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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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

Finding an alternative to the market discourse of culture via Iain M. Banks

This post started when I was reflecting on our inability to theorize culture, the arts, and humanities except within the paradigm of the market. We know the standard responses – and more often reactions – to this question of “what good are they?” (I will slip between culture, humanities, and the arts in this post, as I think they have many things in common in terms of theoretical justification).

There are various possible approaches. One might be via justification itself, and how to secure meaning and significance in a secular world (Hans Blumenberg, Charles Taylor, Karl Löwith). Then there might be an analysis of the market and its internal logic (Debra Satz). Another is via the matter of value, of the worth of arts and culture and the humanities. This is seen in terms of intrinsic or extrinsic value, and it is a difficult and indeed perilous route to take. It is, however, the road more travelled. Continue reading

Humanities IN crisis, or humanities AS crisis

Reading Eleonora Belfiore and Anna Upchurch‘s edited collection of essays, Humanities in the Twenty-First Century: Beyond Utility and Markets, I noted how Belfiore draws attention to the fact that the humanities seem to have continual identity drama. We have, as they say, issues. Now, this takes many forms, be it in terms of the job crisis for recently doctored researchers, or issues of public funding, or university organization, or may go even deeper to the very metaphysical justification of the humanities themselves. A nadir of this was to be seen the culture wars of the 90s and 00s, which I think we are all tired of revisiting, but which certainly moulded my early years of university education.

In reading Belfiore’s introduction chapter, “The ‘Rhetoric of Gloom’ v. the Discourse of Impact”, a tweet I had read a while ago popped into my head. It was a propos one of those periodic Twitter squalls that whips up over something or other, but unlike many tweets in such circumstances, it cut straight through the particularity of the situation, presenting a view of the grand, long, universal view.   Continue reading

Redefining academic research – capital or plural?

“University scientists still do most of the research, but increasingly the allegiance of many is to the ‘research centre’, a quasi-academic institution which draws its heat and light from the university, its directions from elsewhere.”

“Cooperative groups, from the great industrial concerns to small research teams, inevitably tend to rely on what is already acceptable as common ground, and that means established, specialized techniques.”

“Companion to the team project and planning by committee is the blight of ‘research design’. Instead of being joined together in a flexible arrangement which allows the scientist to follow his own side roads, project members are bound up in a highly detailed, prefabricated master plan of research.”

The above three quotes are not from recent blog posts regarding higher education, or reponses to EU policy initiatives, but  from William H. Whyte’s 1956 work, The Organization Man, in his chapter “The Bureaucratization of the Scientist”.  Though over half a century old, the concerns and criticisms expressed here are as timely as ever they were (with the addition of there being organization women as well as men…), and the problems that prompted such reflections still exist. Indeed, in one form or another, I have heard similar remarks made by researchers, academics, and administrators in the last few years of working in higher education.  Continue reading

Quote: Indicative mood, subjunctive mood, and narrative

In recent centuries we speakers of this lovely language have reduced the English verb almost entirely to the indicative mood. But beneath that specious and arrogant assumption of certainty all the ancient, cloudy, moody, powers and options of the subjunctive remain in force. The indicative points its bony finger at primary experiences, at the Things; but it is the subjunctive that joins them, with the bonds of analogy, possibility, probability, contingency, contiguity, memory, desire, fear, and hope: the narrative connection.

Ursula Le Guin, “Some Thoughts on Narrative”, Dancing at the Edge of the World, p. 44