Sugata Mitra on the role of technology in education

While looking around on the website of the Institute of International and Economic Affairs (IIEA, an Dublin-based think-tank), I discovered the following lecture by Sugata Mitra. Mitra, originally trained as a physicist, and then got into programming and technology, which has led to his present work on getting computers into schools and the ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiment. Ken Robinson’s TED talk gets a lot of attention (arguably too much if you’re me and you’re arguing), and though it undoubtedly introduced many people to the debates surrounding what education is and should be, it never quite hit the spot for me. Mitra’s lecture here – which admittedly isn’t subject to the TED tyranny of 20 minutes – goes from the history of education and technology in education, to the implications of sociological research on teaching and education, to specific policy and technical suggestions. It’s an hour long, but well worth watching. Alternatively, check out his own two TED talks below (Mitra also won the TED Prize in 2013). Much cause for optimism with the future of technology in education, mercifully free of the platitudes of tech in pedagogy and ‘there’s an app for that’.

“America’s Got Schadenfreude” – The reality of reality television

The complement to a culture of celebrity has become therefore the unabashed theater of cruelty, the public spaces where we gaze upon the half-speed car wrecks of the lives of others in the throes of failure, Nascar for the politically challenged. In one sense the programming of everyday sadism explicitly aimed at the poor and distressed is so ubiquitous that one need hardly recite the titles: The Jerry Springer Show, Dr. Phil, The Apprentice, Shattered, Unbreakable, Big Brother, Hell’s Kitchen, Survivor, American Idol - it is hardly worth the minor effort that it takes to disparage it. A moment’s reflection reveals it is pervasive in American culture. Unremarkable people, desperate for some sort of acknowledgement and validation, yearning for some promise of escape from the stale and commonplace, offer themselves up on the altar of abject humiliation to an audience of millions; smarmy celebrities berate them to their face; and the spectacles proliferate because they are cheaper for the networks to program than either scripted fiction or news. In many instances, the audience is even encouraged to pay to “vote” for those to ostracize and banish – a clear simulacrum of the neoliberal marketplace.

Philip Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go To Waste, p. 133.

This sums up, in a few sentences, what has sat unparsed in my mind for the better part of a decade. I recall once in conversation using the title “America’s Got Schadenfreude” as simultaneous shorthand for and dismissal of these types of shows. It saved discussion. The characterisation so satisfied me that I had left things at that, and moved on to other things. I don’t own a television and I don’t watch television on my laptop. These shows are of no relevance to me. Yet what Mirowski writes here is important because it explains why not caring about (or indeed carrying around a psychologically analogical underground coal-seam fire of hatred for) these shows isn’t simply snobbery. That is the usual assumption when the subject comes up. “I don’t watch television” is a sentence that is becoming increasingly difficult for people to interpret in any other way than “I think I am superior to you”. The truth is closer to the polar opposite in that I think we are, all of us, so much better than what is put up on our televisions. Perhaps the part of my brain dedicated to a love of documentaries, PBS, and the (old) BBC is hyperdeveloped, and pressing on that part of the brain concerned with ‘just enjoying’ myself. So be it.

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Daniel Bell, post-industrial society, and who should pay for basic research

A few things popped Daniel Bell’s The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973) on my radar, and so I got an old copy for myself online. The edition I have is from 1976, with a new introduction from the author where he attempts to lessen the strain of the excessively heavy lifting some of his ideas were being forced to do by subsequent interpreters. What struck me is that for a 40 year old book, much the same conversations are being had, although it appears that in some respects we have leap-frogged the substantive elements in favour of nitty-gritty technical fixes. Bell’s book rewinds us to these bigger picture problems. Continue reading

World University Rankings – Information or Noise

Messing around with some of the results available from the Times Higher Education World University Rankings website, it’s interesting to note that near the top of the ranking over the years, things stay relatively stable, and further down there’s quite a bit of variation. In an ideal world, all the datasets would be available for download and easily manipulable (transparency!) but this is not yet the case. Anyway, doing some work for work, here’s a selection of a few institutions with their ranks plotted from the last THE-QS ranking in 2009-2010, to the most recent THE(-TR) ranking for 2013-2013.

There’s quite a bit of change from 2009-2010 to 2010-2011, when THE split from QS (or vice versa). This split resulted in a change in methodology and weightings, but things have not yet settled down, because weightings have either continued to change (though they have stayed the same since 2011 and 2012 it seems), but as Andrejs Rauhvargers notes (pdf), “the scores of all indicators, except those for the Academic Reputation Survey [...] have been calucalted differently.” As well as this, in a recent journal article (“Where Are the Global Rankings Leading Us? An Analysis of Recent Methodological Changes and New Developments”), Rauhvargers notes that the THE doesn’t/won’t publish the scores of its 13 indicators. Transparency! Anyway, for what its worth, here are some pretty pictures that illustrate the noisiness of the rankings. Just fooling around with the data to see if I will return to this with the data for the full top 200 over the past 5 years.

New Picture New Picture (4)

Heidegger and Nazism – a letter from the archives

From the London Review of Books, Vol. 12 No. 7 · 5 April 1990

Richard Rorty’s eulogy of Martin Heidegger (LRB, 8 February) is shamefully tasteless, insensitive, infantile, and vulgar in the extreme. He seems to think that one should not be angry with Heidegger because, despising democracy, as does every good intellectual, he also worshipped at the phallic shrine of Nazism, joined the Party (in both senses of the word), and betrayed his colleagues and his country to support a movement which, in one of its few instances of sanity, had the good sense to reject him in favour of an even greater mind, Alfred Rosenberg, whose position as the ideological and doctrinal theoretician of the most obscene, banal, puerile, and maniacal system ever devised in the entirety of human history Rorty’s hero coveted. The Nazi Heidegger was not a hypocrite; Nazism was Heideggerism authentically made flesh. To be a hypocrite would require Heidegger to think one way and act another, but surely all of Nazism is contained within the deranged, demented putrescence of his Teutonic furz, his Gesamelte Werke.


Sidney Halpern Temple University, Pennsylvania

Problems with interdisciplinarity in the humanities

At a recent workshop on interdisciplinarity for researchers from the Coimbra Group in Trinity College Dublin, at the Long Room Hub, there were some interesting presentations (especially by Britta Padberg of ZiF and Christoph Horn of Bonn University) and conversations had about the challenges and opportunities within this area. It got me thinking about some of the theoretical and structural peculiarities of the humanities that makes the discussion of interdisciplinarity in the arts and humanities different from the STEM, and perhaps also the social sciences. As always, there are counter-examples and caveats, but here are some thoughts under the follow headings.

(i) The place of common theoretical structures in STEM and AHSS interdisciplinarity

(ii) Disciplinary and professional drivers and barriers to interdisciplinarity

(iii) Intra- and interdisciplinarity – or precision versus purity Continue reading


Excellent piece by Greg Foley responding to Morgan Kelly’s recent discussion of education in Ireland: Why ‘Grade Inflation’ is a red herring. To be read in its entirety. 

Therefore, there is a prima facie case for the ‘fact’ that the third level system has changed substantially and if we want to infer a drop in objective standards purely from grade distributions we have a pretty tough task ahead of us…