Shock of the Old 2008

I’m at Shock of the Old 2008 at Oxford. The wine reception ended at 7.00 (the buffet: marinated, grilled courgette, pepper and mushroom, salted black olives, marinated green olives, smoked tofu (praise be!), breads, leaves, cherry tomatoes, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, lots of caper berries, two types of melon, strawberries and grapes – and animal, fish and shredded sea creatures). Peaked somewhat early (5-7 is a strange time for a wine reception, very welcome though it was) so instead of going to the pub I walked in University Park at dusk. When the gates shut I wasn’t ready to stop so wandered in the direction of the interesting stuff. It was very quiet but as I rounded Radcliff Camera I could hear music coming from a half open window in All Souls and I had the sense of future politicians and celebrity bloggers sequestered in study bedrooms reading Hobbes and filling ashtrays.

I write this from my room for the night in Keble College. S booked it and though it carries the feral odour of teenage boys, it’s very atmospheric. My curtains are open and beyond them is the quad. Keble is Victorian gothic, a bit like a toned-down Natural History Museum, but it has a workhouse atmosphere for some reason. Apart from the entrances, I can’t see another light. I’m afraid. Next to me is a cup of weak black PG and the unshaded desk lamp is throwing my shadow onto the magnolia gloss on behind me. The furniture is dark stained wood and the carpet, which clashes with the bedspread, is covered in a fine mesh of human hair. I have no idea how much it costs. I slightly wish I was in the Youth Hostel.

This conference is good as always. I enjoyed Ron Barnett talking about the will to learn, after a pretty condescending beginning revealing a considerable ignorance about the development of the debate about learning technologies. Once he got onto his own material, he was illuminating. Fred ‘runaway train’ Garnett put forward a distinction between pedagogy (the cognitive), andragogy (the metacognitive) and heutagogy (the – this was the buzzword of the day and probably the coming year, I have no idea what they’ve all been reading – epistemic). Then after these insights, arrived at some very pedestrian conclusions about institutions and it turned out that the meat of his work was this definition. Or maybe I missed something – everybody agreed that he had gone too fast.

Niall Sclater did a Virtual Learning Environment fightback to counteract the creeping influence of the Personal Learning Environment movement. I thought he made a good case. In the morning it looked as if there would be a stand-off between the Personalisers and the Formalisers but this dissipated by lunchtime. There was a question about Open ID as a facility which would allow both students and tutors to work in third party systems of their choice beyond the VLE but to pull data from those (unaccountable) third party systems onto institutional systems such as the VLE. He gave the question short shrift which I thought was a shame because OID does indeed have huge potential as a bridge between Personalisers and Formalisers, I think.

Annamaria Carusi was very interesting talking about e-Research – although quantitative research is so privileged that I’d have a job persuading my institution to avail itself or do the imaginative work required to form it to our needs. I liked her idea of e-research and researchers co-shaping each other in an epistemic culture of transparency and the commitment to shared ways of showing things. ‘Epistemic’ is a word which sounds sincere and meaningful when Annamaria says it, but slightly affected when anybody else does. I’ve undertaken never to use it. I think it goes for technology too, though. Technology and technology users shape each other in an epixxxmic culture. To my enduring frustration hardly anybody seems to want to admit that. Barnett seems to think that we can approach the technology with a set of criteria for evaluating it, and does not acknowledge that the technology may – should? – suggest any other criteria. Somebody in asking a question made the throwaway remark that technology hadn’t really changed anything much. He was making the point that we are still eating, sleeping, killing, playing, making love, raising our kids and ultimately dying. Of course we are but anybody who says that nothing has changed reveals huge ignorance, and devaluation of individual life courses. Think of: the role of women in – particularly – advanced industrialised societies; the Holocaust; napalm, anthrax, radiation and all the other ways to conduct a mass murder; our lifespan and the influence of the type of experience which comes with great age; the impact of anthropogenic carbon emissions; the promise and threat of genetically-modified life, the enclavisation of wild spaces; financial systems; the effects of material security on our ability and will to explore; the waning of religion; broadcasting and the sheer speed of news and response. I don’t know what he thinks change looks like, if not these things. Maybe he’s after something that he couldn’t even begin to imagine in advance. Well, you transport a mid-Victorian stevedore (they’d seen everything) to a traffic island in Docklands. Then take them home and put them in front of the telly and the Internet for a week. At the end of the week, ask them if things are different and see what they say. The only thing they’ll recognise is Jeremy Paxman.

The Warwick Blogs bloke talked about Warwick University’s experience with Web 2.0. He had devised a way to evaluate Web 2.0 tools according to its educational potential. It was a simple case of mapping software facilities to educational activity (this is ‘affordances’, right?), and he had opted for a binary record of presence/absence. It was fine, as far as it went (and that’s significantly further than most people have gone). Some interesting stuff about tagging came up. He thinks that 18,818 separate tags is too many, that there should be more coordination. I don’t, necessarily.

Record-keeping was last. I love listening to these health and safety type people – they have a particular gallows humour which probably goes hand in hand with a lifetime spent imagining worst-case scenarios and coming to terms with the futility of avoiding them. As XX O’Connor said, for many of us right now, Google is the only thing standing between us and a determined hacker or government agency. I did a straw poll – nobody I spoke with was inclined, as a consequence, to become more politically active for data ownership and data eradication and against totalitarianism.

Then there was a panel session which included Sugata Mitra who was not playing the panel discussion game (he gets his own slot tomorrow) and talked at length about the Hole in the Wall project where impoverished Indian children were given access to a computer with Internet access embedded into a wall in their neighbourhood, but no instructions about how to use it. The findings were very interesting indeed. They used the Internet, but they developed their own jargon. They managed to do pretty much everything they wanted to do, without any help except from each other. Using Google improved their English too.

Tomorrow is ‘Beyond digital natives’. Several people appeared to get the wrong end of this concept’s stick today. For example who was it who rose to his feet and began his question with “I’m a digital native…” as the spotlights glimmered on his silvery hair? Surely he meant that he was around when digital technology was born, not the other way round… The digital native / digital immigrant thing is, naturally, problematic.

On that note I shall retire to my spongey bed.

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