Once again a BBC Radio 4 podcast has sparked a long line of thinking and critical reflection, this time on the current phenomenon of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and their impact on education and all sorts of related topics (e.g., society, access to education, the value of education, etc.).
I have to admit that I don’t yet have a clear picture of how I would/should react to and interact with MOOCs, but the discussion and documentary certainly elicited a long series of questions, with different answers leading to further questions and a gradual fleshing-out of the overall picture that may at some point allow me to reach an internal equilibrium consensus:
What is the importance for me?
- Can I supplement my current knowledge with additional courses (i.e., fields of interest outside my career specialisation, or job-related fields complementing what I do all day)?
- Would it be time well-spent, or am I better off spending more time socialising as I am already using up my “available capacity” for facts and learning?
- Where are my strengths and weaknesses, and how could an online course complement, compensate, or strengthen the one or other? Which leads to the old debate: work on your weaknesses to balance out the overall palette, or focus on your strengths, which requires far less effort and might achieve more in the short term?
What is the importance for my children?
- What will be the impact on their education? Will education be a mixture of “school” learning and online help-yourself?
- What will be the impact on travel for them? If you can do more by staying at home, is this what they will choose? What are the drivers of going abroad to learn something, or staying at home? Again, how do you balance the advantages and disadvantages (i.e., stay at home and spend the time not traveled wisely, compared to the thrill of traveling with intense periods of learning while standing still/resting in a particular place)?
- How will it affect their ability to get a job? Will MOOC certificates and degrees be recognised (on paper), and how will companies test whether a candidate is a good fit (i.e., how will they assess knowledge, creativity, and ability to think)?
- How would online learning affect their social skills, given that “social skills” in an online environment work very differently compared with in the offline world (someone from my generation probably grew up learning mainly offline social skills, while the current generation probably spends as much time working with other people online as off). How will future societies work in groups, and how will this affect group dynamics?
- In particular the last point is one that concerns me: making friends and interacting with teachers strikes me as oh-so-valuable, and consequently also important for society, given that each teacher has a very particular way of teaching and influencing pupils.
What is the importance for society?
- Will MOOCs reach out, enabling those who cannot attend the great bricks-and-mortar institutions to access their “library,” or do they somehow simply entrench those elements of the rich world, who already have spare time, greater access to a broad range of options, and a quick internet connection?
Overall, the more I read the more I am convinced that for people like me and my family the biggest store of value is creativity and the ability to generate (and concretise) ideas, as well as the development of social skills and the interaction with other people. MOOCs might support this in a multitude of ways, but as with so many things, the key lies in the balance, and I will be following this story as closely as I am able to see how things develop.
For the past few months, I have been diligently filtering through a variety of advice pages on routines, establishing priorities, and generally trying to get myself into some productive and (perceived) useful habits.
Now, after weeks and months spent getting some of these routines in place, forcing myself to be regular, marking crosses on the calendar, I find that I have a missed a day. I wasn’t being reluctant, I simply forgot: before I realised it, it was after midnight, and a day had passed without me doing what I’ve been trying to discipline myself to do all this time.
And the surprise is that it’s almost a relief. Why is that? Is it because I’m trying to establish a routine that isn’t worth much? Is it because I actually don’t want to be doing what I’m convincing myself to do, and perhaps have other things that are worth more?
Or is it perhaps simply that a change on occasion is a good thing, that it highlights the importance (or otherwise) of the task in question and makes it easier to prioritise amongst all the things that are a drain on already limited resources? Of course it would be best to have a routine that is unbreakable, something so intuitive and instinctive that I don’t even need to come up with a system to make myself adhere to.
In some ways, the task in question is already some of these things: after all, I realised that I had broken the chain, and the accompanying sense of something akin to guilt means that I do miss it emotionally when for some reason I don’t get around to it. In short, it puts the routine nicely into perspective, the relief coming from a realisation that routines are simply that, systems that are good to have but not forced upon one, rather a self-imposed task chosen out of want, not need.
It has been some time now since I listened to the following BBC Radio 4 – Analysis podcast including an interview with Eldar Shafir on his new book entitled Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much.
The podcast itself was styled as an interview in front of a live audience and as such a little different to the usual format, but what I have found in the weeks since listening to the dialogue is that the topic keeps cropping up over and over again in a variety of different contexts during the course of otherwise normal days. It’s not so much what I think Prof. Shafir is getting at, that is, that people who have to cope with scarce resources and means are bad at making good financial decisions not because they’re not smart or able to think through things, but because scarcity leads to a kind of tunnel vision that makes one lose sense of the bigger picture. I’m lucky enough not to have to worry too much about money, but then there are other things in my life that are becoming scarcer and that on occasion can lead to what I assume is a similar over-focus and lack of perspective.
Perhaps it has something to do with my current phase in life, my growing family, and the constraints and interests of various time-consuming and intensive activities that populate my day. Perhaps it is also a question of having reached certain limits (of time, for example), while having transcended others (basic financial ones). In short, however, the main thrust of the argument (scarcity matters for all aspects of life, especially when it comes to making decisions) seems to be a profound one that I am returning to time and time again. Scarcity of money, of time, of personal energy: all these are particularly relevant, especially when it comes to work-life balance: I keep coming back to the thought that if you invest an hour at midnight into work, it’ll be an hour you’re missing somewhere else.
A sobering thought (one of many), but well worth thinking about if it lastly means achieving a more productive prioritisation of the things that are important.
Once again the crossing of several topics from different podcasts: always a good sign that a subject is somehow indicative of a general mood or trend. In this case, two separate BBC Radio 4 – Analysis podcasts (broadcast on 3 Feb and 17 Feb) covering aspects of the current wave of social movements and social voice falling under the broad labels “anonymous” or “anarcho-populism.”
In addition to the psychological facets of the desire or need for anonymity, and apart from the major trends of rebellion against establishment and blending of social media with a rather introspective desire to forcefully express oneself and ones wishes, the key topics covered touch on justice and certainty, as well as vulnerability and openness. In terms of justice, as one of the interviewees points out, the rule of law has always been based on the fact that a case is tried in the open, that there is no anonymity: exactly the opposite of what is done when documents are leaked or truths/conspiracies are aired in the media by unknown persons. One factor here is certainty, in the sense that a heightened degree of certainty often hardens people in their views and leads them to take matters into their own hands (something undoubtedly made easier by our modern connectedness).
In both cases, the arguments seem to revolve around the relative embededness within society of the two concepts. Overall, it appears to be a sign of degree. After all, a small number of anarchists or anonymous do-gooders is no bad thing: but what happens when more and more people fall into this category? Are these not movements which, paradoxically, are unsustainable once a larger fraction of the population claim to be adherents?
I have to admit that I am taken by the idea of sharing, especially in the context of win-win situations that can benefit multiple parties.
I was thus a little perplexed during the course of a thought-provoking BBC Radio 4 Bottom Line podcast on sharing and the “sharing economy” (although the examples described are actually probably closer to “renting” than “sharing”).
It was the idea that people are changing and no longer want to own or possess things, instead moving towards a society where renting and sharing are commonplace, that left me feeling slightly off-balance. I can see that there is a trend in this direction: after all, a system whereby I could try something out for a price (e.g., a new gadget) before deciding to buy it myself is something I would certainly consider. I might even think about sharing or exchanging a house for a short period of time, if the view is nice, especially as an alternative to a possibly soulless hotel somewhere. I can also fully appreciate sharing as a kind of antidote to the consumer society. If I buy 20 oranges for my family because they come in a pack of 20, but usually only get through 18 in a week, why would I not share (or perhaps barter?) the remaining two oranges to someone whose appetite doesn’t demand more, especially in these austere times?
What I can’t quite square in my mind is that someone still needs to own the thing that is being shared. Ownership and possession are, in my mind, instinctive concepts: I agree with the moderator here, but perhaps that just reveals something about my age. It seems to me that sharing comes into its own when there is some doubt in the mind about whether one wants to possess something, whether the investment (both instant and possibly future, when considering buying a house, for example) are just too large to warrant making a decision about commitment. The housing metaphor is an apt one, I think: where are the boundaries exactly between sharing, bartering, and renting? Perhaps it relates to value, perhaps to security: but commitment (or the lack of wanting to commit) is implicit in all of them, whether physical or emotional, and in this sense sharing is indeed perhaps a sign of our times.
From the following Start the Week podcast with its key theme being things related to a Victorian revival, there were a number of pointed notes related to stories, communication, and generally the fundamental differences between different times and ages of development.
Firstly, the topic of books whose narrative and colour is based on other literature from the era, as opposed to history. A certain style, mood, and perception begets itself, reinforces an image that is quickly popularised, and leaves aside some of the grimy and non-linear details inherent in the process of history itself. The story of history rarely proceeds in a straight, logical line, apart from when it is recounted in hindsight.
Secondly, the idea of authors wishing to “complete” the stories of characters from the Victorian era is one that struck me. It seems to have at its core the gaps and differences in how communication, diaries, self-description and -documentation are changing how our lives and our world are interpreted (and made interpretable). The reference to Erving Goffman cross-references nicely with a Thinking Allowed podcast
of some time ago: all about how people are always putting on a show, how they present themselves, and which media they choose in which, and with which, to do so.
Having lived in and around London for many years, and now finding myself in a place with an odd mix of urban and provincial character, a number of questions have arisen as I read more on pyschogeography, geography, behaviour, and city/country social aspects in general:
- Can one comment on cities and the city environment if one doesn’t live in a city?
- How is the city perceived by someone living outside the city? (suburbs, short train ride, long train ride away? increasing distance from the center of gravity?)
- How is the country perceived by someone living in the city?
- What is easier in the country, and why?
- What is more difficult in the country, and why?
A quote in a recent Financial Times article put a small part of this in a nice context:
“…cities are at the apex of human endeavour. High-density cities are creative, thrilling and less environmentally destructive than sprawling car-based suburbs typical of America. Cities are passports from poverty. They attract poor people, rather than creating them. They are where humans are at their most artistically and technologically creative.”
Perhaps here the meaning could be interpreted broadly, “poor” not in the financial sense but more along the lines of how someone would say of someone else: “that poor man.”
In this Analysis podcast, several themes come up relating to media and big data, data, privacy, secrets, and who controls and distributes each of these (government, media, individuals).
The interesting comment is that in the 20th Century framework, ideas, philosophies, and causes were promoted by groups which nucleated around an idea (political parties, unions, etc.) and derived their main strength from “strength in numbers” and could thus influence policy or decision-making generally. Today, things appear to have become more granular: it is possible for an individual to make waves without the backing of a party, and ideology has thus reached a much higher level of granularity than before, highly dependent on the individual.
The government has reason to fear the individual, just as the individual has reason to fear the state.
Bringing together several strands of thought (society, geography, technology, behaviour) the following BBC Radio 4 podcast on The Bottom Line provoked some thinking on how changes in monitoring and networking (in many different contexts, mainly digital) are affecting how we behave.
The most fascinating part, it would seem, is the effect on behaviour. This has an impact on both the individual and society: each individual modified their behaviour (slightly (due to monitoring of some vital sign, for example), and by changes in aggregate behaviour one can observe changes in societal behaviour and modes. There are counter-balancing trends as we yield to a networked digital world, with demarcations and fences, as well as benefits of large datasets.