Friday, December 10, 2010


Well, it's actually another Beatles song I'm interested in ...

I'm working (belatedly; it's a time-consuming business not making bomb threats against a national newspaper) on a submission for Savannah Ganster's Love project.

What I need - quickly - is as many people as possble from around the world to record themselves singing the chorus from the Beatles song "All you need is love". Just these words:

All you need is love
All you need is love
All you need is love, love
Love is all you need.

I'm going to mash it up into an international chorus for world peace ;-) Or something like that.

Don't worry about being in time, in tune, at the right pitch or anything like that. I will use your voice as part of an internet chorus - it will all be processed electronically, so don't worry about how good you sound! I know people get nervous about singing in public - don't be. I'm going to get my kids to do it - if you have some, why not get them too?

Thing is, the project is already a bit overdue and I need your voice ASAP. So don't spend an age agonizing or practising - send an mp3 (or any other sound) file to Please! It will only take a minute and the outcome will be something lovely and genuinely international.

Monday, December 6, 2010

On (not) being Spartacus

Last week, to my very great surprise, I became caught up in the margins of a currently-unfolding media story.  Julie Posetti, journalist and University of Canberra academic, live-tweeted reports from a journalism education conference in Sydney, as a consequence of which Chris Mitchell, editor of The Australian, has threatened to sue her for defamation.  The case has rapidly become a cause célèbre on Twitter (trending with the #twitdef hashtag).  For the most succinct account of the story, read Andrew Dodd's account in Crikey.

While they were fresh in my mind, I wanted to jot down some thoughts and ideas about what happened. Happened to me, that is.  What happened, and continues to happen, to Julie is far more serious and has far wider implications for social media, journalism and academia.  I suspect it is also far more dangerous to write about right now - a fact that should give all of us cause for profound concern.

I should pause at this point and say that what follows is not an academic analysis.  I am an academic, moreover one who champions, uses and reflects on social media as part of my professional life.  I use Twitter as a tool in the classroom (and the virtual classroom) as it pushes students towards engagement, interaction, conversation and critique.  This is a much healthier place to be, educationally, than the poor buggers having to sit in the lecture theatre uncritically absorbing every fact or opinion I drip-feed into their heads simply because I can profess the privileged identity of "Lecturer".  I suspect there may be some analogies that can be drawn between education and the media around the issues of identity, authority, and privileged access to "facts".  At some point in the future I shall certainly write an academic article on #twitdef and its impact on academic practices and values.  But this is not it.

Nor - and this is most important - nor is what follows in any way "journalism". As Caroline Overington has written in the Australian, "the work of beautiful writers and fearless reporters can’t be done by just anyone".  I can assure you I am neither beautiful nor fearless.  I am plain, timid, and very ordinary.  I just want to post a personal reflection.  Not for "publication", like a fearless reporter - I have no desire whatever to penetrate Caroline Overington's inner sanctum.  But for "conversation", for discussion with, well ... anyone who's interested. Just anyone.

This issue of identity is also of the essence to the #twitdef story.  I have followed @julieposetti on Twitter for a year now, and her identity is a very slippery fish indeed.  Delightfully so.  As a journalism academic at the University of Canberra, I have her listed in both my 'media' list and my 'education' list.  I have her in the 'cultcha' list, reserved for people who make interesting observations about the state we're in - for instance I find her quite personal commentary on her parenting both fascinating and useful to my own.  She's also in my 'ACT' list, one of my favourites.  I love the way that Twitter enables conversations that are simultaneously global and local, universal and parochial.  When Julie came under attack from a national newspaper owned by a global corporation, there's no doubt that one of the reasons my instincts were to defend her was because she was part of my community - a neighbour.  The part social media plays in redefining our sense of 'belonging' (to whom? to what? to where?) is an aspect of all this #twitdef kerfuffle that has not yet got a run.

When the story broke of the defamation threat general indignation let loose on Twitter, the blogosphere, and in some sections of the online media.  Dozens expressed concern about freedom of speech, the legal issues involved, the issues of journalistic ethics, and the ideological war that appears to be raging between The Australian and social media as a phenomenon.  My own gut reaction was primarily concern for her as an academic, engaged in what is now normal academic practice.  I have recently returned from the late-summer European conference circuit, where I was live-tweeting the sometimes controversial proceedings like a deranged canary.  Thus I joined in the general upwelling of solidarity, and tweeted some comments and messages of support to Posetti for what I felt was an unjustified action against her, and a threat to the medium itself.  I tweeted "Mitchell isn't actually suing @julieposetti, as much as suing Twitter itself, for it is the latter that can damage the reputation of the Oz. And is now doing so. Therefore #iamposetti . And so's my wife :-)"

That last bit, about my wife, was a joke.  Not an original joke; it was a reference to the "I'm Brian" scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian, which itself is a parody of the "I'm Spartacus" scene from the Kubrick film Spartacus. To make it crystal clear that what I wrote was an allusion, and not to be taken literally (Julie Posetti is not my wife; I have never met her) I put the little symbol ':-)'.  In current internet parlance, one of the things that symbol signifies is that the writer is joking.

Forgive me for stating the bleeding obvious.  However, one of the fault lines that is running through the whole #twitdef debate surrounds the social media literacies required to interpret contextual meaning.  In 140-character Twitter, there's a tiny little parole and a hell of a lot of rapidly-shifting langue (but that's getting to the academic article that this isn't).  There's another identity issue here - a commonality among those conversant with the argot of social media, and a gulf between them and those who do not.  Do you speak internet jive?

At the same time, I posted another tweet on the same theme: "Crap! Mitchell is sueing @julieposetti! The Oz has a week to get its shit together or I’m blowing the place sky-high. #twitdef #iamspartacus".  

Once again, this was an allusion; this time to the "Twitter Joke Trial" of Paul Chambers in the UK.  Chambers tweeted exactly that wording, as a fairly unfunny "joke" about Robin Hood airport in Doncaster.  Despite in no way being serious (this is clear from his surrounding tweets), he was nevertheless prosecuted and convicted under the UK's anti-terrorism laws.  During his appeal, thousands retweeted his original tweet as an expression of support and solidarity, adding the #iamspartacus hashtag, a reference to the Kubrick movie.  In other words, saying "if you are going to prosecute him, you'll have to prosecute me too".  My own tweet, exchanging "The Oz" for "Robin Hood airport" was intended to draw an analogy between what I believe was the overly heavy-handed treatment of both Chambers and Posetti.  Taken together, my three tweets were a call for the Twitterverse to support Posetti in a similar fashion to the thousands who had supported Chambers.  That intent was quite serious, even though there were "jokes" involved.

I wonder what would have happened if, instead, I had retweeted Julie's original tweets reporting the conference? With the #iamspartacus hashtag?  Or if hundreds or thousands of us had done so?  Would Chris Mitchell be suing us all?  I thought about doing so, but I was too afraid  (see, Caroline?  You really are safe from me).

So there: my tweets in support of Posetti chock-full of clever intellectual contextual reference, layers of allegorical meaning, and whatnot.  All that notwithstanding, perhaps tweeting any kind of tweet containing the words "The Oz" and "I'm blowing the place sky-high" was not the cleverest thing I had ever done.

Then the farce started for me personally.  First I received a somewhat peremptory email from Geoff Elliott, Media Editor at The Australian, wanting to know if I was the author of the #iamspartacus tweet.  The next day he called me, repeated his question about my tweet and then stated "we're referring it to the police".  Of course, I was rather frightened and bewildered at that point.  Crikey reported the incident as a footnote to their coverage of the Posetti story.  The Australian rang the ANU, my employer, for comment as to why an ANU academic should be tweeting this sort of stuff.  Fortunately, sensibly and correctly, the ANU's only comment was that I was tweeting in a private capacity - but there we go; the issue is once again one of identity. Finally, Elliott wrote a short and slightly derisive piece about me on his blog at The Australian.

And there it rests.

My first reaction to Geoff's piece was combative.  I wanted to want to respond, indignant, to set the record straight.  I was offended by his sarcastic interpretation; there were in my view several significant omissions in his story; and his attempt to link my actions as a private individual to my employment as an academic seemed curious and contrived.  

However, I didn't respond, and I'm pleased I didn't.  Much as I disagreed with it, Geoff is entitled to put his view, and certainly entitled to do so without abuse or mockery. Freedom of expression is one of the essential principles underpinning the whole #twitdef issue, and has been undermined by the level of caustic vitriol that has been directed both ways during the debate, both on Twitter and in the press.

In particular, I was saddened to see Sally Jackson, social media writer for The Australian, subject to extended attack from a handful of tweeters after an article she wrote reporting the Posetti story.  She has written about that in her column.  One of the issues she faced was the anonymity of the worst of those savaging her - and here the slipperiness of identity on Twitter can allow cowardly acts indeed. 

Cowardly, fearless; clever, dumb; personal, professional; profound, inane: for me, the whole reason Twitter is a qualitatively different medium from those that existed previously is that it makes possible close-up, informal, messy, contradictory, to-and-fro interaction. Really human interaction.  There is not space in 140 characters to take a coherent ideological position, expound a crystal-perfect argument, or cite a dozen references.  Twitter makes us get messy.  Twitter forces us to chat.  Sally Jackson uses twitter well.   She uses it well professionally.  But she also spent some of Saturday chatting about how to remove graffiti from her wall, and about playing games with her son.  She even had a brief but pleasant exchange with me about chutney, despite the fact I support the other "side" on the twitdef issue.  The messy, human informality of Twitter can have a negative side - as was seen in the abuse directed at Sally.  But it also has a positive side: it shows the necessarily imperfect human faces behind all our carefully-constructed public profiles.  It shows individuals, not institutions; shows the people behind the paywalls. 

So I'm glad I didn't follow my initial reaction and lash back at Geoff Elliott.  I had dug back in his tweet stream to last October and found a series of jokes he and Sally had made about full wastepaper baskets: a series of "bin laden" jokes.  It would have been very easy to follow the lead of his piece about me, paste in a screenshot and subject him to a bit of tit-for-tat ridicule about the appropriateness of such levity for someone in his position. 

But that would have been puerile and pointless.  I'm delighted Geoff and Sally made these jokes.  It reveals them as human beings, not just pawns in institutional ideological battles about the future of media.  It gives dimension and contour to their identities.

The day after he wrote his piece about me, Elliott tweeted "Fair cop. One grumpy fellow said today citing the plod re the dumb sparticus tweet was not cleverest thing I had done. I agreed."

Not an apology, not a formal retraction, not a published justification.

Just a tweet.  Like a normal bloke.  Like ... just anyone.

And a tweet is good enough for me.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Waiting for the day the music dies

On @GCcomposer's blog Killing Classical Music @Pattyoboe asked this seemingly perennial, and thorny, question:

"It's always been a puzzlement to me; we try to do new music and we lose the older audience. Sure, we want the younger ones in the door, but guess who are the largest contributors? So how do we deal with this?

I'll never forget the 1975/76 year in my city; we brought in American composers or groups for each concert: Copland, Cage, Hovhannes, Harry Partch Ensemble, Chavez ... it nearly killed off the symphony because renewals for the following year dropped horrendously. Sad, but true.

So how do we solve this, I wonder? Doing new works is (mostly) wonderful. It is also extremely expensive compared to doing the old stuff that is already in our library. We either need to convince the wealthier, older donors that that is true, or we need to convince younger people to start donating. Or both."

A really complex question, with many issues swirling within it. And it is important for classical and conservative music organisations, hose audiences are, quite literally, dying off.

Obviously marketing, new modes of performance, new media, and suchlike are partial answers to the question as to how to engage a broader audience. The Australian Chamber Orchestra, for instance, stands as a stirling example of how to simply promote classical music more effectively.

But I don't think this gets to the root of the question. At root, it's an issue to do with the meaning music has; the function it plays in the broader sweep f peoples' lives. The context in which music is heard has a much more significant impact than we like to admit. For instance, audiences that will boo and hiss Messiaen at the symphony (I heard it happen in New York in 1989) will just love the same music as a movie soundtrack.

But there's another piece to the puzzle: recording. Younger audiences are using recorded music more and more as their mainstream musical experience. What I mean is, older audiences will go to a Beethoven concert and then maybe buy the recording as a sort of memento of the live experience. A second-and version, in a way. But for younger audiences steeped in the pop paradigm, the recording IS "the music", while attending a live performance is an exciting optional extra.

In a way, this is good news. As I ask my students, "how many new recordings of Beethoven's fifth symphony are going to get made?". There will come a time - maybe it has come already - in which there are diminishing returns. Now it's cheaper and cheaper to record, more new music is easily available on iTunes ...

One final thought to add into the mix. Younger audiences are less interested in the passive consumption of music (and the typical concert is the most passive experience one could imagine) than their older counterparts. But there is a groundswell of participation in all types of music performance. I conduct a university choir in which there are many young people who would be much less likely to learn to get to know and love a classical work - Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem, say - by attending a concert performance than they would through participating in a performance. We have just performed a concert of music by Australian composers, nearly all living. By the end of the experience, all the participants had become advocates of new music, despite their initial reservations. I think participation in music-making, not just passive consumption, is the key to engagement.

I offer no answers, just some partial thoughts. But answers are required; large orchestras and opera houses will start to fold unless they adapt to the changing nature of music, music technology, music participation. They will have to embrace the new in more ways than one.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Jamie Oliver's five hour lamb

Jamie's recipe for Braised five hour Lamb with wine, veg and all that from his book "The Return of the Naked Chef". I've cooked it: it's spectacular. Perhaps better for winter though. Posting it here just because food is part of the collection of things about which I wax lyrical.

This is a real hearty and trouble free dinner. There's barely any preparation, just a nice long cooking time which will reward you with the most tender meat and tasty sauce. Large legs of lamb are ideal for this dish as they benefit from slow cooking. If using a smaller leg of spring lamb then consider cooking for an hour less. Serves 6.

1 large leg of lamb
salt and feshy ground black pepper
olive oil
6 rashers of thick streaky bacon
3 red onions peeled and quartered
3 cloves of garlic peeled and sliced
2 good handfuls of mixed fresh herbs, thyme, rosemary, bay
4 large potatoes peeled and cut into chunks
1 celariac peeled and cut into chunks
6 large carrots peeled and halved
3 parsnips scrubbed and halved
1 bottle white wine

Preheat the oven to 170C/325F/Gas 3.

In a large pot or a deep sided roasting tray, fry your well seasoned lamb in a couple of good lugs of olive oil until brown on all sides. Add the bacon, onions and garlic and continue to fry for 3 more minutes, throw in your herbs and veg. Pour in your wine plus an equivalent amount of water, bring to the boil and tightly cover with kitchen foil. Bake in the preheated oven for 5 hours until tender, seasoning the cooking liquor to taste. To serve, pull away a nice portion of meat, take a selection of veg and serve with some crusty bread to mop up the gravy.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Knowledge and Learning: Our Imaginary Friends

I have just now returned from giving a paper in part about the metaphorical narratives we use to describe education. Like my Implementing VC 2.0 talk, it depended in part on a body of theoretical, indeed epistemological concepts which the audience had neither the time nor the interest to engage with. I therefore glossed over them. But maybe it's worth jotting down a few ideas here.

Knowledge is an imaginary construct. It has no physical reality.

This is a fundamental fact over which we gloss so easily when we construct metaphors for education that involve pouring quantities of knowledge into the heads of students. Educationally-informed academics nowadays know to pay lip service to the idea that education conceived as the transmission of information from teacher to student is a Bad Thing. "Puts students in a passive role and contributes to student disengagement!" they chant. "Symptomatic of surface rather than deep learning" goes the hymn.

But how many realize that the notion that information is a commodity that can be transported from one head to another is simply an epistemological and semiotic impossibility? Knowledge doesn't exist. Or rather, it exists only in the same way as unicorns exist. Or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

There is a quantity of secondary textual evidence pointing, rather messily, ambiguously, and contingently, to certain possibilities ("The boiling point of water is 100 degrees Centigrade" is not in itself a fact, merely a reference to an imaginary "fact" seemingly simple, but easily messed about with. Just go up a mountain). There are real and observable behaviors which we take as evidence of "facts" (when I cook peppercorn sauce I put the brandy in before the cream as I "know" the boiling point of alcohol is lower than that of water. Actually, this is a huge leap of faith based on secondary texts and my repeated testing of the hypothesis, not knowledge at all). There is no "naked" fact: discrete, bounded, true.

If you think this sounds like a simplistic mish-mash of basic scientific method and undergraduate poststructuralism, you are right. It is elementary. So why on earth is it that so much educational theory and practice is predicated on the idea (or at least shorthand) that knowledge has an independent reification to the extent that it can be "generated" or "transferred"? Like electricity?

The misconception then infects our concept of "learning", if conceived as the acquisition of knowledge, the level and completeness of which acquisition can then be measured, validly and reliably, through assessment. But it's not that at all. Because knowledge isn't real, we can't measure it: instead we purport to use the proxy measures reflecting knowledge acquired (what the students say, write, think and do after having been 'educated'). But this misses the essential point that Dewey tried to tell us so long ago: what the students say, write, think and do is the learning: learning is the progress of the indissoluble transaction between "self", "society" and "world", all three of which are inseparable and labels for relationships of power and meaning, not things in and of themselves.

This is why I am instinctively drawn to online learning. The ability to more completely capture the "trace" of this transaction - debris of text, speech, images, music and whatever else that the learners leave as the process of learning unfolds is greater online than face to face.

This Christmas will be the first in which my seven-year-old son no longer believes in Santa. A beloved "fact" has bitten the dust. I can tell that by the trace, what he says and does. He no longer will lie in bed listening for bells and the sound of reindeer hooves, craning for a glimpse of Rudolph's growing nose.

Knowledge has been gained? No, in this case, lost: knowledge of a cheerful, unconditional magical gift-giver having been replaced by a complex, insecure, anxiety-filled understanding that what was previously a certainty is now contingent on (in his case) less-than-dependable parental relationships. Bittersweet, at best. Knowledge has proven to be an undependable entity.

But yes, Virginia, learning has occurred.


Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Tale of Two Releases

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times, it is the age of wisdom, it is the age of foolishness, it is the epoch of belief, it is the epoch of evidence-based quantitative-meta-analysis-driven value-free decision-making.

I am incredulous.

Two releases announced today have confirmed my bifurcated faith and despair in the times in which we live.  One was the release of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi after nearly two decades of house arrest.  The other was the release of Investing in Our Teachers, Investing in Our Economy, a report on school education from the Grattan Institute.   The report outlined evidence for the proposition that "“improving teacher effectiveness benefits our children. ... [but] ... the drive to reduce class sizes, whilst well intentioned and politically popular, is found to be without impact in producing better education outcomes for students."

These two releases might seem entirely unconnected.  Indeed, that is part of the problem.  What they throw into stark relief is the confusion that reigns in our public discourse about how we measure value.

In any quantitative terms, the impact of Suu Kyi's release is miniscule.  Nothing has changed in the Burmese regime; no material, constitutional or even spiritual benefit will flow to the Burmese people as a direct result of the release of a single individual.  She holds no office, has no authority, and her now being free to go about her work will make no appreciable impact on the Burmese GDP.

But the symbolic power of the event - its capacity to touch hearts and minds, to shape attitudes and behaviours - is immense.  "The symbolic importance of Aung San Suu Kyi, the only prisoner of conscience in Burma who is a truly global figure, is not lost on anyone" wrote the Asian Human Rights Commission on Friday.  "Her captivity symbolizes the captivity of her country: the captivity of over 50 million others to the whims and dictates of army officers who have shown manifestly, time and again, that they hold office to serve only themselves and theirs."

This is a game-changing event.  Though it has no measurable outcomes, its value is literally inestimable.  I do not use this word as a cliched alternative for "very, very big", or as an excuse for poor economics.  I mean precisely that the release of Aung San Suu Kyi has an impact and significance in an area of human behaviour in which quanitative measurements, or estimates, are simply not relevant.  She stands as lightning rod for the energy of freedom, in Burma and in the wider world.  Lightning may strike next week, or next year, or never - it is impossible to predict - but her power as a symbolic catalyst for change is palpable.

Heady stuff.  

By contrast, to open and begin to read Investing in Our Teachers, Investing in Our Economy is like sliding into a bath of lukewarm jello.  It puts together a case carefully constructed from a number of existing studies and evidence (there is no new or original research).   It finds a correlation between educational outcomes of students, educational performance of teachers, and national economic benefit.  Seemingly there has been negligible benefit from reduction in class sizes. "Teacher effectiveness is the key: not class sizes. This is the best policy lever for improving schooling for students and giving parents what they want. It will provide more bang for our education buck."

And here is where I am tempted to despair.  I have no quibble with the research methodology: the report measures what can be measured, quite well.  But it ignores what cannot be measured, and this is its problem.  There is a myriad of statistics proving that "a 10% increase in teacher effectiveness would improve test scores by 19 PISA points and put Australia amongst the best performing education systems in the world" or that "the impact of a one standard deviation increase in test scores [would be] GDP growth between 0.8%-1.2%".

But amid the statictics, I looked in vain for a description of any sort of "teacher effectiveness" I recognised.
Where were the effective (and beloved) teachers of my childhood?

Where was Mrs Oakland, my Year 2 teacher, who taught me that with achievement should come humility?  Where was my only openly gay teacher who in year 11 taught me that it was braver to be tolerant than to be closed-minded?  Where was Mr Fergusson, who taught me that words have real power, to shape our thoughts and values?

Making something into a number does not make it a fact.  It sounds scientific to say "for Australian school education systems to be amongst the best in the world, students would need to learn 5% more in each year of their schooling.  We estimate that this improvement would occur if all Australian teachers were 10% more effective, or if the least effective 14% of Australian teachers improved to the level of teachers at the 14th percentile".  But actually, that is supposition wrapped up as mumbo-jumbo.  What does it actually mean "to learn 5% more in each year of schooling"?  What sort of qualities does a teacher have who is "the level of teachers at the 14th percentile"?   These aren't facts, these are aspirations wrapped in numbers to give them a veneer of objectivity.

If I want aspirations, thank you very much, I'd prefer the symbol of Aung San Suu Ky.  Or my high school teacher Mrs Moulton, who taught me that, with enough courage, effort and compassion, the boy I was could actually become the man I dreamed to be.

Investing in Our Teachers, Investing in Our Economy measures what can be measured: numeracy and litercy scores. Like the MySchools website, it is silent on the rest: on values, community, role models, symbols.  These things can't be tested, and can't be quantified.  But they are important.  Immeasurably important.

Inestimably important.

In classrooms across the country, every school day, teachers are teaching our children maths and reading.  But they are also teaching them how to cooperate, how to value the things our society values, how to lead full and happy and profitable lives.  Very often they teach these qualities not by lecturing on the topic, but simply by being the sort of people our children can admire, respect, and aspire to be like. 

Just like Aung San Suu Ky.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Wanted: images of the sea ...

Thank you to all those who contributed tweets for my music project (now entitled Strands).  There were over eighty tweets by more than twenty poets, and everybody has got at least a few words in the final version.

 The performance will be at the National Library of Australia on Sunday 31 October, 6.30 p.m. Australian Eastern Summer Time (7.30 am GMT).  During the performance, images of the sea, ships, shorelines, waves and ocean will be projected onto the marble walls of the library, behind the choir.

I'm now searching for images, and thought it would be nice if, like the text,they were contributed from twitteres around the world.

So - wanted: striking images of the sea.  Unusual is good.  Anything that conveys the concept of twitter as an electric sea, connecting us all together as the more aquatic version has done for millenia is even better.  Tweet them as twitpics to me, @jonpowles, and/or with the hashtag #strands

Friday, October 1, 2010

Implementing VC 2.0 in a Moodle-Intensive University


The evolution of Moodle towards Moodle 2.0 is not merely a technological development.  To get the most out of the new LMS, there are of course pedagogical issues and opportunities; but there are also institutional and managerial issues and opportunities.  The defining characteristic of Web 2.0 is not technological, but  conceptual: the envisioning of the web as a collaborative space,  flexible, interactive, and driven by the people, for the web is ultimately not a web of information but a web of people (learners and teachers, users and abusers, twits and facebookworms and whomever else).  This is a fundamental paradigm shift which Moodle has always embraced and which, arguably, accounts for Moodle's increasing popularity over other more transmission-based elearning platforms. Conveniently for eLearning enthusiasts, this conceptual change from transmission to interactivity precisely parallels a similar change in the quality and qualities of learning, away from passive "stand and deliver" teaching-centered pedagogical models to those which place the student at the centre of the educational experience.  Thus "Learning 2.0" became a wry catchphrase at the recent Moodle Moot in Melbourne; Moodle 2.0 straddles both these shifts in education and web communication.

University managements are also centrally preoccupied with envisioning  the imminent future of both education and the technologies that support it.  They carry the responsibility to determine policy, allocate resources, and advocate to Government in the interests of teachers, learners, and the people and systems who support teaching and learning.  However, understanding of the conceptual and paradigm shifts occurring within education, the web, and the relation between the two is at best uneven across the executive management levels in Australian Universities.  Consequently, those who are responsible for operating at the Moodle coalface have often also to advise, negotiate and wrestle with managerial issues in a decision-making environment problematised by widely different and conflicting paradigms of education, and of Moodle's role in the educational process.

This paper makes a case for the need to implement a new model of university manager; a Dean, PVC or VC 2.0 who is comfortable and articulate within the new conceptual, technological and pedagogical spaces.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Assessment, achievement, and the archaeology of university politics.

Robert Burgess, VC of the University of Leicester, gave the keynote at the second day of the iPed 2010 Conference in Coventry. He has for seven years been steering a process that seeks to revise assessment, degree classification and academic credit.

His overview of this seven-year process betrayed his evident weariness with the propensity of the Government, the media, and the sector to reduce the complexity of some of the issues into simplistic terms (such as the abolition of the Honours Degree Classification).

First, he outlined a familiar story; the nature of change in Higher Education over the last two decades. Key issues for assessment that arise from these changes include:

- move from elite to mass Higher Education system;
- changes in the sector, students, pedagogy, curriculum;
- robust international reputation of the Honours degree;
- increased personal investment in education from students (fees) requires a more transparent, robust and detailed record of what the student has a tautly achieved.

To respond to these and other imperatives, Burgess' review recommended the replacement of the Honours Classification System with a portfolio-like Higher Education Achievement Record. This would provide a more detailed record of student activities and strengths, down to the level of the type and nature of the individual assessment tasks completed. All very sensible stuff, if not rocket science.

However, as is typical in the political game of university education, Burgess was unable to persuade the sector to abolish the Honours classification system, thus the HEAR will be introduced in parallel with the existing classifications. Thus another archaeological stratum of practice is laid down on top of, but not replacing, the previous concepts and practices.

Why are universities so unable to clear away the artifacts and relics of previous practice to respond to changed circumstance? What has for decades seemed like a quaint and decorative fascination with tradition now threatens to make the relevance of many still-current university approaches to education genuinely questionable. Times have actually changed.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A new ethics for Web 2.0? I'll drink to that

Time to get personal!

The boundary between the personal and the professional was a thread that wound its way through this morning's debate on ethics.

Steve Wheeler traversed the territory of the ethics of Web 2.0 engagingly. He started by taking a photo of us all and threatening to post it to Facebook. How would we feel? What are the issues? What if the photo were of us reeling out of the conference bar at 11.00 pm? Steve argued that the new issue introduced by social media is their persistence. Existing paradigms no longer obtain: we need new bottles for new wine.

In one sense this is true. Our behaviour is governed and limited by codes, laws, guidelines and professional expectations that are derived, ultimately, from ethical considerations. These codes no longer fit comfortably to regulate our online behaviour for many of the reasons Wheeler observed. John Traxler had earlier made the distinction between ethics as regulatory practice, and a "lighter, informal ethics" that is about our individual non-professional behaviour. But how easy is it now to separate the two?

However, are the underlying ethical issues all that different? Privacy, respect, obscenity, tolerance, freedom - all the value-laden ethical signifiers are as relevant as ever. Or are they?

Frances Bell examined one aspect of this question in detail. She explored the fuzzification of the "public/private" binary opposition that occurs in the digital world, and called on educators to exercise a responsibility to model and make explicit ethical behaviors for our students. But for me, this begs the question as to what constitutes ethical behaviour in a world of public/private confusion.

Andy Black seemed to relish the confusion. He cited the tangled timelines of his Twitter feed, wi running, canoeing, general observation and educational reflection interweaving. This is my personal enthusiasm, I will admit. In Andy's Twitter feed, we cannot escape the human being, separate it off from the professional identity. Sure, Web 2.0 makes it necessary to do this more explicitly and overtly. If we want to! Surely this is a key ethical point; that we can now actively destroy the boundary not so much between public and private, but between personal and impersonal? Our learning and teaching (among other online behaviors) can be now more personal and intimate. This almost certainly allows it to be more powerful: and this ups the ante, increase the risk of success or disaster.

This is the point that engages me. Are these technologies in fact redefining the underlying concepts which determine our ethics (concepts like "privacy" and "freedom")?

Karl Royle's slightly oblique presentation on ethics and gaming was neatly complemented by Mark Childs, who immediately raised the issue of "seriousness" in how various online experiences ( for example, Second Life) are treated by students and observers. Students sometimes reject participation, and their reasons and reasoning are illuminating. This notion of seriousness was one of the points he has observed (students not taking online social media learning opportunities as serious); others were new ways of attachment to online environments, the potential for deception, the potential for disturbing or unfamiliar social (or anti-social) behaviors. His most telling example was to do with offense. Some students refused to or worried about participation because of the potential for them to be offended.

Do students have the the right not to be offended? Can education take place in a "walled garden" in which individuals can be protected from challenge? Not intellectual challenge, obviously - but Mark was essentially asking us the question "do we have a responsibility to protect students from ethical or moral challenge, or indeed do we have a responsibility to challenge students ethically?"

It probably is clear already that I would favor the second approach. Much of the experience that social media provides can be deeply confronting. But confrontation, I would argue, is a central part of education. I think we have a tendency to cocoon students in tailored learning environments, when we think about "meeting student needs". But what a student needs is not always what makes them comfortable. Sometimes, students need to be challenged and confronted, and sometimes even offended.

(As do conference plenary audiences! The ethics of this are not always simple, as we found yesterday morning.)

Finally, James Clay asked the question that had been the elephant in the room. "Who determines the framework of right and wrong behavior in our (online) lives?". The clearest answer from the panel was "the Ethics committee". Which just missed the point, of course.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Waiting for the sea-change

Richard Noss, in his initial introduction to the conference as a whole, answered my first key question, as an Australian coming (back) to the UK to think about teaching and learning. By and large, the awaited radical transformation - the sea-change, if you will - has yet to occur in the ways in which technology and new paradigms of social communication fundamentally shift the way we teach and learn.

This is clearly true of Australia, but my question had been to what extent the much more overtly policy-driven agenda towards e-Learning in the UK had been effective. What I am hearing initially is: not all that much. As Noss pointed out, the transformation in other parts of our lives (social, financial; who doesn't bank online nowadays?) has been rapid and pervasive. Likewise in both Australia and the UK, dramatic shifts in the nature and culture in HE have taken place as a result of other external drivers (student fees, internationalization, widening access).

So why do we sit here, waiting for the sea-change? Even those who avowedly rally to turn back the tide, fighting a rear-guard action against the evils of technology in the classroom, appear to be fighting phony war. When will come the large scale institutional commitment to drive whole universities into the forward into the utopia or dystopia of the future.

Saul Tendler, somewhat perfunctorily, took a contrary view, and talked about the transformation he had seen over the past twenty years. However in his passing reference to "new ways to deliver material", he revealed that while the available gadgets, bells and whistles may have changed, his paradigms of learning had, maybe, not. "Deliver material": the junk mail paradigm of teaching and learning.

But Donald Clark returned to the theme that "nothing much changed". The ways in which physics, for instance, is being taught now remains the same as it was when Clark was a student thirty years ago. Clark used the lecture as a metonym for the intractability of higher education practice, and observed teachers' unwillingness, in the main, to adopt a research-informed, scientific or reflective attitude to their own practice or to the nature of learning as causal.

Systematically, Clark destroyed the rationale for the lecture as a teaching method. "It's not just that that the great majority of lectures are shit ... The method itself is flawed ... it's a fossil, a mediaeval relic. ... We have to have a more sophisticated view of the solution to this problem than just to shove them down on tape.". The passivity; the lack of critical reflection or collaboration; the lack of practice or repetition; the lack of collaboration; the cognitive overload: these are all persuasive arguments as to why the lecture is an unsuitable learning experience.

Clark's review of the history, philosophy and etymology of the lecture was an entertaining tour-de-force. But by and large, he was preaching to the converted. The talk was more motivational than informative - and that was no bad thing. Those of us committed to transforming education for the better could deal with a morale boost.

Yes, we are convinced. The lecture is bunk. So WHY, Donald, WHY do we continue to subject our students to an uninteresting and unedifying diet of second- and third-rate lecture experiences? This is the question, which was left haning.

Which brings us back to my original question. Why - given the technologies available to us, the prevalence of leadership committee to transformation in at least some parts of many of our institutions, and the decade or more that has passed since we have been trying - why are we still waiting for the sea change?

That sad truth about most contemporary higher education is that it is not rich or strange. On the contrary: it is poor and ordinary.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Poster presentation uploaded

My poster presentation "'Open the Pod-Bay doors, please, HAL': narratives of crisis in e-learning in HE" has been uploaded to the conference website.  You can view the whole thing here

I didn't get to post all the individual narratives as discussion topics here - ran out of time.  However I really am interested in whether certain observations or assertions I make obtain more widely.  For instance, how relevant is this twelve-year-old conceptualisation of the "Lone Ranger"?  In my experience at my institution, very relevant.  But perhaps ANU is unusually archaic?

The Lone Ranger is a familiar figure on the e-learning landscape. The innovative individualist, pursuing his or her own idiosyncratic change agenda, is perhaps the most ubiquitous practitioner of e-learning, and as a strategy for establishing identity as a practitioner is arguably the only successful one at universities where the dominant paradigm for academic work is the traditional collegial model of an individual academic taking virtual sole responsibility for a course. Such a model still obtains most prevalently at research-intensive universities.

Peter Taylor's (1998) description of the Lone Ranger is still very much to the point:

"The overwhelming evidence is that the development of more flexible learning environments through the use of CITs has been energised and enacted primarily by lone rangers—individual staff members who are energetic, early adopters of innovation, and who are motivated by a desire to improve the accessibility and quality of their teaching. This phenomenon ... is consistent with the commitment of academics to the principle of professional autonomy. This is an innovation-driven approach to the development of new practices. But what are the outcomes?

There are some positives, and some negatives. The positives tend to cluster around the achievement of intentions--improvement in access, in retention rates, in the quality of teaching and learning. Some individuals even gain promotion. But the most important outcome is that these lone rangers have laid a foundation for new teaching methods based on the available CITs. In this sense, they have done much to create the potential to catch the CIT wave, and to make it pay off for students in substantive ways. These are extremely important outcomes, and should be celebrated and protected.

But there is also a downside. This approach has tended to produce innovation at the level of particular course offerings, but there has been a lack of institutional support and a failure to institutionalise the outcomes …In fact innovation often occurred in spite of this lack of institutional interest. ... Well-developed evaluations of such initiatives are rare. Where evaluations have been conducted, and reports written, little notice was or is taken of their findings or recommendations. …The lone ranger approach emphasises the importance of investing creative energy, but has done little to articulate that investment with the broader institutional context. This is a high cost, low return strategy."

The fascinating thing about this description of e-learning innovation in the mid-1990s is perhaps how relevant it remains. In the context of this paper, the lone ranger identity or narrative can be seen as a way of explicitly avoiding institutional engagement with change issues. Innovators can be characterised as individualists and thus functionally excluded from the educational decision-making process.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Competing narratives and eLearning

This diagram is more convincing in German, Ja?
In a couple of weeks, I'm presenting a paper at an eLearning conference.  It's about 'competing narratives' (used in a metaphorical sense, but also in a technical sense from the change management literature) at play in the implementation of new eLearning strategies in Higher Education.

If you're already bored, read no further; I'll post something sexy about music or politics in a while.

I'm going to use this blog to post segments of the paper for feedback from interested parties.

The idea of ‘competing narratives’ is a central one in the contemporary literature on change management. Before embarking on any major project or initiative within an organization there is likely to be significantly differing views on how to change, why to change, and, of course, whether to change at all. During the often turbulent process of change itself, individuals and discrete groups within the organization report quite different perceptions even of what it is that is, in fact, occurring. And after the project is complete, competing perceptions remain as to what, if anything, has changed; and if it has, whether for better or for worse (Ogbonna and Harris, 1998; Boddy and Paton, 2003). 

These competing narratives pose a challenge for managers.  While differences of perspective, priority and interpretation are an inevitable fact of organizational behavior, they nevertheless need to be incorporated within a structure or context that allows effective organizational operation.  For instance, structures that permit dissonant world views and competing narratives to paralyze decision-making lead to ineffectiveness and entrenched conflict. On the other hand, “structures which enable those with alternative views, based on detailed local knowledge, to articulate their interpretations of the project and its context … may at first be uncomfortable to those whose interpretations are thus challenged” but can nevertheless lead to successful outcomes for the project as a whole (Boddy and Paton, 2003).  Critical to such success is the centrality of trust in the process of management communication: trust that competing narratives are allowed to be heard, and valued as sincere.  The classic managerial mistake is to marginalize, discount, and therefore demonstrably distrust narratives and perspectives that differ from overarching institutional aims (Paton and McCalman, 2008).
This idea of competing narratives in the organizational change process has immediate resonance for those working to introduce educational innovation in contemporary universities. In particular, the narratives that surround the adoption or rejection of e-learning are distinctive, powerful and emotive.  If it is crucial to the establishment of relationships of trust that “those with alternative views … [can] articulate their interpretations”, and we take as read that academic communities are, in general, sites of confident and articulate verbal communication, one might naively assume that contemporary universities would handle competing narratives in the change management process relatively effectively. This is a questionable assumption.
Succeeding posts will identify several of these (perhaps fictional) narratives:
  • 'Barbarians at the gates': the massifiaction of HE through technology
  • 'o tempora! o mores!': the decline in standards caused by technology
  • 'Open the pod-bay doors please, HAL': the dangers of technology
  • 'The altar of efficiency': technology will make teaching cheaper. Oh, and produce a paperless office
  • 'Into something rich and strange': if it's online, it's automatically better

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Some Deep thinking about music and kids

Last Friday I attended the latest Canberra performance of the DeepBlue orchestra.

Emerging out of QUT's Creative Industries area, DeepBlue seeks to redefine the idea of "orchestra" for the contemporary world. Essentially a small string band with a rhythm section, mixing desk and multimedia backdrop, the group performs music ranging from "straight" classical (Barber's Adagio for Strings) through contemporary compositions by Australian composers and members of the orchestra, to arrangements of pop songs. The performances themselves are choreographed and full of energy, visual excitement and, overwhelmingly, just good fun.

DeepBlue is strikingly successful in breaking through the customs and desiccated conventions of traditional classical performance. I could - and probably will - write about just how important I think this is from a purely artistic perspective. However, what really interests me here is the way in which they have rethought the educational side of their engagement with the public.

DeepBlue makes a point of collaborating with the young musicians in each town they play, with their YoungBlue program. Previously, a school or youth music string group would prepare in advance and then join the orchestra on stage for one of the items. This is a clever engagement strategy, but not all that new an idea.

For this tour, DeepBlue are using a different strategy. ANY young string players in the towns being played can sign up for this experience. They download the score and an mp3 of the piece, practise on their own (DeepBlue performs from memory and encourages the kids to do so too) and then get together for a single rehearsal and workshop (essentially choreographic) on the afternoon of the concert.

Kids on stage in the Canberra concert
This is new. This is actually educationally ground-breaking. It's more like a flash mob than a rehearsal, and works in a really positive way. The whole sense of "drilling" that characterizes SO MUCH of children's musical experience is absent: there is no martinet school music teacher hectoring the children into a technically polished (as if that is ever achieved) but emotionally lifeless version of the music. Instead, the children have to take responsibility for their own preparation, and with that responsibility comes confidence, and a sense that they "own" their own performance.

You can HEAR this confidence in the results. You can see it in their eyes. And it beautifully parallels the way in which the DeepBlue adult performers come across as a groups of individual personalities and diverse talents rather than a sort of orchestral music-making machine.  Interestingly, it is the technology that makes it possible: to download the scores and mp3s into one's own home is hardly ground-breaking technology, but it is only really now that it is the sort of second-nature technology for enough parents that such a scheme as this would be viable.

I saw a great performance last Friday: fresh, human, and in-your-face emotional. I'm not sure I saw the future of the orchestra - maybe it has many futures, or more likely none. But I think I saw the future of music education.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Tweets in Harmony

This is a plea for help from some tweeting poets!

At the end of October, the Australian National University Choral Society is performing a concert at the National Library of Australia. The concert consists of American and Australian choral pieces, dealing with the themes of migration, journeys by sea, and the mixing of cultures. We're performing a new work, Freedom of the Sea by Ruth Lee Martin especially written for us setting poetry by Canberra writer Alan Gould; Anne Boyd's As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams; Cloudburst by American composer Eric Whitacre; some nineteenth-century ballads from the Library's collection of early Australian sheet music; and some Negro spirituals.

We're also doing a new work by me.  Here's were the plea comes in.

The sea has always functioned to connect, and to separate.  This is the thread that connects all the pieces in the concert.  Without wanting to seem too poncey, it strikes me that in some ways the twenty-first century the twitterverse is a "sea", with messages in bottles pinging around the worlds electronic oceans, connecting us yet reminding us of our separation.  To receive a "letter from home", from England, in the 1820s took six months.  Now I can read a tweet from Devon in milliseconds.  But has all that much changed?

So I decided that my piece would be a setting of tweets from around the world; micropoems exploring the ideas of migration, distance, journeys ....

Partly, the idea came to me when I read a tweeted poem of David Merrylees that I really love.  It's this haiku:

park bench, names carved deep
this place, distant voices float 
silver strand of brogue

I've asked David if I can use his poem in my piece; it captures exactly what I'm looking for.

So, I'm interested in receiving poems of 140 characters or less on the themes I have mentioned: migration, sea voyages, separated families, distance, oceans.  For structural reasons I won't go into, the poem needs to contain at least one of these words: sea, strand, ocean, ship, waves, journey, float, home.

Oh, and please tweet them!  Tweet them @jonpowles if they fit; if not, tweet them and copy them here as a comment.  But I want to know they are actual genuine messages in bottles that have really been set loose on the twitter sea ...

If I have your permission, I'll then set them to music.  You'll get full acknowledgement as author, of course :-)



Thursday, July 29, 2010

Indicators of Educational Quality

Finally, here's a reference to and abstract of a thoughtful paper which explores the competing notions of quality, and therefore its measurement, in Higher Education:

Tam, Maureen, "Measuring Quality and Performance in Higher Education" Quality in Higher Education 7/I, 2001, 47-54

The main argument of this paper emanates from an understanding that 'quality' is a highly contested concept and has multiple meanings to people who conceive higher education and quality differently. This paper attempts to analyse ways of thinking about higher education and quality; consider their relevance to the measurement of performance of universities and colleges; and explore their implications for the selection of criteria, approaches and methods for the assurance of quality in higher education. This paper also investigates various models of measuring quality in higher education, consider their value and discuss both their shortcomings and contributions to the assessment of higher education institutions. These models include the simple 'production model', which depicts a direct relationship between inputs and outputs; the 'value-added approach', which measures the gain by students before and after they receive higher education; and the 'total quality experience approach' which aims to capture the entire learning experience undergone by students during their years in universities or colleges.

Monday, July 12, 2010


I hate haiku. I really do. It's not so much a dislike, as an abiding abhorrence:

The autumn lark calls
Cherry blossoms gently fall
And my gorge rises

You find Nirvana
In seventeen syllables?
You need to get laid

A waterfowl take wing
Over a still summer lake
BANG! There's my dinner

Saturday, March 6, 2010


I'm proud to announce that my Government today has launched the MyParents website.

The My Parents website went live this morning and has had more than 1.5 million hits as Australian children have logged on to access comprehensive information about their own parents.

My Parents contains important information about each of Australia’s 3,120,000 parents including vital quantitative statistics such as the average amount of pocketmoney per child (normalized for parental income); average bedtime as a function of child age; how long per evening each parent spends reading with the child; and the relative severity of smacking.

Children and the wider community are also able to compare their parents' results with neighbouring families and up to 60 statistically similar families nationwide.

By comparing statistically similar parents, it will be clear which parents are doing well and which parents need an extra hand.

The Rudd Government is standing ready with new money and new targeted programs to help parents who are found to be struggling.  Only in the most extreme cases will families be closed down through underperformance.

However, the MyParents  website gives Australia children powerful new choices.  They will be able to bring transparency and evidence into their negotiations with parents.  Knowing that Little Johnny three doors down gets to go to bed twenty minutes later, or that children from households of similar levels of income receive $1.20 more pocketmoney per week, will empower Australian working children in their dialogue with parents as never before.

The Rudd Government is investing $550 million to improve the quality of parenting.  Children of underperforming parents will be able to apply for a SMARTEN-UP! Parental Intervention Grant,  with a comprehensive program of parental reinvigoration for designated families. The Rudd Government has also committed more than $2 billion to assist levels of pocketmoney in low socio-economic communities and marginal electorates.

The Rudd Government, together with child representatives, teachers and the Australian community, is working to ensure every Australian child in every family receives a world class experience.  Schools and other community organisations will be able to access the MyParents website to identify, and to provide positive feedback and advice to struggling parents.

The Rudd Government: helping Australian working families work harder.