Monday, 13 January 2014

A Short Introduction to Thinking in Educational Technology: Part 1 of 6

This is a short "course" in thinking about education. I've put "course" in "" because I'm not really sure what a "course" is. Except that I can see that education is full of them, and if you want to do anything in education, you have a create a "course".

But you can change someone's life in 5 minutes!

There's something peculiar about a course in stretching the 5 minutes to 6 weeks! (Ezra Pound first made this point in his "ABC of Reading"). Maybe (Pound suggests) we do it just to try and justify sufficient payment for the employment of teachers for longer than 5 minutes.

Why am I doing this? In the Institute for Educational Cybernetics at the University of Bolton, we continually receive requests from students to study for a PhD. The number of these requests has grown in recent years (the PhD "market" - more inverted commas! - is likely to become very excited in the next few years as students try to differentiate themselves in a world where everyone has a degree). The problem is that a PhD is a very high risk strategy for a student. It is unlike any other academic award because, in the end, the award is a kind of declaration of trust between the student, the supervisor and the external and internal examiners. If either of the examiners are not comfortable with the award, it tends not to be made. After 3 or more years work, that can be a bitter blow. As with most failures in life, the root causes are usually deeply buried in the origins of the study. By the time it comes to the PhD examination, there's often little that can be done to remedy these kind of problems. The biggest problem, particularly in educational PhDs lies in assuming education to be simpler than it is. It may be that Vice-Chancellors and education Ministers can get away with this (although they shouldn't), but PhD students usually can't.

Some causes of simplistic thinking have their roots in the academy. Particularly at fault are the off-the-peg methodologies that are sometimes (unfortunately) presented to students as "ways of studying phenomenon x". At the extreme end are the kind of naive empirical studies involving pre and post-tests which see education as a branch of pharmacology. But naive thinking extends to methodologies whose supposed intentions are more realistic, but in their application, a gaping void of unexplored questions opens up between the real problems of education and those problems exposed by the methodology. Action research is a good example - great for hands-on trying-things-out, but generally poor at deeper explanatory frameworks which would ground critical analysis and build a foundation for the advancement of knowledge (which is what the PhD is meant to be about). Grounded theory is another popular technique but now too often uncritically applied as a kind of crank-turning process whose underpinning phenomenological foundations are rarely explored (and many of which are rather suspect!). This is to say nothing of the increasing use of text analytic software and the automated statisticisation of real experience which only serves to mask that experience in a fog of measurements. I'm not in principle against any of these techniques - they can all be useful. But I am against not thinking. And not thinking is the surest route to failure in the PhD.

So I want to provide students with a way of assessing the risk they face when embarking on a PhD before they pay the money to sign up for one. It also helps us assess the risk we might face in supporting them. In doing this, the purpose of this course is to get students to "challenge everything". This is how we think in IEC, and my hope is that having pursued this, students might be better prepared to make the decision whether to come and study with us or not.

The course is structured around activities, not content. Although we use some texts, the real purpose is to get students to produce artefacts which allow an inspection of how they think, and a framework for creating a strategy for deepening their thinking. The activities are:

Week 1: A 'way of thinking' mind-map. This activity focuses on the difference between analytical thinking, critique and experiential testimony. It's purpose is to highlight the difficulties of thinking straight about education.

Week 2: Reading critically. This activity focuses on two texts considering them from the point of view of analysis, critique and experience. The texts couldn't be more different: T.S. Eliot's "Notes towards the definition of Culture" and Gilly Salmon's "E-moderating". Students are asked to write a short analysis of the comparison between passages from each.

Week 3: The critical experience of writing. We look at  the experience of writing. How to deal with the creative process of trying to write about education and organise your thinking? How to deal with critically re-reading your own work and reorganising it. The exercise this week will use the mind map you produced in week 1.

Week 4: Method and Ideas in education. Using the mind map from week 1, we will explore the relationship between methods and knowledge about the reality of education. What is a research method and how does it relate to the way we think about education? This week's exercise involves you critiquing your own work.

Week 5: Technology and Experience. How does technology change the way we think? How do different media of communication change the way we think? What is the experience of using technology? Students will be asked to produce a short video on this topic and publish it online.

Week 6: Thinking and Modelling. What is a model? Why are they useful? Why can they be problematic? In this week's assignment you will be asked to draw a simple model of an educational problem that interests you. You will be challenged to identify the communication dynamics between the different actors in your model, together with the critical areas of doubt that you might have about your model.

So here's the video from Week 1: A "Way of thinking" mind-map
My example, which build's on my question "Why is education usually rubbish" can be seen by following the link to the Prezi presentation below.
Obviously, students will need to think of their own question.

Have fun!

A link to the Prezi presentation used:

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