Monthly Archives: March 2010

Educating a workforce of knowledge workers

Looking at the 'employment-related key competencies' identified by the Mayer Report in 1992, it's clear that we are planning for students to pop out the other end of schooling into a world of 'knowledge working'…

  • Collecting, analysing and organising information
  • Communicating ideas and information
  • Planning and organising activities
  • Working with others and in teams
  • Using mathematical ideas and techniques
  • Solving problems
  • Using technology

Nice to see the collaborative point in there, but it still feels like there are perhaps gaps in terms of creativity and innovation (as a disclaimer, I have not read the actual report, only discussion of it). Having said that, it is quite a different list from the one that would have been produced twenty years before this report was written. I wonder what skills we will think children need to learn for 'the workplace' in another twenty years.

(As a postscript, the QLD DEST publication 'Enterprise Education in Primary Schools' also catalogues eighteen attributes that more effectively cover creativity, initiative, negotiation, stress etc. – things I would think take a more progressive angle on the way 'employment' is evolving.)

People of the Oak

One of the pieces of work I enjoyed most at UNSW was what ended up being ‘People of the Oak‘. Our challenge was to create a new media work. Given the daunting challenge of actual artistic production, I wanted to try something more existential. In the end I created a ‘virtual religion’ – a belief system within the Ultima Online world. The paper then presented key tenets of the religion as the core text and used extensive footnoting to provide rationale. I don’t know what others thought of it, but I had a lot of fun.

‘Little Teacher’ Thought Experiment

(I am going to use the term Little Person in this post after spending some time on the interwebs attempting to find the most acceptable nomeclature).

Here's something to think about. Picture a primary classroom. Let's make it a 1st or 2nd class, so the kids are 5-7 years old. Feel free to choose either gender for their teacher – Mr. Arsenworth, Miss Babscotch, whatever works for you. Picture the class, the way it operated, the relations between students and teacher.

Now, imagine that Mr. Arsensworth is a Little Person. Roughly the same height as the students. Picture it, seriously. Imagine it, work it through.

How do you think the classroom behaviour and relations would change? Imagine all staff at the school were of similar stature. What physical differences would we see in school design? Classroom design? Behaviour – of teachers, of students?

Are any of those changes positive in terms of student outcomes? If so, are there ways we can achieve them without dramatically changing DET staffing policy?

Just a thought.

The Materiality of the Digital

One thing that intrigued and frustrated me about a lot of new media theory was the way ‘cyberspace’ was put forward as a completely new and distinct space, unconnected from physical space. Populist synthesiser (love that term thank you Gillian – has a real disco ring to it) Margaret Wertheim compares cyperspace to the ‘space’ of heaven in her ‘Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet‘. Until Newton, we saw Heaven as a very real space, distant from but somehow contiguous with own, having its own nature. When Newton argued that everywhere in the universe had to obey the same physical laws, and we had to remove heaven from our universe altogether.

With ‘cyberspace’ we again have a realm that seems to be completely unconnected to our own in the way it operates, and yet you can get there from here. Works like Neuromancer (and more recently The Matrix) suggest that this transition will become increasingly more experiential.

I wrote The Materiality of the Digital to explore the fact that while cyberspace seems disconnected, it is nothing more than a complex interpretation of computational states that are absolutely real. In the simplest sense, if you were to destroy every computer on early, cyberspace would also cease to exist. What implications does this have for th e’nature’ of cyberspace and our experience of it?

Negotiation Fail on the Siftables

So unfortunately this week I was denied on my cunning plan to write a paper on the application of the Siftables to the classroom. It seems that a key part of the outcome is that the course coordinator wants us to actually build something we can pick up, and take directly into our work after we graduate. Part of the plan is that we will show our work with other students and take copies of the stuff we think is cool. 

I'm not completely convinced about using resources developed by students as part of their skill development as actual teaching resources, but I'm not going to have that argument (nor the various other objections I could make). Know which battles to fight as they say.

On a more positive note, I have exchanged several emails with David Merrill who is very helpfully providing me with some more detail on what the Siftables will be capable of which will inform how they can be deployed in the classroom. If I get enough detail from him I will a) share it here, and b) probably have a crack at writing the paper anyway.

In the meantime, I will have to think of something I can actually develop for the assessment. While AR/VRML is tempting, it sounds like it could be a lot of work for not much return. Will have to investigate further…

Identity Market

What do you get if you throw a little sociological thought on the fragmentation of identity in late/post-modernity (Agger, Gergen, Giddens, Lyotard) together with some social movement attitude (Melucci), some digital thinking (Castells, Ayers) and wrap it all up in some Deleuzian terminology?

A bit of a mess really, but some interesting thoughts on how we create identity through alignment with digital collectives in the digital Identity Market.

Mayer and Moreno meet The Credit Crisis Vizualised

Having readMayer and Moreno’s paper identifying five principles of multimedia design, it is an interesting exercise to apply it to something out there in the real world and see how their principles hold up. While it is tempting to look at some progressive interactive educational whizz-bangery, I thought it was only fair that I stuck to their definition – “words and pictures” that “explain the step-by-step operation of a cause and effect system in which a change in one part causes a change in another part” (p.108). It’s pretty limiting, but hey, I’m just trying to give the guys a fighting chance.

I thought the best place to find a non-interactive explanatory video of this type would be YouTube. Interestingly, the videos I looked at were generally the kind of things people viewed by choice, not because they were part of a study curriculum (having said that they were all explicitly educational). I was particularly keen to look at Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us (a presentation by Mike Wesch, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University). I love the way it uses text in a post-modern way that actually demonstrates the ideas and technology it describes. Unfortunately I think Mike’s decision to not use narration may have been partly a resource issue, so I felt it was a little unfair to assess the piece using Mayer and Moreno’s criteria.

Being a pinko-commie, I also considered using War Corporatism: The New Fascism, a piece written by Brian McNamara (design by Knife Party). It is a superb piece of visual storytelling that makes clever use of animation to bring out subtexts… but at the end of the day it didn’t really fall into the “step-by-step operation of a cause and effect system” definition.

Having said all that, if you haven’t seen either of those two pieces, do yourself a favour and check them out.

In the end I decided to look at The Crisis of Credit Visualised – Part 1, an animation by Jonathan Jarvis to explain the mechanics behind the sub-prime mortgage debacle. It is a seven and a half minute presentation using animation, text, music, sound effects and narration to explain a complex system that many of us are unfamiliar with the workings on – and it strives to do so in a straightforward and accessible way. I thought this was a particularly suitable example specifically because the content is so complex (at least for the economically-challenged like myself) – as a result you can really feel your brain starting to hurt, giving you some introspective insight into the ‘cognitive load’ issue that is driving Mayer and Moreno’s study. To date, this video has been viewed on YouTube almost eight hundred thousand times, by people doing so of their own free will.

Having already gone on for far too long, I will limit my comments to looking at how Jarvis violates two of Mayer and Moreno’s principles, and whether this suggests a flaw in Jarvis’ work, or their model. The principles reviewed will be the redundancy principle (suggesting that text and narration should not co-occur) and the coherence principle (suggesting that extraneous content should be avoided).

To be fair I should say that Jarvis is very much in tune with Mayer and Moreno on the other three principles. He presents key ideas by representing them visually as well as in words (the multiple representation principle), is very careful to synchronise the visual appearance of objects with the narration (the contiguity principle) and uses spoken narration for the majority of the text (the modality principle).

He violates the redundancy principle by using text on screen while narration is also occurring. I do feel that some of the on-screen text that mirrors phrases not specific to this discussion (‘how did it happen’ and ‘here’s how’ around 0:25) are redundant, and hinder rather than help. Most of the time however, Jarvis uses text on screen to identify the key terms and objects he is discussing (such as ‘collateralized debt obligations’, ‘mortgage lender’ and so on). In these instances, simultaneous text and spoken words serve to reinforce key concepts, to facilitate different preferred modalities (as a visual learner, I struggle if I can’t read these key terms), and helps signpost the important concepts in the narration. When used selectively and intentionally, Jarvis demonstrates that redundancy can add value.

He violates the coherence principle by adding in small visual details (at 7:25 ‘less responsible lenders’ are represented by silhouettes featuring tattoos, cigarettes and what looks disturbingly like a mullet) and sound effects (like the completely unnecessary ‘typing’ noise as text appears at 0:21). With such a dry and complex topic, these elements create engagement through emotion and humour – an engagement that is critical in holding the attention of a voluntary audience for over seven minutes. I think it is very interesting to note that the narration does not contain any extraneous material – clearly Jarvis agrees with Mayer and Moreno that putting irrelevant information into his story in this way will make it harder to grasp.

On reflection, it is clear that Mayer and Moreno’s intent is sound, but their scope of study is very limited and their conclusions overly rigid. I would suggest that rather than relying on work like this to interpret how the cognitive load model should inform our resource design, we should actually go and learn a bit about the cognitive load model itself. This gives us the capacity to be more flexible in applying it to resource development, and gives us the ability to apply it to a much wider range of scenarios. As classroom teachers who are operating in multiple modalities during our teaching, these insights will be invaluable.

Of course, once we have a good understanding of cognitive load, why stop there? Cognitive psychology provides valuable insight into much broader areas that may be just as useful in shaping our resource development, such as selective attention, short term memory capacity, visual perception and reasoning.

References

Mayer, R., & Moreno, R. (2002). Aids to computer-based multimedia learning. Learning and Instruction 10, 107-119.

Reed, S. (2009). Cognition: Theory and Application [8th Edn]. Wadsworth Publishing.

Re(g)ifying Lord British

One of the most interesting sites I looked at while studying was MMPORPGs, primarily Ultima Online which was popular and accessible at the time. Something that has always intrigued me about the Ultima series is the way that their creator Richard Garriott built the character of Lord British within the Ultima universe, and then took on that role himself.

While I was studying, Garriott left the franchise. This raised some interesting questions about what would happen to Lord British within the game world. I found the discussion fascinating as it raised broader questions about exactly what type of identity Lord British was – something that I took the opportunity to explore in this short paper, ‘Re(g)ifying Lord British‘.

Small epiphanies – a little self-directed learning in Berala 1M

Needless to say, my first experience of the primary classroom as a student teacher yesterday was an interesting one. While there were many things that struck me which I may touch on later, I wanted to tell one short story today.

The first class I sat in on was a 1st class who were working on 'measurement'. Their task was to measure a defined set of objects listed on a page (table, pencil, book…) by using other objects (paper clips, 2cm cubes, paddle pop sticks, their hands…), and as a consequence to write down a sentence on the paper in the format 'the table measures 7 pencils' (horrible sentence, I know). It was interesting, watching them choosing which object to use, laying them out and counting, and then writing their sentences.

Toward the end of the class several of the students completed the task, and I noticed that the teacher had suggested that they could get up and go measure the chalkboard. I was up the back of the class, where one girl had finished her last sentence and was at a bit of a loss as to what to do next. I squatted down next to her and we talked about a couple of her sentences and she explained what she had measured, and with what.

I was about to suggest that she could go and measure the board, when I thought "hang on, we can do better than that". I looked at the girl and asked her whether she could see anything in the classroom that she thought it would be interesting to measure. She paused for a moment and looked around for a few moments before her eyes came to rest on the back wall and she pointed out the most unexpected object, a small label taped to the wall. I took it off the wall for her and she set about using her plastic chips to measure it.

The point of the story is a simple one. In that moment, as she looked around for something to measure, there was a qualitative change in the engagement of that girl. Even with my paltry forty-five minutes of classroom experience I could see the change. Suddenly she was no longer ticking off the predefined items on her list, but had the creative freedom to shape her own education experience. While the freedom may have been incredibly constrained, it was enough to change the way she felt about the task.

Concepts like 'self-directed learning' fly fairly glibly off the tongue when you are in a university tutorial, trying to be heard over the house music emanating from Manning Bar. Its quite something else to see how meaningful these ideas become in the real world.

I’m talkin’ ’bout an (industrial) revolution…

So I have read on numerous occasions analysis of contemporary schooling having its roots in the industrial revolution – and more particularly schools being modeled on Fordian philosophies of production. It wasn't really until today that I appreciated the sentiment as I looked out over a sea of Berala primary kids singing the school song. With over one thousand K-6 students, Berala is nothing if not a factory for manufacturing suitably socialised twelve year olds.

Which got me to wondering, if these large institutional schools are modeled on industrial production, why is that so, what are the advantages? And do they still hold true? (The rest of this analysis looks exclusively at those advantages to industrial-style schooling arising out of the comparison with Fordist models – there may well be other advantages to large institutional schooling. Also, I am writing this as a dilettante unqualified to write either about the industrial revolution or school policy – I eagerly welcome any more informed views).

Essentially, it seems that there are two immediate benefits of industrial production – economies of scale and homogeneity of product. Both of these are of significant advantage in terms of the mass production of commodities, but how much relevance do they have to schooling today?

ECONOMIES OF SCALE

Appreciating that the education of our future citizens is an investment, it still makes sense to talk about achieving value for money. Further, taking a government-funded approach to education (rather than a purely privatised free-market approach), we can assume that we will have limited funds and will have to get the most 'bang for our buck'. Given this, let's consider what seem to be the most obvious reasons that large-scale production (like big schools) provides economy.

– Investment in plants

The industrial revolution was about machines – big machines. To print books you needed a press. To smelt ore you needed a… smelty thing. These were big expensive machines (or 'plants'), so you wanted to get the most out of the capital investment in your plant. This means using it to produce as much product as possible – in the case of industry, perhaps running your mill 24/7.

What large investments in 'the machinery of production' does a school require? A campus, certainly – land and buildings are not cheap. Smaller items are less relevant here – chalk boards and chalk are not items that you must make large defined investments in.

– Amortisation of overhead/infrastructure

The other cost that was well managed by industrial models was overhead. On the one hand we have costs like 'production line' labour that can be mapped directly against what they produce. On the other hand there are infrastructure or overhead costs like management, and renting somewhere nice for the Christmas party. Having a larger factory means these types of costs can be distributed across a larger number of workers or products produced.

In a school sense, we see this in the costs 'per student' of having a library, a school counsellor, a bus run and so forth. Such costs are dramatically reduced by having more students to spread these costs across. We should however note that there is a limit here – at some point you require a second bus run, and the benefits of scale flatten out.

HOMOGENEITY OF PRODUCT

Beyond economies of scale, the industrial revolution promised consistent quality of product. As schools produced students that could matriculate through to any number of possible environments, it became increasingly important to assure the homogeneity of the scholastic product. If we all agreed what a high school graduate was able to do, then they could be more smoothly introduced into tertiary education or the workforce.

There are several recent developments that call this thinking into question.

– Greater inter-school communication and standardised testing facilitate homogeneity

The increasing use of shared curricula, standardised testing, and more general communication between schools suggests that regardless of the size of the school we have the ability to ensure a reasonably consistent level of 'output' (and in fact are strongly encouraged to do so).

– We have a greater appreciation of diversity (both culturally and commercially)

As we move to a post-industrial knowledge based workplace we perhaps are no longer in need of as homogeneous a work force. And while we appreciate that children will be growing up in such a diverse world, we equally acknowledge that they often are coming from increasingly diverse cultural backgrounds.

THE CASE FOR SMALLER SCHOOLS

If we no longer need school-factories to produce suitably homogeneous product, and the economies of scale are perhaps less relevant in the modern economy, should we perhaps look at alternative sources for inspiration in designing our schooling? Even if we acknowledge the commercial nature of the enterprise of educating the young, perhaps there are more useful contemporary models to draw on.

How about school systems based on the resurgence of cottage industries? What new perspectives do the just-in-time manufacturing of Benetton, the rapid product cycle of Zara, the hyper-customisation of Nike ID or the wholly outsourced hardware production of XBox provide? What can we learn from the open source movement, or even the recent 'fiscal dip'?

Large institutional schools are an artifact from an era we have left behind. As we move into a brave new post-industrial world, we need to look at innovation not only within the school, but perhaps innovation of the whole shape of the school itself.