A Blank Page

The title is an homage to this blog http://ablankpage.org/hopes-and-dreams/#more-1 Which I’m finding a particular source of inspiration and reassurance atm. The author is one of my “sort of god-daughters”. “Sort of” because the nature of the relationship is the same, just without the god bit. I’ve known Helene 22 years (since she was zero) as her mum is one of my closest friends. She started the blog when she realised that she had no idea what was coming next in her life, and found that both intimidating and liberating.

At the end of last month I found out my contract at Brookes isn’t being renewed. I knew the contract was coming to an end, so have applied for a few other jobs (unsuccessfully), but moving  on was always Plan B as I’d hoped to segue the temp job into a permanent one. I’ll have been doing the HE academic role for 20 years this year, and was anticipating finally to be able to get a permanent job by now.

I think the problem is the area that I’ve chosen to specialise in. There’s a process in developing online learning by which you start with the subject matter expert, have them discuss with a learning developer the various ways they can support the learner and make the learning interesting and engaging while online, and then recruit an instructional designer to do the tech bits that are required in putting it together. Three step process – SME -> online learning design specialist –> instructional designer. My plan was that as online learning becomes more widespread, that middle link role will become more needed and I’d be on to a winner. It made sense to me. Someone with the experience of working with lots of other SMEs will be able to bring ideas across disciplines, have an idea of what works and what doesn’t and can easily link to the broader scholarship in the field.

In retrospect, yep that’s one way it could have gone, but the other way, the way it has gone, was just as predictable. In essence, as online learning becomes more widespread, the experience of teaching online has become more common, and so people at both ends of that process have developed enough experience of that middle step of the process to not need someone who specialises in it.

In short, according to people I’ve spoken to, I’m brilliant at what I do, but no-one needs me to do it.

I’ve been at these sorts of crossroads before. I first started out wanting to be a scientist, I studied astrophysics, but found I didn’t really have an aptitude for it. Basically I liked the pictures, but couldn’t do the maths. However, the other thing I liked, writing, in combination with science, lent itself to science journalism.

So I went into science publishing, getting a job with ESA and then British Gas, thinking from that I could get into Nature or New Scientist or something. Not a great move. Turning up at the Nature offices for an interview, with three years’ experience of writing about gas cookers under my belt, was not the most confidence-boosting of encounters. Realising I was at a dead end with that career I opted for retraining. The only grants GLC were handing out at the time were for nursing or teaching, and not being able to handle blood or poo, I went into teaching (which luckily has been free of both of those things).

That worked out for five years. I taught physics and (as I also did an MScEcon at the Cardiff School of Journalism) taught media studies as well. Plus I was then also a trained journalist and had picked up some small bits of work in that field. Teaching got me to Seychelles, which was cool, particularly as while there I met Helene and her mum. The problem was that, by the mid-nineties, the FE sector was changing. Universities were beginning to recognise BTECs and other qualifications for entry. Suddenly you didn’t need to do A levels any more, there were less academically-orientated qualifications that would do just as well. All of the job ads for physics teachers required a background in teaching BTEC. All of the job ads for media teachers required a background in working in the media (and something a bit cooler than writing about thermostats and bains maries for three years and an unpaid job in a magazine and a radio station). Working overseas didn’t help either. In some countries overseas experience is seen as character-building, adventurous, open-minded. In the UK it’s seen as frivolous.

But, while looking for a teaching job and being unemployed for nearly a year, I got an admin job working for a friend of my mum’s for six months at Wolverhampton Uni. The six months became a year, then two, the admin job became a research job, then an elearning research job, and thus a fourth career was born.

However, with each career change, I was either looking for the next one, or looking to continue a current one when another one sneaked up on me.

This time I have absolutely no idea. Which feels particularly rootless. A bit like amnesia in the other direction. Each time I try and grab onto an image of me in the future, of what I’m doing, it sort of swims out of my grasp. I really have no idea.

I’ve got stuff to do. Start going to the gym again, sort out my sciatica, finish writing my novel, do a course in music production (which I’m just starting to get into), I have a backlog of books to read, I have a comics collection to sell on eBay. All of those will keep me busy. None of those will earn me money though (well the comics might fetch a few hundred). I figure I’ve got time in my working life to squeeze one more career in. I just have no idea what it could be though.

Teaching Perspectives Inventory


This is my teaching perspectives inventory from the website  http://www.teachingperspectives.com/tpi/

Might be a useful analytical tool, although I do find the fact that it’s calculated a mean and standard deviation on a set of nominal values quite shocking.

I’m not sure if this really indicates my general attitude to teaching, or that I tend to click “disagree” every time I read a question that says “teaching should ..” or “learners should …” I’d never really go along with any statement that is prescriptive about what learning and teaching should be, so always clicked D for disagree on those lines.







Nomic crisis? What nomic crisis?

I had my Prevent training this morning – if anyone isn’t aware of that, it’s having the information anyone in education needs to identify students who may be at risk of radicalisation. Slide by slide I felt increasingly reassured by what I was seeing. The first impression I had was that if you had the slightest doubt that someone might be falling prey to some dangerous ideology, then you had to report them. So looking at a few websites or watching a couple of videos was enough to warrant an alert, which would get them investigated. That seemed like dangerous territory to be getting into. By the end I could see it was more about knowing whom to contact if you had a real and genuine concern that something evidently was amiss with someone you knew.

And then we got to the final slide in which a theory of how people were radicalised was presented and the anxiety levels went way up. If this is how the people who are psychologically profiling people who are vulnerable to radicalisation view the world, then we all have a problem.

According to this theory, presented here https://www.libraryofsocialscience.com/newsletter/posts/2015/2015-04-23-Griffin1.html The first stage of becoming vulnerable to radicalisation is a nomic crisis.

If you haven’t heard of that, and I hadn’t, here’s the line of thought:

  1. “human beings (have an innate need) to feel their lives have a self-transcendent dimension and suprapersonal purpose”
  2. “This dimension or purpose is variously described in terms of religion, culture, totalizing value system, narrative arc, transcendence, sacred canopy” ie a nomos
  3. “Growing up in the absence of a fully-fledged, ‘solid’ nomos – as so many modern individuals do – can make them susceptible to the powerful negative emotions.”
  4. So if someone has a vulnerable nomos, then they will experience “a visceral fear of anything that threatens the coherence, vitality, or self-evidence of the nomos.”

I think that’s what the theory is. Re-reading it now I realise the argument could be that because of the innate need of humans to have a purpose and meaning, that anything that threatens any nomos could lead to violence, because we need them so much. The guy who wrote this is at Brookes, so maybe there could be an opportunity for him to explain.

In fact Terror Management Theory http://www.deathreference.com/knowledge/Terror_management_theory.html says that it’s any nomos that can lead to a nomic crisis. In fact TMT has bollocks in it too, for example “Self-esteem is the feeling that one is a valuable and essential agent in a universe that is fundamentally meaningful.”

If it is, then we are all fucked, because you will never be a valuable and essential agent in a universe that is fundamentally meaningful. Because it isn’t.

However, the most obvious reading is that it’s the absence of a solid nomos, rather than someone having a nomos at all that makes one vulnerable to a nomic crisis. Here’s the problem with the theory as I originally interpreted it (which I’ll assume is the correct one, otherwise this will be a wasted opportunity for a rant).


Our lives are meaningless. The Universe is an unfeeling chaotic set of physical processes that have no regard for us, or our existence. And we all need to learn to deal with that fact.

Sure we have a biological imperative to feel that we matter. It’s a pro-evolutionary characteristic. A tribe of homo erectus who had a shared belief system and unwavering adherence to it was more likely to survive, so more likely to reproduce, than one that didn’t, so we’ve emerged to feel that. That doesn’t make it a good thing. In fact, it’s far more likely to be a bad thing. Look at all the other pro-survival evolutionary characteristics – eating, reproducing, harbouring resources.  Our base drives now end up being harmful because they’re about ensuring we survive at the cost of others who don’t share our genes. We have our intelligence to surmount them. In fact if you want a list of our pro-evolutionary characteristics you really need look no further than the 7 deadly sins. Add to that the need for to believe in something as the 8th one.

If a nomic crisis leaves us vulnerable, then the answer isn’t to have a solid nomos, it’s to learn to live without one. It’s to learn to live with the truth, not to come up with a consoling lie. We should be teaching our students that it’s OK to have no meaning, that there really is no point to our existence. And that’s OK. Deal with it.

I got taught that. I got taught that by George RR Martin.  I’d figured out  around the age of 10 (pretty much from first principles) that religion is a bunch of made up stuff. Four years later I was still looking around for something else instead when I came across The Way of Cross and Dragon. This is the paragraph that I took to heart and we need to make everyone aware of.

“The Liars believe in no afterlife, no God. We see the universe as it is, Father Damien, and these naked truths are cruel ones. We who believe in life, and treasure it, will die. Afterward there will be nothing, eternal emptiness, blackness, nonexistence. In our living there has been no purpose, no poetry, no meaning. Nor do our deaths possess these qualities. When we are gone, the universe will not long remember us, and shortly it will be as if we had never lived at all. Our worlds and our universe will not long outlive us. Ultimately, entropy will consume all, and our puny efforts cannot stay that awful end. It will be gone. It has never been. It has never mattered. The universe itself is doomed, transient, uncaring.”


If we’re looking to graduateness, if we want the next generation to be fully functioning and productive members of society, then there is nothing we can do for them that is better than ensuring they do not need a coherent and fulfilling worldview. It’s surplus to requirement.

You are not special. You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.

You don’t need to be.

Do you ture? Telling the difference between agents and avatars.

When I spent a lot of time in virtual worlds, it would sometimes surprise me that I’d be standing with a group of other avatars (ie figures that were being operated by people) and there’d be an agent or bot there (ie a figure that was operated by a software program) and the avatars would carry on chatting to the bot, completely oblivious to the fact that it wasn’t a person. Recently I needed to contact eBay about shipping costs from the US and all the time while chatting to their helpdesk was wondering whether I was chatting to a human or a machine. I couldn’t really tell, which is both an indication of how good the programming is, or how badly the guy I was talking to was doing at sounding human. I was talking to my brother about this a week or so ago and he said it never occurred to him to think about it. And if it did, would it matter? I guess it doesn’t. I got the answer I wanted, but it still felt a bit unnerving to not actually know.

One of the things I ended up looking for when looking at user experiences in virtual worlds was this tendency and ability to apply the Turing test (which gets explained below) – I called the process turing, so from a back construction (pretending it’s a verb to start with) you get people who tend to ture, and people who don’t. And people who are bad at it.

I started to write a paper about this, but never got far with it, one thing that I’d like to do and haven’t had the opportunity to is actually run some experiments on this. So instead of struggling on with the paper, I’ve posted it here.

I like big bots and I cannot lie

The need to be able to tell the difference between agents and avatars may not be important for people. For example, Nowak and Biocca found that, when participants were asked about their perceptions of copresence with avatars or agents, the degrees of copresence were equally as high for both.

“Given that the means in all conditions were well above the middle of the scale (representing relatively high levels of presence), it seems that users felt they had access to another mind and that the mind was attending to them and that they felt present in the virtual environment regardless of whether they interacted with an agent or avatar. (2003; 490).”

This presumes that for people’s interactions with agents to be highly effective they must be similar to that with avatars. Evidence supporting this assumption can be seen in experiments such as Kaptein et al (2011; 270) where it was found that social praise initiated by an agent contributed to the user liking the agent, but did not increase feelings of copresence since this praise was occasionally mistimed.

Draude specifically identifies trust as promoting a bond between agents and users (2011; 322), which when one considers the central role that trust plays in teamworking and collaboration may be a better indicator of effectiveness of human-agent relationships (Ring and Van de Ven, 1994; 93). In fact, trust in, or at least self-confidence in the presence of, agents may be stronger than that in avatars. In a study reported by Blascovitch and Bailenson, users were asked to perform easy and hard tasks in front of no audience, in front of an audience of agents, and in front of an audience of avatars. The participants performed equally well at the easy tasks in all three circumstances, but on hard tasks they performed significantly worse when performing in front of avatars. The conclusion was that the agents were not seen to be judging the performance, whereas the avatars were, and this inhibited the participants’ performance (Blascovitch and Bailenson, 2011; 92).

These factors influencing the relationship between humans and agents is not simply a function of the behaviour of the avatar, however, as individual differences between participants also have a bearing on this interaction. Bayne (2008: 204) notes the differing degrees to which uncanniness affects students, and no matter where the design of the agent falls on the Uncanny Valley curve, some participants will always report feelings of unease at the thought of communicating with an artificial intelligence (Gemma Tombs, personal correspondence). For others, the relationship they have with the agent may not differ substantially from that they have with humans; Morgan and Morgan, (2007; 334) report the statements of Reeves and Nass that “suggest that participants respond to computers socially, or in ways that are similar to their responses to other humans” and Kiesler that people “keep promises to computer in the same way that they do to real life human beings”, and as stated above, some will actually feel more confident in the presence of agents than in front of humans.

In a final addition to the complexity in human-agent compared to human-avatar relationships, participants also differ in their tendency, or even their ability, to determine whether a character’s agency is human, or artificial in its origin; characteristics which has been referred to as a turing tendency and a turing ability (Childs, 2010; 72). The Turing test was first proposed by Alan Turing in 1950 (Donath, 2000; 300) as a means to determine whether an artificial intelligence was thinking as a human. The essential element of the test was that a person would communicate through text with either a person or a computer, and if it was not possible to distinguish between the two, then the computer could be displaying intelligence. In some studies, agents taking part in online conversations have successfully mimicked human behaviour sufficiently to pass as human for a short while (Murray, 1997; 219-226, Donath, 2000; 302). Some participants, however, may make an inaccurate categorisation in the other direction. In a study reported by Slater and Steed (2002, 153) a participant:

“Formed the belief that the cartoon-like avatars were not embodying real people but were “robots”, and as a result she cut down her communication with them. It was only when they laughed (“something a robot cannot do”) that she believed they were real.”

In the studies by Newman (2007; 98) in which participants were asked to converse with a teddy bear named Albert (actually Newman’s research assistant) through a variety of media, several of the participants assumed that they were interacting with a non-player character in a game and “registered surprise when they realised that Albert was responding to them with human intelligence” (Newman, 2007; 98).

 From reading the transcripts of these interactions it seems that participants were employing a form of Turing test, to varying degrees of accuracy, i.e. have a high turing tendency, but low turing ability.

That’s as far as I got, but I’d be interested to hear your responses — do you ture? And how good are you at it?


Bayne, S. (2008) Uncanny spaces for higher education: teaching and learning in virtual worlds, ALT-J, Research in Learning Technology, Vol. 16, No. 3, September 2008, 197–205

Blascovitch, J. and Bailenson, J. (2011) Infinite Reality, HarperCollins: New York

Childs, M. (2010) Learners’ Experiences of Presence in Virtual Worlds, PhD Thesis, University of Warwick, http://go.warwick.ac.uk/ep-edrfap/

Donath, J. (2000) Being Real; Questions of Tele-Identity, in Goldberg, K. (ed.) The Robot in the Garden; Telerobotics and Telepistemology in the Age of the Internet (296 – 311) Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Draude, C. (2011) Intermediaries: reflections on virtual humans, gender, and the Uncanny Valley, AI & Soc (2011) 26:319–327

Kaptein, M., Markopoulos, P., de Ruyter, B, and Aarts, E. (2011) Two acts of social intelligence: the effects of mimicry and social praise on the evaluation of an artificial agent, AI & Soc (2011) 26:261–273

Morgan, K. and Morgan, M. (2007) The Challenges of Gender, Age and Personality in E-Learning, in R. Andrews and C. Haythornthwaite, (Eds.) The SAGE Handbook of E-learning Research, UK: London, Sage, 328-346

Murray, J.H. (1997) Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, New York: The Free Press

Newman, K. (2007) PhD Thesis, An Investigation of Narrative and Role-playing Activities in Online Communication Environments, Griffith University, Queensland

Nowak, K.L. and Biocca, F. (2003) The Effect of the Agency and Anthropomorphism on Users’ Sense of Telepresence, Copresence, and Social Presence in Virtual Environments, Presence, Vol. 12, No. 5, October 2003, 481–494

Ring, P.S and Van de Ven, A.H. (1994) ‘Developmental processes of cooperative interorganizational relationships’, Academy of Management Review, 19 (1): 90-118

Slater, M. and Steed, A. (2002) Meeting People Virtually: Experiments in Shared Virtual Environments, in Schroeder, R. The Social Life of Avatars, Springer-Verlag London

Meditations on “A Meditation on Meditation and Embodied Presence”

Carrie Heeter has just shared with me a paper she’s written on meditation and embodied presence (Presence, Teleoperators and Virtual Environments 25-2, 2016) <edit available at http://carrie.seriousgames.msu.edu/docs/A_Meditation_on_Embodied_Presence_and_Meditation.pdf>. Anyone who’s read my stuff will know that a large proportion of it is looking at how presence can support our online learning, and how the ideas of offline embodied cognition apply to our online experience. There are a few names that always crop up in my list of references and Prof. Heeter’s is one of them. One of the most influential of the papers I’ve read was one in which she looked at people’s identification with their on-screen image, (Heeter, C. (1995) Communication research on consumer VR. in F. Biocca and M.R. Levy (eds.), Communication in the age of virtual reality (pp. 191-218).)  About 25% identified with the screen, about half were mixed, and about 25% were so connected to their physical self that they couldn’t make the transition. In my PhD I found this 25% cropped up again and again  – I called them the Heeter Quarter – and there’s some neurological evidence that backs this up too (http://cercor.oxfordjournals.org/content/22/7/1577.full).

Presence is a tricky concept to get your head around. I started my PhD in 2005 and all I managed to do by 2006 was come up with definitions of it. My supervisor (my second, the first had had enough,  I think) asked me what it means in general – outside of online learning. It was really difficult coming up with some hard definitions of it, we all know it when we see it, classroom presence, screen presence, stage presence, but nowhere actually broke it down. Poise, elan, attention.

And explaining it to others, I’d say “well you know you can sit in a boring lecture, you’re physically there, but you’re not really present, the same can happen onscreen, in fact some people never feel that sense of connection”.

I was going to write about this recently after reading Amy Cuddy’s book on Presence https://www.amazon.co.uk/d/Books/Presence-Bringing-Your-Boldest-Self-Biggest-Challenges/1409156001/ (well the bits I could read on the free preview). I got the general gist, which is that these ideas of presence can actually influence how you’re perceived, and so how you can be more successful if you develop them. She’s the person who did the research into power posing, i.e. standing in a Superman (or Wonder Woman) pose can make you feel more confident. I heard about this on a podcast, so initially thought of the hand raised flying pose, but it’s actually this one http://vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net/geosheas-lost-episodes/images/f/ff/Fleischer-superman.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20151006182504 The book is basically lots of techniques on how to improve your presence. Body posture, voice, that sort of stuff. When I’m doing my staff development workshops on using Connect or SL, a lot is how to develop the online versions of body posture, and so on, in a nutshell the videoconferencing version of a firm handshake.

Back to Prof Heeter’s paper. It looks at meditation techniques, here are two guided meditations linked to from the paper. https://mindtoonlab.com/ninja/presence/presenceDemo1.mp3 and https://mindtoonlab.com/ninja/presence/presenceDemo2.mp3 I’ve tried them, she has a great voice for this sort of thing, though I was hindered by one of my cats choosing that moment to climb on me. I’m now having to write this with her asleep on top of me as a consequence.

The central thesis of the paper is that – going much further than I did when describing how sometimes we’re not really there, like if we’re in a boring lecture – that actually we’re not really present properly for the majority of the time. Interoception – paying attention to our bodies and our minds – can actually improve this sense of presence. Even the poor attempt I made at it while listening to those two audio links makes a difference, I think I do feel a bit more aware of the weight of Pasht on my chest now for example.

Promoting the experience of presence for the Heeter Quarter of my students I found very difficult. There was some correlation with how connected they were to their physicality (the three that struggled the most were a footballer, a cyclist and a sculptor – though that’s too small a sample size to really determine anything obviously). Other things like motivation helped, ideological opposition made it harder (see some of the work I did with Anna when she was Peachey not Childs for example e.g. (Childs, M. and Peachey, A. (2011) Love it or Hate it: Students’ Responses to the Experience of Virtual Worlds, in P. Jerry and L. Lindsey Experiential Learning in Virtual Worlds: Opening an Undiscovered Country, 81-91. Witney, UK: Inter-Disciplinary Press,).

The most recent paper by Prof Heeter looks at meditation activities done in VR as a means to encourage greater sense of virtual presence, and they seem to have worked. This reminds me of the meditation tree in Chilbo that Chris Collins (Fleep Tuque) created in SL. You could sit your avatar in an animation ball and it would go through some yoga poses and it was actually very calming. It would be really interesting to try some of the techniques mentioned in the paper in VR to see if it does help with a greater experience of presence. First steps though – I’m going to try the techniques IRL and see if they help with a greater experience of presence there.

Where does freedom of expression end?

There have been a few blog entries I’ve read recently about the Stop Funding Hate campaign decrying the campaign’s success with Lego withdrawing its promotions from the Daily Mail. Here’s one http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2016/11/stop-funding-hate-nasty-elitist-campaign-press-censorship/

Here’s another http://www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk/2016/news/deputy-editor-attacks-stop-funding-hate-supporters-hypocrisy/

And a third http://www.bruceonpolitics.com/2016/11/13/stop-funding-hate-fascists/

There are two problems with the arguments against what the SFH campaign is doing.

The first is; they’re not limiting free speech. They’re merely using the tools that created a platform for the Daily Mail and Express against them.

There are no left wing mass media outlets. By the nature of mass media, it requires massive funding to achieve. People with lots of money tend to be right wing, because of course they’d be OK with the system as it is, it’s the one in which they’ve become successful, and it’s not in their interest therefore to change it. Some may have made their money by luck, or intelligence, or a combination of both, but the largest corporations make their money because the capitalist system works for them.

Newspapers have a ludicrous business model. They only survive because of advertising. When I was at journalism school (89 – 92) I wasn’t very motivated by the newspaper side of things because I assumed with the Internet they wouldn’t be around much longer. I’d not accounted for the inertia that culture and big business together can provide. They’re not driven by audiences therefore, they’re driven by advertisers, hence big business, hence right wing.

For the average person to influence their direction therefore, it can’t be done by not buying them. People are already not buying them. They can only influence them by not buying stuff from their advertisers.

But nobody’s stopping them from saying what they want. There’s the normal social media avenue that everyone else who’s not supported by massive corporate investment has. Anyone who works for a newspaper is still free to use that. There’s no suppression involved, just an effort to limit the unfair advantage. So likening the process to book burning is ridiculous.

The second flaw in the argument is that none of the stuff I’ve read from those who are supporting the campaign argues that newspapers shouldn’t express a different political position if they want. Any well-argued, accurate and evidenced account from a different perspective is fine.

It’s poorly-argued, inaccurate and evidenceless positions that are what they’re objecting to. The failure of mass media to actually stick to the truth is a given, the Mail never has after all. From an educational perspective though, and looking at things like “graduateness”, educating a population to insist on the truth should be one of our aims. If not our chief aim. And from that perspective seeing people demanding it, and a big business acceding to the need for it before they will invest in something, is reassuring that in some areas at least, things are moving in the right direction.

To say something is “true” is of course could be falling to the trap of assuming there is such a thing as independent objective reality. Of course there isn’t. The word “is” should only ever be used as a short-hand for “according to the best interpretation of the available evidence”. Since doing my astrophysics degree we’ve gone from “the rate of the universe expansion is slowing” to “the rate of the universe expansion is increasing”. The first of those things was true in the 80s, the second of those is currently true. Any fact is only tentatively held.

That doesn’t mean though that the truth is completely up for grabs and that any statement is valid because no-one really knows. I’ve been increasingly surprised by the discussions in the Horizon 2020 groups on LinkedIn where there are a lot of statements denouncing scientific arrogance, that science is perceived as the only route to knowledge. If you think that testing, evidence, argument, and selecting the best explanation from those presented by that process isn’t the only way to come up with a viewpoint, then stay the fuck away from research. And stay the fuck away from education too. Because you are a waste of oxygen. And far too dangerous to be around learners.

We’ve seen one huge problem with this lack of insistence on evidence with the Trump candidacy. Politifact http://www.politifact.com/ ought to be one of the most influential sites in politics, because if someone’s making stuff up, it should really count against them. But then there’s this http://www.politifact.com/personalities/donald-trump/statements/byruling/pants-fire/ Which everyone voting knew really, but not enough people thought mattered.

So – the conclusion is, in academia, in teaching, we have to loudly and immediately call bullshit whenever it arises, not fall prey to considerations of all viewpoints being valid. It’s the best defence against intellectual dishonesty and fraudulent behaviour. And also that wishy-washy poverty of thinking exemplified by Tim Minchin in Storm https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HhGuXCuDb1U or Sokal and Bricmont in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fashionable_Nonsense. But defend freedom of speech whenever possible too. Those two things are not incompatible at all.

Sandpits and scorpions


Other comparison websites are available

I’m using the image of Maiya as she’s a schoolteacher meerkat (and ex-secret agent but that’s another story). The point is that meerkats have been found to teach their offspring. They create a sandpit and incrementally teach little meerkats to kill scorpions. They first put a dead scorpion in the pit, and once the young meerkat pup can deal with that, they’ll put a live scorpion in there with its sting removed, and if they can kill the scorpion they’ll then put one in with its sting intact. Once they can kill that the pup has graduated from scorpion academy.



Basically all the elements of learning design are in there: there’s cognitive apprenticeship, experiential learning, zone of proximal development, learning pathway, teacher intervention, assessment, and peer support (other meerkits are watching). The students have their tools (OK claws) to attack the scorpion with. And if occasionally a scorpion kills a meerkit, well that just means your retention rates take a hit.

There’s no way to tell if any of our ancestors applied similar techniques, but assuming they did, it means we probably perfected learning design 10s of millions of years ago.

If anything all we’ve added are the ability to do teaching at a larger scale (lecture halls and MOOCs) so more economically, and add a metacognitive element (learners identify their own learning needs, they learn how to apply their skills to new challenges, like killing invasive species) so more flexibility. But that’s about it.

So what do we need educational research for?

Well for one, it’s good to know why it works, even if that’s just a matter of coming up with a name for things. But in a period of rapid technological change, there’s the fact that the sandpit changes, and the scorpions. All the time. But the claws get an update too. Technological changes and social change also mean that the only way to ensure your pups are always going to be able to adapt to those changes is by teaching them how to continue learning.

The scorpion/sandpit thing came to mind this week because I was at the Telford Schools Conference http://www.telfordeducationshowcase.co.uk/. I was talking about Educational Social Media, and I’ve been presenting stuff on this for schools since Coventry in 2009 where I held a workshop titled “Wikis and twitters and blogs? Oh my!” Is web 2.0 a road schools should be going down?

The answer then was a bit equivocal. This time though there was no difficulty selling the concept to the teachers. In fact a good proportion of them had already used some form of social media in their teaching. The barrier now is the institutions. There is a reticence to allow children to access their mobile phones in school, in case it leads to them using them all the time, and outside the class there’s still not a guarantee children will have access to the technology. Some schools are on systems that block access to twitter.

The fear is that social media are such a can of worms that introducing them is just asking for trouble. And since a lot of social media only allow registration if you’re above a certain age, often the children don’t want to admit to being on it.

The thing is, there really are some problems with social media usage. There’s exposure, by making social activities public, there’s stalking and cyberbullying and loads of other ways of being stung. Like sex ed classes, it’s a good idea to raise the ideas early, before there’s a chance of the damage occurring. And doing that in a safe sandpit like social media in a closed school system seems like a good idea. If bullying and inappropriate posts do occur, then the negative way of looking at this is that the school has facilitated this by putting up the social media system in the first place, but the positive response is to look at it as a teaching opportunity, to provide children with an opportunity to see why it’s wrong.

Unfortunately, although schools are now on board with this as a concept, it looks like local authorities are still shying away from it. Many actually ban teachers from being on FB for example. For them social media are just too dangerous to play with. Which is a bit of a step back from where the meerkats are at. At least they acknowledge they have a responsibility to teach their pups about the stuff that can sting you.