don’t make me say it

My ‘to do’ lists are organic things, spread across multiple post-it notes, both digital and physical (despite the attachment to my iPad mini, I’m still very analogue in some ways). They have a habit of growing dramatically during the day and usually becoming sprawling trains of thought and yellow paper. It’s a messy way to live and work, but it’s a good sign when my desk is littered with colonies of post-it notes, stacks of readings and highlighters, messes of books and loose associations of documents; a clear indication of productivity. It’s a very bad sign when my desk is clean and tidy.

fictions of science and narratives of technology in SF games

Much of my primary research is concerned with the many and varied creative cultures of production in the games industry, but I am also a long time science fiction fan and have recently begun to consider an intersection between Doctor Who and another research interest; the obsolescence of technology and the environmental and social impact of electronic waste, particularly from games. This presentation was delivered as a short paper to the first gathering of an emerging research group on Science Fiction at Deakin University, at the Waterfront Campus City Centre, on Wednesday, November 5.

The initial plan was to examine three ‘fictions’ of science across the three major games media platforms the PC, consoles and mobile devices. Ultimately the ten minute window for the presentation prohibited the ambitious scope and even as I was writing I saw the distinction between PC and consoles almost vanish completely now as Steam, XBOX Live and the Apple Game Store mean the digital distribution model and the movement between devices of the same operating system is increasingly practical, transferring across desktop, portable and mobile devices.

[The link to the ‘prezi’ presentation slides is here: ‘The Fictions of Science and Narratives of Technology in mobile, console and PC games on Prezi‘. I hope to re-record the audio for the presentation and combine the two via YouTube soon as the recording on the day didn’t come out very well.]

The earliest digital games were science fiction games for a number of suitably obvious reasons connected to the military industrial complex and the still male dominated environment of software and hardware engineering in the private and higher education sectors. Right at its origins one of the very first computer games neatly encapsulates the doubled ontology of the entire multi-subgenre spanning range of the science fiction game category.

Spacewar! created by Steve Russell and others on the PDP1 at MIT in 1962 is a game that strictly adheres to an internally consistent and purely scientific world order. The game’s code simulates gravity and involves player decision making through cybernetic interaction with logically predictable outcomes. The content of the game play is contextually framed in a world of rockets and interstellar flight, the battles of Spacewar! are not unlike the relativistic light speed navel ballet of Peter F Hamilton’s space opera and  scientifically literate and imaginative Nights Dawntrilogy.

Spacewar--the world's first computer video game.
[image by richardzx]

What is immediately noticeable about Spacewar! is the ‘science’ of the game, as the two players must navigate around the gravity pull of a star through trial and error, observation and testing, navigating and understanding the world from the perspective of curved gravity and momentum. Also immediately apparent to the player is the choice between the two ships, known as the ‘needle’ and the ‘wedge’. The controls and weapons are similar, but the look and feel are not exactly the same. Affect and difference are encoded directly into the ‘game world’ for the player to experience through the software, the code’s iterative universe.

Simultaneously the body of the player is engaged through the cybernetic interaction of the physical human machine interface, and further the player is involved in the symbolic action of play and negotiation of the representative capacities of visual and audial information, right from the very start of the video game format.

These three categories of Code, Cybernetics and Symbolism are just three of the ‘fictions of science’ in science fiction (and non-overtly SF) games, but they conveniently overlap the three orders of science fiction simulacra populated by Jean Baudrillard (1991) in his ‘Two Essays: Simulacra and Science Fiction’, the natural, the productive and the simulation. Baudrillard schema was new to me, but I found real measure in the notion that in terms of science fiction texts the ‘ordering’ structure is typically a statement about the relationship between concepts of the real and the imaginary and is governed by the principle logic of distance. The orders of simulacra immediately seemed to correspond with the three categories I’d arrived at. Like Baudrillard, I don’t consider these definitive, but illustrative of a domain of experience that is unique to the science fiction game.

The Natural Order

365:162 I found utopia (and it is a food store?)

[image by pennacook]

In the natural order, Baudrillard regards science fiction as a realm of the pure imaginary, at its most complete distance to a known ‘reality’. The natural order is a harmonious balance, the cycles of life and death and the ordering laws of the universe; the harmonics of the light spectrum in science fiction of this order are, for example, consistent with a quantifiable known existence. The natural order of simulacra is most famously represented in Sir Thomas More’s Utopia and Ursula Le Guin’s novella, The Word for World is Forest. This order of simulacra situates Utopia and the ‘natural’ are more unending if not unchanging in its cyclical patterns of nature. This order neatly maps over the structuring effects of software code, especially in computer games which are orchestral systems of feedback, databases, algorithms, inputs and pixels, and however ‘messy’ and labyrinthine the code layer becomes once in operation it is the wheels of game universe turning.

The primary order is operatic, theatrical and maintains the gothic fantasy of almost arcane high machinery, like the Steam Punk sub-genre and the “grand Opera” of technology (Baudrillard, 1991) in the ‘Gaslamp’ fantasy of web comic serial, Girl Genius (2006). Games like Tetris and WipeOut embody the Utopian principles of order and balance, the system requires the human player to assist in its operation, an endless search for completion.

Games like Audiosurf use their code to translate one material world, music, to that of another, the game world; players must integrate listening as much as viewing as they steer their spaceship across a lightbridge whose spatial dimensions are encoded by the frequencies of the their music collection and their familiarity with their musical selection guides their ability to steering effectively along the courseway to gain points. Audiosurf is the encoding of the harmonic capacities of music into the material dimensions of the game world. The software ‘playing’ itself is not a game. Tetris may be the literally encoding of the Sisyphean punishment, but its emergent narrative for is the player is therefore near operatic in scale, acting almost at the subconscious level. The game’s content is abstract, but it’s narrative is what happens when the player plays.

The Productive Order

Modern plantation

[image by t_a_i_s]

Baudrillard’s framing for the second order of simulacra is the productive, it is through the productive that the dominant structures of energies, forces, politics and actions are  Promethean obsession, modernist drive, mechanical fetishism, expansionist logic and the extreme ends of the mutated desires of capital. The productive order is the centre ground for much science fiction and can be considered an intersection of the distance between both the real and the imaginary.

The productive or projective order, as described by Baudrillard, arises from the capricious indistinction of distance between the real and the imaginary, occurring from its proximity to the third order of simulation. It is the immaterial that is altered in this encounter, given structure and purpose through the processes of the productive order, but the second order is similarly infected with the exponential gearing of the non-material modes of production. The computer is key and illustrative of this doubling:

“One can, for example, clearly discern the difference between machine robot-mechanics (characteristic of the second order) and cybernetic machines like computers which derive axiomatically from the third. But one order can easily contaminate the other, and the computer can very well function like a supermachine, a super-robot, a mechanical superpower: exhibiting the productive genius of the simulacra of the second order, not following the processes of pure simulation, and still bearing witness of the reflexes of a finalised universe…including ambivalence and revolt, like Hal in 2001.” (Baudrillard, 1991.)

The second order’s operative production of energy and mechanistic organisation of power according to industrialised logic on a grand scale is iterative within a great deal of science fiction games, especially science fiction themes in First Person, Role Playing and other game genres. It can be observed clearly in the Real Time Strategy (RTS) genre with the classic SF text reborn as Dune 2 in 1992 and the decade long obsession in Korean with StarCraft, and the global hit Starcraft 2, which model the productive order of simulacra.

The projective framework of the RTS genre operates symbolically, encapsulating the second order of simulacra, in the mechanic production and micromanagement of mechanised troops, itself a simulation of the toy soldier simulacra (entering the third order in the networked era with online play) across space battlefields and alien environments in endless mimicry of imperial expansionism for territory and heroism.

The Simulation Order

Some kind of cybernetic warrior in Trona!  O_O

[image by nasw.rm]

The third order of simulacra for Baudrillard is an informational model, the simulacra of networked and cybernetic play, it’s hyperreality is always in a state flux and is as imprecise as it is chaotic. Simulation, like cybernetic interfaces, are operational, existing indeterminantly and  with a capacity for “meta-technologicality” to mangle Baudrillard’s (1991) concept. Simulation possess a textuality which corresponds with all kinds of interfaces, narratives, concepts, states of memory and imaginative worlds that are produced today within the overlapping conventions of the SF genre and computational networks. The distance between real from imaginary is at its maximum with the utopian claim to a natural order and at its most logically compatible but subjectively indeterminate in the information model. Games in the information model include the dystopian Ayn Rand dystopia of the 2K’s Bioshock and EVE online

EVE Online is a galactic space opera, a massive multiplayer online role playing space simulation that straddles the second and third orders of simulacra and is a perfect ‘ant colony’ example of Pierre Levy’s culture of collective intelligence in operation. Eve is a perfect vision of real time network cybernetics of the third order: there is no scripted and governing narrative to the game, the players play the role of a spaceship captains flying spaceships from small scout to mammoth capital ships, forming factions called corporations with other players, mining, bounty hunting, pirating and privateering. The productive order infects the virtual as players looking to discover their fate amass a fortune of virtual (but real) currency and players invest hundreds and thousands of hours of play, driving the emergent narrative of the persistent world through their actions. The played can customise their skills and specialities of their characters, ships and allegiances across a galaxy consisting of more than 7,500 individual star systems connected by stellar sized stargates.

Eve Online was released in North America and Europe in May 2003, ahead of the other MMORPG giant (and despite its heavy fantasy elements is a science fiction text) World of Warcraft. The many moons, asteroids, planets, space stations and deep space features like wormholes, occupy a persistent popular of 400,000 active subscribers. Hundreds of players simultaneously coordinate their various factions in colossal  fleet battles, multiple corporations align momentarily in a delicate dance of space naval warfare, each player occupying a specialist role on the battlefield from frigates and incredible massive capital and battleships, to long range and short range ships, medics and shock attack, scout and sniper. Eve’s connection to the productive  is unique in the MMORPG genre with its ‘real-time’ character advancement system  in which characters develop or ‘train’ and advance their game skills according to a 24 hour clock cycle forever anchoring the incredible expansive virtualised simulation of a galaxy and its inhabitants in the labor cycles and planetary rotational spin of Earth.

Common to all these games is another fiction of science: the narrative of technology that, for the player, promises empowerment and agency through research, innovation and scientific progress, but in most cases even within first order game worlds, it is an illusion, and worse an enslavement. Power, through scientific advancements; ‘power-ups’ are a common feature of FPS games, paths of progress for more efficient troops are standard RPS features, and common to all RPGs is the advancement of player skills of intellect, knowledge, as well as strength and dexterity. The player is at their most free at the start of any game, they can make the decision to follow the narrative but use cheats, to record machinima, to complete every mission, destroy every adversary and accomplish every achievement. As the player invest time and emotion in their characters, factions and stories their options become narrowed, by investing in particular ‘classes’, skillsets, weapons, contacts, and game information they are limiting their option, reducing their own agency. This is why the character creation screen on role playing games like Oblivion and Fallout can take hours, in public online worlds investment in the character’s look and feel extends throughout the game, some players even sacrificing power for the ‘look’ of their in game operatives.

In, Imaginary Games, Chris Bateman (2011, p.30) considers SF as a marginal experience coded through the discourses of symbolic materialism, but marginality can also be found in the first order of simulacra at the code level of the game. The first and second orders of simulacra occur at the code (especially in the production of the game) and at the content layer aligning and tuning the science fiction themes of the games content to a unique range and set of symbolic expressions of what it is to be marginalised, while the third order of simulacra arises from the network connections and broader meta-game textual elements of what Jenkins calls transmedia fiction.

Borderlands 2

Welcome to the Borderlands

It was the 2K published Borderlands that successfully serialised the narrative FPS game, by combining the ‘loot’ and fixed-path role playing elements of games like Diablo and the team-play focus of Left4Dead series, with a model of downloadable content (DLC), within a post apocalyptic Western frontier style science fiction.  The Borderlands world of Pandora, is Mad Max in  Wonderland, and like Matrix everything is at once familiar and different, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz you are thrust into the role of an adventurer, a killer, know in the Borderlands folklore as a Vault hunter.

Richard Adams (2006) says of Frank Herbet’s novel: “The world of Dune throws the alien into relief against a background of familiarity and therefore makes Otherness all the more striking.” In Dune, Herbet was constructing an elaborate simulacra of concerns about the ecologies of religious fanaticism and environmentalism, and of course the idea that superheroes were disastrous for humans. “… In societies such as ours,’ suggests Adams ‘where Otherness is often demonised, Science Fiction can pierce the constraints of ideology by circumventing the conventions of traditional fiction.” Borderlands, like Dune, is very much in the second order of simulacra, equipped with what Adams calls a ‘retro-vision’ that offers as a symbolic referent point to contain ourselves within; for example the elements of Dam Busters in Star Wars the original film to Dam Busters (Adams, 2006, p.34), the re-writing of Lawrence of Arabia in Dune and the Western reinterpreted in Star Trek, and in a typical post modern turn, remodelled again in like Firefly, and again in Borderlands.

The game is at its most vibrant when in multiplayer mode, with up to four team members, the game increases its difficulty and dynamics. Action is brutal and sporadic , numbers fly out of the attacking robots, aliens, monsters, mutants and freaks as the code layer is symbolised in a intricate dance between dealing damage and receiving it. Otherness is encoded everywhere in borderlands, it is the carnivale written large across a planet of immense danger and reward. Alterity and otherness, like the damage code, are symbolically realised as with Dune in concerns of the environment, religion, sexuality and heroism.

Conclusion

To discuss ‘science fiction’ games is somewhat incongruous, as all digital games are virtualised according to one or more of the order of simulacra of science fiction. The science of games (used in game theory) appeals to the ‘natural’ order of code, but is compelled by the productive order and slaved to symbolic logic and consistency as a recognisable text, but it is in the play of networks and the creativity and investment of individuals in communities of practice and cultures of production that new kinds of science fictions texts may be produced (see Antichamber).

Darko Suvin (1979) defined Science Fiction as the establishment of a narrative hegemony of a fictional ‘novum’ validated by its own internal cognitive logic. The novum contains within it a symbolic function to inform us to the changed nature of reality, reforming the distance and relationship between the real and imaginary. The novum of science fiction in Borderlands is an attempt at confronting the intertwining of science fiction with scientific advancement, military superiority and corporate structures of dominance and control, and of course a clear subversion of male and female heteronormativity, through hyperreality, pastiche and parody, humour and comedic violence. Although the visual aesthetic of the game may appear to be caricature, it is through such extensions and ridicule of such simulacra that the limits of the science fiction and first person shooter genres are revitalised, if not quite transcended, with meaningful engagement and comprehension of the marginality of otherness.

References

Adams, R. (2006) Science Fiction, New York: Routledge.

Bateman, C. (2011) Imaginary Games, Zero Books.

Baudrillard, J. (1991) ‘Two Essays, Simulacra and Science Fiction’, Science Fiction Studies, vol 18, no. 55.

Suvin, D 1979 Metamorphoses of Science Fiction,  Yale University Press.

one more thing

The final assessment for the first unit of the Graduate Certificate of Higher Education calls for a 500 word post answering the question:  What idea(s) explored in the modules have you found most useful and why?

The most personally affecting idea explored in this, my first module, has been that of the ‘student’. While some research skills and learning practices remain from my former experience of ‘being’ a student, the less sanguine memories of endless waiting in line for enrollment or for empty desks in the computer lab have diminished. Good memories of student life are, on reflection, all face-to-face interactions with peers, academics, causal and general staff, and librarians.

The faceless interaction of the ‘online’ unit has provided a much-needed perspective on the generally disempowering experience of ‘being’ a student today. To be fair, I’d already developed an acute sense of this while coordinating my first unit at Deakin earlier this year. The ‘first-person’ perspective of the student experience has reinforced the need to seek out and develop technologies and practices, assessment structures and participatory curricula design to help overcome the distance between student and teacher, and students themselves, that is somewhat achieved in the experience of co-presence, whether it’s the lecture or the tutorial.

My experience of this unit and the certificate in general has been extremely valuable in helping me develop insights into the changing nature of ‘being’, or perhaps, ‘becoming’ a student at Deakin and as a consumer in the Australian Higher Education industry. Failing to manage my own understanding of the course through reading the unit guide, was excruciatingly embarrassing, especially in my previous ‘beings’ of a student I was competitive, organised, driven, etc. I find myself far more sympathetic to new and newer generations of students, especially off-campus students, as they attempt to juggle studying with work and family commitments, and submit assessment materials ridiculously late, or incomplete.

The experience has planted seeds in my imagination as I plot to overcome the focus on student grading in the humanities, and re-evaluating the relationship between assessment, grading, feedback and student learning.  Even the idea of ‘trimesters’ and units, drops away as I review all the brilliant, compelling and interesting contributions from peers participating in the unit, that would be useful and productive to read, review and respond to in-depth, and in our own time, especially at this point in the year when teaching briefly winds down, which brings me to my concluding point.

Returning to the dialogism between constructionism and behaviourism, was also useful, but I’d also add to that mix, the principles of connectivism, coined by George Siemens and written extensively on by Stephen Downes (2012), that knowledge is quite literally the set of connections that consist between sets of entities or, in this case, people. Downes (2012, p11) writes:

“Connectivist learning is a process of immersion in an environment, discovery and communication – a process of pattern recognition rather than hypothesis and theory-formation. Learning is not a matter of transferring knowledge from a teacher to a learner, but is rather the product of the learner focusing and repeating creative acts, of practising something that is important and reflecting on this practice.”

The unit has been a wonderful chance to work through some of the assumptions I’ve made in my teaching and curriculum design, and my peers have presented a range of approaches and solutions to problems I hadn’t envisioned and encountered yet, but I have a nagging sense, a feeling, that the certificate, like other initiatives at Deakin, such as the new ‘cloud’ focus, are not fundamentally grasping the efficacy, openness and empowering experience that fully ‘connected’ learning can achieve.

Downes, S. 2012. Connectivism and Connective Knowledge:Essays on meaning and learning networks. National Research Council Canada. Available: http://www.downes.ca/files/books/Connective_Knowledge-19May2012.pdf [Date accessed: October 26, 2012]

postcard from the deakin archipelago

‘postcard from the Deakin archipelago’, a presentation by Dr Christopher Moore

This presentation was prepared for the unit EEE710 – Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, the first unit undertaken for a Graduate Certificate in Higher Education in Trimester 2, 2012 at Deakin University. The ‘prezi’ presentation slides are available here: http://prezi.com/nqbxk2ri2oop/postcard-from-the-deakin-archipelago/

introduction
The plan is to share how I used Google’s social network and video conferencing ‘Hangout’ feature to run ‘LIVE’ tutorials for students regardless of location. I’m going to keep the technical details to a minimum, and if you are interested in the experiment I have my contact details at the end of the presentation slides and I am more than happy to chat about the finer points and problems.

I am going to draw attention, in a open and hopefully thought provoking way, to the strengths and weaknesses, or the ‘Fail’ and the ‘Win’, of my approach, and to point out that when experimenting with digital and online technologies in pedagogical contexts that sometimes ‘winning’ is actually failing, and that ‘failing’ spectacularly can always be looked at as ‘winning with style’.

LIVE the future
So the remit or the mandate for the presentation, is to critically examine an example of a recent  teaching and learning practice, but I am going to frame the discussion as a response to Deakin’s Corporate’s Agenda 2020 LIVE the Future strategic plan.

I usually  mispronounce the ‘LIVE’, preferring ‘live’ (as in going live, or live act), mostly because unless you are a Looper, you can’t really live the future, and even then it’s a short lived experience.

Deliberately mistaking live for live the whole theme takes on new dimensions, and  liveness, as in being alive or live as in electrically charged has connotation of being both powerful and dangerous. Another sense of LIVE, that I want to focus on with this presentation is to go live, to be broadcast, to be in the public’s eye, to be alive and living in the present, which in social and media media terms means the experience of networked communications, and to take another term adopted by Deakin Corporate, is the experience of the ‘cloud’.

the archipelago
I began teaching at Deakin in March 2012 and babysat a unit (Researching Media: Texts, Audiences and Industries’ for Dr. Nina Weerakkody) which was my first introduction to the deakin archipelago: this distinct arrangement of campuses across multiple Victorian regions and regionalities features a diverse student population and multiple modes of interaction: Burwood, Waurn Ponds, Warrnambool and the off-campus iterations of all of these locations. I have tried to represent these [in the presentation slides]  in a kind of semi-rhizomatic structure indicating where the horizon of the physical locations of these campuses intersects with less well defined territory of the ‘cloud’.

the mythical cloud
Whenever I hear the term ‘cloud’, I think of the quote from Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride: “ I do not think that word means what you think it means…”

The cloud as defined by Deakin in the 2020 strategic plan:

Cloud learning’ is Deakin’s term for harnessing new and emerging technologies to provide highly visual, media-rich, interactive learning experiences wherever our students are located. It signals our intention to re-imagine assessment and learning experiences — both in the cloud or on campus or industry sites— as personalised and accessible in all times zones, enabling our students to access premium learning resources and work collaboratively with teachers, mentors, peers and potential employers, generating ideas and solving real world problems in preparation for the jobs and skills of the future.

The cloud, as envisioned by the edupunk movement (circa 2004-2006), which borrowed the concept from cloud computing, is a means to liberate educational experiences from behind the closed doors of ivory tower thinking and boardroom strategising. From Keith Kirkwood (2010) on the edupunk DIY philosophy of the cloud:

Constructivist, collaborative and connectivist pedagogies have found their enablers in the tools and technologies of the read/write web. Increasingly, web-savvy instructors are abandoning institutionally-sanctioned closed-access systems for the greater flexibility and facility of Cloud-based platforms. Those who are venturing into the Cloud are finding new ways to bring students and student contributions into the academic conversation and curriculum, in a renewed focus on the power of peer- and community- based learning.

Kirkwood (2010) goes further when he argues:

This new form of distributed learning signals something much more profound: it signals a reinvention of formal education, at a time when even some professors are starting to say out loud that without such changes, universities will be irrelevant in another ten years’ time .

the big picture
Trimester one at Deakin was a real eye opener for me, not only were the students, tutors, and support staff in this isolated island arrangement, with little to no interaction between the various modes and campuses, I also had to come to terms with all the separate systems and unconnected databases involved in the administration of a unit: from tutorial organisation to student histories and the antediluvian grading system, it all made me feel like I was trying to pilot the Battlestar Galactica.

the galactica
The Battlestar Galactica – is the last surviving ship of the first Cylon War, and to protect it from a viral attack – none of its computer systems are networked – and so like all of Deakin’s various intranet, databases,DSO logins, library systems, email servers, phone systems – everything runs really well on their own, but there is no intercommunication which makes navigation, coordination and communication that much harder.

the staff online experience
Making sure all students and tutors have access to the same information at the same time, and can make use of it in the same way, is therefore an unrealistic dream…
(one that I not sure any MOOC or LMS can actually help us achieve)

PEBKAC
Is this a situation where the problem exists between keyboard and chair? Is this a feature or a bug? My take is to think on this as a feature and to think about the role of the human in the system to help the overcoming the isolation and siloing effects of compartmentalised systems, people and locations.

the dso galactica
Bruno Latour in discussing the rise of machines with artificial intelligence, alluded to the already existing role of humans as the artificial intelligence of machines, saying that with the current generation of software programming “The engineering dream is to morph the human into a rational machine.” while “The humanist counterdream is to recover an intentional, reflexive and coherent carriers of values. while the result is a rather bizarre cyborg that ressembles nor the machine nor the human, or as I like to call it the DSO (the learning management system recently introduced at Deakin, based on the Desire2Learn platform).

It’s no secret that I think LMS like Blackboard and DSO are really big cash cows that are a complete waste of time and money – its the kind of thing you paid for when you paid for internet browsers – and the result is more machine than human. The D2L platform, like Blackboard before it, is a walled garden, a legacy of the principles of management that demand centralisation and control, this goes against what the cloud is actually about,  but I do admit that the current version of the DSO does embeds html in a much more user friendly manner (allowing YouTube, Delicious, Scribd, Prezi and other platform integration).

So Galactica is a relic…
The Galactica is a relic, but its power, utility, survivability and expertise is in the crew and the crew at Deakin are endlessly supportive and innovative.

There is chatter everywhere and with back channels like Yammer and Deakin’s social network presence is slowly emerging, but the point is no matter how good or how bad your systems are, it is what we as academics bring to their iteration, what we add to them – the ‘live’ component.

That extra bit of something else is what makes the machines work and function seamlessly, and its something that only we can bring to the network and make them useful. It’s a ‘something’ that is fragmented across multiple services and structures.

That something, in the digital era, leaves a trace, a footprint, and a series of impressions, that coalesce into what we call our persona. Think of the academic’s ‘persona’ not as a concrete ‘thing’, but rather a digitally organic networked embodiment of “the art of making do”.

the art of making do
In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau (1984, p. 30) perceives an aesthetic in the work of those whose creativity is both constrained and enlivened by  spaces, both cultural and physical, in language, in the home, at work, and at play, where the boundaries of circumstance leave no choice but to live with a sense of plurality and innovation:

“By an art of being in between, the artists draws unexpected results from his situation.”

So our systems don’t communicate – well that becomes part of our experience of the Deakin existence….so there is no WiFi COVERAGE in the Media and Communication department, we make do…

Kopyism
In the religious doctrine of The Sweedish Church of Kopysim, the pressing of the ‘control + c’ and ‘ctrl + v’ keys are sacred invocations. Each time you copy and paste you are conducting the holy sacraments and these everyday technology shortcuts suddenly become an act of worship.

With similar thinking then, every conversation with a student, every online post or news item, every work related email, every database you open, ever powerpoint presentation and word document you create, you are enacting and enlivening yourself in your role as teacher, academic, administrative agents, etc and in the acts of making do that we are forced to adopt with these technologies, there spaces, functions, limitations and affordances for your own unique impressions on the world.

The persona of the academic self, as Kim Barbour and Professor David Marshall describe, in a recent issue of First Monday, is the idea of identity as a performance.

digital persona – I wish I were more like my online persona
A digital persona is accrued over time, as our activities across our many networks and communications and media devices leave footprints, make new connections and generate data about our everyday acts of being an academic, that do translate in very small but meaningful ways as creative acts of expression.

Social media helps to render these acts visible, lending them a semi-permanence, and enables us to reveal what it is we actually  think and do in a publicly visible way

One of the features of using Skype and Google mail is the status icon so that students in my network can see when I am online and can announce my availability to students – so that my emails session can double as consultation times if I want them to – but it also helps identity times that I am not approachable, during other admin, research, writing and other times.

My Facebook, Twitter and G+ timelines are locations and records of important work related-conversations, following PhD candidate Edwin Ng on Facebook for example, comes with a good amount of required background reading in Foucault, Derrida and Secular Criticism.

Harry Persona
The academic persona, and indeed any digital persona in general is, to cite Barbor and Marshall (2012), an idea of “intentional presentation of a specific identity from the ‘composite of multiple selves’ which exist in all of us the idea of the persona is the very embodiment of the LIVEness of the Deakin plan, but how does the concept persona help address the archipelago issue, and how do we steer the Galactica?

steering the Galactica
I inherited a subject titled ‘Globalisation and the Media’ to teach in trimester 2, 2012.  I had previously experimented with a blogging assessment that is based on weekly writing and underpinned by a rigorous peer review structure, and I knew this would help bring students across the campus together as a common audience but I suspected we could do more.

I was thinking about the term the ‘deakin archipelago’, which I am sure I heard from Professor Paul Carter, and in searching for the term I came across Karen Le Rossignol’s article on what she calls Archipelago design. She writes about achieving “… a nexus between experiential and formal knowledge that can be engendered by relevant teaching/learning design, by an associational or archipelago approach”.

“Archipelago design …. conceptualises a string of associated communities of online learning, providing an interactivity and immersion by the participants, and a social community of collaborative knowledge.” (Le Rossignol, 2011)

Much of Karen’s approach aligns with the goals of the new Deakin strategic plan, where technology serves a structural role. From experience the experiential and integrated learning environments that result in productive communities of knowledge and learning  are co-generated between teacher and student, and student and peers. The beauty of this approach is to shift the focus on expertise from the context of learning to the content: acknowledging the students probably know more about the technology in use than we do is one thing, but incorporating them into the everyday running of the unit, as co-collaborators and facilitators as well as audience.

The issue then  becomes, not how to speak or transmit information to everyone at once, in a broadcast framework, but how to establish an online persona that makes the best and creative use of all the technologies and platforms availables to establish a presence and activity that is useful to all students, tutors, peers, institutions etc at all times.

This gave the idea of using the social network and the hangout feature of G+ to reach students enrolled but disinterested in tutorials, and reach those students in off campus mode who miss out on the ‘liveness’ of the tutorial interaction.

hanging out
Google’s social network might be less popular than alternatives like Facebook and Twitter, but the clutter-free interface makes G+ and the video-conferencing ‘Hangout’ feature an extremely easy to use.

The circles features gives a nuanced control over your social groups and their online iterations – making the groups of large numbers of students easy to sort and identify. At the start of each ‘live’ tutorial I broadcast an invitation to the tutorial that is only going out to students enrolled in the unit.

At the start of the tutorial I use the ‘circles’ social network feature of the G+ system to invite students enrolled in the unit to participate in the video conference ‘Hangout’ via a laptop.

Using the laptop I can face the webcam towards the whiteboard, especially when using the material on the web (does that make tutes online?) and during discussion small group work etc, I can swivel the laptop around to be another set of voices in the discussions and students can accompany me as I move to between individual, small group and class interactions.

The video feed switches automatically to the person talking, which prompts turn taking and can be automatically uploaded to YouTube to be reviewed later, although none of the tutorials this trimester were uploaded to YouTube, as we are still working out the public/private ethical and Deakin policy issues involved in this, but hopefully it will be practical to implement and embed in the DSO next year.

The trial with G+ during this trimester has been ‘successful’, frustrated only by the vagaries of the WiFi at the Burwood campus. As I have found experimenting with other platforms and practices, like Facebook, Twitter, Online Video, Podcasting, Social Bookmarking and Blogging (the list goes on), these early failures are typical and useful stepping stones towards a more reliable and informed use.

The philosophy of teaching here is one of expertise in content not context, which requires the student to become an expert themselves in the relevant digital literacies involved; calling on them to provide peer-based technical support, the active sharing of knowledge, making recommendation on use, guidelines, sharing information, combat cheating and plagiarism, and reviewing implementation that can be crucial to the use and improvement of the technology in supporting not an online or offline, but an ‘enlivened’ and connected student and teacher experience.

The trial was a ‘success’ through failure, mostly technical in nature. The big fail was the WiFi,  some days it would behave and other days it was simply absent, and most times only partly awake. The second big fail was structural, as the setting up of the G+ Hangout typically took up to 15 minutes,which is simply far too long for a 50 minutes tutorail. The real ‘win’ was with those students helping me to get the hangout service working, helped me troubleshoot and report on browser issues and audio/video connectivity- and next time I will foster this collaboration to a much higher degree.

Kirkwood, K. 2010, ‘The wisdom of the clouds Distributed learning, MOOCs, edupunks, and the challenge to formal education’, Proceedings of The Second International Workshop on Open source and Open Content WOSOC 2010, http://repository.gunadarma.ac.id/bitstream/123456789/2179/1/02-03-002-The_Wisdom%5BKeith%5D.pdf aviailable October 7, 2012.

Bruno Latour 1995 ‘Social theory and the study of computerized work sites’
in W. J. Orlinokowski, Geoff Walsham (editors) Information Technology and Changes in Organizational Work, Chapman and  Hall, London, pp.295-307
http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/61-COMPUTERS-GB.pdf

Le Rossignol, Karen 2011, Archipelago design : virtualopolis and the interactive virtual team scenario, in Experiential learning in virtual worlds, Inter-Disciplinary Press, Witney, England, pp.147-154.

effective assessment in higher education

The sixteen indicators of effective assessment in higher education is a useful checklist (link broken, new source needed!) that provides a timely opportunity to review the changes introduced to the unit I inherited at the start of the current trimester. I reflect here on a several, but not all the indicators and address their concerns in relation to the changes I made to the assessments for the unit.

Assessment is treated by staff and students as an integral and prominent component of the entire teaching and learning process rather than a final adjunct to it.

The content for the unit had not been revised since 2007, which for a Media and Communication subject is almost an ice age (and it proved problematic all trimester), but after babysitting a 200 level unit in the first trimester I was also less than satisfied with the general standard of writing, analysis, research and reflection demonstrated by the student’s approach to writing essays.

In the past I’d achieve fantastic results by removing traditional assessment practices like exams and essays, replacing them with a continuous blogging assessment structure with a peer review component, which then became the focus for the unit and influenced what elements of the course materials I reviewed on the fly.

The multiple roles of assessment are recognised. The powerful motivating effect of assessment requirements on students is understood and assessment tasks are designed to foster valued study habits.

Through previous experimentation I had found that a short weekly blogging task coupled with a peer review assessment, introduced students to a repertoire of digital literacy skills and help to encourage regular writing and reviewing habits to help foster better research and analysis.

Tutors cannot be expected to read all the blog posts each week, so the peer review eliminates the need for constant surveillance and encourages students to take on the responsibility of monitoring, evaluating and engaging with each others’ work through a compulsory comment requirement (each student must comment on two blogs per week) and a grading component (each student uses the same grading rubric as the tutors to to evaluate each other’s work).

As with previous years, I’ve found this approach draws on the students’ intrinsic drive for learning, and encourages the completion of their posts on time and to a high standard, as they contributed to a micro, but vibrant, public sphere in the awareness of the whole student cohort as their audience. Students often go well beyond the minimum effort required for the task.

There is a faculty/departmental policy that guides individuals‟ assessment practices. Subject assessment is integrated into an overall plan for course assessment.

The blogging assessment starts in the first week of the trimester, and students are required to read, conduct further research and compose their reflections from day one. This proved to be a challenge at Deakin, as the School/Faculty policy allows student to enrol in units quite late in the trimester.

Those students coming late into the subject had to work harder and with less feedback those those who started in week one, and of course there are always students who consider the idea of a weekly writing task daunting and find themselves catching up at the last minute in week five, week nine and week twelve when students nominate a single post to be formally assessed.

Assessment tasks assess the capacity to analyse and synthesise new information and concepts rather than simply recall information previously presented.

The students are required to review the lecture and background materials (including traditional readings as well as online video, podcasts, and other blogs), select a single concept to examine, discuss and expand their writing through the use of hypertext links and embedded media. The individual blog posts are limited to 250 words, and this is perhaps the most challenging aspect of the process for many students, as it forces them to think much more strategically about their writing choices. This constraint is countered with the final piece of the assessment which involves reworking one of their posts into an extended scholarly blog with a 1200 minimum word count

A variety of assessment methods is employed so that the limitations of particular methods are minimised. Assessment tasks are designed to assess relevant generic skills as well as subject-specific knowledge and skills.

There is a steady progression in the complexity and demands of assessment requirements in the later years of courses.

Each blog post must address the four elements of the task, which can be abbreviated here as concept, definition, discussion and exemplification. Each component of the overall assessment is essentially the same, but students are encouraged to use digital communication practices and media rich methods to approach the task differently each week: we have student’s video blogging, live podcasting, and using Pinterest, Reddit, G+ and other social networks and web sites to expand the connectivity of their blog and increase their audience via the affordances of the web. The extended scholarly blog also begins to bridge the gap between the critical, but often informal, voice that students adopt for the blogs and their writing in other units.

There is provision for student choice in assessment tasks and weighting at certain times. Student and staff workloads are considered in the scheduling and design of assessment tasks

The ideal version of assessment would allow students to submit their blogs for assessment by the tutor in their own time, but this places too great a demand on the time and availability of the tutor.

Excessive assessment is avoided. Assessment tasks are designed to sample student learning.

A delicate balance, more for the tutors than the students, and I will be reducing the number of times the blogs are assessed when I run the unit again, from three to two, in order to help alleviate the added administration and marking time caused by the fully online submission. I do like saving trees, but it can be more labour intensive for some tutors less used to providing feedback in digital form.

Grades are calculated and reported on the basis of clearly articulated learning outcomes and criteria for levels of achievement.

I spent a great deal of time at the start of the trimester aligning the activities of the blog and peer review assessment task with the explicitly and clearly stated grading rubrics matching the unit and graduate outcomes and attributes to the demands of the content but more recently I’ve began to doubt the effectiveness and perspicacity of grading. I don’t consider the need for a grade other than a pass/fail to be required for the situation and all students who fail the first two rounds of assessment are afforded the opportunity to revise and resubmit. Students are also encouraged to revise their blog posts at any stage in response to their peer and assessment feedback.

Students receive explanatory and diagnostic feedback as well as grades.

The submission of the blog fulfills multiple purposes, the student is required to copy their comment logs, grading rubrics and a single nominated pot into a word document that is uploaded to the DSO dropbox. Comments and feedback is marked up in the word document and the grading rubric. The brevity of the posts helps to ensure tutors are able to turn around feedback remarkably quickly and students can implement changes at any time.

Plagiarism is minimised through careful task design, explicit education and appropriate monitoring of academic honesty.

The blogging structure and peer evaluation makes direct plagiarism more difficult, although students do invariably find new ways to game the system. I did note a small degree of repurposed materials from other units, which I don’t discourage, and it was noted by other students who made recommendations on how to redraft these posts to better fit with the scholarly and critical blog genre.

online teaching and teaching online (more GCHE posts)

This is an archived version of my online participation in a Graduate Certificate of Higher Education, this is from a post on the experience and challenges of 'online' teaching.

One of the biggest challenges as a tutor and new unit chair at Deakin has been the diverse student population spread across the multiple campuses, or the Deakin archipelago, as Prof Paul Carter described it. Making sure all students have access to the same information at the same time, and can make use of it in the same way is an unrealistic dream, one that no MOOC or LMS can fulfill on their own but is this a feature or a bug?

The D2L platform, like Blackboard, is a woefully inadequate walled garden, a legacy of the centralisation and control over student and staff activity. Granted it embeds html in a much more user friendly manner (allowing YouTube, Delicious, Scribd, Prezi and other platform integration, see below) than the predecessor, but the dropbox, discussion thread focus, student/staff profile and content management features are not an improvement.

We may see radical changes, as older structures are disassembled and effaced by new innovations and innovators to emerge from the top-down institutional challenge of the ‘cloud’ (whenever hearing that term I am tempted to quote Inigo from The Princess Bride: “I do not think that word means what you think it means), but a system is only as good as its users.

The distinction between online and offline teaching is of course a furphy, much like the division between the notions of offline and online in general. It’s a meme-like paradigm that has dominated thinking about digitally networked communication and human-computer interaction since their inception (the notion of the ‘online’ as virtual rather than digital is largely a result of cyberpunk fiction seeping into the mainstream), one that rejects the fully embodied nature of technology use and the broader phenomenology of the cyborg relationship between the human bodies, graphic and haptic interfaces, computation process and networked communications.

We are already fully ‘online’ as teachers (and students in this case), like the other parts of our lives, our activities and processes are dominated by ‘online’ activities, connections, products, services and media. Try getting by without your email, phone, PC, laptop, mobile device,internet or library database in in your daily teaching (if you can please let me know the secret).

In the “move to online teaching” or even the mythical’ cloud’, what we are talking about is the diminishing role of the lecture and the tutorial as the primary physical interface between teachers and students, and students and students (see more on this from the always impressive edu-blogger Music for Deckchairs)

Online tools support various kinds of replacements and expansions to traditional learning environments and as we move to cloud teaching, in its Deakinised hybrid form, I was encouraged by the atmosphere of experimentation and it was by pure chance I realised an opportunity to bring off campus and non-Burwood students physically into the tutorials I was teaching.

Google’s social network might be less popular than alternatives like Facebook and Twitter, but the clutter-free interface makes the G+ Hangout feature an extremely useful, free and mobile video conferencing app that can automatically upload the interaction to YouTube for later reviewing.


Check out the Web TV producer Felicia Day’s intringinly titled book club ‘Vaginal Fantasy’ hangout (SFW – safe for work video and link, mostly) which gave me the idea to try the use the app to bring off-campus and non-Burwood students into the live tutorial experience. Notice how the video feed switches automatically to the person talking, which prompts turn taking. (None of the tutorials this trimester were uploaded to YouTube, as we are still working out the public/private ethical and Deakin policy issues involved in this, but hopefully it will be practical to implement and embed in the DSO next year).




Students are required to sign up to Google mail to participate. This also gives students a constant connection to me as a tutor/unit chair as the Skype-like features of Gmail mean students can text, chat, email, and otherwise contact me when I’m online and using status updates like ‘available for consultation’: this allows me to roll some administration, email, consultation and student support time together into more regular and consistent hours, although it can be more work than traditional measures to become established.

At the start of the tutorial I use the ‘circles’ social network feature of the G+ system to invite students enrolled in the unit to participate in the video conference ‘Hangout’ via a laptop. Using the laptop I can face the webcam towards the whiteboard, especially when using the material on the web (does that make tutes online?) and during discussion small group work etc, I can swivel the laptop around to be another set of voices in the discussions and students can accompany me as I move to between individual, small group and class interactions.

The trial with G+ during this trimester has been ‘successful’, frustrated only by the vagaries of the WiFi at the Burwood campus. As I have found experimenting with other platforms and practices, like Facebook, Twitter, Online Video, Podcasting, Social Bookmarking and Blogging (the list goes on), these early failures are typical and useful stepping stones towards a more reliable and informed use.

The philosophy of teaching here is one of expertise in content, and context, to a degree, but not in the technology (being examined or implemented), which requires the student to become an expert in the relevant digital literacies involved; calling on them to provide peer-based technical support, the active sharing of knowledge, making recommendation on use, guidelines, sharing information, combat cheating and plagiarism, and reviewing implementation that can be crucial to the use and improvement of the technology in supporting not an online or offline, but an ‘enlivened’ and connected student and teacher experience.

and now for something not so completely different

I’ve been neglecting the blog again while teaching intensified again, but now the tsunami of marking is receding and exposing the wreckage of my research in its wake, I figure its worthwhile sharing (or at least archiving here) the (very ordinary) contributions from my recent reiteration as a student participating in a mandatory Graduate Certificate of Higher Education.

Trying to teach, administer, research and be a student has not been easy over the past twelve weeks, but I have gained a renewed sympathy for higher education students. The experience of enrolling, following unit guides, managing readings, assessments and contributions, missing deadlines and participating in the faceless, clinical online only course mode, in the margins of an already heavy marginalised existence, has been a positive one overall, but I’m reasonably confident everything I have taken away from the certificate could have been generated in a half-day workshop with some pre-reading, but heh what do I know?

Teaching and Learning in Higher Education

How has your own educational journey shaped the way you see the role and the responsibilities of a tertiary educator?

My transition away from studying Science and Law and the move to the Humanities and Creative Arts, meant exposure to a range of teaching styles as part of my undergraduate experience: from the biology professor you could mistake for Zizek, to the endlessly disorganised, but amazingly captivating linguistics professor.

My views as to what makes a ‘good’, ‘effective’ or even ‘excellent’ teacher have always been a little different to those of my peers. I recall being struck by the vacuousness of a very popular lecturer: big personality with energetic lectures, full of humour and anecdotes and almost entirely bereft of any intellectual content.

Conversely I found lecturers who seemed to drive students away from their lectures and tutorials with poor delivery, or technology management skills, or other issues, but who, in a one- to-one situation, shone as superb mentors.

Ramsden (2003 pp.93-9) proposes six principles of effective teaching: organisation, stimulation of interest, understandable explanations, empathy with students’ needs, feedback on work, clear goals, and encouraging independent thought’ (p. 87). Useful categories, if not definitive, but in my experience academics often demonstrate capacity in some of these categories, and many others, but it is rare to see those whose accomplishments in teaching span all of the many elements that are part of an effective and responsible tertiary educator.

I’ve very interested in my current colleagues at Deakin, their approach to assessment, curriculum development, student learning and enjoy gaining knowledge from their experience and discussing our often polarised approaches. I’ve also learned a great deal from reading all the responses to this module, but does all this ‘shape’ my perspective on the roles and responsibilities of a tertiary educator? I’m not sure.

What challenges do the current generation of students offer you? Do you believe these challenges ARE different to previous generations?

Among the many issues, triumphs, obstacles, joys, and difficulties students engage us with, it is the complicated notion of the student identity, as it is constructed and conceived of by the Higher Education industry and institutions, that I find the most challenging. The conditions involved in being a student are fairly stable, from memory my undergraduate peers were as equally distracted by the demands of social life, employment, domestic and family expectations and other commitments, as students are today. New technologies aside, what has changed most profoundly is both the increased emphasis on higher education degree and the tenuous connection this has on career employment post degree. The myth (often perpetuated by us) of higher education degrees as necessary precursors to better employment and lifelong learning has been shattered by the open structures for learning (reinvigorated through digital and social media) and the ongoing recession, particularly in the US and UK where graduates are just as likely to be employed/unemployed as non-graduates (Weissmann, 2012).

Claims, like those of Ramsden (2003: 86), that the “…‘quality of student learning should be improved and can be improved..” on first reading seem appropriate, but are actually characteristic of a more insidious drive towards massification that is so firmly entrench in the globalised model of higher education model. Ramsden has a point, but misses entirely, surely the challenge is not that we must always see to do ‘better’, but that we must constantly re-evaluate what it is that we do, how we do it, what principles and practices we operate on and question the market and endless and unshaped expansionism. As Alvin Toffler noted, ‘The illiterate of the 21st Century, will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn’, which is why I am very supportive of the compulsory graduate certificate in higher education, although I’ve found it almost impossible to fit into a busy trimester of teaching and research.

How does this shape your overall teaching?

The lack of formal training, beyond simple administrative briefing, available for casual teachers and new academics across the higher education industry generally, and in the humanities specifically, was indeed a shock when I began tutoring in 2003. Accepting a short-term teaching-intensive contract in 2008, the only available training (a two hour ‘briefing’ session) concentrated on issues of plagiarism and cheating, misconduct, and the timesheet paperwork. What went on during the ‘teaching’ part of the job was of importance institutionally only in terms of retention, grades, completions and recruitment.

On the one hand, this represents a level of trust, suggesting we can all get on with the job without intrusive oversight as to the implementation of the curriculum, minimising intervention in our pedagogical capacity. On the other, it signals a disinterest and devaluation of the most important function of universities and forces the dependence on superficial and inaccurate student satisfaction sampling.

This institutional distancing drove me to applying my research skills to the domain of higher education itself, as a parallel research interest, and I whole-heartedly concur with Kane (et al 284): “purposeful reflection on their teaching plays a key role in assisting our participants to integrate the dimensions of subject knowledge, skill, interpersonal relations, research/teaching nexus and personality into recognised teaching excellence.”

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing your own journey towards being a tertiary educator who is able to offer quality learning to an increasingly diverse student population?

Breaking students out of the near comatose learning experience of high school, helping them to transition from an uncomplicated use of social media and new technology towards that of a critical, empowered, digitally networked learner. Personally, my biggest challenge is that of assessment. When I first began teaching, I created grading rubrics as a way to help smooth out the arbitrary nature of assessment, but more recently I’ve come to see the grading assessment of students work entirely unnecessary altogether and seek to ensure that any assessment structures I employ above all work to restore the intrinsic drive to learning that I can see being expunged from my own children in the primary school systems and further systematically dismantled by the increasingly standardised secondary system.

I’ve recently been inspired by the work of Alfie Kohn (http://vimeo.com/47765590) and my work in games studies and what is emerging as ‘critical university studies – link has intersected over concerns of the directions of the gamification of education – the inclusion of badges, levels, achievements, awards and other systems of ‘pointsification’ as part of the student the ultimate expunging of the intrinsic desire to learn.

ranty pants (part#2): the conversation

The ‘Faculty’ I call home has a deep sense of personality disorder, incorporating both the ‘Arts’ and ‘Creative Arts’ as well as ‘Education’. There are very few channels of communication between these mammoths, so it’s difficult to know exactly where and with whom I should be having the conversation, but there is a worrying similarity between the concerns with ‘higher’ education I outlined in the previous post, and the series of issues that are emerging during H’s first year (prep) of primary school.

It’s H’s second term and the symptoms are showing, we know the cause of the malady (funding tied to assessment and performance), but there are ancillary complications connected to continual assessment practices that are disturbing at a fundamentally pedagogical level. Her first homework, learning about ‘community’, is connected to a performative task in the classroom in which she is required to ‘present’ on a the topic. The presentation will be assessed for her capacity to maintain eye-contact, speak clearly and confidently, not fidget, and to recall her wrote-learned lines. It is a task designed to prepare her for a life of meeting targets, metricised indexed performances and strict behavioural control over her own body. Beyond the fact that most academics would have a hard time doing well on those assessment criteria, and would certainly never expect it our students, it’s the first glimpse of the future. Even if this is foundational work, its emphasis and focus is a disturbing sign of things to come.

It was a long hard decision to choose a school for H, and it really was a privilege to have so many options to choose from. The density of population means Melbourne’s state schools come in all shapes and sizes. We ended up choosing a nice little school with a diverse mix of students, after being sold by the Principal’s ability to remember student names and actual smiles on teachers faces (don’t underestimate these as real performance indicators). Any principal who came across as an administrator was clear warning bell.

Growing up as a child of a teacher, a principal, the physical buildings of schools revealed a double life to me, and seeing those empty corridors and classrooms, getting to know teachers as people over the dinner table, watching my sibling become a primary school teacher and seeing the work both my parents put into improving the standards, environments and communities of the schools they worked in, I know of the tremendous potential that is grated and ground against the centralisation, standardisation, assessment based learning, continuous assessment practices, and so on.

The school requires much of the parent, calling on them to be involved in fundraising, attending events, and being part of the ‘life’ of their child’s school but there is a disconnect, dividing what the child does at the school and what it is the school does for the child in their learning, and the relationship between the parent and the child’s learning. We are not involved in the curriculum, aside from a monitoring role, our physical labour is appreciated but our involvement in the curriculum is not.

I always new that school was not the place H would ‘learn’, I know she can acquire all the skills and abilities of a ‘good’ student, but it’s not an environment that supports the individual in becoming a critical, capable, independent and collaborative learner. Primary school, it seems, is the place to become socialised, to acquire the rules and behaviours of an appropriate citizen, but I didn’t realise how much more panoptic the primary experience has become since I, and my parents went to school. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the enforcement of Victorian cursive writing, H will be conditioned by hours of repetitive tasks to turn her p’s into a runic elvish script. Home schooling is very much an option that is still on the table (I love seeing the look on teachers faces when I say that).

Yes, there are ways to manipulate the system and some teachers are very good at this, but most teachers are kept occupied in the short term, concerned with scores and tests and assessments, they are too busy operating the system to have the conversation about the system. There is also a tremendous amount of ego involved in teaching, so much of the teacher’s identity is produced through their environments, their classrooms, and now their assessments. Having constant power and control over the bodies of small people has important consequences, and it’s a lot like being a prison guard. None of this is intended as disrespectful, teaching (and being a prison guard) is a very difficult job, made worse by the complicated conditions and expectations of their professional lives, which ends up absorbing a great deal of their personal lives, like a pitcher plant, and so there is very little room left for the conversation about what education and learning is, and what it could be.

I’ll admit to being a fan of Ken Robinson, not because he has the answers (he doesn’t) or because he is mildly funny, but because he asks the right questions, and points to an industrialised model of education developed during the industrial revolution’s response to the Enlightenment principles of universal education that simply fails to live up to the potential of the child’s capacity to be creative, to produce knowledge in collaboration and to learn. He’s having a conversation, but who with? Us.

It seems we are having a conversation, of sorts, about religion in schools, that has dragged me back to using Facebook, so I will finish up this rant with a summary next time.

Rule #32: enjoy the little things

I got to spend a lot more time with H when she was X’s age, and I often feel like I missed out a little getting my first teaching intensive contract just as X was born and between the sleep deprivation and the workload I don’t have the depth of memories of X that I do of H at that really early age.

With X enrolled in the campus daycare, we now catch the tram to ‘Deakin’ together in the morning and it’s a wonderful a chance for us to have an experience together a least a couple of times a week, outside of play and the ordinary interactions. Going somewhere together, even if it is only to the workplace, especially on foot and at this age, transforms the mundane into an adventure.

20120301-144549.jpg