Archive for February, 2013

A worthwhile Lent?

Vinoth Ramachandra does it again. In Food for Thought he points up several matters of real significance, and suggests if “Lent” is to be a real and worthwhile fast (cf. Isaiah 58: 6-7) rather than e.g. giving up coffee it would be better to spend time researching the coffee trade…

Amen, amen, amen!

Now that would make a sensible exercise in penitence and justice, or if coffee is too overdone, choose another aspect of his list… doing it as a group would be even better…

New Media, digital and networked

Among the reading for my MIT MediaLab MOOC, Learning Creative Learning, is the huge report: Mimi Ito et al. (2009): Learning and Living with New MediaMacArthur Foundation.  The executive summary includes this sentence, which reminded me why the term “new media” is so much better than the older “digital” to describe the current cultural shift:

We use the term new media to describe a media ecology where more traditional media such as books, television, and radio are intersecting with digital media, specifically interactive media, online networks, and media for social communication.

Old media like TV and radio (but increasingly also books) are (or at least are at some stages of their production and transmission) digital. But even the most digital TV is not “new media” because it is not networked.1

New media is both:

  • digital:
    • infinitely copiable
    • almost free to transmit or copy
    • malleable (digital media can be changed/edited as well as copied)
  • networked:
    • open to talk back
    • open to reuse
    • open to conversation
    • open to extension


To the extent that something embodies most of these characteristics it is new media, if it mainly or exclusively embodies the first group it is merely digital. The Amos: Hypertext Bible Commentary was digital, my 5 minute Bible podcasts are digital moving towards new media. The hard bit, for a media dinosaur2 Is getting the last step. Not Only a Father as a discussable book attempts to be new media, but so far has not generated a community of discussion… I wonder what I can do to encourage that last step…

 

  1. NB I am not here using the term “network” in the sense that the name CNN uses it. But rather of a media environment where communication can and does move in multiple directions. Not just from me to you – a monologue like most traditional TV and radio; or from me to you and you to me – a dialogue – like talkback radio; but between you, me, him and her… severally and sometimes together. []
  2. I grew up with radio, but TV came to our place only when I was almost a teenager. []

What’s wrong with higher education?

Since I signed up as a MOOC student, I’m seeing MOOCs everywhere ;)

Clay Shirkey, always a provocative and often a prescient commentator has an interesting take on the state of higher education. His starting point is cost benefit. In the USA the cost of a basic bachelor’s degree rose 75% in the first ten years of this century while the income of graduates has dropped 15% (both figures adjusted to 2000 dollars). That’s hardly a powerful selling-point! In NZ a Statistics NZ report in 2007 found that already then “Debt [was] increasing proportionally faster than income”, this is not merely an American tale.

At this point, having established that bachelor’s degree study is under critical economic pressure Shirkey turns to MOOCs writing:

This is the background to the entire conversation around higher education: Things that can’t last don’t. This is why MOOCs matter. Not because distance learning is some big new thing or because online lectures are a solution to all our problems, but because they’ve come along at a time when students and parents are willing to ask themselves, “Isn’t there some other way to do this?”

MOOCs are a lightning strike on a rotten tree. Most stories have focused on the lightning, on MOOCs as the flashy new thing. I want to talk about the tree.

He points also to a changing student demographic, this may not yet be paralleled across NZ, but it is a familiar picture at institutions like Carey:

If you want to know what college is actually like in this country, forget Swarthmore, with 1500 students. Think Houston Community College, with 63,000. Think rolling admissions. Think commuter school. Think older. Think poorer. Think child-rearing, part-time, night class.

It is no wonder, given this context, that there is rising interest in MOOCs:

Though educational materials have been online for as long as there’s been an online, and though the term ‘MOOC’ was coined half a decade ago, it was only last year that they stopped being regarded as a curiosity, and started being thought of as a significant alternative to traditional college classes.

His conclusions run like this:

I’ve been thinking about the effects of the internet for a couple of decades now. I’ve watched industry after industry forced to renegotiate their methods and models, in the face of a medium that allows for perfect copying, global distribution, zero incremental cost, ridiculously easy group-forming: The music business. Newspapers. Travel agents. Publishers. Hotel owners. And while watching, I’ve always wondered what I’d do when my turn came.

And now here it is. And it turns out my job is to tell you not to trust us when we claim that there’s something sacred and irreplaceable about what we academics do. What we do is run institutions whose only rationale—whose only excuse for existing—is to make people smarter.

Sometimes we try to make ourselves smarter. We call that research. Sometimes we try to make our peers smarter. We call that publishing. Sometimes we try to make our students smarter. We call that teaching. And that’s it. That’s all there is. These are important jobs for sure, and they are hard jobs at times, but they’re not magic. And neither are we.

The competition from upstart organizations will make things worse for many of us. (I like the experiments we’ve got going at NYU, but I don’t fantasize that we’ll be unscathed.) After two decades of watching, though, I also know that that’s how these changes go. No industry has ever organized an orderly sharing of power with newcomers, no matter how interesting or valuable their ideas are, unless under mortal threat.

Instead, like every threatened profession, I see my peers arguing that we, uniquely, deserve a permanent bulwark against insurgents, that we must be left in charge of our destiny, or society will suffer the consequences. Even the record store clerks tried that argument, back in the day. In the academy, we have a lot of good ideas and a lot of practice at making people smarter, but it’s not obvious that we have the best ideas, and it is obvious that we don’t have all the ideas. For us to behave as if we have—or should have—a monopoly on educating adults is just ridiculous.

For background on the more cultural and less economic reasoning that led me to think similar but different thoughts see my:

Tim Bulkeley, “Back to the Future: Virtual Theologising as RecapitulationColloquium 37,2 2005, 115-130

What I did not quite factor into the discussion then was MOOCs. Now I must think about if or how they might change things…

Free selling

I’ve long argued that educational institutions could benefit from giving away a first course free. The loss is small, how much does it cost to add each new student to a class you already have to teach? The gain potentially big, many (perhaps, I’d love to see figures, most) people will go on to do a full degree or diploma, even if they don’t they will likely speak favourably about the institution to their contacts and most new students are drawn to their place of study by word of mouth.

Now some big names have got the idea:

 

Learning Creative Learning

I’ve signed up for the MIT’s Learning Creative Learning MOOC (Massively Open Online Course). There are apparently 25,000 of us, though at present it is all a bit confusing and seems slow to start. I’ll use posts here to reflect both on what I learn, and on the process. Since the first week got off to a somewhat shambolic and slow start this post will be mainly about the process.

The course is organised by the MIT Media Lab, and has onsite for credit students as well as us free and distributed hangers-on. MIT can probably not be blamed, but because1 I could not enroll automatically and because like many others I only heard about the course a few days ago,  I got the welcome email after the first live session was over.2 Not getting the email till this morning, and wanting to watch the lecture and do the required reading early in the process I have yet to really explore the G+ “community” or to discover what else I can (am supposed?) to do.

If this sounds a little jaundiced, it may be, because the introductory lecture was frankly boring for the first half hour or so. Fifteen minutes of faffing around, some with guy mumbling about whatever came into his head, while his associate sat beside him looking pretty but silent, then after some random shots of someone’s chest and a black screen, the main act appeared and he began to faff around in his turn.3 I guess the video was intended to give me a sense of a class with a teacher, and to inspire me with the importance of the material. It failed. It was a strong reminder that we seldom put enough thought into our first session, it’s a chance to achieve several significant things:

  • sell students on the importance and value of the course
  • explain how each week works, and show people where things are4
  • and (perhaps) begin to introduce some key concepts or information

The reading:

Mitchel Resnick (2007). All I Really Need to Know (About Creative Thinking) I Learned (By Studying How Children Learn) in Kindergarten. ACM Creativity & Cognition conference.     

Did a good job of selling the Media Lab and some of their projects. I am keen to get on with the course. The outline promises: “At the end of every session, we will post more details to help your prepare for the next session and participate in the activities. The trouble is I have not yet found out where that information is :( So, it’s back into the jungle of G+ in an attempt to find out…

 

  1. Like many other people, to judge by the comments on G+, I wonder why their system was so fragile or poorly tested? []
  2. Actually I doubt I’d get up at 4am to watch a video that I can watch anytime, and apart from any private arrangements people may make the back channel seems slow and little used – there was almost no sign of presenters adjusting or responding to the audience. []
  3. I wonder who he was? Phill Schmitt and some others were introduced, but the star remained anonymous. []
  4. But remember to give them the details in a document! I still don’t have a simple course outline that lists important URLs and the reading list etc. together in one place :( []

And that sort of ship so suited me…

Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore Chapel End 2009 photo by highstone

Susanne at BLT: Not Just a Sandwich has an amusing post, The end of male headship, about the patriarchal assumption of male leadership and a British soap-opera currently popular in the USA, replete with upper-class twits and grovelling serfs.

That got me thinking. The word that American Evangelical Patriarchs have invented to claim biblical support for their theories is “headship”. The origins of this usage seem clear, the suffix -ship attached to the metaphorically used noun “head” found in Bible verses like Eph 5:23. The meaning of the -ship suffix is clear:

-ship suffix
having the rank, position, skill or relationship of the stated type

lordship
partnership
craftsmanship
friendship
(Definition of -ship suffix from the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus © Cambridge University Press)
It is therefore usually attached to a title, job description etc. like the examples listed. Indeed the usual English usage of “headship” reflects this, it refers to the time when someone acts as head teacher of a school. There “head” is no longer a metaphor but has become through common usage a title or position descriptor.
Does “head” as Paul uses it work that way? To Anglophone readers used to head teachers, head nurses, heads of department etc. it sounds as if “Christ is head of the church” works like that. Except as we have seen, it doesn’t. There is no use of  kephale “head” as such a position descriptor in Koine Greek. Paul’s own usage does not support it.
This modern invention of male “headship” is just that, a modern invention. Paul uses the metaphor of head to describe a relationship of nurturing, uniting and nourishing, he uses kyrios  “lord” to describe leading and commanding.1
  1. Listen to “Headship”: What did Paul really mean? for more explanation of this. []

Lamenting in/with Sri Lanka

Two friends have recently spoken well of the recent pastoral letter from Dhiloraj Canagasabey, the Anglican Bishop of Colombo. Both in different ways, and for different reasons call it prophetic.

After succinctly and clearly explaining what “the rule of law” means:

The rule of law means that we as a nation are governed by a system of laws to which the lawmakers themselves are subject. This is a way of ensuring that power is not concentrated in the hands of one person (or group of persons) and exercised arbitrarily…

He explains in briefly and in unemotional language why Christians have a special call to speak out when as currently in Sri Lanka this safeguard is threatened. But far from merely asking for political action or protest he moves to call the churches first to self-examination and lament. The process he proposed began yesterday, and continues today with meetings in the cathedral and other churches. Which will extend into:

a series of Bible studies, reflections and discussions during Lent. Which is traditionally a period of self-examination and penitence, to reflect on what it means to live as a faithful disciple-community of Jesus in the context of our nation today.

One of my friends wrote:

We are so grateful for a leader who seems to be finally speaking out to the church along biblical lines. Thought you might be interested to see what he says (I’ve attached a copy of the letter in case you haven’t seen it already). I believe this is an important first step in mobilising the church to do one of the most important things that we are meant to do – intercede. Some churches from other denominations have also decided to adopt the concept. 

We should join her in prayer that this will happen, and that the process will be filled with the blessing of the presence of the Holy Spirit working powerfully among Sri Lankan Christians during this critical time.

Paul Windsor (ex-principal of Carey now working with Langham Preaching) adds the more specific prayer:

that the preachers being trained through Langham will develop a prophetic edge that will speak up and speak out on matters of injustice.

The full text of the letter is included in the Anglican Communion News Service report here.