Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Papal bull

Here's a song that could have been written for the Papal Conclave which as you know, vents white smoke when a Pope has been elected and black smoke when a ballot is inconclusive.

It's Tindersticks' 'Black Smoke'. 'I told myself I was greedy for it… checking out my reflection' – rather appropriate for the red-hats jockeying for power in the Church. 

What else has caught my attention today. Well, I've got lots of preparation and marking to do, but I'm finding it hard to concentrate. It doesn't help that my colleague kept hold of my marking pile for a whole week but still wants them done within the time limit. Not helpful and not conducive to me turning to the pile first. 

Instead, I've been reading, teaching Paradise Lost (today's question: is it as misogynist as one might think?) and opening parcels of books. Mostly a pile of Jim Crace novels for a research project, plus a reprint of Alec Waugh's The Loom of Youth, fuelling my 1920s-1930s obsession. In pursuit of this, I've also been reading the interesting James Laver's 1933 collection of mock-epic satires, Ladies' Mistakes. It's a knowing and witty homage to Pope's work, full of film-stars, trips on the underground and weedy young gentlemen transformed into studs by a moment's dalliance. It's also very funny, and beautifully illustrated by Thomas Lowinsky. Highly recommended! It felt quite strange to be reading Bright Young Thing poetry in the utilitarian atmosphere of the works canteen. 

What else? Well, I read an appalling report pitch on the virtues of online education by one Sir Michael Barber and his chums Donnelly and Rizvi, who basically thinks that online videos mean everyone can be taught by 'celebrity academics'. As he said to that reactionary know-nothing John Humphries on Radio 4, 
Why would you go to the quite ordinary lecture by a quite ordinary lecturer when you can get Niall Ferguson online?
Er… Mostly because 'celebrity academics' have stopped thinking by the time they get famous. They hit on a big idea. Then they make TV programmes about it. The producers ask them to cut out all the waffly bits and sharpen the lines. Complexity and ambiguity are lost. They start to believe their own reviews and get suspicious of alternative or newer approaches. They certainly get fed up with the 'ordinary' academic's cycle of writing, submitting to peer-review, rewriting and re-submitting. What do these people have to say to a Celebrity Academic? Niall Ferguson is an ideal case in point: his books are largely polemic these days, facts and opinions shaped to suit his ideological perspective rather than exploring events or ideas. 

I have another anecdote which may explain why you might prefer the 'quite ordinary lecture' to the superstar. A young friend of mine was sent off to an Oxford study weekend as part of his preparation for university applications. Simon Schama was dangled in front of the aspiring scholars as bait. 'What shall I say to him, Dad?', my chum asked his father, who had been taught by the good professor in the early 1980s. 'Ask him if he's read and marked my essays yet', replied Dad. 

Anecdotal, it's true. But the Celebrity Academic (and quite a lot of high-flying non-celebrity academics) rarely trouble themselves with undergraduate lectures, tutorials, and marking. After all, what are hourly-paid PhD graduates and post-grads for? You're more likely to find the Celebrity Academic in the departure lounge or Radio 4's Green Room than slaving over a module guide or attending the Staff-Student Forum. 

But what of the other element of Barber's rather silly claim? Why not watch a video at a time of your choosing from the comfort of your own home? I've gone on about this rather a lot in the past, but nobody's listened so I'll say it again. A video lecture is a very useful resource. You can play it and replay it and stop it to make notes and extract a good deal of wisdom from it. But what you can't do is put up your hand to ask a question, or make a point, or disagree. The online video implies that you have no role other than to accept what's put in front of you. This is particularly true of the Celebrity Academic Video, which is more like an MTV pop promo than an educational event. Here is a Star, it says. Worship it and a few flakes of star-dust might fall about your shoulders. 

What's entirely absent is the glorious possibility that you, yes YOU might have something to say, and that all the other people watching might equally have something interesting and intelligent to say about the subject in question. That you might speak to each other, and pursue the lecturer's thoughts. If you watch a video, you're part of the mass audience. If you come to a real-life lecture, you're a participant. You can stop me to ask for clarification, to propose another idea, to put me right (these things happen to me all the time) and I will respond, often delighted that somebody's listening and thinking. The Celebrity Video Star will never, ever be halted mid-flow by somebody else's idea. Additionally, the Video Star can never tell you you're wrong, or that you need to work harder, or read more. You're the consumer, the customer, and you are Always Right. That's why the real-life encounter is Education and the online video is a simulation of education in which the Celebrity is simply 'product'. 

Of course, the most eminent researchers are not always the best teachers, nor is fame an index of quality either: where I work, many quiet, modest teachers earn their students' respect without showiness. In the brave new world, they'll be discarded or reduced to the level of piece-work marking machines. Despite this, they'll still know when a student is struggling, or has worked the night-shift to keep the family fed, or has a particularly personal response to a text or loves one special critical approach: all the things about which the remote Celebrity Academic will not give one solitary hoot. 

The Celebrity Academic is the grinning, styled face of a pyramid scheme Victorian in its outlook: that Great Men (and women) deliver Enlightenment from on high (hence my application of Capitals to this blog post) to the undifferentiated masses. This is of course what's known technically as 'bollocks'. Take my Milton class today. Afterwards, I went downstairs to Ye Olde Slopperie for some gruel and spotted a group of the students slurping sugary drinks and pointing at bits of Paradise Lost. They were educating themselves and each other: hopefully agreeing with bits of the lecture and disagreeing with other bits. You don't get that from watching a video in your home or on your phone. 'No man is an island', some clever bloke once wrote, and it's never more true than in education. You don't simply absorb a lecture's words and become educated: you think about them, talk about them, test them in debate. Then you're educated - but that's not a very profitable model. It requires buildings and staff and libraries and all those things – particularly emotional and intellectual commitment and bravery – which can't be assigned an IP address and be billed via Direct Debit. And that's ignoring the issue of control. Who do you want decided on the curriculum? Some TV-friendly bloviator and his corporate chums, or people you know personally, and know you?

But we shouldn't expect Sir Michael to acknowledge this: he's the Chief Education Adviser at Pearson, a company betting the farm on replacing Ordinary Lecturers You Can Talk To with Celebrity Academics' Greatest Hits, for money. He is, simply, a salesman. 

Will the children of Barber and Co. be educated via video-link? You bet your ass they won't. They'll be buying physical access to the Dreaming Spires like all the rich kids. Video's for the plebs. Which is what really annoys me. Educational technology can be brilliant. Look at the Open University and the wonderful things it does. I personally use forums and Twitter and all sorts of lovely toys in my teaching. What I don't do is employ shiny things to disguise the fact that what Pearson, Clay Shirky (who thinks video-Ed is the educational Napster) and their friends in government want isn't better education: it's cheaper education for the great unwashed. 

But don't just take my word for it. Here's Andrew Ng on the value of classroom interaction:

“If you think about your favorite teacher you had back in college and the conversations you had with him or her, there’s just no way to replace that with a computer,” Ng said. “But you need to figure out the economics and the logistics to hire more teachers to deliver those sorts of amazing interactions.”

Who he? Only the founder of Coursera, one of the world's biggest (and most interesting) online-education providers. 

What's the link between my original subject (the Papal conclave) and the Barber report? Simple: they're both hierarchical models which valorize the linear transmission of uncontested truths to the obedient masses without any possibility of the masses contributing, let alone seeking their own way to enlightenment. I may have been brought up a Catholic but when it comes to education, I'm a thoroughgoing Protestant. 


Historian on the Edge said...

Great post. I must link to it.

But I must disagree about no man being an island. What about Eric Pickles?

The Plashing Vole said...

OK, we'll give you Pickles, Nicholas Soames and Cyril Smith. They are islands. If not sub-continents.