Sometime I will write a fuller paper on pedagogy in the digital humanities. When I was at Lampeter, I became quite closely involved in a number of e-learning initiatives which seemed to me imaginative and forward-looking, and I was sad that there appeared to be so little contact between the e-learning and digital humanities communities. My colleague Willard McCarty recently made a provocative post to the Humanist online seminar:
Our colleague Jascha Kessler has sent me a letter he wrote to the Editor of the Financial Times, for Saturday, 18 August 2012, "Brave new world without teachers, or learning, or thinkers". It concerns dire predictions of what will happen to higher education as a result of prominent efforts to teach very large classes by online means. (I send it along as my first attachment, below.) Perhaps this effort will be as successful as various tsunamis have been in wiping out costal settlements. (The metaphor is columnist Christopher Caldwell's, for which see my second attachment.) But I recall prominent efforts at the University of California at Berkeley in the early 1960s to promote teaching by television, accompanied at registration by enthusiastic posters declaring e.g. "See Professor Helson on television!" One can still find the large, now empty, brackets for the televisions in some places. I spit nails, but not here. I think of all my years in classrooms, with people, face to face. "Now we see through a glass darkly, then face to face" reversed? I know, Paul's words are more accurately for us translated "by means of a mirror in an enigma", but the point remains, does it not? Comments? Yours, WM
Here's my response which attempted to indicate some of the ways in which better links between these areas of activity could be built up:
Dear Willard, It is interesting how this issue which, as you observe has been around in different forms for many years, is suddenly causing such anxiety in the United States - concerns about readiness for on-line activities underpinned a lot of the recent controversy about the unsuccessful attempt to dismiss the President at the University of Virginia. I assume that the reason this is causing such concern is what one might call the i-Tunes effect - the way in which the success of music downloading has heightened awareness of senior managers in all types of activities of the potential for new digitally-based business models to cause radical transformation quite rapidly. It is by no means certain that disruptions (that favourite neo-liberal idea) evident in one area of activity will necessarily be replicated in another - indeed, part of the nature of disruptive tendencies must be their unpredictability, which must include the possibility that they do not occur. However, in terms of this American discussion (and it is very much as framed here about the relative inflexibility of the structures developed by North American Higher Education over the past fifty years), the following considerations from the UK might be relevant: - The first and most important point is I think that there has been a lamentable rift between much digital humanities work and new developments in pedagogy over the past ten-fifteen years. In the early 1990s, we believed that not only would new digital and networked technologies would transform research and our access to research materials, we also believed that equally important was the transformation that would occur in pedagogy. However, much of our effort since then has gone into creating and financing digital humanities centres which were supported by soft funding and therefore necessarily concentrated on a series of short-term research projects. Teaching activity has tended to be rather an after-thought for most digital humanities centres. However, in the meantime, e-learning and technology-enhanced learning have made enormous strides and for many universities in Britain have been a major focus of activity and funding. The rift is illustrated by the separate professional organisations that have been established. I am not aware that bodies like ADHO or ACH have any significant contact with the parallel bodies for learning technologists, such as the Association for Learning Technology (http://www.alt.ac.uk/). The ALT conference is at the University of Manchester from 11-13 September 2013, and looks very interesting. It might be a good way of starting to explore these links in a better way. Another organisation which has of course championed the importance of pedagogy in the digital humanities is HASTAC, and I think this is one reason why HASTAC is the most exciting and interesting organisational activity in the digital humanities work at present. There is a great deal of the HASTAC website which bears closely on the themes you have raised. - While you shudder at the thought of American experiments in lectures by television, we should also remember that we have one enormously successful institution in the UK which sprang from precisely such activities, namely the Open University. To my mind, the Open University is, after the NHS, the most important piece of social innovation in Britain in modern times, and deserved a place in the opening ceremony of the Olympics. The Open University has of course long ago moved on from the late night television lectures on BBC2 which we remember from the 1970s, and Open University is pioneering new types of online approaches, including a major development in enhancement of Moodle. A hint of some of the Open University's initiatives in this field can be gleaned from the Open Learn section of their website: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/. OU have also been pioneering work on mobile access, particularly mobile libraries. The OU of course famously links its distance provision to residential courses, but I suspect its structures are one that provide a good guide to future developments. I think it is sad that the antiquated insistence of UK higher education on educational autonomy prevents a more co-ordinated and strategic development around the Open University. Given that is quite probably that new online methods will cause changes, it would make great sense if in the UK we scrapped absurd anachronisms like Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and created a more integrated and strategic service based around the OU. - Finally, it is worth noting that concerns about the mechanisation of learning are not new. The use of numerical grades for assessment began in Cambridge in the 1790s in direct response to an increase in the number of students, and may be considered at a number of levels a response to the increasingly industrialisation of society. When marked examinations for school children were introduced in the 1850s, there were many concerns that it privileged repetitive learning, short term memory and the retention of conventional knowledge. As a schoolchild myself in the 1960s, I was always struck and enthused by the willingness at that time of many educational bodies to try and break down the obsession with exams and measurement and try new methods of learning. And of course our excitement about digital technologies is that they open up precisely such possibilities. Maybe our aim should be to try and bring that kind of pedagogic liberalism to the new learning environments which are emerging?
Here's the response from Professor Kessler:
I do appreciate the earnestness revealed in Prof. Prescott's comments. I do think he rather misses what is the point of the present discussions. He concentrates on "learning." Viz., *"** As a schoolchild myself in the 1960s, I was always struck and enthused by the willingness at that time of many educational bodies to try and break down the obsession with exams and measurement and try new methods of learning..."* *Methods of learning? * What does that mean, exactly? I was a schoolchild in the 1930s-40s. I dont think there was or is a method of learning, unless it is taught somehow. By digitized instructors? Kids learn, Homo sapiens learns as it learns, sans "method" or methodologies concocted by...whom? A robot might learn by implantation of code. Okay, we stick silicon chips in newborn heads? But then the chips learn, and what does each unique individual brain make of it all internally? There may be methods to teach say violin technique, but they are applied and tested one on one: teacher and pupil. Results vary by talents. Apart from all that, what I questioned in my letter to the FT was the costs of teachers vs. internet teaching. The learning part requires foot soldiers, future teachers in higher Ed, what schools have been and been about since Sumeria, to test what has been learned, grade and tutor or instruct it. When the Univ of California at Santa Cruz was inaugurated, Prof C Page Smith [in my letter] went up to organize it. It was all Pass/Fail...no grades. Assuming perhaps Humanists and Historians and Lit and the rest reviewed the written work, not multiple choice Xses, of students. It took but a few years until the scientists rebelled at the lack of grading for qualifications in hard subjects, not philosophical or literary chatter. And grading was back, and how, even for a largely pothead and hippy university student body in the 70s and 80s and perhaps beyond, up in the Redwoods paradise. Even with an Open University scheme, Lenin's question remains: *WHO, WHOM?* All may enter and study... but what has been learned by each individual? That costs, and doing away with the absurdity of OxBridge doesn't solve the question of judgments by individuals, referees. You cannot get away with anything in competitive sports. Some are better than others, as in horse and dog racing, and judging there is easy: whoever finishes first second third, etc. Not including Lance Armstrong, et alia, as it turns out. Then, too, we are advised: "It would make great sense if in the UK we scrapped absurd anachronisms like Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and created *a more integrated and strategic** **service based around* the OU." What, it may be asked, is meant by that phrase in italics? More integration of what? Service meaning...teachers? Who, Whom? what qualifies? Integrated whos? Serviced by Whoms? * O, Orwell, thou shouldst be living at this hour!* I take Prescott to be serious, but the questions I raised about Humanities and the Internet remain. It is *not* a matter of tv lectures. When the few expert lecturers have retired, who takes their place? Who has learned what from the medium? I like documentary films, How it is made, where the penguins walk? but then all that may be teaching me what is out there. Still, what goes on, how and why, stanza by stanza in the Divine Comedy? Who will learn or teach what the Divine is, the Commedia means? Or even says? E=MC2 says what it means, and means what it says, and a digitized quiz can locate my grasp of those letters. However, and for example, I offer an Honors Seminar for Frosh, first year students, pass/fail, just show up, and select one assignment. I provide 100 pages of poems; I lay out the fundamental 3 modes of poems written from history. I require each to pick a poem, read it aloud and deliver orally 1 written page that tells the rest what the poem says. I forbid students to say what anything, lines, stanzas, whatever *means*. *Meanings are idiosyncratic and arbitrary. If anyone imagines contemporary student of 19-20 can write one double-spaced page of sentences stating what the poem says, lines say, that one is mistaken. These University of California youth are admitted as of the top 17-19% of high school graduates. We have 2 dozen State Universities for the lower tiers; and many community, 2 year colleges for all the rest who want something after high school and need a lot for work and life and career. A sort of Open system a la UK. But...there is hardly any system to integrate persons tomorrow who have not studied and learned and been graded. Quality is quality. Finally re my Honors Seminar: I attach Plato's Symposium, and tell them to read that short work. As all will recall, each principal vocation speaks in turn all that night, and each man speaks only of what he knows from his craft or profession. Not a one is able to tell the group what it is that the god Eros does to discipline or inspire or create their work[s]. They are all good and educated senior Athenians. But as for understanding the matter of daily life and work's structures and statements, let alone meaning...*nada, nada e pues nada. *In the end, Socrates overturns the evening, although what he has to say remains a mystery, clearly presented. And he got it all from some old Sybil in the mountains. The SYMPOSIUM, in short, remains exemplary regarding this problem. The scientists and technologists are crystal clear about what things say, not what they [might or could] mean; they measure, and measure has always been, or measuring, the foundation effort of civilization: Tekne, the Greeks called it. But I am sure it was known to the painters of Paleolithic caves. That is clear enough, or should be. As for *meaning?* Alas, that is the burden of would be Humanists, digital, digitized, or whatever. Jascha Kessler
And my reaction:
Professor Kessler is right that I did not address the main point in his letter, which is that the use of new technologies in learning does not automatically mean that the academic profession is doomed. He is right on this. What I wanted to point out is that we have over forty years of experience in Britain of providing university education through a mixture of television, radio, internet, radio cassette and other media, and it seems to me very strange that the current fevered discussion in the United States does not ever refer to this experience which provides very clear pointers for future development. The idea of a 'university of the air' was proposed in Britain as early as 1926 when a historian working for the BBC suggested the development of a 'wireless university'. The idea of a 'university of the air' gathered momentum in the early 1960s, and the creation of an experimental university using television and radio was a prominent part of the Labour Party's manifesto when it was elected to government in 1964. The intention was to offer university education without the requirement for any prior educational qualification. That seems to me one important difference between the discussions in the 1960s and the debates on which Professor Kessler comments - in Britain, we have always seen new technologies as providing a key to offering wider access to education; the current discussions in America seem to focus almost entirely on technology as a cost-saving option. The Open University was established at Milton Keynes in 1969. The Tory minister Iain McLeod called the idea of a 'university of the air' 'blithering nonsense' and threatened to abolish it if the Conservatives formed the next government, but fortunately Margaret Thatcher, the new Education Secretary, decided to allow the experiment to go ahead and the first 25,000 students were admitted in 1971 to be taught by a mixture of television, audio cassette, home science kits, course packs and residential courses. Today, the Open University is the largest single university in Britain with more than 260,000 current students. Since 1969, over 1.5 million students, many without previous formal educational qualifications, have graduated from the Open University. As I mentioned in my previous post, the Open University is pioneering on-line methods of teaching. But, above all, I think the most important achievement of the Open University was that (in the words of its website)'The Open University was the first institution to break the insidious link between exclusivity and excellence'. The Open University has been revolutionary in many of its pedagogical methods and many of these have been since adopted by conventional British universities. But, to support Professor Kessler's key contention, what the Open University demonstrates above all is that such innovative educational achievement depends on first-rate academic staff. The Open University currently employs more than more than 1,200 full-time academic staff and more than 3,500 support and administrative staff. Above all, it has a network of 7,000 tutors locally based (as famously depicted in 'Educating Rita'). The chief lesson of the Open University experience supports Professor Kessler's argument - to successfully use new media to widen access to higher education then you need committed and inspirational academic staff. I think this alone shows why current discussions about the use of new technologies in teaching should take the experience of the Open University in Britain as a starting point.
Much more information about the Open University can be found on its website: http://www8.open.ac.uk/about/main/the-ou-explained/history-the-ou I suggested in my previous post that the Open University stands comparison within the National Health Service as one of the greatest social achievements of Britain in modern times. On reflection, I wonder if the Open University isn't the greater of the two achievements. To create a collectivised medical system chiefly requires a society with a strong sense of a social justice and a political and administrative determination to put a fairer and more civilised system in place - it wasn't necessary to do much new in terms of the medicine. The creation of the Open University required an equally strong social sense of social justice but also needed to develop completely new ways of providing a university education which didn't compromise on standards. We need a similar set of values in approaching the pedagogical possibilities provided by new technologies. For further reflections on some of these themes, I would recommend the blog on the history of the Open University maintained by my friend Dan Weinbren: http://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/History-of-the-OU/
A recent post by Dan is pertinent to these discussions:
"Open learning is a movement that isn’t going to go away
The idea that technology can be deployed to support learners isn’t new to those who work at the OU. Suddenly, however, it is in the headlines because Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have formed a $60m (£38m) alliance to launch edX, a platform to deliver courses online – with the modest ambition of ‘revolutionising education around the world’.
Paying relatively little attention to the decades-long history of sophisticated use of television, radio, video and the internet that has occurred at the OU the director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and one of the pioneers of the MITx online prototype. Anant Agarwal said ‘This could be the end of the two-hour lecture…You can’t hit the pause button on a lecturer, you can’t fast forward’. While MIT might be struggling to catch up pedagogically this development could be a challenge to the OU, as well as an opportunity for it to demonstrate its experience in the field of supported open learning. As Dr Anka Mulder, head of Delft University in the Netherlands and President of the OpenCourseWare group which advocates free online course materials, said ‘Open learning is a movement that isn’t going to go away’".