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.
Re-visiting a BBC Radio 4 – Start the Week podcast from late last year (28 October 2013) in the context of a story that is in a continual state of creation I was returned once more to the subject of the city, and how the individual interacts with the city.
Three main topics came up that are all inter-related and weave in and out of each other:
- Seeing the city – Seeing the city when you visit, and when you live in it. You see the city at different levels, you see different layers: different distances, perhaps, as visitors often see the up-close, the grime, the quotidien, whereas locals overlook these, at a different height, blending out the noise (different signal-to-noise ratio).
- Re-using old buildings, re-purposing: building life, or perception of people living in them? – Are old buildings worth saving? What constitutes the criteria for preserving something? Is it a feeling of an era, something representative, something that fits into a temporal environment? And so when moving out of this frame/window, what happens to the building? Does it become a museum, attracting visitors, or can the building be used again to attract people who will live in it (again, the immersion question)? And how is the feeling of the building perceived, depending on which it will be?
- Patrimonie, not heritage nor nostalgia – A call to define something that is not heritage (i.e., needs to be preserved as is) or nostalgia (i.e., go back to how they were), but rather that the old becomes incorporated into a library of “things” which the people living through an era, and those coming directly afterwards (since the effect wears off over time), share and can at any time dig into to root themselves, ground themselves, and find a framework.
Overall, the sense is one of what happens when one immerses oneself consciously in a city, beginning to see things that one might not have seen before. Light, layers, a built-up history of settings, buildings, an urban environment in which one is both forever a (transient) visitor as well as a permanent resident, leaving behind a scent, a trail, a kernel of existence.
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.
Ironically, this is the third reference to anonymity in a row, although in an entirely different context: “rescuing these soldiers from anonymity.”
I refer to a BBC Radio 4 – Crossing Continents podcast on the volunteers making extraordinary efforts to find the bodies of Russian soldiers fallen during the second World War.
The story touched me both for the emotional aspect as well as the psychogeographical element: there is a strong psychological and historical element regarding where these men fell, how they were “incorporated” into the landscape (i.e., overgrown, intertwined with trees, planted over, lost [actively] in the forest), and how their simple historical reality is reflected in their physical presence in the landscape (literally).
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.
Inspired by a Start the Week podcast from December 2013, I made myself a note before Christmas to spend some time thinking about the lively discussion, which was loosely centered on the idea of an “old-fashioned” community based on geography, and whether this can really be re-created in the current modern world, with its variety of different connections and reasons for connections. As a counter-point, the idea was raised to what extent a community arises from the existence of a common purpose as opposed to simply a physical geography. This is probably especially interesting if the common purpose exists in the face of adversity, and raises a multitude of additional tangential questions:
- How does one define a community?
- Who defines a community? Those within it or those from without?
- Do communities form in physical locales, or do individuals/groups move to a specific locale with the creation of a community in mind?
My particular interest, as might be expected, relates to the psychogeography aspect of this discussion. Psychogeography is also tied to community, but in two different ways. On the one hand, it is tied to community as most of the memories linked to its geography happen in the community, in a shared area that is familiar. On the other hand, however, one of the key points of psychogeography as it has been studied, described, and formulated was to move into the unfamiliar, explore the areas outside the community, or perhaps to better describe it: outside the known community. This generates in my mind an image not just of overlapping communities, but stacks of communities, where sub-groups exist within larger entities, and individuals are defined (and define themselves) as belonging to different circles based on their personality, belief, or other subjective or objective criteria.
An idea for a story that came to mind (related to the additional discourse on the disappearance of the traditional high street) was of a person walking down such a high street, with the narrative focussed on the sensory experience: sights, smells, the overall experience of what made the high street a special place and often a/the central location of a community.
Just in time to save me the effort, a recent Thinking Allowed podcast about the multicultural smells of an East End market in London brought this back again. This kind of sensory description can be used to link different cultures with different locations, different times, and the many layers and waves of immigration and assimilation into big urban centers such as London. And at the core are people such as “Ali the assimilationist hero” who by understanding his customers (from many different backgrounds) is able to stitch together a pathwork of sensory and cultural triggers that not only satisfy each customer individually but make up the rich tapestry of which each individual is a part.
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.”