Friday 17 April 2020

On A Mission From God.

My history with the Blues Brothers goes back to the early 80s. SNL didn’t show in Australia, although I had heard of it. I missed the film at the cinema, although I suspect it barely raised a blip on the local radar at the time. A friend mentioned it to me, and we managed to rent a copy. Remember video rentals? Remember Betamax? Yes, we were nerds, and knew it was a better technology than VHS. What we didn’t know was the licensing arrangements that would result in the global dominance of the inferior product.

But we watched it, and loved it, and made a copy so we could watch it again and again. Remember, pre-recorded videotapes were insanely expensive in those days. I certainly couldn’t afford them.

I ended up becoming a regular at the Valhalla Cinema in Melbourne. For several years, until they were forced out, they showed a fabulous selection of cult and art films. And they produced the most wonderful posters. I still have a couple, but they're in storage. Here's one I found on reddit.

This is where I saw many of these films for the first time. But Friday nights at 11pm was reserved for the Blues Brothers. Much like the participation screenings of the Rocky Horror Show in other cinemas, we dressed up, posed, danced and acted in front of the screen. I was one of the main Elwoods for several years. I don’t remember how many times I watched that movie in the cinema, but I remember I stopped counting my viewings (both on video and on the big screen) at around 186.

They had an old ford which they painted up and parked outside the cinema. The manager added me to their insurance, and with a friend, I was able to drive around Melbourne for an hour or two prior to the film commencing. Yep, dressed as Elwood and Jake we got to drive the Bluesmobile. I wish I had photos of that.

So it was with some pleasure I saw this article today. The Bluesmobile lives. During COVID 19 lockdown, it tools around Milton Keynes, playing tunes. While some of the music listed would never be on my playlist, nor Jake or Elwood’s, I like the idea. It should, however, be playing that sweet soul music. Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Booker T and the MGs.

It’s great to see it’s still on a mission from God.

Wednesday 31 October 2018

Resist, Rebel, Revolt!

I saw this sticker at work today, slapped on the front wall of one of the classrooms. Someone has tried to peel it off, but with little apparent effort to fully remove it. I figure another student wanted to try to keep it, but it simply tore instead.

I chuckled when I saw this. It's more funny than serious, and has the feel of a 1950s advertisement for a cola. You know the sort of thing - a healthy, well behaved lad, probably called Johnny Goodboy, winking and telling us how much he enjoys it. It's a lovely kitschy mash with a message that subverts the image.

Of course I took a photo. That's something I do. But it got me thinking in light of last week's readings, and then it took on a much deeper meaning and message for me.

Ah yes, thinking back to my undergraduate years now, studying literature and remembering Roland Barthes mentioned in passing. No, I didn't read any of his work, but I recall his ideas (in very basic terms) that the author's intent has little value, and the reader bring their experience, understanding, knowledge and worldview to the text - that is the reader defines the meaning.

So for me this sticker has taken on a new meaning. As educators we need to resist, rebel and revolt against the inertia of traditional education and teaching. Change management is difficult, and teachers are notoriously resistant to change. Even adventurous teachers are hesitant to radically change their methods of delivery. This can be for a number of reasons, not least school policies, costs, time and peer pressure.

Revolution doesn't always have to be violent, but by its definition it needs to be sudden or rapid. And when governments talk of revolutionary changes to education policy and practice, you can rest assured they generally aren't.

Oh, and Happy Halloween.

Tuesday 16 October 2018

Learning Styles and Notetaking.

I've done a lot of professional development over the years. I've received a lot of handouts, and taken a lot of notes. And yet the number of times I've either re-reread those notes, or even skim reviewed them, can be counted on one hand. And those times were when I was preparing for a job interview and the training was directly relevant. The last time I moved house almost all went into the recycling bin, and I haven't missed them once.

Of course I made notes when I was studying, both in my undergraduate and my postgraduate, and used them to prepare for assessment but even then, for the most part, I found them boring to review.

There was one exception. One module I undertook where my study and research notes had to be submitted and assessed. I worked hard on my research, and those notes were tidy, organised and diverse. I submitted three exercise books of  notes, comments, cartoons, diagrams, illustrations and quotes. Some were handwritten while some were printed.  It was a work of art, and I received 28 out of a possible 30.

It's the one set of notes I kept and actually enjoy still skimming through from time to time.

And with that in mind, along with my years of teaching experience and my understanding of learning styles, I have commenced making my notes in a similar fashion this time.

I am a visual learner with some degree of creativity, so I cannot stand too much text on a double page. It has to be broken up somehow, whether by including computer-printed sections, cartoon, images, table or even simply colour. Everything has to be relevant and have a reason, not just included because it looks more appealing to me.

So far, so good.

I enjoy spending that little bit longer to make my notes interesting and enjoyable to me. I find that I not only retain more as I'm creating them, but I am much happier to revisit them.

Sunday 7 October 2018

Imagine My Delight.

Time to get serious.

I was late signing up for this programme, and so now I'm a little late in engaging with it. I will have to do most of my study on the weekends, and so I'm commencing my first week tasks a week late, during the second week.

I didn't think this would concern me too much, as I am an efficient worker and a fast learner, and I am committed to undertaking this programme properly. Even though I was nervous and a little worried - after all my last distance learning experience was pretty awful and I wasn't too sure on the required workload I would encounter this time around.

Imagine my delight when I opened my first week's tasks and was instructed to watch an episode of The Prisoner. My wife heard my howl of laughter from a couple of rooms away, and I had great joy in telling her I wasn't just watching TV, I was studying.

It's been a couple of years since I last saw this series, but it is a longtime favourite of mine. Even though I've seen it a few times, it was wonderful to watch it again. I did the pre-reading tasks and watched it with different eyes. And then I reflected, wrote my notes and answered the guiding questions I had been given.

This episode was The General, in which all citizens of the Village are able to undertake a three year University level qualification in three minutes through a breakthrough scientific method called Speedlearn, in which they watch TV and are fed studies through psychedelic/hypnotic images and music. Of course they all gain the knowledge, and can repeat facts parrot-fashion, but all have the same information - even the same knowledge.

One of my first thoughts connected this to the rote-learning scenes in Pink Floyd's The Wall. Right in the middle of Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2), the young boy is ridiculed by his teacher for being creative and writing poetry, before they return to reciting the times table.

Everyone is surely familiar with this son's refrain of We Don't Need No Education, We Don't Need No Thought Control. And at first it sounds like a nice little throwaway, anti-establishment slogan. But that's not what Roger Waters was referring to. He has been quoted as saying it's about bad education, about the strict education he encountered that stifled creativity and suppressed and stifled rather than inspired.

So I was thrilled when it was mentioned in the post-viewing notes.

Some other loose connections I made. If these were mapped, it would result in more of a rhizome than a mindmap:
  • Nen No Natsu Yasumi (1999) - A Japanese film of four boys (played by girls) who stay at school over the summer and do all their learning via computer screens. I really need to watch this one again as I'm not sure whether the connection is anything more than the computer learning.
  • The Truman Show - The movie directed by Peter Weir, in which all the residents are actors and Truman doesn't know he's on TV. Is this like the Village in the Prisoner? Are the others all residents or are they actors?
  • Baggy Trousers - a song by Madness. It only relates in as much as the memories they have of school is not the education itself, but the time messing around with their mates.
  • 1984 - Novel by George Orwell, in which Winston is observed and controlled and educated with propaganda through a big screen.
  • Frankenstein - Novel by Mary Shelley. Who is the real monster here? The Professor or the General?
  • The Penultimate Truth - A novel by Philip K Dick, also his short story The Mold of Yancy, in which a leader appears on TV in benevolent fireside chats to guide and control his population.

Nen No Natsu Yasumi
As I said, loose connections I noted while watching. Now for some thoughts I had about the show in general.
  • It's much more Brechtian than I had previously considered. None of the characters are named, and many are simply given titles which reflect their job or role.
  • Even #6 never mentions his name. He continues to insist he is not a number, and that he is a free man, but he never ever gives his own name. Does he even know it anymore, or is it darker than that?
  • Why is #6 the only one who is unhappy there. OK, a few people try to escape throughout the series, but it seems to be more of a plot device than open rebellion. Why are there no escape committees, etc. Are the others really happy there, or are they actors fulfilling a role?
  • Is the Professor for or against the General? He developed the system and at times seems proud of his work, but then condemns it. Is he truly under duress, is it drugs and therapy, or is he torn between the horror of what he's building and the lust for scientific advancement.
  •  Was he and his wife encouraged to come to the Village with the promise of artistic/scientific freedom but is now being menaced or blackmailed into doing the dirty work with his creation?
  • The symbiotic duality of the General and the Professor. Good vs Evil, Victim and perpetrator, Power vs powerlessness.
  • Why does the population of the Village need this education? Is it an indoctrination experiment for them general public? And why doesn't #6 know about it at the beginning while the rest of the Village are already undertaking the course?
  • The result of Speedlearn is even more rote than the old -fashioned system of education the Professor is attempting to supersede. They respond word perfectly every time.
  • How does the numbering system work? I always thought it was seniority. #2 is obviously higher than #6, yet #12 has been there longer than #6 and is also higher up.
  • I thought it was obvious very early that the General was a machine. The Professor said he wanted to destroy it, not kill it.
  • The creator of something powerful has trouble retaining control. Who/what is the real monster? Did we learn nothing from Frankenstein? (or, more recently, the Terminator movies?)
    Just some vague thoughts I had about this show. And now for the actual educational take-away from viewing this show.
    • It is dangerous and unhelpful to presume technology dehumanises society and education. Technology is a tool and a medium. Society and learning is evolving, as are communication and social interaction.
    • Can less face-to-face interaction actually bring benefits as well as its advertised negatives?
    • Why do we believe everyone is entitled to a University education? Most don't actually need it for the roles they will undertake in life. Like much of life (TV, roads, etc), we've moved to a 'user pays' system of funding. As the percentage of degrees per population increases, is mass tertiary education necessary? Would we be better with other forms of education more suited to our life roles?
    • The slogan '100% entry, 100% pass' seems to have a current relevance. We regularly hear tales of student entitlement and of tutors who have difficulties in failing students who have paid premium fees.
    • Education is better compared to a gym than a supermarket. (Tutor notes) You don't pay for a finished product but for the resources, support, mentors and trainers, and the environment. The student still needs to supply the motivation and effort.
    • How much can a computer actually think and teach? How much is simply regurgitation?
    • Why are educational institutions, curriculum and qualifications structured as they are?
    • Education should never be about learning and reciting 'facts.' (What is a fact anyway? What is truth?) Education should always be about enquiry, re-positioning your viewpoint, and further enquiry.

    Saturday 6 October 2018

    Negative Learning.

    We've been asked to reflect on a negative learning experience from our past, which reminds me of when I did my undergraduate as a mature-aged student (I was almost 40) and had to write about a teacher who inspired me. I must confess that at the time I really couldn't think of any who inspired me as such. There were a couple who were very good, a few who were good, but none who stood out and would one day be mentioned in any of my memoirs as the reason I went on to other things.  Instead I wrote about a terrible teacher I had who inspired me to not be like him.

    My tutor loved it. I got great marks.

    I must point out here I am, by nature, a very optimistic person. I'm not some inherently negative, but it was easier to recall a poor teacher than a brilliant one who had engaged me.

    But it seems I'm back writing about a negative learning experience.

    The major one for me, and it has relevance to my current studies, was a distance/online postgraduate certificate for which I was awarded a scholarship a few years ago.

    It was in regards to a discipline which at the time I was not performing in my role at a school, and as such had no practical experience. This course was conducted fully online. Unfortunately this consisted solely of downloading weekly mountains of PDFs and reading them, accompanied by a weekly 'blurb' paragraph from the tutor.

    There was a not too active discussion board, for which we later learned any student who posted fewer than 15 posts lost 10% of their marks at the end of the module. This was not advised in advance. We were instructed to buy two very expensive textbooks, which were hardly referred to and, coincidentally, had been co-authored by the tutor.

    Assessments were marked against criteria that seemed to be different to those given to us, while other pieces presumed prior knowledge. There had been zero advice, information or training in conducting particular assessments, and then we were marked down on missing elements. Meanwhile the tutor was unavailable and unresponsive to emails.

    There was also a disparity in the marking. In the second term we learned we could choose not to undertake the full term of reading, writing, essay writing and assessment by attending the tutor's two day workshop. As this fell in the middle of the term break, I had already booked holidays. Myself and one other student had to undertake the full course, while the other 17 went to this workshop, which ended with two page multiple choice tests being handed out. All very informal, where they sat at the tables, discussed answers and everyone passed above 80%. I felt that was incredibly unjust.

    Although I did well enough in this course, it was not a pleasant learning experience. For much of it I felt overwhelmed, struggling to understand theory without discussion or guidance, and even alienated at times. I questioned the relevance of what I was learning, whether I needed to study this and whether I was 'doing things right' in the practical aspects. I have to say this experience put me off further study for many years. And instilled a distrust of online study.

    I suppose this experience, like many others (positive and negative) informed my own teaching practice. As a teacher I strived to:
    • Ensure assessments are clearly explained and marked against supplied criteria
    • Ensure all elements being assessed have been taught
    • Ensure inclusion of students. Don't trust they understand without checking
    • Make myself available to students
    • Prepare and present varied and interesting relevant resources
    • Ensure parity in marking (even across differentiated assessments)
    • Teach the relevance of what is being taught
    • Be open to change
    • Self reflect and act on it

    Wednesday 26 September 2018

    They Made That Decision Easy for Me.

    I decided to apply for a Master's in Digital Education. Not only does this appear to be an area of increasing importance in this digital age, but I believe it will benefit my career. Fortunately for me, it also combines several of my interests and matches my experience. I have worked in IT, taught students of all ages, on three continents, and have an interest in writing.

    So I submitted three applications - to Edinburgh, Manchester and Leeds, and I've been waiting for Edinburgh to respond.

    Leeds responded very quickly, making an unconditional offer. It took a little while for Manchester to get back to me, which appears to have been an administrative error. I contacted them and they apologised and sent me an offer ten minutes later. Not a problem, though. I've worked in Higher Education administration and these things happen.

    Edinburgh haven't really got back to me, despite a couple of phone calls and emails over a few weeks. (Edited to add: Two months later, and they never responded at all). The programme leader did send a couple of responses, but wouldn't give any information and insisted it was administration who needed to reply to me. When I finally did manage to speak to administration, four days after the course commenced, they advised me they would make an offer. But they were uninterested, and couldn't explain why it had taken so long.

    Maybe it's because of my Scottish heritage, but I think I had my heart set on Edinburgh. However, as a distance learner, we need support, and I figured if they couldn't respond to a polite email asking how my application was proceeding, they wouldn't respond when I really needed assistance. They ruled themselves out.

    I'm sure Leeds would have been fine. They seem like a good University, but what absolutely nailed it for me was the responses from Manchester. The programme leader sent an email, and I'm sure it was generic and automated, but it was personal in wording and invited any questions I may have about the course. I took the opportunity to ask a couple of quick questions about modules and assessment, and not only did I receive an answer within a day, but it was clear, detailed and answered my concerns. And then, within another day or so, I received quite long and detailed responses from a couple of the tutors.

    I was impressed enough to choose Manchester.

    It took me a few more days to actually accept the offer. Last minute doubts about my own academic abilities, and whether I really wanted to undertake further study - especially as a distant student. You see, my last experience with post-graduate study, which was also distance, was less that satisfactory.  The learning materials and teaching methods were just mountains of PDFs sent to me on a weekly basis, with little interaction or comment from the tutors.

    But what the heck. I figure a course in digital education should be able to digitally deliver an interesting programme.  I'll let you know how that pans out.

    Thursday 13 September 2018


    It seemed such a good idea at the time. But now that I'm actually about to commence actual studies in the seemingly little free time I actually have, I'm actually freaking out.

    Okay, so I overused the word 'actually', but the point is clear. I'm starting to wonder what I've let myself in for.

    It has been many, many years since I undertook serious study. I've taken professional development, of course. Some of it was even good. But every teacher undertakes professional development, but it's not like real study. I've undertaken a few short courses in subjects connected with my hobbies, but they don't really count. They're not particularly academic, and there was no real assessment.

    As I said, I'm starting to freak out.

    Due to work commitments, I won't be able to spend any real time with my studies until the weekend of week two, which means I'll have two weeks of work to catch up on. And as I don't want to feel overwhelmed I have decided not to log in and see what awaits me prior to then. As such I'm now feeling nervous and even a little scared.

    Catch 22. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

    In the meantime I have shopped during my lunch breaks, ensuring I have the pens, highlighters, notebooks and folders I require. Or at least desire. Even if I'm not a great student, I will look like one.

    Wednesday 1 August 2018

    Distance and Direction.

    Despite the date on this post, it was actually written a couple of months later.  I have backdated it as I needed this to be the first post in this blog.

    It has been many years since I've studied, but I have made the decision to return to University. This wasn't an easy decision, and the very thought of opening books and spending my spare time making notes and reading academic texts filled me with dread. I was very, very resistant.

    It was in my first week of studies that we were encouraged to keep reflective journals. 

    As an experienced teacher, reflective practice is something in which I engaged on an almost daily basis. It wasn't something I sat and wrote about, (as a teacher, who has time to do that?) but it was something I did as I went about my daily duties. Walking back to the office from a class, on the drive home, lying awake at 3am worried about a particular student - heck, even during the class and on the go. Of course there is a title for this, reflection in action.

    But I decided to give it a go, and started keeping notes, reflecting on my own learning.  And then, because I am undertaking my Master of Digital Technology, Communication and Education, it felt somehow appropriate to reflect digitally.

    Not all my reflective notes will appear here. Some will remain private, but I will share many of my own thoughts on my learning. I will also share bits and pieces I find interesting or somehow relate to my studies.

    Those who are much more experienced in this field will undoubtedly consider some of the 'new to me' ideas quite naive, but I am on a learning journey, and I will be sharing things as I encounter them. Which reminds me of  a scene from Good Will Hunting where Will inserts himself into an encounter between his friend, Chuckie (who is pretending to be a Harvard student), and some real Harvard students in a bar who are trying to put him back in his place.

    I'll do my best not to be Clark.

    CHUCKIE: All right, are we gonna have a problem?

    CLARK: There's no problem. I was just hoping you could give me some insight into the evolution of the market economy in the southern colonies. My contention is that prior to the Revolutionary War, the economic modalities—especially in the southern colonies—could most aptly be characterized as agrarian pre-capital—

    WILL: [interrupting] Of course that's your contention. You're a first year grad student. You just got finished reading some Marxian historian, Pete Garrison probably, you’re gonna be convinced of that until next month when you get to James Lemon, then you’re gonna be talking about how the economies of Virginia and Pennsylvania were entrepreneurial and capitalist way back in 1740. That's gonna last until next year, you’re gonna be in here regurgitating Gordon Wood, talkin’ about, you know, the Pre-revolutionary utopia and the capital-forming effects of military mobilization.

    CLARK: [taken aback] Well as a matter of fact I won't, because Wood drastically underestimates the impact of —

    WILL: "Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth, especially inherited wealth..." You got that from Vickers, Work in Essex County, Page 98, right? Yeah I read that too. Were you gonna plagiarize the whole thing for us—you have any thoughts of—of your own on this matter? Or do—is that your thing, you come into a bar, you read some obscure passage and then you pretend, you pawn it off as your own—your own idea just to impress some girls, embarrass my friend?