant badgering of Dixon to reveal details of a course curriculum which the latter has yet to write. Dixon fears that Michie will unintentionally reveal his inadequacies to the other students and to his colleagues, an example of imposter syndrome which while deserved in Dixon’s case will be familiar to many rather more competent teachers.

The novel is also feels rather contemporary in its characterization of the internal politics and priorities of British universities. Much of the plot is taken up with Dixon’s increasingly desperate attempts to curry favour with his head of department, Professor Welch, a man who is in equal turns forgetful and pedantic. As a result Dixon’s machinations to impress Walsh are invariably either ignored or grossly misfire, with the fallout from them often bringing him into conflict with other academics, most of whom Dixon maintains a barely concealed contempt for. Dixon is also under pressure throughout the story to produce what would today be termed ‘research outputs’. The novel culminates in his disastrous delivery of lecture on ‘merrie england’ to assembled staff and students, a lecture which rapidly descends into a public lambasting of everything that Dixon dislikes about the university and his colleagues. This pressure to produce will seem terribly contemporary to some academics.

Lucky Jim is of course an exaggerated satire of English university education at a very particular moment in the twentieth century. However like all good satire it is also rooted in a decent amount of fact, inspired at least partially by Amis’s own experiences as a university lecturer and to a greater extent by the experiences of his friend Phillip Larkin, who worked as a librarian at a number of universities including University College Leicester and is often cited as the inspiration for Dixon. The novel is a constant reminder that universities often end up being as much about personalities and politics (particularly the failings of these things) as they do the question of good education or original research, and also that whatever else happens it’s always useful to approach this world with a large reserve of humour.

e-Learning: Joining a MOOC I


Our homework for the first session of my elective in technology enhanced learning was to participate in a Massively Open Online Course (or MOOC) for at least a few weeks. Given my subject area I thought it might make sense to join one on photography or journalism. I assumed this would narrow down the field but actually that proved to be far from the case as there are an enormous number of photography related MOOCS out there. With a bit more reflection it also seemed like a bad choice to do one in a topic I’m already fairly knowledgeable in. I wouldn’t learn much in return for the time spent and would probably find myself being overly critical of the course materials and approach to the topic as a result.

Instead I decided I’d use the opportunity to get a grounding in something that has been on my ‘to-learn’ list for some time; basic coding. Those two words obviously also encompasses a very wide field, not least in terms of the number of languages I could opt for. In the end, I went for Python, partly because of its alleged simplicity and also because I’ve been told and read that it’s an effective language for some basic data mining techniques, something which is increasingly a part of my photographic work. For a course I opted for Rice University’s An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python after reading some favourable reviews of it and also because it’s latest cycle was starting in a few days. Like many MOOCs this one seems to follow the model of essentially free participation, with a paid for final assessment and certificate. If you’re only really interested in learning how to do something as I am and don’t have any interest in the accreditation then that’s fine. It’s also worth noting that Coursera, the site that the MOOC is conducted thought, also does everything it can to trick you into subscribing even though the content can be accessed for free with a bit of navigation. Anyway, I enrolled and awaited the start of the course, something I will discuss in a future post.

While waiting for the course to start I had a few thoughts based on my previous MOOC participation. While the idea of a basically free course of education is great, in other respects the experience can leave a certain amount to be desired, and they are certainly not an analogue for face to face courses. The massive nature of them means that inevitably interaction with tutors is virtually non-existent. That might matter more or less depending on the subject, and the student. For me it’s a bit of an issue, since my best educational experiences have been those where two-way exchange with a tutor have made it possible to subtly shape the learning experience to my particular interests as a student. Based on my past experience that just isn’t possible with a MOOC, what you are offered is a very rigid and linear framework within which to learn (or not).

I think it’s also worth considering some of the assumptions about what MOOCs are (and why they are). Providers are invariably world leading institutions, who advertise their MOOCs based on the quality of their provision in other areas. On the face of it this would seem to make little economic sense, to undercut traditional courses with free ones, but of course what is offered for free often seems to be a compromised or watered down version of what the institution’s traditional courses might offer, a concession both to the nature of the teaching methods and the economic necessities of creating and running MOOCs. On that note, it is clear that the institutions providing these free courses do not regard themselves as charities (indeed some of the earlier adopters of the approach were amongst the more hardnosed in the university world), so what really is the thinking behind creating these courses, which require considerable effort to establish? Partly it might be good public relations and advertising, but that is only part of the story. The extent to which MOOCs are ‘really’ free is a key question here. I see definite parallels in them with so-called pay-to-play games (which are themselves also often massively online), where the base game comes for free but the player is enticed to pay to unlock various rewards and add ons. The designers of these games introduced a range of constant, clever pressures on players to part with their money at almost every stage of the experience. I wonder if MOOC providers might start to take note of this in the way they design their own courses, offering students a panoply of upgrades and enhancements as a way to make MOOC’s ever more profitable.

More thoughts once I begin the Rice University MOOC in a few days.