Posted tagged ‘blogs’

Communicating within the academy

October 16, 2010

Someone has just sent me a copy of a notice that has been pinned to a lecturer’s office door in an Irish university. The notice asks students not to communicate with the lecturer concerned by email ‘which I don’t use as a matter of principle’. As it happens, Times Higher Education has also just reported on a US survey (the Faculty Survey of Student Engagement) which found that 84 per cent of American academics had never ever read a blog, and more generally seemed to show a technophobe academy.

I can fully understand that for some, and in particular for some of a slightly older generation, the move into new technology is not easy. But not using email ‘as a matter of principle’? What ‘principle’ might that be?

In fact, as has been noted in this blog before, email is not a new technology and for students it has become somewhat passé; many of them no longer read it with any regularity, and they have moved on to other forms of technology-enabled communication. We may say, with whatever justification we feel we have, that students are here to learn in accordance with whatever framework we provide, and if we need them to use email, or pieces of A4 paper, or indeed tablets of stone, then that’s what they need to use. But that misses at least some of the point of learning, and as academics we must be open to new forms of communication and discussion.

When I hear about some professor who publicly refuses to use technology for such purposes, then no matter how eminent they are otherwise (as in the case of Terry Eagleton, mentioned in the Times Higher article), I wince. I no longer think it quaint. I have lots of sympathy for those who find it difficult to keep up with all the changes in technology and who need support, but that is another matter. Those who think that rejecting technology for communication purposes is a ‘matter of principle’ should maybe reflect a little on the ideal of a community of learning.

And as for those thousands who have never read a blog, what can I say…?

Is the internet destroying or enriching education?

March 26, 2010

I was wandering around the room at a reception the other day; you know, one of those receptions where, once you get there, you really can’t remember why you accepted the invitation. Still, networking is everything, and so I sidled up to the first little cluster of people standing around with wine glasses. One of them turned out to be an educator, and he recognised me and rounded on me. ‘One of my students brought me this essay’, he said, ‘and he used your blog as a source for his argument.’ Good man, I thought; but I didn’t say it, because the face of my interlocutor betrayed clearly that he was anything but pleased. He continued: ‘I had to explain to him, v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, that your blog is not a primary source.’ OK, I thought, I’ll have to bite now. ‘Primary source for what?’ I asked. ‘He was doing an assignment on higher education values.’ He paused, and then exclaimed, ‘Oh my God, the way the internet is misused. And it wouldn’t be if it wasn’t there.’

OK, I had to find another cluster of wine drinkers to bother, because if that conversation had continued I might have had to hit the man. Of course to be fair, he was right when he said that the internet could not be misused if it wasn’t there. But everything else was nonsense; well actually, that was nonsense, too, but at least it was logically correct, if stupid.

Of course we all know about the capacity of the internet to supply ready material for those tempted by plagiarism, and we know that not everything that makes it online is necessarily correct. But those who make that latter point often imply that in the past, once it was put on paper by a hot metal process every statement was infallible; in truth an awful lot of nonsense also got printed. And in any case, there were all sorts of hyperventilating people who in the 16th century were arguing that unless a monk had sat in a cellar etching something on to pigskin a written text had no scholarly value.

But now there is a whole industry of people shouting about the corruption of knowledge wrought by the internet. One of these is the writer Nicholas Carr, who became famous for criticising student habits with the phrase ‘Facebook is the dorm; Wikipedia is the library; and Craigslist is the mall.’ By the way, he issued that dictum on his blog, where else? Elsewhere he has argued that the internet is killing off ‘concentration and contemplation.’

I confess that it really bugs me when people argue that easier access to information is a great tragedy. Underlying this assertion is the view that knowledge cannot be shared, it needs to be mediated, and this needs to be done by a special priesthood of experts who will be there to tell you what is right and what is wrong. But actually, knowledge reaches its true value when it is provided democratically, openly and freely. Of course knowledge needs to be accompanied by understanding, and this needs to be secured by learning (and teaching), but we need to have much more confidence that in the end knowledge enlightens, educates and transforms. Why else are we in education?

The blogging world

December 23, 2008

At this moment, you are reading a blog. Only a few years ago, you had no idea what a blog was, and if you had known you wouldn’t have found any or many. Now there are millions of them, and it is estimated that perhaps 300 new blog posts are published every second. But it is not just volume: blogs are credited with all sorts of things, including determining the course of election campaigns, ending the careers of major business leaders, changing tastes and fashions, and so forth. They have changed the publishing industry, and in particular the news industry: even traditional newspapers now also run blog sites for their journalists, which allow readers to make comments. Some blog sites are as influential as the traditional media – see for example the always interesting Huffington Post. In fact, an article written three years ago on CNET suggested that blogs were the future of publishing, with the qualification that the author did not think they would ever present a commercial proposition.

More recently some doubts have begun to set in. Some commentators and analysts have begun to wonder whether the sheer volume of blogs and the disorganised nature of the whole phenomenon is actually preventing rather than encouraging intelligent debate. Furthermore, as blogging becomes more and more pervasive, the worry is that it may be compromising the viability of traditional news media organisations – a recent commentator associates the growth of blogging with the possible collapse of the Chicago Tribune newspaper.

And what of the bloggers? Are they all ego-maniacs, driven by the belief that everyone out there is just dying to know what they think? Are some of them just incredible time wasters, slaving away at their blogs while they should be out having a life? Are some of them simply mad?

Of course there is an unpredictable and eclectic set of blogs out there. Quite a few are technical, some in such an obscure way that I doubt they do much for anyone. Some are true believers in something or other, which often remains opaque to the uninitiated. Some use blogs as a kind of family diary that would have very limited appeal outside of the family. Some are plainly crazed (and I confess I read one or two of such with amusement). But there are also blogs out there that are intelligent, enlightening, thought-provoking, humorous, humane.

If we are afraid of this avalanche of unorganised information and opinion, we should relax. We have been there before. The arrival of the printing press several hundred years ago had much the same effect, and the same kind of people tut-tutting today about the unreliable nature of the internet in terms of orthodoxy and accuracy were at it back then also, bemoaning the new technology that allowed people to assemble and disseminate views and information without first getting anyone to authorise it. It would be difficult to argue that mass printing did a disservice to humanity, and I imagine that the same will be said of blogging.

And I suspect we’ll continue to be able to distinguish between good information and valuable opinions on the one hand, and mindless rubbish on the other. Just like we are able to tell the difference between a quality newspaper and a sensationalist gossip rag. Humanity will survive, and I suspect blogging will continue to prosper and evolve.

But then again, I’d have to say that.