The Challenges of Learning at a Distance

There is lots of discussion in higher education right now about the challenges, and risks, of transferring teaching programmes ‘online’ – as an emergency response to Covid-19 since March, and now increasingly in anticipation of the pandemic’s effects stretching well into Autumn and the start of the new academic year in the UK. Some universities in North America have already announced that there will be no return to campus for students in September. British universities have not yet done that, and have been somewhat hoist by their own petard, the government using their own claims about their ability to deliver education of excellent quality online to wash their hands of responsibility for ‘bailing out’ a higher education sector faced with catastrophic financial consequences. There are very good reasons to doubt that most British universities can possibly conjure up online provision in a couple of months – everyone knows this, it’s hardly a secret, but the senior management cohorts of those institutions cannot possibly admit this publicly. It must be a difficult situation to find oneself in.

The ‘online pivot’, as Martin Weller has dubbed it, presents all sorts of challenges to universities – technical ones, certainly, practical ones of training and competence, but also cultural ones, challenges to a whole series of engrained prejudices that universities, and academics, often hold about wherein the value of a university education resides. There is, to my mind at least, a surprisingly common genre of commentary in which academics, faced with the prospect of having to seriously consider how to design teaching and learning resources for online delivery because of likely campus closures or on-going social distancing measures, bemoan ‘distance learning’ as a lesser form, second-best, if not an explicit plot to undermine all that is most valuable about a proper university education. In the United States, although not just there, there is certainly a wider context in which online education is associated with predatory OPM providers facilitate the effective privatisation of significant aspects of higher education (see Matt Sparke talking about these issues very clearly here). What I find weird about this sort of commentary is the resilience of an utterly romanticised image of the face-to-face scene of instruction – the academic alongside the student, in ‘the classroom’, imparting learning but of course, also, learning just as much from the student(s) (‘the classroom’ is a staple figure of theoretically-inclined humanities-based critical analysis in particular, a strangely infantilised image through which academics express their commitment to the value of teaching). The same romanticism is evident, in the background, even in otherwise principled objections to bone-headed initiatives of certain British universities to rush to embrace poorly thought-out initiatives for ‘online’ provision.

I’m thinking about these things because I find myself drawn into the efforts of colleagues at my own institution to address the uncertainties that the start of the new academic year present us all. I’m now trying to remember things I learnt while working at the Open University, having spent the seven years since coming back to work in a ‘real’ university re-learning lots of bad teaching habits – because that’s what teaching in ‘research intensive’ Russell Group institutions does to you. As I get to grips with my own small part in the ‘pivot’ required of me and my colleagues in the next few months, I have come to notice the different sorts of work that a certain sort of chauvinism about university teaching, expressed in the disdain or disparagement or suspicion of distance education, does in shaping how the challenges (and indeed, the ‘opportunities’) of online or ‘digitally enhanced’ education are framed at institutional level. My sister, living through a different kind of pandemic experience in red state Georgia, sent me a news story about students suing Emory for the poor quality of the online provision they have received one their campus was closed. There is, of course, a real issue at stake here (the issue at stake in the context of an immediate emergency is, however, somewhat different from the issue facing institutions going forward, which largely turns on the degree to which universities are able to be open and honest with students about what is possible and what can be realistically expected by them). The story contains a passing, knowing reference to the University of Phoenix, inadvertently revealing the class-based chauvinism that easily attaches itself to discussions of distance education, one seen in other contexts in representations, say, of UNISA in South Africa or the OU in the UK.

Now, of course one response to all this is just to say that lots of people who work in higher education turn out not to know very much about how those sorts of institutions actually work, and not very much about just how good, how much better, the teaching and learning provided by them often actually is. But that’s a kind of ignorance that might be forgivable. What’s most interesting, of course, is that it covers over another kind of ignorance, a structured lack of self-reflection, on how teaching and learning actually works in real universities (Spoiler: It’s not as good as everyone claims; but not for the reasons other people think).

There are lots of risks facing universities in the UK as they address the challenges of the ‘online pivot’, although quite a lot of those could be mitigated by being open and honest; by not over-selling; by not presuming that this is all an opportunity. Colleagues in my own department have come up with a simple principle that is now directing our approach to designing our programmes for the Autumn – we are seeking to develop programmes for teaching students that help them to learn with us in extraordinary times (I’m not entirely convinced that the University is going to adopt that principle, but then again, we’re the ones who have to actually engage with the students, as real people). This issue of honesty – about what can be offered in these changed circumstances, but also about how things normally work – is important because it goes to the heart of how universities calculate their strategies in relation to the ‘risks’ associated with the ‘online pivot’. In the UK, at least, the ‘risk’ of students taking legal action on the grounds that online provision doesn’t match up with the contract into which they have entered with a university generates risks of its own: the risk of severely constraining the imagination that universities find themselves able to bring to the task of thinking about what they can and should offer to students in the forthcoming academic year, and of how to go about doing so. If you spend years over-selling the value of ‘Face-to-Face with Boffins’, as one of my ex-colleagues neatly summarises the recruitment pitch of research-intensive universities in the UK, then it becomes really difficult to convince people (students AND academics) that there are other ways of teaching and learning that do not depend on the presence of the (rising-)star academic; other ways that are, well, just better than much of the experience provided by real universities – other ways of teaching and learning that still involve all sorts of interactions with real people, although those people will be inhabiting different personae from the ones most commonly associated with research-led university teaching. I worked for a decade at the OU without meeting many students, but I know for a fact that in all that time (and since), OU students enrolled on courses I was involved with received a consistently higher quality of personalised education than students at Russell Group universities, with their vastly increased class sizes, inflated ‘contact hours’, and highly variable experience of staff engagement, can reliably expect to receive at the best of times.

And yet, we seem stuck with all those chauvinisms about distance education, still, that slip out when disappointed students express their dissatisfactions with emergency measures, and when some academics fall back on self-flattering visions of ‘the classroom’. But the same chauvinisms might perhaps also account for a certain sort of eager embrace of the technological wonders of ‘digital enhancement’ – it’s at work also in the vision of the online pivot as an opportunity to transpose current conceits about a research-led education, centred on the image of the presence and aura and charisma of the research-frontier-breaking academic, into new mediums (why does everyone think ‘online’ means ‘video’ + live chatting’?). The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The real scandal about ‘distance education’, what lies at the heart of the chauvinisms I’ve mentioned above, and also the reason why it’s important to use that term, and not ‘online’ or ‘remote’ or ‘e-learning’, is that as an established pedagogical tradition it stands for properly designed educational programmes. It depends on a kind of professional modesty, a horizontal distribution of expertise, one that is very difficult to replicate overnight at research-intensive institutions, certainly in the professional cultures that have been actively cultivated in the last two decades or so in the UK. It involves forms of collaboration that impinge upon indefensible models of intellectual autonomy and creativity that are central to the teaching cultures into which many academics are enrolled very early on, not least in traditions of self-avowedly ‘critical pedagogy’. (The primary medium of this sort of teaching is writing, not the voice of the academic: ‘online’ education, distance education, is like movies – it’s all in the writing). All of which means that the challenges of the ‘online pivot’ aren’t really to do with learning about new digital widgets (‘Fucking. Online. Quizzes’, as another ex-colleague always used to exclaim in exasperation). It’s about learning ways of correcting ones colleagues, but especially learning how to be corrected, and of letting go of the idea that one’s teaching belongs to you, that it’s yours. The real challenge is therefore one of developing, quickly, new systems of management, new cultures of management, at programme level (the level at which students ‘experience’ their university education, remember). I’ve not yet seen anything that acknowledges the difficulty of that challenge.

All of which makes me realise that what is most difficult about the task of thinking about developing new forms of teaching practice over the next few months – forms of emergency distance education (that won’t catch on as a tagline, will it) – is the fact that it’s not possible to regularly meet up, in person, face-to-face, in the same room, with one’s colleagues.

There’s no such thing as bad publicity

A funny thing happened to me while in lockdown…

A selection of my writing has been included in Pseuds Corner, the weekly feature in Private Eye where self-satisfied people display that special sort of confidence involved in imputing dishonourable intentions to examples of what they consider to be pomposity or pretentiousness. The offending passage of mine is from a post last month, an age ago:

“I’m struck, for example, by how far the challenge of acting responsibly in this current public health crisis requires a kind of Spinozan ability to picture all the determinisms into which one’s own self is enchained, and then to find therein, from the acknowledgement of the very abjection of one’s own dependence, some power to act wilfully for the good of others. Or, perhaps it’s a version of embodied Kantian deontology. Or an other-regarding utilitarian consequentialism.”

I’m now struck by the humourlessness that would lead one to suppose that this passage was written in a spirit of ‘seriousness’ that would allow it to be catalogued as affected. And after many years of writing lots of bad, clunky academic prose, without ever meaning to, it’s a little weird to find oneself ‘honoured’ for something written in a personal blog post. It’s almost bathetic. But I’ll be sure to watch my Ps and Qs from now on.

 

 

 

The Works

There are loads of ‘Things to read while in lockdown’ lists circulating right now, and even though it’s not a holiday, I am certainly finding myself spending more time at least thinking about what to read to pass the time. I am missing being able to browse in bookshops, even in the rather limited range available in downtown Exeter. I especially miss popping into a random charity shop in the dim expectation of finding something I didn’t think I wanted to read, buying it for £1, taking it home, and never reading it.

Being denied any access to these small pleasures reminds me of one of the abiding experiences of what it was like to have once lived in Swindon. For me, one important aspect of this experience was defined by the fact that Swindon is NOT a University town. I grew up in a place (East Grinstead) that was a lot more metropolitan than the small village which I might otherwise have grown up in (Fairford, from which one visited Swindon to do proper shopping and watch football), but which was still just a dull dormitory town (“sclerotically reactionary” is how Paul Theroux once described East Grinstead). Then I lived in various places (Cambridge and Bristol, Oxford and Reading, Salford and Columbus) which were all identifiably University towns, in their very different more-or-less provincial ways. I spent time in places like Atlanta and Durban, when both places still had bookshops. Living in Swindon was a strange return to a never-quite-experienced, what-might-have-been land that never-really-was.

All of which is just a prelude to an excuse for another list, this time a tribute to The Works, the cut-prize books/stationary-tat store that, alongside a perfectly decent Waterstones, served as my primary go-to book-haunt for eight years. If you are familiar with The Works, you will appreciate just what it means that this was the second best bookstore in town. The fact that it is located in Swindon’s best known attraction, the outlet retail centre, cherished by railway buffs and historical geography nerds from far and wide, is even better – it’s a pun: The Works, located on the site of the old GWR/BR railways works).

I’d like to say that I came across some hidden gems in The Works. But that’s not quite true. These are the top five books I picked up there which I would almost certainly never otherwise have read AND which I do not regret spending £2 to £4 on….

1). Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs, a lovely collection of essays, including a fantastic piece on why Lego minifigures represent a terrible constriction of the imagination, an argument I liked when I first read it and that has become more relevant to me now that, in lockdown, I find myself discovering the limits of my own design imagination while trying to make good use of a Lego Architecture Studio set.

2). Paul Morley’s book on Bowie, one of those books which one would have felt obliged to read at some point without really wanting to, so getting a remaindered copy felt right.

3). A bluffers’ guide to the Plantagenets, because I was trying to make sense of Richard II and thought it would be good, when reading Shakespeare, to know something about Kings and Queens, without needing to make this an academic project.

4). A collection of John Betjemann’s poems, which I bought for no other reason than the fact that it included a poem about the bells ringing at Christchurch in Swindon’s Old Town. No other reason.

5). Michael Bilton’s Wicked Beyond Belief, one of the huge range of true crime books you can always pick up at The Works, not a genre I am generally inclined towards. It’s a book about the culture of policing in the 1970s, deeply disturbing, I’m not quite sure why I bought it, other than always remembering the effect on me of reading Joan Smith’s account of the Yorkshire Ripper case in Misogynies way back in 1989.

Now I live in a University town in Devon, half the size of Swindon. Better bookshops. I still check out The Works now and then. I look forward to being able to do so again one day soonish, and to finding something else to read that I probably shouldn’t admit to enjoying.

On Academic Freedom

The suspended USS strike in UK HEIs has thrown up some interesting debates around the idea of academic freedom, a principle not very strongly institutionalised in British Universities (See https://www.ucu.org.uk/academic-freedom-in-2017).

For example, my own institution, just by way of example you understand, has an academic freedom protocol which is structured around the idea that academic freedom is a ‘right’ that is conditional on certain ‘responsibilities’. Of course, academic freedom is NOT dependent on exercising responsibility at all – anyone who links rights and responsibilities together in this way doesn’t understand the concept of rights. Academic freedom is not a special right that accrues to certain types of people (academics). It’s a principle that arises from the constitutive relation between the idea of a University as an institution committed to free, open ended inquiry AND the fact that this type of inquiry does, indeed, need to be institutionalised in organisational form. That’s an idea you can trace way back, to Kant and others.

The principle of academic freedom is not the same as the right of free speech, which classically arise from threats from the state [& NOT unruly student protesters with post-it notes]. But like any notion of freedom, it is a relational concept. And the primary source of the un-freedom to which principles of academic freedom are meant to act as protection is the University itself. That is, academic freedom is a response to the ever present possibility that the organisation of the diverse set of practices by which Universities have to be funded, managed, and sustained as institutions capable of supporting their primary purpose (supporting free, open ended inquiry) might come to actually impinge upon and undermine the very conditions of possibility of free, open ended inquiry.

I’m not being melodramatic, just pointing out what the genealogy of the idea of academic freedom shows us.

If you think of academic freedom in this way, then you can begin to see how all sorts of recent events in UK HEIs might represent at least serious threats to academic freedom, if not its actually realised diminution. Take, again just by way of example you understand, what appears to be a rather widespread practice of Universities monitoring and trying to regulate the social media activity of academic staff members. This habit, shall we call it, is one effect of Universities importing models of corporate ‘messaging’ into their internal and external communications strategies, allied to wider changes to personnel management and University strategising. The primary imperative of University communications strategies, these days, is to promote and protect the ‘brand’ and reputation of a given University in relation to that of its ‘competitors‘ (yes, that really is how other Universities are described in this world). If you look at academics’ social media activity from the perspective of a standard model of corporate communications – and look upon academics as simply employees – then this activity is viewed either (in a good light) as contributing positively to the brand, or (in a bad light) as potentially threatening the reputation of the University. Because from this perspective, ‘The University’ has taken on a life of its own separate and distinct from the activities of its members, now seen as mere employees.

What seems difficult for HEI management systems to acknowledge is the validity of using social media as a medium for the expression of criticism of the ordinary features of University practices, that is, as an expression of a basic aspect of the life of a University as a self-governing community of scholars. Here we have, then, a perfect example of that constitutive paradox from whence the principle of academic freedom arises – a practice meant to enhance the capacity of the University to function properly ends up threatening to undermine the integrity of free, open ended inquiry. Of course, one might wonder why it never occurs to anyone that gaining a reputation for heavy-handed surveillance of ordinary intellectual debate is not necessarily the kind of brand identity a University would want to be associated with.

Just saying.

Here Comes Love for Ever

I had a conversation the other day with my colleague Sean Carter on the subject of the apparent lack of songs about University life (we were on strike, so whether talking about this absence quite counted as a work-related conversation remains a little unclear). I think we agreed that there is no equivalent of the campus novel in pop – no identifiable genre of the ‘campus pop song‘. Anyway, provoked by that conversation, here’s a stab at a playlist to keep up spirits on [the way to] the picket line next week to support the UCU’s campaign against plans to gut the pensions of University staff. I realise that this reflects the tastes of a man of a certain vintage (but that’s OK – after all, I’m on strike to protect my PENSION). And in my defence, remember that most pop songs are about falling in love and/or broken hearts, and that most pop songs which are not about those things aren’t very good.

Songs to help energise and maintain mobilisation:

Which Side Are You On

Fight the Power

Standing in the Way of Control

Something Better Change

I Won’t Back Down

Not Ready to Make Nice

Weird People

 

Songs to remind you about the causes and stakes of this particular dispute:

Respect

Liar, Liar

Communication Breakdown

Save It For Later

Career Opportunities

Birth, School, Work, Death

Heads Will Roll

Us V Them

 

Songs to help you keep things in perspective (that is, to help us all remember why Universities matter, as well as why there is more to life than an education and that all sorts of things can be educational):

Why Theory?

The One on the Right is on the Left

Closer to Fine

Don’t Go Back to Rockville

Lazy

There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards

Waking Up

Resist Psychic Death

 

 

 

Best Films 2017

The Best New Film I saw this year was Get Out, which was so scary I had to go back and see it again a couple of days later. This was pretty much the only grown-up movie I saw at the cinema this year, apart from Dunkirk, which was what it was, proper cinema for sure. There are lots of films I didn’t see but wanted too…. I did see The Breakfast Club on the big screen for the first time ever, which was odd, because it’s the first time I ever watched this movie (I have watched it a lot) without pausing and/or rewinding, and and both La La Land and The Last Jedi, but those last two in the company of a 10-year old, so not sure they count as grown-up.

The Best thing I watched on Netflix was Shimmer Lake, not least because I didn’t even realise it was going to be backwards (oops, gave it away, but not really). I started Wormwood, but haven’t finished that yet. West of Memphis is a bit old now, but was still great, and sad, and now I understand Lucinda Williams’ song a bit better (and there’s an interesting side-story going on about celebrity activism). Stranger Things was fun. I also caught up on some Hollywood oldies, including Johnny Guitar (I have a bit of a thing for Sterling Hayden), Sorry Wrong Number (Barbara Stanwyck doing 120% frantic), Double Indemnity (actually, you can catch up on pretty much the whole of Stanwyck’s Noir career on Netflix), and It Happened One Night (which I didn’t quite realise was what it was until I realised what it was).

The Best Old Film I watched was Laura, which is now just my favourite film ever. I was genuinely knocked sideways by the ‘twist’ in the middle – it took me about 10 minutes to settle back down and realise what was really going on (I can’t tell if you if you don’t know, because you need to not know before watching it). I watched lots of old films this year, the sort of old films that one is led to by the odd conjuncture of binge-listening to Karina Longworth in the car on the way to work and having read too much of the ‘lighter’ Stanley Cavell on Hollywood comedies and melodramas. The Best newish-old film I watched again was a tie between Desperately Seeking Susan and Something Wild (“Yeah. I’m a rebel. I am! I just channelled my rebellion into the mainstream” – since first watching this movie as an undergraduate in 1987, I have tried my very hardest to live my own life by that principle).

The Best Kids Film was Captain Underpants. This is now up there with Frozen and Box Trolls in my all time Best-movies-I-saw-with-my-children-which-I-wouldn’t-have-watched-otherwise Top 3.

Last, but not least, the Best Documentary Series I watched this year (a bit late again) was definitely Little Lunch. I learnt so much from watching this, again, and again, and again.

 

10 Things I Miss About Commuting

Since moving from Swindon to Exeter at the end of August, I have filled the car up with petrol only 4 times – rather than the at least three times a week I was used to. That must be good. I am finding it a bit odd to find myself living in the same place as I work in, and I am trying my best to stop thinking it’s really exciting to be able to go into the office at the weekend. I am adjusting to the novel possibility of bumping into one’s colleagues in the supermarket (and of having to dodge one’s students while there too). I am spending more time working in my office, but I also find it difficult to work in silence, and I am aware that you can’t really sit in your office at work with the door open playing Bremen Nacht cranked up to 11 (not, I guess, without upsetting everyone else along the corridor), so I am refining my music tastes, learning to listen softly to Thelonius Monk or Glenn Gould (that’s pretty much the extent of my knowledge of both jazz and classical music).

Amongst these new experiences of a more sedentary lifestyle, there are some things I am finding myself missing about my 2+-hour home-work and 2+hour work-home roundtrips. Mainly, I miss the people who used to accompany me to and from work during the working week:

1). I miss Karina Longworth, who’s You Must Remember This is just the best podcast ever.

2). I miss Courtney Barnett, and Taylor Swift, and Lucinda Williams, and Britt Daniels and all sorts of other people too, who one got to know by listening to whole albums in the car, all the way through from start to finish, as well as those friends one is more ambivalent about but who you only see once a year or so, like Supertramp or Psychedelic Furs, and who are good to listen to every so often, surely.

3). I miss Emily Bazelon, John Dickerson, and David Plotz and the anguished liberalism of Slate’s Political Gabfest.

4). I miss the surprise of meeting old friends, depending on which playlist you happen to choose to put on as you speed down the motorway – could be Tangerine Kitty or Beyoncé or Kristin Hersh.

5). I miss David Remnick and The New Yorker’s Radio Hour.

6). I miss Eddie Mair and others on Radio 4’s PM programme.

7). I miss David Runciman and the Talking Politics podcast.

8). I miss Alec Baldwin and his friends.

9). I miss Adam Buxton (but not as much as I miss Adam and Joe on the radio).

10). And I miss those rare occasions when someone would be there with me in my car reading their own books out loud just to me – Barack Obama reading Dreams of my Father, Donna Tartt reading The Little Friend, and, back in the days of OU-audio on cassettes, Quentin Skinner explaining early modern political thought to me, just to me.