Sunday, September 30, 2012

Flipped learning: training got there first with flipcharts!

Flip one’s lid
We’ve all been there. That collaborative event where you’re forced to sit at round tables and asked to select a chair The trainer then poses some questions which you’re expected to answer with the Chairs of each table feeding back to the group as a whole, while someone writes it up on flipchart sheets and pins them on the wall, so that it can be collated and sent out to everyone.
What actually happens is that the extrovert quickly volunteers to be the chair (or becomes chair by default as no one else can be bothered), the table spends too long deciding what the ill-formed question actually means or shoots off on obscure tangents, the question forgotten. The chair then feeds back their own thoughts, ignoring all other contributions. Sure the flip chart pages are pinned up on the wall with bluetac, ruining the paint work, but you never, ever get the feedback sent to you afterwards.
This is what passes for collaboration in training, an tired-old ritual that is generally a waste of time. It’s illusory learning, pretend collaboration and just one of those awful things that only happen on awful training courses. I really do want to flip my proverbial lid when these sessions are suggested.
OK, the flipside of flipcharts is that they do have their uses. They’re a bit boring, but big enough to be seen by small audiences and small enough to be used by a presenter and a little more small scale and human than a massive projection. For small group brainstorming and sport’s coaching, they can be useful.
Of course, they don’t require batteries or computer technology, so many trainers see it as a safe bet. Unlike PowerPoint, paper is designed to be written upon, and so you can capture the thoughts of learners. Its popularity among trainers is due in some part to its suitability to small audiences in courses with fixed content.
Some flipchart tips include; writing straight by ruling faint lines before you start, write words or images in faint pencil and amaze learners with your free-flowing sketching skills or write faint notes to keep you on track.
Not much to them really but I do like this spoof entry under Flipcharts in Wikipedia,
Recently, scientists have developed a digital self-writing flip chart which writes word for word everything it is instructed to record. The disability action group "Armless" has stated that this is a significant step forward for disabilities groups to have conferences with people without disabilities. Also being released into public sale is a flipchart which is self-heightening. This system is known as the POGO system.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Lecterns: technology of teaching or preaching?

Educational furniture often has the whiff of pomposity and the ‘lectern’ stinks of the stuff. That most visible symbol of that disastrous carry-over from church to university, the lectern, speaks volumes about the pedagogic poverty of the lecture. It’s a phoney pulpit from which teachers play at being priests. What it encourages is the view that knowledge is fixed. The books that lay on the lectern were meant to be read aloud, the fixed scripture of the Bible, Koran or Torah. The lectern says “the book which is laid on this altar is holy and must be believed, or thou shall go to hell, or worse, fail thy exams”.
What lecterns do is encourage dry lectures. That padded out, one hour (Babylonians had a 60-based number system) of relentless speech that has far more to do with lazy preparation than pedagogy. Give people who are inexperienced at teaching a prop and they'll use it and use it to literally prop up themselves and poor teaching, whether it be lecture notes or text-ridden Powerpoint.
Stand and deliver
The lectern fixes knowledge but it also fixes the speaker. It roots them to the spot and encourages that insidious practice of reading a lecture from notes or worse, verbatim from sheets of paper, or even more ghastly reading out a published paper. This destroys teaching in Higher Education, and kills conferences stone dead. Generation after generation of students get spoon-fed, or worse bored rigid, by this repetitive reading. When the lecturer lectures from a lectern, profession, practice and pomposity all meet on this one spot.
Speak don’t read
My heart sinks when a speaker stands stock still behind this wooden palisade, scared to come out and show themselves, fearful of the reaction. My heart sinks even deeper when I see the glasses go on and the sheaf of notes appear. I know I’m soon to experience psychological distress as the nodding movement from paper to audience casts the spell of indifference across the entire lecture or conference hall.
I’ve seen people step behind a lectern and say, “Good morning, my names is (glance down) Nigel Jobsworth, from the Department of Regurgitation or University of Dullsville, and I want to speak to you today about (glance down) this very exciting subject… (reading from paper). I’ve seen speakers reduced to sweaty, quivering wrecks because their notes have ended up in the wrong order. Without the written word they’re confused mutes. I’ve seen a Russian Professor at a UN conference talk for a full hour (to the minute) in a monotone voice, ignoring even punctuation, from her notes, announcing at the end that she was a Professor of Communication (I kid you not) from the University of Moscow. So hypnotised was I by this act of absurdist theatre that I neither understood nor remembered a single word.
Death of oratory
Academic and political oratory have been dealt a death blow by the steady retreat away from speaking honestly from your own mind, towards speaking literally from notes. In the case of politicians, it is notes written by flunkies, who strip life away leaving nothing but the banal bones of written prose or what they think are soundbites, but sound like the clichés they are. Just as bad are the academics who seem to think that lectern delivery exudes academic seriousness. It doesn’t. Reading is not teaching.
The lectern is only any good for holding a laptop. It’s something to walk away from, to avoid. Think TED and you can’t go far wrong.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Punishers – weird technology of punishment in schools

Technology of punishment in learning? Surely not. Blackboards have long been used as instruments of punishment where pupils are asked to write the same line a set number of times. ‘Lines’ often had to be written in detention, after school. Many claim that linking punishment to writing is a strong demotivator, as future writing talks are likely to be associated with punishment. Others argue that writing practice is both a punishment and useful exercise. The argument around corporeal punishment in schools - useful for discipline or child abuse - has been raging for two millennia.

Roman punishment
From Sparta and Rome to the public schools of England, punishment has been seen as a necessary condition for education, especially of boys. Spartan education was militaristic and punishment (flogging) was common. Indeed stealing was seen as a virtue, only being caught shameful, and the ability to take pain a mark of courage. In Rome schools had a range of technology for beating students including the ferula (birch branches), scotia (leather whip straps) and the hardest leather whip the flagellum.

Dunces hats
The pointed ‘dunces’ hat, sometimes with a ‘D’ on it, was put on the heads of pupils who misbehaved and they were made to stand in the corner, sometimes with their face to the wall. The name comes from the Scottish theologian Duns Scotus, whose followers stubbornly refused to adopt to the new humanities and so ‘Duns’ became a byword for stubbornness and stupidity. The word dunce first appears I the middle of the 17th century and ‘dunces cap’ first appears in The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens. In Europe there was an equivalent, a headdress resembling a donkey’s ears, to indicate ‘stupidity’.

Spanking buttocks with canes was widespread, especially in English speaking public schools until relatively recently and is quite clearly responsible for what the French call the ‘vice anglais’ or ‘spanking’ on the bare or clothed buttocks. It was widely represented in novels, films, as a key aspect of British schooling. Rattan spanking canes, used for corporeal punishment came into common use in the late 19t century, when it was found they could deliver seething pain, even through clothes. The practice continued, largely in the English speaking public schools, usually by the headmaster but also by prefects, and although banned in most countries, still exists today.
Corporeal punishment was banned in England & Wales in 1999, Scotland 2000 and Northern Ireland in 2004. Although it still lingers and is still commonly used in Iran, many sub-Saharan and African countries, such as Zimbabwe and in Singapore and Malaysia.

In the US spanking on the buttocks with a foot long wooden or fibreglass paddle is legal in 19 states, mostly in the mid-west and south; Alabama Arizona Arkansas Colorado Florida Georgia Idaho Indiana Kansas Kentucky Louisiana Mississippi Missouri North Carolina Oklahoma South Carolina Tennessee Texas and Wyoming. Up to 20,000 students a year request medical help after being paddled. Some see it as a distasteful hangover, all too common in ‘black’ states. Others see it as child abuse and there are on-going legal cases.

Leather straps
The ‘strap’ or ‘belt’ was the mainstay of corporeal punishment in Scottish Schools. It was a thick leather strap, forked at the end and applied to the outstretched hands. I can still vividly remember the pain, burst blood vessels on my wrist and injustice for being late for school (it was the bus not me that was late!). The Lochgelly Tawse had the largest share of the market as it had no sharp edges, didn’t wrap round the hand and was lighter and easier to use. As a piece of technology it was exquisitely designed as an instrument of pain and punishment.

Whips have been used for centuries in schools. A worrying trend, however, is its routine contemporary use in Koranic schools, not just for bad behaviour but for failing on simple recitations, reading and writing tasks. Punishment in this context is largely around routine, rote memorisation tasks.

Technology twist
In an interesting technology twist, mobiles in classrooms have exposed some of the excessive brutality inflicted by teachers in some countries and have led to prosecutions and changes in government policy. Take these horrific examples from Thailand and South Korea. There are many others.

Pedagogy of punishment
Even in Roman times, the debate raged over the corporeal punishment of children. Quintilian (35-95 AD, was "entirely against corporal punishment in education... it is disgusting and slavish…the pupil whose mind is too coarse to be improved by censure will become as indifferent to blows. Finally, these chastisements would be entirely unnecessary if the teachers were patient and helpful…..And consider how shameful, how dangerous to modesty are the effects produced by the pain or fear of the victims. This feeling of shame cripples and unmans the spirit, making it flee from and detest the light of day."
Quintilian addresses the main issues, 1) it’s degrading; 2) victims become indifferent; 3) teachers need to find better methods; 4) demotivates and cripples the mind. Other arguments against include the possibility of showing that hitting others is acceptable, increasing aggression in children and possible trauma. These arguments were to eventually win the day and corporeal punishment is now banned in many developed countries.
The technology of punishment, based on the pedagogy of retribution and deterrence has long been part of education systems around the world. It was long believed to be an effective tool, especially for bad behaviour among boys. Interestingly, corporeal punishment is highly selective on gender. It has also been used to punish failure and at its most extreme to instil fear and push rote learning of set texts.

The argument for corporeal punishment in schools still rages, however, the practice has been banned in many countries and the general move is towards its eradication. It’s useful to remind ourselves that technology in schools is used for a very wide range of practices, some less palatable than others.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Manuscripts and the collapse of learning

This is St Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, and it speaks volumes about the medieval, monastic scribe. Note the lined parchment, where a plumb line was used to draw parallel lines. The codex is on a lectern, at an angle to control the flow of ink, and the curtain is drawn back to give more light. In his hands are a quill pen and a knife for scraping away errors and sharpening eth quill. Paper only became common in the 1400s and at three to four pages per day even the best scribe made a mistake per page (erased by scraping with knife or pumice stone). This was painstaking work but it’s the illuminations that took the real artistry, time and effort.
Manuscripts and learning
Widely admired, these illustrated manuscripts are much admired by book lovers. But what effect did they have on the dissemination of knowledge and learning?
Manuscript literally means written by hand but this meant that books were scarce and existed in a culture of fixed knowledge and deference. At the end of the Roman era literacy plummeted and for over a thousand years civilisation, especially the culture of writing and reading, was reduced to a small number of scribes and a medium available largely to elites. Illustrated manuscripts are the luxury goods of religion and royalty. Their scarcity was their strength.
We must remember that books like this were rare. Incredibly expensive to produce, they were owned and treasured by the elite. Indeed, the manuscripts are overwhelmingly about the two great institutions of the state - Church and Monarchy. Print is power and politics, so a manuscripts is never just a manuscript, it is a device for religious certainty, conviction, conversion, dogma, flattery, preferment, a claim to legitimacy, a contract, a confirmation of status. This has little to do with learning.
However, what manuscript culture gave us was the shift from reading ‘aloud’ to devotional ‘silent’ reading. This led to the development of spaces between words, punctuation, paragraphs, capitalisation, page numbers, contents pages and indexes. This demand for books was to lead to technological advances that were to free texts from the the age of the manuscript.
Religious censorship
As writing became the medium of religion, Buddhism in China and Asia, Judaism, Christianity and Islam in the Middle East and Europe, so manuscripts became, not objects of open learning, but texts to be read aloud, memorised by rote learning and believed. Beautiful as they were, they were the instruments of fixed thought, orthodoxy and control.
Islam – stuck in manuscript age
We have an interesting example in the history of written culture with Islam. Islam was a conduit for many ancient texts but remained stubbornly fixated with 'written' and copied texts, so remained in the manuscript ‘written by hand’ age well into the 19th century. The Ottoman Sultan Bayazid banned printing completely across the entire empire in 1485. It wasn’t until 1727 that this law was repealed, even then only for secular books. This eventually had a devastating effect on the Islamic world’s contribution to knowledge, science and learning. It wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century that printing became commonplace.
Koran means ‘recitation’. It was meant to be read aloud and endless recitation and memorising of the book, through repeated spoken readings, has always been highly prized in the Islamic world. But this comes at a price. This repeated repetition is massively effective in learning and results in the deep processing and retention of the text, and the dogmatic convictions that come with deeply held knowledge and belief.
Catholic censorship
Manuscripts were largely objects of religious dogma and therefore the enemy of learning in the sense of new ideas and critical analysis. Remember that the Catholic Church still had a prohibited books list until 1966. To be clear, the list included; Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Victor Hugo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, André Gide, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, René Descartes, Francis Bacon, John Milton, John Locke, Galileo Galileo and Blaise Pascal. Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake for his writings. So religious control really meant control and censorship.
Spanish conquerors burnt one civilisation’s entire literary output. Writing had been invented, independently, in Mesoamerica and there was a rich tradition of religious, astronomical and other literature, yet Bishop Diego de Landa ordered the collection and destruction of all Mayan manuscripts. Only four survived.
Royal censorship
It was not just religious groups who were suspicious of manuscripts. Henry VIII was a censor who tried to ban reading, even of the Bible, by apprentices and women. Elizabeth I did the same through The Stationer’s Company. So Royalty, far from being bibliophiles promoting reading and writing, were narcissistic owners and censors. fGutenberg, and Caxton, did truly revolutionised the replication and scalability of the writing and reading of books.
Magnificent manuscripts give us a direct causal link with the past. The Book of Kells is a masterpiece. There’s even annotations in Henry VIIIs own hand in the margins. The Mathew Paris 13th C journey to the Holy Land is an intriguing strip map, as he certainly never did the journey himself. You can wallow in the few books that did exist over these many centuries but don’t fall for this being in any way a golden age for books and learning. Manuscript culture was in many ways the enemy of learning. It fixed learning in a pattern of endless copying and repetition. Manuscripts fossilised knowledge and kept it in the hands of church and rulers.

Friday, September 07, 2012

IDI – 7 reasons why online degree students outperform University campus-based students

The Interactive Design Institute was a revelation when I visited. These guys deliver degree courses, accredited by an English University, to both UK and foreign students (full and part-time). The fact that you can deliver a real academic course with strong vocational ‘learn by doing’ components, online, is interesting, but the real story here is the fact that their students outperform the campus-based students doing the same course. Why?
I spent some time going through a learner journey and this, I think, is why they do so well.
1. Multiple intakes. IDI does three intakes a year, giving more flexibility to students and earnings to tutors in the academic ‘off-season’. This breaks the back of the archaic one intake a year model and makes teaching and learning a year-round activity. Not radical but necessary.
2. Superior feedback. Considered, detailed and constructive feedback is the pedagogic potion that makes them special. They really do follow the advice of Black and William through clear, point-by-point feedback designed to take the student forward. I’ve worked through their tutor feedback, which is brilliant and thorough. Nothing like the cursory, general, not written and recorded and therefore often forgotten advice in many face-to-face sessions.
3. Asynchronous feedback. ALL feedback is asynchronous. This is interesting. They have abandoned Skype, webcasts, videoconferencing and other synchronous, real-time forms of feedback in favour of asynchronous feedback, which they regard as superior. First, it takes away the awkwardness of academic/student face-to-face interactions. Second, it’s archived, giving the student and tutor a good audit trail to check, read, re-read and respond to. This is important, as the feedback si very detailed and needs a point-by-point detailed response. Verbal feedback is too transitory.
4. Exemplary content. Good course material, software tutorials, exemplars and other forms of useful content lie at the heart of the course, allowing the student to proceed at their own pace and get relevant teaching and help, whenever needed. Far too may University courses rely on thin, out of date content delivered in lecture series. The content is also kept bang up to date by dedicated ‘content update’ staff. Give the students access to good content, with strong tutor support and feedback, and they will learn.
5. Quality tutors. Given the quality of the content, the tutors can focus on what they do best – teach. Free from the constraints of lecturing, designing content and departmental politics, they can focus on feedback. It’s that simple.
6. Student support. Students need to be encouraged, helped and even rescued during a long course. IDI have a dedicated person, who really gets to know the students and cares about keeping them on track. She’s proactive, looking for signs and symptoms of fatigue or worry. It’s a vital safety net.
7. Lower costs. What’s surprising is how small their premises are, no sprawling campus, no lecture theatres, no monument building, just minimal administration and year round use. Given the low occupancy rates of most University buildings the savings are ENORMOUS.
What impressed me most about the IDI was the dedication of the staff to their students. This is a private sector organisation with the best of public sector values (they mostly came from that background). What they deliver is superior in many ways to the traditional campus degree, with real scalability, in several senses. First, it allows access to foreign students to complete courses with UK accreditation, free from VISA restrictions. Second, it copes with year round intakes. Third, it provides more flexibility for students. Fourth, it has much lower basic costs, where the money goes towards good teaching, not capital expenditure and the upkeep of expensive real-estate. Every University that has a design degree should consider using them. Given the demand and high costs of HE, this is surely the way forward.