Manifesto for Teaching Online – Aphorism No. 8 – “Text is being toppled as the only mode that matters in academic writing.”

“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them”- or so Ray Bradbury, author of 451 Fahrenheit (1953) is quoted as saying. The echoes the concern of many that reading and writing is dying in the age of touch screen and video chat. Is this a problem? Do we need text when we can give a speech? Do we need to write to order our thinking? The philosopher Hegel wrote that, “To learn to read and write an alphabetic writing should be regarded as a means to infinite culture.” Hegal saw language as an interface to the world of humankind in all its expression and diversity. There is a kind of reiteration in Wittgenstein where he remarks that: “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” The saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words” may be true. But that is up to the creative ability and linguistic abilities of the perceiver. what of someone with a linted vocabulary, say, a English as a second language student – will they have the ability to conjure up such a dearth of words? Then there are the cultural dimensions of which there is great debate around the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which I won;t get dragged into here.
The social theorist Michel Foucault wrote that, “Language is oppression,” because it is developed to allow only those people who speak it not to be oppressed. He also argues that man is merely a construction of the modern era, not an essential reality. This relates to Foucault’s attempt to disprove that the sciences deal with fundamental human questions and that each historical period is involved with addressing these questions in a progressive way.

Focualt was also interested in examining how language has referred to the world in different eras. During the Renaissance, language was studied like any other natural object, not as a separate entity. This changed in the Classical Age, when language was perceived as related to, but not essentially a part of, the world it describes. In the modern period, language once again becomes part of the world, but it is perceived as a historical phenomenon hindered by constraints and distortions.

Haig Bosmajian in The language of oppression (1974) also highlights the dramatic olitical dimensions of words: “While names, words, and language can be, and are, used to inspire us, to motivate us to humane acts, to liberate us, they can also be used to dehumanize human beings and to ‘justify’ their suppression and even their extermination. ” This was a point taken up earlier in the work of George Orwell was also big believer in the power of language to free or to oppress. In 1984, the Party uses “Newspeak” to control people’s thoughts by way of language. Consider the following passage from 1984, when Party member Syme talks about the future of Newspeak:

The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron – they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be. Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like “freedom is slavery” when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate will be different. In fact there will be no thought as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness. (p.54)

In many ways it seems that language, verbal, mental, and written

The history of initiatives of the Royal Society of the Arts RSA includes a focus on equality of access to education. over 30 years ago, the RSA Higher Education for Capability (HEFC) campaign, was in part based on a simple premise that “how a student learns in formal education is a critical factor in the development of capability.” (Royal Society of Arts, 1991) Its aim was to generate national debate to promote student responsibility in learning. HEFC believes that “Individuals, industry and society will benefit from a well-balanced education, concerned not only with the acquisition of knowledge and skills of analysis, but also with excellence in using and communicating knowledge, doing, making, designing, collaborating, organising and creating” (Royal Society of Arts, 1991). It was an interesting piece, and influential as it pre-dates Charles Leadbetter, who was a creativity and innovation advisor to the UK Government under Tony Blair, who famously announced his vision of learning in the future, and echoing the RSA statement recognize that they will be doing more than just writing.

It suggests learning beyond book and lecture, and the need for assessments of more than that of writing. In some respects this is not new. Arts and craft education, as well as vocationally-based subjects like metalwork and woodwork have always maintained their own criteria for marking. In a sense though, this marking has a kind of obvious nature. A fabricated latch or hinge for a door, will have an analogue, a finished example to benchmark against, it will also have an aesthetic, does it look the part. It will also function. Do the parts fit well together, does it operate smoothly?

But writing is persistent, it is the prime means through which we organize, illustrate and express our thoughts and thinking. Yes, You Tube, Flickr and goggle images have lent people the tools to express themselves visually. So has the vast diffusion cameras and mobile phones and devices, digital cameras and camcorders. So has Photoshop and Adobe Premier and their like. Written words reduce to abbreviated 140 words expressions. Vocabularies contract. Powerpoint works well when there are not too many words. But not everything is, or should be, abbreviated into small bitesize pieces, surely? There is the risk that overall meaning and depth of reading and writing, even that of adequate reflection will be lost, and this is tantamount to a loss of diversity in human communication. A written piece becomes pixalated, first at 64 BIT, then 32 BIT, 16 BIT and then 8 BIT. You can create music with just 1 BIT, but is this a technical feat rather than a work. Its often good to have limits and have someone else define the boundaries for you, for you to aspire to, for you to work within. It can be a teacher, or a client, or a colleague. Knowing where and how you are is a good thing. The internet is a great hopeful broadcast system. But its like feedback to these posts, a lot of effort just to echo your own opinion. Maybe it is like the Edinburgh Manifesto – throw it out to see if you can make it viral, There is a kind of existential truth in that. The martial art icon Bruce Lee once remarked that learning Katas, that is the dance like movements which has martial arts practitioners perform, were useless. They aimed at recreating the moves one would perform in a given imaginary situation. Practitioners learn them by heart and are even awarded belts for their correct interpretation. Lee was concerned regarding their overly mechanistic style performed with no resistance from a real human body, and that if the martial artist was attacked in reality what would happen if they broke into a dance, expecting or imagining other assailants and reacting with redundant sequences of moves as the assailant bombarded them with blows. They were programmed instead of being in the movement and addressing what was happening at the time. Perhaps this is the most vivid example of situated learning and rigid trained thinking I can think of.

Now there are key and core skills which if not mastered make any form of symbolic learning difficult. This why text based, that is reading and writing language based learning and assessments, and discussion, have played a key role in the recording and dissemination of knowledge worldwide. But not without criticism, usually from claims of cultural imperialism and hegemony. Just like religious spiritual practices, education according to the western canon, came to displace local practices and ways of transmitting information generationally. These were typically stories that you never just heard once, you heard them again and again over your lifespan, and one day you passed them on, again and again, and found new meaning therein. I enjoy teaching, because I learn from it, not only having to revisit subjects, not only being challenged by unique even strange student questions, but as I teach it I see new connections and new ways to say the same thing. Knowledge is a living thing that should open horizons of experience and curiosity not close them. Universal or core subjects should be mastered as foundations to build on.

Formal learning is a robust institution with a long history and arose in many parts of the world: ancient Greece with the formation of Plato’s acedemie, ancient India with its gurkuls, and ancient China with its Kuju or Imperial examinations. But the modern university and school is not that old in itself and its structures, dating mainly from the rise of industrialization in Europe and America. Industrialism and its social and knowledge needs arose at the same time as did imperialism and colonization which brought to focus concerns regarding the human condition. Much of the impetus for educational reforms were brought about by post-enlightenment thought regarding equality in society and the world at large, and the need for an educated labour force relevant to 19th century industrialization and modernization, and of course, its administration. It was seen as part and package of development at home and in overseas possessions that education systems should be put into place along with machines and new communications and transport infrastructures for the passage of people, information and resources. The places of learning had a bureaucratic and ordered feel to them, structured much like how industry was structured.. Young people will move through in batches, largely sorted by age, they will move steadily through to finished product which was graded according to quality (see Dianne Ravitch and Ken Robinson for a discussion)

The use of the written word displaced oral traditions such as in Australian Aboriginal ‘Songlines’ verbalised maps- showing where resources and food are in a landscape, which had to be memorized. This form of knowledge dissemination links to many pre-text based religious practices which also relied upon the rote memorization of passages faithfully recited in a kind of sing-song way, monitored and checked by senior monks and priests who had themselves been checked by venerables before them and so on. In the Buddhist temples straddling Asia such memorization could come packaged with other knowledge, some of it of a practical nature like building houses and carpentry and some of it attempts at arithmetic and science {see Ayers, 2000}. But this varied between locales. Looking at the history of education one cannot but recognize that it appears typical that at first, only elites were educated, often the offspring of rulers and nobles, only then there is a wider spread of education to the rest of society following the envelope of its hierarchies. In Cambodia, and most probably interpolating tradition with new ways, the King at the time of the arrival of the French took on a French tutor for the palace children, before long French education was taking the brightest local students to Paris where they were trained to be senior members of the colonial civil service. Education is used to configure and optimize people, and like technologies can be used for political ends.

Now I don’t want to encroach on matters which will be addressed in a later Edinburgh aphorism which more directly refers to assessment as an act of interpretations, but how do we assess if learning has taken place, if knowledge is absorbed and is at hand for the student to use in their future and subsequent endeavours?

The notion of the exam as a gateway to future prospects, a better life and position in a meritous society is often cited as dating back to the introduction of the Chinese Imperial examination in 605 AD. This was aimed at selecting the best qualified candidates to become administrative officials for the state’s bureaucracy. It was intended to act as a meritous system which would give rise to a new breed of scholar-bureaucrats chosen not on their family pedigree, but on their on their capacities. Passing the exam was believed to show aptitude and ability, or merit. This was the system adopted by the British and French for entry to their civil service and later by the Americans in the 19th Century. But what did the Chinese show capacity in? The early Chinese exam required extensive learning of classical texts with only little, if any, interpretation of what they meant. This was the beginning of a long pedigree of standardized testing and tests mainly of memory which has come to dominate the ways is which young people are graded. Its manner is regarded by many to feature as the basis of rote learning being considered ‘tradition’ in many Asian countries, including China, Korea and Japan, all of which modelled their civil service examination process on the Chinese system. Niu and Sternberg (2003) for instance attribute the infamous low creativity of Chinese students to the cultural value on conformity rather than individuality, the educational preference for analytical abilities rather than self-exploration, and a national emphasis on standardized analytical assessments. Negatively, it has also been cited that drill-like rote learning is why Asian students are doing so well in standardized tests, including PISA. The nature of many tests, with multiple choice questions and relying upon minds which have been trained for algorithmic and at best heuristic thinking engender learning to pass tests, and, more deeply and tacitly, to copy and emulate (sounds a little like Chinese industry as well). They can give wonderful performances of classical music, but ask them to improvise and this is another matter.

The recent move by western governments to increase the intensity of standardized testing in schools has come under attack by many teachers. Not only because it is being used a management tool of monitoring and surveillance by government, but it is being used politically as a measure to target the proficiency of individual teachers, even schools and regions, independent of context (i.e. socio-economic conditions in the school’s vicinity). The pressure then is on to teach children to the test, that is, teach those strategies and ways to pass tests rather than to acquire knowledge. This invariably means rote learning, rigid algorithmic thinking and at best heuristics, and practice, practice, practice. Learning and knowledge becomes separated completely from the world of work and general living and becomes as many people have experienced it, a world within itself existing for itself. In a sense this already happened in elite schools, where deficiencies in aptitudes to pass exams were addressed, all be it, using highly personalised tuition and extra tuition to hone in on problems.

This in part has inspired the thinking behind the RSA’s current educational project takes into account that “National policy tends to treat schools and children as without context (unless their context is seen to be problematic in some way), rather… the aim is not to reduce learning to the local, but rather to diversify the kinds of knowledge that are valued by schools, ensuring that the resources provided by local areas of all kinds are recognized, valued, and engaged in young people’s learning.” Enriching the experience of school would take into account a re-visiting of the local and thinking about where it should go. Considering an environmental problem in the neighbourhood, or understanding the global conditions whereupon the local economic and living conditions have changed can present wicked problems that require creative responses. Coordinating projects across age groups and class divisions, freeing formalized education from the book, the teacher and the classroom seems to be the RSA’s project. It will require revisions of the idea of assessment. This could include individual and group learning contracts and peer or community assessments.

In my teaching experience I have come to realize that there is a distinctive relevance in both universal and local knowldeges. When you teach overseas in places where English is not the first language and where the cultural mores may be very different, you tend still to be teaching in a remnant of a colonial or imported system. Cambodia is a case at hand. Before its entire education system was dismantled during the dark era of the Khmer Rouge there was a battle raging to try and localize curricula, and develop a national sensibility in schools and universities. But what is the base model to be used? First was the intention to use the French curriculum but to translate its contents and syllabi into Khmer. This was a massive undertaking in itself. Then to go a little deeper there were drives to change coursework to present the Khmer perspective such as substituting Khmer literature for French. This was deeply plagued with difficulties as recorded Khmer literature was impoverished compared with the literally prowess of the French. The project largely failed, and today the hundreds of schools and universities that populate this country certainly do not teach the pre-colonial fashion such as was offered in the Buddhist monasteries.

No they perform still as best they can as parodies of western schools and universities. The books they use, the knowledge they learn, the curricula they attempt to follow are western made and western in style and values, and they are often instructed in the English language. This only accents an ‘other worldy’ feel of education as a practice as divorced from the working of society beyond the classroom, apart from, of course, corrupt practices which are frequent in the school, university and at all levels in the wider society.

The point of raising this at all is its clear highlighting of the connects and disconnects of learning in geographical physical places and especially those places called schools and universities. It also draws us back to essential questions of pedagogy, why are we learning? And what are we learning? Only when these are satisfactorily answered can we ask; how should we learn? The Cambodian example I cite above clearly shows relegation of the local in favour of the global, the mysterious outside or beyond, the elusive outside, the almost metaphysical idea that there is superior and better knowledge to be had from afar, from above, from countries which are by extension, better, richer [for the time being] and more knowledgeable than us. Within this phenomenology the internet sits awkwardly, because of its complexity, which is not rewarded in the spoon-fed knowledge domain, its bewildering profusion of personal opinions as well as sources, it is a kind of blur to many of these developing world students. It can only serve sense in terms of glitzy product pages and fan pages. It arrived without context, in countries where they could not tell the difference between a picture of an orchestra and a folk band, what a laser beam is, and even the history of the baguette bread which they eat daily. Ignorance is bliss unless you are forced to think in a modern learner-orientated fashion. Then is it difficult, if not impossible. You lack the background knowledge and have no idea of how to learn, or even what to do.

I cite this single example from my own experience as it captures the important idea that one needs the cultural capital, the background knowledge, we need the humanities and arts, even if we are not patrons in order to delve deeper into matters, to be critical and selective, and know what to search for in the first place. You will get nothing from Google if you have nothing to look for, the same way your grass won’t get cut by osmosis, or simply by watching the mower. The worldview is just not there, the horizons are focused elsewhere how to bring them into alignment will take more than the internet, more than a textbook. The idea that the book and teacher are not boundedly knowledgeable and unquestionable, and also immediate, singular and embodied has become reified in such learning environments, and this perspective prevents or acts at least as inertia for any change or reform taking place. This is on top of many issues of lack of teacher motivation coming from desperate lack of remuneration for their services, poor training, and not really having any form of a community of practice to speak. Foreigners carry symbolic collateral, as if they, just by being there, being foreigners in the school bring with them learning. Whether they deliver or not is not important, whether they can deliver or not is not important, but being there and being seen is. Foreigners are paid 3-4 times what the local teacher would be paid. It is accepted. It is indeed difficult to imagine anything like a Khmer version of a glossy well produced textbook of the McGraw-Hill, Macmillan, Pearson or Norton variety. How does all this relate to online delivery? I am not going to spit it out.

While there may be some justice to the idea that under the spread of neo-liberal ideas and globalization, most metrics of growth, development and success are those which emanates from the ‘free market’ Chicago school of economic theory. The diffusion of American style coffee shop chains and fast food outlets do not come from Bangkok, but they are there. That hip-hop styles and boy bands did not originate in Seoul, but they are there and popular in a pan-Asian context, that industrialization and the assembly line weren’t invented in Beijing, but they are there now. All these transferences, globalizations of things and processes and values may or may not be relevant as historical cases, but knowledge in the now – that is, how they came to be in this location and how they are doing in the new environment – is how these phenomena make sense in the present, in the present location, situated in the local, the more immediate environment and economy. They make for rich sources of learning and investigation for students. They are unlikely to be found in the book. This is surely where they are most relevant for the given student in a given place. This is a least my reading of the relevance of the RSA project beyond being practiced in British Schools.

Now the continuities and discontinuities of universal or global knowledge, processes or values, and local particularities and situations is paramount in effective learning which is situated but allows for conceptual and symbolic knowledge in the effecting of strategies, projects and plans by students.

Lower and elementary levels of learning are already characterized by a realization that the foundation or ground work. This includes being exposed to the main salient points that define an area of study. Thus first year undergraduate textbooks and courses present a comprehensive and general introduction the field, with historical milestones and relevant schools of thought and their ideological and methodological bias which emerged out of, or rose in opposition to the status quo. Out of this specialism typically begins. The reasons for specialism or major is grounded in a distinctive overview of the field and a degree of autonomy and selectivity on behalf of the student.

To work with knowledge on a symbolical level at all, one must work with language although pictures and video can and do feature. To work with language one must be au fait with certain extents with its construction, beginning with recognition of its sounds and symbolic characters or alphabet. When we were young most of us struggled to tell a ‘p’ from a ‘q’ until one day we got it, then we moved on to word, sentence and paragraph recognition, construction, and reconstruction. One of the problems in second language acquisition is that some languages are very different from English, and this does not level the playing field in picking it up. Also, as education varies in its emphasis globally, the idea of creatively writing an essay on a given topic or engaging in a research project may not be skills that the student has learned. They may also be deficit in IT and internet skills, further removing them from the objective of illustrating – symbolically – what they have learned in relation to a subject or course.

The same can be true for knowledge concerning another field such as photography. I have already cited that it can be decomposed into constituent parts or actions which define certain results which could be used to illustrate that learning has taken place and knowledge can be applied. A previous exposure to IT use makes it easier to adapt to new applications and programs, such as when we know where to look for the file save item on the top menu as it is now a very firm convention used across applications. A new computer user would not know this. I can remember having a job teaching first year novices computing who had no exposure to IT who were waving the mouse in front of their face trying to make the onscreen arrow pointer move. These were not digital natives.

There is a cornucopia of literacy beyond words that could be said to exist today and which is best identified as essential and basic knowledge for general or specific competencies. Computer literacy for instance, the ability to write blogs like this one depends on abilities not only to move pointer arrows on a screen but also to conceive of configurations of words and to locate and draw upon references and reflections, but to manipulate a keyboard to input these words, to operate an application that produces them on a screen, and saves and publishes the work when necessary and as desirable.

The only way that we as educators can be sure that learning has taken place is when it is expressed in some recognizable way by the student. It could be applied such as implementing a solution that worked, partially worked or failed But this would still have to be explained, including the key issues at stake, various junctures that posed problems or reformulations of the initial problem and outcomes and evaluations. This could be done orally, and/or partially presented as a physical or software product such as a web site. It would further have to explain how global knowledge, or ‘best practices’ according to the book didn’t work, were redundant , only partially fitted, mostly fitted, or perfectly fitted the task at hand. It would also speak of the social and organization, the group and social dynamics of the project, what supported it and what did not. All this would take presentation skills, and still demand words. Such an approach would place a greater emphasis on process and method than a straight forward attempt to grade content.

Academic writing, in the shape of peer reviewed academic papers, is a highly formalized style of communicating which like legalese aims to universalize the message of the authors so that it can understood by peers. And is an insmen f bh pe an… I am sorry one of the keys went on the laptop and I have shifted to using a USB keyboard… It is not without its heuristics, that is methods and styles of writing, and often these are enshrined in the writing and the sample of accepted papers which come to furnish the academic journals. Politically it has placed its onus on academics to ‘publish or perish’ and many professors have gotten to where they are purely by decoding the method and way to get published and sometimes with often unremarkable but properly written and correctly formatted work. It comes on the back of other levels of writing including conference papers, working papers, essays, articles and now blogs. It is difficult to know how to topple this affair as it is inscribed in the whole academic raisin D’etre. Departments and universities can only make their name on the back of their publications. Jobs and promotions are predicated on them. There is only one onus, get as many as you can. Meanwhile down the pecking order English language, as it continues to diffuse is under pressure.

You are in the middle of China, a country now boasting more English students than anywhere else in the world. You learn English in a local school, taught by a Chinese speaker. Your parents have sent you there in the hope of you improving your prospects, and you have enrolled in the local university which runs courses in Design offered through its partnership with Malaysian University. One problem is that your course, which is supposed to be taught in English, preparing you for your semester in Kuala Lumpur is actually taught mainly in Mandarin. The extra English classes are insurance. You eventually arrive in Kuala Lumpur and join a 4th year class in ‘Design in context’ offered by a native English speaker. You and your seven colleagues are at a loss to understand anything. The most proficient speaker tries in vein to translate what little they picked up. By the first essay required by the course the warning bells are raised for the lecturer who reports the matter to the course organizer. The tip was “have dinner with them they open up when they are eating.” and “this is a design course judge them more one what they do.” This was not satisfactory; the coursework offered originated in the west or Australia and stipulated two pieces of written work, and one submission of an end product, a book design.

I wish to be contentious here. I believe there has been the misguided conflation of categories in education, particularly tertiary education which need to be sectioned out. Just because someone is thoughtful or intellectual doe not entail that they are scholarly, just because they are any one or both of the aforementioned categories does not make them a good or wise teacher. Just because they write scores of papers for obscure journals does not make them an expert in the field. But as long as one of the criteria for advancing one’s career and the overall prestige of a university is largely measure in this quantitative way amount of papers’ then this is how it will run. You will have departments in places like the University of Malaya demanding of their lecturers one tier one journal article a year – regardless of its contribution to knowledge. This is the tertiary level of ‘teaching to the test’. Where their will be no reward for exciting vibrant exploratory work and ideas coming out, merely business as usual and unexciting, mundane and unexceptional work that doesn’t rock the boat. We have to turn to the Stanford’s and Harvard’s and M.I.T.’s for that.

I have been working in a University of Creative Technology in Malaysia and has multiple campuses in developing countries. It is basically a design school with business, media and communication and IT elements. Most of the students come to its main campus in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia as international students from a diverse range of developing countries. There is a fair diversity in English acquisition, creative thinking and academic ability. Some are new money elites and have gone to good schools with private western tutors. Others, typically the majority, are those who have attended less than remarkable schools in their local vicinities. It is also a private university and keen to see its students get on, with what they, the students, their parents or funding governments, and the senior management of the institution want to see. And that is students passing and passing well. It stands as a strange parody of what is going on in Schools, in the U.S. and U.K. an Australia just now. The idea of poor student performance attributed solely to poor teaching. The administration of standardized testing is put in place as an objective means through which will highlight which teachers are doing well, and which departments and schools are doing well. Students, their circumstances and predilections, the school governance and resourcing do not matter. Indeed the maxim banded about for the attention of teachers was that ‘if the student fails you are a failure.’ In such a climate is there any purchase, from any member or the education ecosystem, in failing a student? Is there any incentive to do a good job as student or staff member (cf. the example of the PowerPoint man given above)?

Such an institution descends into a plastic bureaucratic process, of meaningless form filling, quality control exercises, invigilation, sitting in classrooms, and so on – essentially teachers, building, resources and students as films sets and extras.

I have been through the idea of alternative methods of assessment many times in academic management discussions, and it has only drawn me closer to the primacy of text – entered into a laptop or PC, or written on a word Processor – as a defining aspect of academic work. If the glass bead game of the academe is symbolic manipulation on the cognitive level (.e. Anderson et al), and that of the vocational college the fabrication and configuration of materials bound to the development of practical skills, then therein lies the distinction, its nothing new, the abstract, symbolic, theoretical vs. the tactile, concrete, and practical. The first are people who comment and dictate the state of play in the world, are there to consult and advise and manage those who break, make and do things. Douglas Ruskoff has put the relationship this way:

“We do not know how to program our computers, nor do we care. We spend much more time and energy trying to figure out how to use them to program one another instead… In the emerging highly programmed landscape ahead, you will either create the software, or you will be the software.”

If you are studying film and video, it is possible to create a piece which fulfils a number of set criteria – bullet points if you will – which denotes whether you are ready to use a camera or not. You will still have to show that you understand and can creatively interpret the client brief but how you get there. It’s not necessary that you document in text the heuristics you used to get there, as long as you fulfil the criteria [things like, panned shot left without juddering’]. But this is closer to learning bricklaying and plumbing, than it is to Physics of liquids. Today, we have to be skilled in various vocabularies to understanding text and textual discourse in a broader sense than mere words. However, the medium for academia and incidentally the internet is, and will and should remain written text.

Now, imagine Google if it only spoke in images, and you could look only for other images by imputing an image. What kind of sense and associative nets would you build anything that would be assessable? would what you would look for and be able to find restricted? Would your knowledge be limited? Is their a primacy of knowledge to be learned, before one moves on or is able to make judicial chooses and selections? I think clearly yes. The world of connectivity of ideas on the internet is unlimited, its symbolic manipulation potentials exponentially huge compared with connectivity and connections as we know them in the real, lived world. But even using IT we are limited.

For starters we are constrained by the keyboard. There have been novel interfaces built for video consoles but few have really taken the market for education. For better or for worse text has a very rich and extensive way of communicating knowledge, and learning, a way that can only be supplemented by other forms of final product. At the School for Independent Study where I did my undergraduate degree, it was only on successful completion of a social element, several group projects followed by an intensive final project, which typically included an analysis of the group dynamics that one graduated. This is typically in most art colleges as well. Now having said all this, do I personally think that universities and colleges, even schools should serve as incubation units for entrepreneurial ideas of participants? Then I wholeheartedly say ‘yes!’ They should recognize that Bill Gates doesn’t want to go through a gamut of material that takes him away from his development of DOS. That budding captains of industry and future politicians can do more precisely defined courses, mix and match, cut and paste, mashed courses and so forth. But this is not academic work, and it would not culminate in a degree, but a product – policy document [which is still text], a device, new material or substance, a web site, even an online course. How would this be judged? By free market forces of course, not by an academic panel – they are not capable of deciding what will be a success in the field.

So I have heard this argument in teaching students where English is not the first language, that other forms of assessment should be employed, or that you can look more deeply into what they have written This last point really takes it to the limit and places it firmly in the realms of lecturer interpretation (again I am encroaching on a later aphorism here). It takes us into the realms of continental philosophy (not that those offering these practical tips knew that), the deconstrution of Jaques Derrida or the postmodern worlds of Lyotard. To be honest some of the essay resonated well with this one Chinese student submitted a surreal piece which if it weren’t supposed to be an essay, read as an interesting abstract existential essay” The brand is in him. He is the brand. He is the brand in the world inside of him. He is outside the brand. The brand is universal and world Today there is product…” and so on for five pages. I am fairly certain the Chinese student was not trying to create a piece of art writing, but a sincere attempt at showing the ubiquitous presence of branded goods in the modern world. They may even have been upset if they knew it was viewed this way. But it was impossible to read beyond any but a vague and very general understanding of what it was about, and you cannot afford marks for what was in operation, little more than a essay title level of expression.

I don’t mean to be disparaging, but in my experience this form of argument, for all its progressive overtones (postcolonial, English hegemony, etc,) is being used to mask inadequate ability or capacity. It along with other ideas, including the general rubrics of student-led learning and independent study has been hijacked to get around the fact that poor teacher management is at play. I think of one Malay teacher, which barefacedly admitted sitting his class in front of PowerPoint set to automatic. He left the class to have a cigarette and go to the bank… he did this every-time. He said he was using cutting edge pedagogies…. With a glint in his eyes. This same individual was also forward in his admission that he had paid his instructor to touch up his final design product, and this arrangement was fine, he was now cashing in doing the same thing with his students. The glint said that only a fool would do otherwise, what is the point in being intelligent, scholarly or creative when you can be clever. It was common practice in this institution, as no doubt it is on others, to have their best staff and creative people touch up staff and student submission for competitions, so such inauthentic actions can easily happen in assessments.

If someone cannot write an essay, cannot interpret or even properly read a question, what chance do they have of learning in a course delivered in English using English textbooks. What stands in the place of evidence that they have understood anything, have absorbed anything at all of what has been, offered or imparted or shared in class or online, or anywhere?

Advertisements

About this entry