challenges, passion – and Higher Education

Alone in walled cyberspace: I was working on a collaborative project today and made some interesting observations. The university forum was quiet, as so often now. We are six groups of 10 students each, each group works with an allocated associated lecturer. They could potentially get discussions going but debate has decreased to a degree where 3-5 students per week at best contribute, it’s rather monologues than debates. The current project is a group presentation based on notions of definition of professionalism, excellence, best practices and related illustrating material in educational contexts. It’s fairly straightforward and I have already selected my case studies, summarised the key points which I think justify calling them excellent and posted that. So I can concentrate on a paper due next week for the course on accessibility.

Wiki and Moodle: We use a Wiki within the Moodle environment. Even though Moodle is open source, the technology is rather hindering than facilitating efficient and enjoyable communication and collaboration. The course is 100% online, i.e. no printed material, no audio or video conferences. A huge minus, it means you don’t talk to any student or lecturer over the course of five months, you won’t see them if they opt for those object-centred avatars, the least personal thing anyone could possibly come up with.

Online collaboration: Based on these premises, the collaboration is mediocre, we try, of course, to hit the deadline, and produce something that will pass. But we depend on each other (which would be a lot more fascinating to study…) and what happened over the past few days was quite amusing. People were reminded to show up in the forum and collaborate on the project as this is a must-do activity – one of the many that are not mentioned in the course description when students sign up for splashing out a four-digit amount on this course just to end up being frustrated but end up not daring to express it.

Power and Panopticon: The forums could be linked together rather than running individual walled gardens where a group of no more than ten students watched by their lecturer makes for a spirit of a Foucauldian panopticon because lecturers neither engage in debates (other than ‘oh, that’s a good point’) nor do they share conference announcements, their own publications or anything that I think would be normal to do in an online course at post-graduate level. I found myself posting conference announcement until I noticed that all lecturers and course authors attend plenty of conferences but remain utterly shy when it comes to sharing. No papers, no ideas beyond the course content, no events. Make your own way if you want to be one of us.

Sharing practices 1.0: Now, people emailed the lecturer asking to get their email address distributed. The Open University does not support student contact lists we were told, which means you have to email the lecturer and ask them explicitly to email that to other students. Once they have done that students get an email with one email address of a fellow student addressed to an undisclosed recipient list. Now to me that is so web 1.0 and so control-freakish that I couldn’t help but post my email address straight into the course Wiki – which is, you guessed it, behind walls, password-secured, of course.

Dependent learners: I found the Wiki work so far not exactly inspiring, you get an impression there are students who throw into it whatever they can think of – or the opposite, nothing at all. We are asked to collaborate with regard to cleaning up etc but it feels a bit like reinventing the wheel – there are publicly accessible wikis in the net, so why not having a look and getting inspired? Oh, self-directed learning, critical and independent thinking and questioning minds, are we ready for them or shall we rather re-produce the well-tried docile bodies and minds that come in so handy in consumerist societies that just suffered a major blow to the unquestioning buy-now, let the next-generation-pay attitude? It’s so convenient to not being questioned, and to not engage with some of those tireless students who are such a nuisance…

The administrator-lecturer:The whole course would greatly benefit from more critical thinking, concerted action and a much less administrative attitude of lecturers who see their role obviously in copy and pasting individual snippets of the course guide following the pattern ‘activity 2.4 – please discuss…’. It’s all asynchronous and students tend to ramble away, everyone under considerable time pressure due to all those exercises that focus on rhetoric rather than substance. So far I have been missing theoretical frameworks that required a bit of work and dare I say it? Thinking, just thinking through ideas, not one single concept that was hard to grasp.

Inter-disciplinarity? No thanks: Boring, over-priced and somewhat hysteric with all its pieces of 300 or 500 words of reflective practice. This course does not allow us to reflect on the institutional agenda, the politics of academia or the self-centred assessment obsession we are presented with. Nor do lecturer or authors make any references to auto-ethnography, auto-biography or reflexivity. I was told, it’s another discipline and hence we won’t discuss it, so no chance to get the course anywhere near inter-disciplinary approaches or harness the power of collective student knowledge in academic crowd-sourcing style.

Off the record – student feedback: In 1:1 conversations behind other walled gardens I get to hear that this course is a ‘raw deal’, that the references we are presented with are predominantly freely accessible government reports, papers produced by academics who don’t work with the Open University or other material that has been licensed under a Creative Commons License and was intended for non-profit purposes – but who dares to cry wolf when they have spent a considerable amount of money on degree courses they try to do to get on with careers that are not exactly exciting? Clearly, it takes another kind of student to get a bit of protest than the ones the Open University usually attracts and manages well to keep as far apart as possible – networking outcomes are incredibly poor at the Open University, any conference or workshop will provide a better opportunity. In this way, though, any student rebels remain under control, I haven’t seen anything remotely resembling what I witnessed on a regular basis in Berlin’s universities – where students do have to pay at worst a minor fraction of what we are being charged here – but still seem to have fierce critical thinking for breakfast and never get tired pointing out what’s wrong with ‘the system’.

Not understanding social media practices: Technology, after all, is not a panacea. To me it seems, some academics discovered social media as cash-generating holy grail, so they came up with online courses that require students to do a lot of administrative work that course teams used to do in the past. Lecturers have started blogging, some of them explored the liberating effects of reflecting over compromising personal material they declare they don’t want to share in the student forums but you will find them on Google within a minute. Others don’t trust any applications which are freeware or shareware or anything that requires interaction between peers, no matter where you are in the hierarchies in real life. I feel like attempting to educate educators who lack experience in social media and think that a bit of blogging in pseudo-anonymous style and a few friends on facebook are all that’s to be known about social media. Elearning itself is so overrated and yet so misunderstood and under-harnessed in this course that I wonder what comes next. The exciting aspects of studies based on books and papers? The unquestioned technological determinism that has been creeping into the study material compiled by people who barely know anything about building networks and resolving conflicts or getting into such in social networks is shocking. What qualifies these people to teach us in this top-down manner (in particular as they request us to provide evidence even in cases when we argue we haven’t made any personal or professional progress)? Why should I be content with this after experiencing experts in the field sharing on Twitter and in blogs in a constant stream of enthusiasm? Why should I trust experts in online edcuation when they do not even have a sound online identity (or none at all)?

Before we hyped elearning: Non-online courses at the Open University were provided as heavy packs of audio, video and paper material (one of them delivered numerous interviews with Stuart Hall -perhaps I need to let the Open University know that these courses were the ones which educated me towards the demanding student I am nowadays, that was at half the fee I pay now and just 4 years ago). Now, this is gone, though. Whenever my internet connection is down, I am lost. The entire material is provided as html sites, lots of links, so please check them and if you intend to highlight or work with the material offline, happy copy and pasting. Whenever the student server is down, the same applies.

Harnessing the limitations: Over the past 11 weeks or so I have been through a number of angry moments, and I wasn’t shy in expressing my frustration. The aspect that infuriates me most is the lack of challenging course work, the total obsession with assessment and the massive lack of flexibility. This is new, in previous courses (under-graduate and post-graduate) the Open University provided enough room for personal planning around other commitments – after all that’s why busy people study there. Now it’s every week another 3-5 activities we’ve got to do. Plus essays and projects. Write 500 words on this or that, post it on your blog (and mess up your online identity) and debate in the forum – where noone will respond to what you say – beyond oh yes, good point – because people are busy ticking all the boxes of this ‘new’ micro-management teaching style. Flow, the kind of immersed happiness that comes with getting deeply into studies, does not kick in. I assume, that is what I miss most and that’s why I am angry. I feel betrayed for the best that learning has to offer.

Flows of learning: In all my disappointment (there are more aspects that make you laugh out loud in disbelief, check my Twitter channel) I noticed I have been fuelled with – supposedly – negative energy and a lack of inspiring and driven debate that poured right into my spinning activities. We spinners in London’s Soho Gym Camden are blessed with a remarkable individual. I have come from weak to outstanding (I get to hear) over the past 10 months and keep having amusing conversations about personal development and informal learning – unexpected, unplanned, all down to someone who is outstanding in his teaching, motivational and observational skills. Our instructor will not break a spinner, but he will yell at us in complete passion ‘fly! fly!’ and we will. He will observe your progress and won’t push you beyond your personal maximum limit but he will get you very close. That’s a rare skill, too many lecturers either don’t challenge you or too much or only in all the wrong aspects.

Informal learning: I have learned an enormous amount from these spinning classes that have made me see skills I possess but never thought I would have. I have became a lot braver, trusting, confident in the unknown – I have started exploring the mental space that is between getting on that bike and the 5th minute after getting the body into a different mode. I develop ideas in a non-intellectual way when I work through the 70th minute on a Sunday morning, the body in ecstatic sweatiness, the mind sharp and ready to tackle whatever may come. I have learned to be in a state of very happy meditation, a state of deep fulfilment, generated by nothing but physical work and focus, focus, focus. Don’t let go! The mantra that wipes out any doubt in the manipulating power an instructor can have over you. Don’t let go! – the same few words Rose got to hear from Jack on the Titanic. You know how far she got after he drowned in the icy sea…(that’s another story though).

Transferable social skills: I have learned to trust an instructor who’s got the power to make or break (and I wasn’t aware of this before) by manipulating us. I have also learned that a good and passionate teacher is not shy of sharing what they do learn from us learners. And they do. In fact they may even discover things in learner they envy as they haven’t had that experience yet. It’s been a rewarding and fantastic journey that has got me to look at learning and teaching even more from a sharing and equality angle. I am less than ever before willing to buy into the assessment-driven micro-management teaching I experience in my university.

Producing docile minds versus the greed for a challenge: Studies that lack enthusiasm and the kind of inspired atmosphere that leaves people happily exhausted are something we all should learn to criticise a lot harsher. Too many have been educated to be docile, to not question the power and hierarchy, the funding politics and institutional agendas embedded in learning practices that protesting for harder student work and more challenges do not seem to come naturally to many students – and I mean qualitative harder studies, not just a mind-numbing quantity of easily assessable tasks. I find this sad, even more so ever since I have been joining these spinning classes which are always fully booked and transform people over an hour into happily exhausted perma-grinners, excited in the experience and keen on coming back and progressing. Fly, fly!

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About Britta Bohlinger, CFE

Founder and Director of RisikoKlár in Iceland. Native German, global perspective - previously in London and Berlin.

10 responses to “challenges, passion – and Higher Education”

  1. Phil Greaney says :

    It’s unfortunate you have not found your course enjoyable and rewarding in the way you outline here. Does it point to a wider malaise in education? Perhaps. I, for one, did not embark upon the kinds of analysis of “power and hierarchy, the funding politics and institutional agendas embedded in learning practices” when I worked my way through my degrees and research – but I would could my attitude to my experience docile. Perhaps it’s peculiar of those courses that focus on education that those taking them question the very means by which they and others are taught?

    • britbohlinger says :

      I am not sure about the conclusion that a course not enjoyable is not rewarding. Ideally, I am identifying weaknesses that will help to formulate better practice. What is more unfortunate is the fact that the much better and more coherent course on accessibility has not yet earned a place on my priority list, instead the more controversial one was given more attention. I believe we learn from not enjoyable experiences in multiple ways, they challenge us and make us engage and look beyond the boundaries a pleasant experience will never do.
      In my specific case, I believe, the sociology and media studies provided me with a very strong theoretical framework of critical ideas that I had to apply to educational studies – after all, I believe in social constructionism. How poor a picture of a student would I present if I did not question the taken-for-granted after years spent with Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault on the reading list? How can I not question the archaeology of knowledge, the ideal subject position students are being hailed into, the social class system inbuilt in any educational exercise? It’s the ideal we celebrate as inter-disciplinarity, the very outcome of cross-fertilisation that can reveal under-considered spots which look a bit ugly in that uncomfortable light.
      My noisy concerns have gained the course chair’s attention, I have just learned. There is an invite for dialogue, even an invite for taking the debate into the course discussion. What better outcome can I wish for from this course than seeing my critisicm being taken up in a student and lecturer debate? Whether anyone will agree with me on individual points is not significant, though – it’s the discussion, the wisdom of the crowd engaging in meaningful ways with those considering themselves the experts in power and in charge of assessment and definition of knowledge that counts. who knows, perhaps we can have a debate on crowd-sourcing applied to assessment?

  2. Phil Greaney says :

    I took your entire response (and mine, come to that) to be imbued with a series of impeachable transcendental signifiers (the ghost of improvement through collaboration, the myth of interdisciplinarity, the illusion of ‘social’, and so on), leaving us only on arid ground.

    For example, your discussion with the course chair suggests that you’re merely being ‘permitted’ the opportunity to ostensibly contribute to an improvement in the course whilst in reality it serves only to support, through a process of hegemonic control, the dominant power structure (the course team).

    Or something. Or nothing.

    I jest.

    Good luck with it.

    • britbohlinger says :

      I couldn’t agree more with you, Phil. The fact that discussion continues in Uni-Space rather than in My-Space is telling, of course this is a continued struggle about power and hegemony and not a genuine re-thinking of deeply embedded assessment and non-collaboration processes between universities and students.
      Even though I believe meaning is created on the ground of social constructivism, I don’t buy into relativism per se, otherwise, no meaning is left we can rely on, not even temporarily. The one aspect I see I can change is rooted in the fact that debate gets re-located outside the confined boundaries of assessment-driven observation. Here we are: there is a patch that belongs to students as critical thinkers, a space where we can transfer experiences from within to the outside and social media helps to get the message across (better than the word of mouth of the past as sole transmitter). If enough students do that, we would get a more comprehensive picture of what is going on and how people interpret what is going on. We have become so used to the representation of some thoughts being done by some people that the crowds that pour out their thinking into public online spaces are either giving up too quickly or don’t trust the fact that they actually do have a voice now – or, even worse, many get scared by the things that go on in their neighbours’ heads.
      After all, it is not just the university giving ‘permission’ to me to offer some ideas, it is also me who offers them permission to have a word in discourses I am involved in. They may take up some ideas and use them for another course or paper I will happen to hear in a conference, I will never get attributed for my ideas in this context. On the other hand, they deliver the weaknesses that feed into my ideas and fuel my observations and thinking and papers. In this sense, this is a genuine win-win situation, even though it may look different at first glance and it may not lead to instant changes or gains on either side.
      In this sense danah boyd’s blog post on Selecting the right Grad School is very interesting to read, in particular as the result looks like the aggregated wisdom of the expert crowd. Experts in this sense are those who have been through selecting and working with their supervisors and PhD advisors, no Grad School would probably want to publish that on their site, though:

  3. Ruth McDonald says :

    I am sorry to see you leave this course, I felt your viewpoints and the details you raised both valid and interesting.
    I am struggling with this particular course like none other with the OU. For a course about accessibility, I am finding it hard going, and painful due to the onscreen hours needed.

    • britbohlinger says :

      Thank you so very much, Ruth – it makes a difference to hear that. I also felt a course on accessibility of online educational material should make use of what it preaches. Was shocked to see my access was removed over night, please let’s connect on LinkedIn, FB or Twitter, it would be nice to stay in touch.

  4. Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) says :

    I love the way you think and write~ truly inspiring. You have given me ideas about how to support the students in my network~ thank you.

  5. djan says :

    Hello Britta,
    Initially I put my comment into an other post by mistake. Here is my initial feedback to your post in the Open University H808 course forum:

    I complained about the same points in my first post on my blog (lack of structure and clear outcomes). For me H808 is far away of what I have seen in other OU courses so far (H800 and H807) or other courses short!

    But I regret you are leaving. Sometimes students must survive our course whenever it doesn’t provide what is expected to attain deep learning approach.

    Will keep in touch with you via Twitter and Linkedin.

  6. britbohlinger says :

    Thanks so much for adding this comment, very much appreciated. To me, the best outcome or ‘side effect’ of H808 was the networking, exceptionally good for an OU course. Glad to know I will continue to see you on other social networking sites. Keep going, good to know you persist and I hope it’s taking a turn to the better in the last part of the course.

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