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Every day this week, BBC Radio 4 is broadcasting a 45-minute programme at 9.00 am bearing the title ‘The New World’. This is a series of programmes examining the major forces that are changing the world around us. The first programme focused on ‘post-truth’ and bore the title ‘Nothing but the Truth’.

For me this is just the right programme, after all that happened in 2016, including ‘fake news’ allegations surrounding Brexit here in the UK and Trump’s election in the USA, to broadcast at the start of 2017. It pulled together and tried to explain society’s changing relationship with truth. It tried to unpick what we mean by ‘post-truth’ and what it means to live in a ‘post-fact’ world. The programme drew on several research studies and spoke to a number of different scientists, researchers and others. The podcast gives further details of these speakers and can be accessed on the BBC website at Nothing but the Truth although I realise that this won’t necessarily be available to those living outside the UK.

The programme started by telling us that ‘Post-truth’ was the ‘word of the year’ in 2016, when it was added to the Oxford Dictionary.

After much discussion, debate, and research, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 is post-truth – an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.  (Source of quote)

It suggested that 2016 was the year in which people questioned whether facts matter any more and whether there is any longer a need or role for experts in our society. Post-truth describes the world according liberals and their liberal angst. (See The Fallacy of Post-Truth by Rune Møller Stahl & Bue Rübner Hansen for more on this).

When did we enter this post-fact world? According to Rune Møller Stahl & Bue Rübner Hansen any one of a number of events could have been the cause, but the Radio 4 programme presenter suggested that the first clear instance of there being a lot of information ‘out there’ with no basis in fact was the claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Events went on to show that when facts are coloured by ideology it is difficult to change people’s minds. In this case people not only resisted the evidence that there were no weapons of mass destruction but also became more convinced that there were – a phenomenon known as the ‘backfire effect’. By developing counter arguments people become more entrenched; they persuade themselves and they rationalize instincts and feelings that they already have after the fact in an act of retrospective justification. They put their feelings first and make the facts fit. They think they are reasoning but are actually rationalizing.

The programme posited that we all have this pre-disposition, i.e. the pre-disposition to selectively accept information which is consistent with our world view and the more proficient we are at analysing data the more we do this; we interrogate the evidence and ‘waterboard’ it until it tells us what we want to hear.

Fact and truth. The programme went on to discuss that there are different kinds of facts. When is a fact not a fact? Take for example the question, ‘Is the UK in the EU?’ This is a straightforward question to answer. It is a fact and a truth that we are currently in the EU. But the question ‘how much does the EU cost the UK?’ may have many answers (many truths and facts) and the question ‘is it good for us to be in the EU?’ is not a question about facts but about values. Fact and truth are not the same thing. Has our relationship with truth changed over time? Truth is more personal and is about how you feel about the world. We are all more or less biased. Areas of life that are not about facts but about values shouldn’t be the monopoly of politicians, intellectuals and self-appointed authorities. No-one knows what it’s like to live your life. We don’t have to trust others to interpret the truth or its relevance for our lives.

Echo chambers. If our relationship with truth has changed over time, why is this so? The Internet has affected us all and changed society. Two-thirds of Americans now get their news from social media and this is an increasing trend in the UK. But we tend to inhabit echo chambers on the Internet. We live in filter bubbles seeing echoes of our own opinions, amplified by social software’s algorithms (e.g. Facebook) which give us more of the same and ensure that we don’t encounter dissenting information.

And this doesn’t only happen on the Internet. Some research from America and in the UK has shown that like-minded people move to live near each other. This is known in America as ‘the big sort’ and studies of psychological geography have linked geographical clustering to personality differences, making the chances of meeting people different from us increasingly slim.

How can we burst the bubbles we live in? How do we get contrary information and alternative perspectives into echo chambers? It seems that we can’t win arguments by throwing in more facts. It’s not an information deficit that we suffer from, but an affinity deficit and a lack of trust. We determine the truth by the people and sources we trust. It’s not that facts don’t matter any more. What is really worrying is the lack of trust underneath this which comes from being exposed to fewer opposing views and which makes it harder to believe the other side has anything to offer.

What was suggested in the programme is that it’s difficult to build trust, but perhaps we could start by trusting ourselves a little less, asking ‘Can I trust how I feel?’ We should be anxious about echo chambers and fitting what we see to maintaining our standing in the group. We should resist forwarding to our echo chamber that article that proves how right we are. Just because we like it doesn’t mean it’s true. We should listen more to people we disagree with and make a habit of doubting what we hear, see and read if only for a short time each day.

Like others (see for example Audrey Watter’s post – Education Technology and the Year of Wishful Thinking) during 2016 I became increasingly aware of the issues raise by this Radio 4 programme, of the echo chambers in which I work and live and the pressure to conform to group ideologies. Alternative perspectives are often not welcomed and as I have personally experienced can be met with at best silence and at worst abuse and ridicule. As an academic and researcher this seems a particularly sorry state of affairs.

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To follow my last post – A-Z of my year – I have been thinking about my reading this year.

Unlike the last one, this A-Z is not a complete list. For some letters of the alphabet there is more than one author. For others, there are none. Nearly all these references relate to my work, but a few are related to personal interests. Only one is a novel.

I have read a lot more than this over the year, many more journal papers and novels, not to mention many blogs. Several of the references listed here are not new to me, i.e. I have not read them for the first time this year. I have included references that stand out as having in some way influenced my thinking this year. The references have, in some cases, also been selected because for one reason or another the author has been significant in my learning this year. For many authors I could have selected more than one paper. Unfortunately, I have had to be selective, so the list doesn’t do justice to all who have influenced me, but it has been interesting to compile.

Here is my list.

A

Ashwin, Paul – Analysing Teaching-Learning Interactions in Higher Education: Accounting for Structure and Agency

B

Baggaley, Jon – MOOC Postscript

Barnett, Ron – A Will to Learn: Being a Student in an Age of Uncertainty

Bates, Tony – Teaching in a Digital Age

Bayne, Sian & Ross, Jen – The Pedagogy of the Massive Open Online Course: the UK View

Biesta, Gert – The Beautiful Risk of Education

C

Cilliers, Paul – Complexity, Deconstruction and Relativism

D

Downes, Stephen – OLDaily  and Half an Hour 

Dwyer, Sonya & Buckle, Jennifer – The Space Between: On Being an Insider-Outsider in Qualitative Research 

E

Edwards, Richard – Knowledge Infrastructures and the Inscrutability of Openness in Education

Esposito, Antonella – Research Ethics in Emerging Forms of Online Learning: Issues Arising from a Hypothetical Study on a MOOC

F

Farrow, Robert – A Framework for the Ethics of Open Education

G

Gourlay, Lesley – Open Education as a ‘Heterotopia of Desire’ 

H

Haythornthwaite, Caroline – Rethinking Learning Spaces: Networks, Structures, and Possibilities for Learning in the Twenty-First Century

K

Knox, Jeremy – Posthumanism and the Massive Open Online Course 

L

Littlejohn, Allison, et al. – Learning in MOOCs: Motivations and Self-Regulated Learning in MOOCs

M

Marshall, Stephen – Exploring the Ethical Implications of MOOCs

McGilchrist, Iain – The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

Melcher, Matthias – Connectivist Think Tool

N

Noddings, Nel – Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education

O

Osberg, Deborah & Biesta, Gert – The Emergent Curriculum: Navigating a Complex Course between Unguided Learning and Planned Enculturation 

P

Polit, Denise & Beck, Cheryl – Generalization in Quantitative and Qualitative Research: Myths and Strategies

R

Raffaghelli, Juliana – Methodological Approaches in MOOC Research: Retracing the Myth of Proteus 

Rolfe, Vivien – A Systematic Review of the Socio-Ethical Aspects of Massive Online Open Courses 

Ross, Jen – Speculative Method in Digital Education Research 

S

Sousanis, Nick – Unflattening

Sharpe, Rhona – 53 Interesting Ways to Support Online Learning

Snowden, David & Boone, Mary – A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making

T

Tschofen, Carmen – first novel completed

U

University of Edinburgh – 2016 Manifesto for Teaching Online

V

Veletsianos, George & Shepherdson, Peter – A Systematic Analysis and Synthesis of the Empirical MOOC Literature Published in 2013-2015 

W

Weller, Martin – The Art of Guerrilla Research  

Wenger, Etienne – Learning, Technology and Community. A Journey of the Self

Williams, Roy – The Resonance Project

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A-Z of my year

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At this time of year my cousin sends me an A-Z of her year on a long slip of bright yellow paper inserted in a Christmas card. It is lovely to receive and in just a minute or so I have a very good idea of what her year has entailed and what her numerous interests are. This is a very good way of quickly reflecting on the year, what has been done, what has been achieved and more importantly what has been valued. It surprises me that I have done more than I would have realised had I not gone through this process.

Here is an A-Z of my 2016

A Anglesey in April

B Bosch (Hieronymus) in The Prado, Madrid

C Cross Bay Walk, Collaborators, Choir

D David Hockney at the Royal Academy, Dulwich Art Gallery

E Exercise

F Friends, Family

G Glass Cutting,  Grids Gestures

H House hunting, Holy Island

I Imposter syndrome

J Jutta visits

K Kielder Water

L Lisa in Durham, Life Drawing

M Madrid, McGilchrist, Materiality of Nothing

N Networked Learning Conference, Northumberland

O Open vs closed

P Pendle Hill, Publishing

Q Questions, more than answers

R Raby Castle, Research

S Seventy – this year’s number, Sheep fold by Andy Goldsworthy

T Tate Modern, Triathlon 

U Universities 

V Volkswagen Transporter

W Westminster Abbey, Writing, Waiting

X  X-rays

Y Year – a good one

Z Zest – for life

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Mad Old Gitesse Syndrome

This post has been sparked by an article in The Times Higher Education (Dec 8th, 2016) – ‘What does retirement mean for academics’, in which Lincoln Allison, Eric Thomas and Richard Larschan reflect on ‘the next phase’ of scholarly life. Having recently entered my eight decade it is perhaps not surprising that this article caught my attention.

Being this age several of my friends and family are ‘retired’. Some have left work never to think of it again and are now enjoying a life of travel, golf, cooking, gardening or any number of hobbies and interests. Many are fitter than they have been for years. For others ‘academic work lingers’. They continue to supervise students, do some teaching, write books, articles etc. and present at conferences. I fall into this latter category. According to Lincoln Allison this is ‘mad old git syndrome’.

Sir Eric Thomas writes of retirement ‘But let’s agree that while you may do other things in the future, when there is no more full-time work, no more of what has defined you for more than four decades, that is retirement’. ‘Your innings is over’.

I don’t feel that my ‘innings is over’, simply that the nature of my innings is changing. From all this I am clearly a ‘mad old gitesse’.

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I will start by saying that I do not draw to think, even though I do occasionally draw. I write to think, which is why I am writing this post. Let me explain.

Next week I will attend a one day symposium at Lancaster University on ‘The Materiality of Nothing’

The purpose of the symposium is ‘to extend conversations initiated by the AHRC funded ‘Dark Matters’ project which considered the provocations around Thresholds of Imperceptibility’ I attended the Dark Matters workshop at the end of last year and wrote a couple of posts about it.

For the symposium next week, the invitation from Sarah Casey included the following text:

The Materiality of Nothing is a one day symposium at Lancaster University bringing together practice and perspectives on negotiating the absent, unseen and unknown across art, science and social science. Across the arts and sciences that we call ‘zero’, ‘absence’ or ‘nothing’ remains a potent and powerful entity shaping the way we make sense of the world. It is staggering to reflect that 95% of our universe is invisible to human sensing; the provocation of the unknown and unseen is arguably at the core of creative thinking in the arts and sciences.

This event brings together a range perspectives on materialising the absent, unseen and unknown to reflect on the following questions:

  • How can ‘nothing’ be embodied?
  • How does it feel to encounter the immaterial and how might we negotiate it?
  • How might mathematics – as a speculative ‘messenger’ to and from the unsensed – be understood as a medium for generating touch and relationship (or not)?
  • How might absence, uncertainty be used as provocations and tool for creative thinking?
  • What can this offer in terms of understanding relationship and non-relationship, affect and non affect?

For me this resonates with my interest in Absent Presence and also in what Peter Shukie has called the ‘voice of the voiceless’. In other words, how can we give voice to the voiceless and how we can become more aware of the influences of what is not in plain sight?

A final paragraph in Sarah’s invitation asks us to ….

…. bring along a drawing , notebook or object that could be described as something you think with. The principal editor of Drawing Research Theory Practice Journal  published by Intellect has been in touch and is keen to link up this aspect of the symposium with the journal.

Hence the title of this post.

This invitation has highlighted for me that I do not draw to think, although I am interested enough in drawing to know that many people use drawing to think. Here are a few people that come to mind.

Marc Chagall’s sketchbook

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Peter Checkland’s soft systems methodology rich pictures

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Nick Sousanis – sketching entropy

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From the Research Theory Practice Journal website it is clear that the journal is interested in physical drawing as opposed to electronic drawing.

This journal seeks to reestablish the materiality of drawing as a medium at a time when virtual, on-line, and electronic media dominates visuality and communication.

This is interesting when artists such as David Hockney are using iPads for drawing. Hockney is on my mind at the moment as I will be going to see his portraits exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in September.

So knowing that I write to think, rather than draw to think, and knowing that the activity for the symposium next week really wants physical drawings rather than ’electronic’ drawings, I am a bit stumped. But I can only do what I can do, so I am taking along the following two examples of drawing/mapping that I do electronically.

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This example above is how I think about and reflect on any given learning experience. I use the Footprints of Emergence framework which Roy Williams, Simone Gumtau and I developed for trying to understand learning in open learning environments. This has been published as a research paper.  The ‘footprints’ above reflect my experience in the Modern and Contemporary American Poetry MOOC and were included in a book chapter that we published in 2015.

Williams, R., Mackness, J., & Pauschenwein, J. (2015). Using Visualization to Understand Transformations in Learning and Design in MOOCs. In A. Mesquita & P. Peres (Eds.), Furthering Higher Education Possibilities through Massive Open Online Courses (pp. 193 – 209). IGI Global book series Advances in Higher Education and Professional Development. doi:10.4018/978-1-4666-8279-5

The second example is a mapping exercise

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For this I used a mapping tool developed by Matthias Melcher to trace the development of my thinking through my research papers. I blogged about it at the time.

I suspect that neither of these is considered examples of drawing to think, but they’re as close as I can get.

I am very much looking forward to the symposium next Thursday.

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Shake up your life

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Today I have been to the funeral of a friend who I knew for more than 30 years. This is the second funeral I have been to recently.

The first was to celebrate the life of a man cut off in his prime by bowel cancer (he was still in his 50s). He was almost literally ‘here today and gone tomorrow’ – the cancer was aggressive but he did not suffer for long. His funeral, held at the crematorium was one of music, colour, loving words and celebration. The crematorium was packed. I knew of this man, rather than knew him, but it was wonderful to see such a joyous celebration of life.

Today’s funeral of my friend was an altogether more traditional and quieter affair in a local Methodist Chapel. I went to my friend’s 80th birthday party earlier this year. As we say, she had ‘a good innings’, and she died after a very short illness and did not suffer as far as we know.

Any funeral leaves me thinking about mortality, and how much longer I can expect to live. It also leaves me wondering what people might say about me, if they say anything at all, after I die. Would they capture the essence of me? The eulogy at today’s funeral captured my friend’s life wonderfully well, making her instantly recognisable, but I’m not sure that it captured the essence of her. The essence of her was captured in her own words, which were printed on the back the funeral service sheet.

‘If you don’t shake up your life, all the good stuff settles on the bottom’.

My friend really shook up her own life at least once to my knowledge, and may be more times than I know. Her death has left me wondering about her words.

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Last weekend I walked across Morecambe Bay with two friends. This is a wonderful experience. Morecambe Bay is renowned for being one of the most dangerous areas of quicksand in the world, but the walk is guided by the Queen’s Guide to the Sands, Cedric Robinson, MBE  and there is no risk as long as you follow his lead. The walk, about 7 miles from Arnside  across to Kents Bank, took us three and a half hours and involved walking through water channels up to our thighs. We then got the train back to Arnside to pick up our cars.

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I thought the walk was magical – the light on the sands was stunning and the atmosphere was wonderful – there must have been about 100 people doing the walk. Another friend described it as having the feeling of a pilgrimage.

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I took a lot of photos, which the friend I went with did not appreciate. She told me I was being ‘a pain’ and asked me why I couldn’t just ‘live in the moment’. She’s a good friend so can say these things and get away with it 🙂

Since then I have been thinking about what ‘living in the moment’ means. At the time I believed and felt I was truly in the moment. Does taking photos to record and ‘capture’ an event necessarily equate to not living in the moment?

A search online reveals that many people have asked this question. I have often said in the past that I like to take photos as a memory aid. Some researchers believe that photography actually impairs your memory rather than aids it and that, for example, people in an art gallery who stand and look at paintings rather than photograph them, remember them better. I have lived long enough to know that this is not the case for me. I love visiting art galleries and if it is allowed I always take photos, but I also stand and look and I also spend a long time when I get back looking at my photos. I know I remember the paintings better by having taken the photograph and for me, remembering through a photograph is better than not remembering at all. Between my 40s and 50s, I scarcely took any photos at all and I now regret the conscious decision that I made at that time, believing that I didn’t need photos. I now have only vague memories of places visited and celebratory events over those years.

I do not only take photos for the purpose of remembering. I take them because I have been visually stimulated in some way, because I want to remember and capture that moment of stimulation, and because I want to share it with my partner who is a wheelchair user and sometimes cannot get to places I go to, or with my mother. My mother has dementia and my means of interacting with her is almost entirely through photographs, either current or past photos. (As an aside the other means is through singing old music hall songs. We do a lot of singing when I visit my Mum).

In the Ted Conversations archives I found this question by Charlie Friedman.

Should we live in the moment or should we stop and take a picture? – Is it worth losing part of an experience in order to remember it?

He goes on to write:

…….we can enjoy the sight of a beautiful mountain and be caught up awe in the moment, or we can enjoy a beautiful mountain and wonder how we are going to take a picture and show it to our friends. Is it worth losing part of the experience in order to better remember it in the days or years to come? Is it worth losing parts of future experiences by trying to remember those of the past? 

And then he quote Daniel Kahenman’s question:

What is more important: the experiencing self or the remembering self?

I don’t see that it has to be an either/or and why we can’t be living in the moment and take a picture of that moment.

Reflecting on my friend’s comment I think the problem was not that I wasn’t living in the moment, my moment, but that I wasn’t living in her moment. In other words, I was probably being rude by not giving her my full attention. Maybe if I want to take photographs on walks I should walk on my own. I don’t very often, for example, take photos when I am having meals with friends, so maybe I shouldn’t have my camera out on walks with friends.

But if we agree that living in the moment means …

You are characterized as “in the moment” if wherever you are, whatever you are doing, your mind and body are right there as well. No dwelling on the past, the future, or any obligations or troubles you may be encountering in your life. If you are in the moment, you are right here, right now, nowhere else.  (Source of quote: Urban Dictionary)

… then I was living in the moment on the Cross Bay walk – my moment.  Cross Bay Walk 20-09-2015

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