My Scholarly Reflections

This is where I tell what I think, so that I see what I say

Archive for March 2012

globs,bgols,olgbs……sorry, I mean blogs!

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Blogs have lately started entering myth and ceremony in higher education. Blogs (the word comes from web log), are often journals written on topics of personal interest. The most important feature of a blog is its effective use of the ‘intertextuality’  [sorry I meant ‘hypertextuality’] and connectivity of the internet: Blogs facilitate extremely scalable interactivity by allowing comments, linking with other blogs/online social media etc. But most of the time ‘blogs’ in an undergraduate class mean assessable reflective essays only meant for the lecturer. This is not what blogs are meant to be.  Students can simply email their reflections to the lecturer, no? So this thing with blogs (or other exotic creatures sneaking into the higher ed teaching discourse) has recently made me think twice about the need to be more careful in using scalable online spaces for learning. Then there is this annoying guy,  David Rushkoff who jolts people out of their stupor! I am reading his book: program or be programmed   a highly thought provoking book,  I must say, which I put up there with the likes of Understanding Media: The extensions of Man (by Marshal McLuhan, the ‘medium is the message’ guy).  Rushkoff essentially says that we need to understand the intrinsic biases of the media that we use, say for learning and teaching. Online interactional spaces are scalable for mass interaction. But university students pay money for a more intimate face to face interaction with us lecturers and students. Why use a medium which is biased against face to face interaction. [Swinburne folks, Rushkof book is available in our library, but I am currently reading it!].

Written by Amer Khan

March 30, 2012 at 10:35 am

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I ask…but they don’t tell!

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I ask: “any questions?!” …silence… I again ask “was I clear enough?!”…silence…[I do not want to say: “Did you understand?” – this assumes problems with them… their understanding; No! I need to create experiences which facilitate their understanding.So the problem is with me.] During that uncomfortable pause, I desperately search for an appropriately framed question. In desperation, I dig deeper into the content and retrieve a more specific question: “Was I clear enough on X?” …silence… But I pick myself up and shoot another one… “Did you notice that Y meant X, not Z?”. Now this becomes embarrassing as well as uncomfortable – for both parties. They notice my (increasingly visible) misery. Hey! there is movement… like a gentle breeze moves through a field, heads move…there are murmurs… like lovers whisper sweet little things to each other…but then things grind to a halt!! Blank faces staring at me, some with amused smiles. OK! I give up! I just stand and watch. Let the silence take its course.

But in a few minutes, murmur turns to chatter. I grab a chair, and sit with a group. The group stops talking, as if I am a wicked wizard who robbed them of their tongues. But I again ask: “how are things, guys?” Silence. After around 10 seconds, one of them musters up courage and asks a question. Hurray!

p.s. My primary school going son told me that he was scolded by the class teacher because he interrupted class by asking too many questions and commenting without permission from the class teacher!

Written by Amer Khan

March 24, 2012 at 5:33 pm

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Waterfalls, rivers…and learning spaces

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Space embodies relationships between objects. Objects can have different relative heights. Lets take waterfalls. The contrasting heights embodied in waterfalls have a dramatic effect both auditory and visual. Water literally falls in a unidirectional and relentless manner, and often with a mellifluous or jarring rhythm. It has a peculiar inevitability, a reminder of the immutable laws of nature: gravity. Waterfalls can be memorable tourist attractions and veritable wonders to behold. Instructional spaces (e.g. a class) have parallels to waterfalls! The facilitator stands, and the students sit. Relative height affects flow. The facilitator talks and the students listen. The auditory flow is often expected by students to be definitive and unstoppable; laws of verbal gravity do not facilitate movement from down to up! Like the water pool at the base of a waterfall that laps up the inevitable and unavoidable liquid offering, students literally face the verbal cascade!

Confluence of rivers are less dramatic, as compared to waterfalls, but often more significant. Rivers quietly meet to exchange the submerged, often hidden, riches they bring from afar. They meet but do not completely merge at the point of confluence. They mix, but maintain their identity. A confluence becomes a conflux when a larger river meets a tributary. Or two streams can meet to create a new river. I would like my class to be a place of confluence rather than a cascade of a waterfall…..

Written by Amer Khan

March 16, 2012 at 6:12 pm

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Collective indwelling in Petri Dishes!

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Two things about the Internet tickle my imagination as a learning professional: the almost limitless information sources accessible on a click, and the ability to connect, with like minded people, through social media.

Authors of the book A new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change   also invoke this affordance of connectivity as part of a new culture of learning. But for them, the word ‘culture’ invokes the imagery of a culture grown in a Petri Dish by a scientist (never saw this word used like this before!). The essential argument of the authors is that the current internet based social interactions, akin to the dynamics of organic growth in a Petri Dish, are a complex, uncontrollable social reality. We are engaged in this social reality through what the authors call ‘collective indwelling’. This term implies two things: We create online communities around a particular highly motivating common interest; and we embed ourselves in online environments created by such communites such that we have a symbiotic relationship with our environment. We collectively ‘play’ with our environment, alter it, and in this process, create learning opportunities. In this situation, the old linear ways of passive information processing akin to an input-output production line become obsolete, given the constant change in this internet mediated complex world. Learning happens in this context through three ways: knowing, making and playing.

This grand (re)vision makes sense. I see it all around me! But not in formal learning environments. Converting an undergraduate classroom into a fluid learning environment….well… lets consider the following issues:

The student side:

1) Students are (mostly) driven by extrinsic motivations: exams and a final piece of paper! I do not find reason to believe that students are studying, say, ‘Governance and Strategic Leadership” for a burning desire to become the Steve Jobs of this world! Free flowing, playful enquiry, through discovery learning mode does not fit the picture here.

2) Student expectations appear to be culturally and materially fixed: “I am here to be lectured, and spoon-fed knowledge, because the person standing in front of me is a powerful/knowledgeable figure with half a dozen degrees, he/she is older hence wiser, and, above all, I have paid money for that!”   13 weeks of contact is too short a time to change these expectations.

The ‘iron cage’  of the university:

1) Collective play and fluidity in complex adaptive systems akin to a petri dish is constrained by the intrinsically linear dynamics of highly institutionalized instruction considered ‘best practice’ in higher education (phew! sorry!). If this were not the case, lectures would have become extinct long time back. Donald Bligh asked the question What’s the use of lectures, when I was in my mother’s lap long time back; This question is still being debated, when my children are too big to fit my lap! see this.

2) More importantly, the incentive structures facing the instructor do not facilitate playful learning. Facilitators do not often have the skills and the attitude to take risk and explore new skills and new instructional design. Experimentation may backfire, exposing the facilitator to adverse student backlash(a.k.a feedback!). Attention of the facilitator is spread out thin over a number of activities (research, anyone!).

I will try to unpack issues and opportunities such as the above in the coming weeks and months.

Post script: Universities are indeed waking up to the aforementioned online possibilities, perhaps capturing some of the ‘low hanging fruit’ in terms of pedagogy and content, for example, MIT’s MITx and Harvard’s  OpenCourseWare,   Now who could face such formidable competitors!

p.s. My Swinburne Sarawak friends, the above mentioned book A new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change  is available in our library.

Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

Happy learning and teaching!

Written by Amer Khan

March 9, 2012 at 1:20 pm

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Are emotions prophetic?!

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Emotions! ( I think I need to bring in this important aspect in my research both in education and organizations)

Written by Amer Khan

March 5, 2012 at 2:39 pm

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Need to find some ‘big stuff’ to work on!

I’m a sucker for nutty futurist speculations.  So bear with me on this one.

A few nights ago I was watching Neal Stephenson’s talk on “getting big stuff done,” where he bemoans the lack of aggressive technological progress in the past forty or so years.  There’s obviously some debate about this, though he makes some good points.  He raises the question of why, for example, we haven’t yet built a 20km tall building despite the fact that it appears to be technologically very feasible with extant materials.  Nutty.  But an interesting question.  From a sci-fi writer.

Stephenson ends his talk on an organizational note and asks:

What is going on in the financial and management worlds that has caused us to narrow our scope and reduce our ambitions so drastically?

I like that question.  Even if you think that ambitions have not been lowered, I think all of…

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Written by Amer Khan

March 5, 2012 at 1:18 pm

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If yawns could kill….

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Class is a stage. My students are actors (I am a director, sometime with a cameo role!). So went to my class and asked for two volunteers who could enact the roles of a buyer and a seller in a financial transaction. Buyers and sellers wore paper caps indicating their respective roles (thanks DP for this suggestion sometime back!). In those caps, the boys were kings and the girls queens! Not sure if it worked in terms of learning objectives. But evoked quite a few laughs, and attracted amused attention from the students. During and after each ‘drama scene’, paused and did a ‘concept check’. Seemed many of them were ‘getting it’. It felt good inside. Then………… half way  during the class, my eyes fell, with great horror, on a yawn rising from the right corner of the room! My elated mood came crashing down and hit the concrete floor!!!! WHY O’ WHY! I spent hours preparing this for you. Rehearsed it in my mind many time over, during my evening jog, in the toilet, during shower…..I worked my **s off to bring the class to life, and all you give me is an easy yawn!!!!! Then told myself “hey Mr Shakespeare , teaching is entertainment, more than anything else. sometimes, your show is a hit, sometimes you get tomatoes in your face”. (well, got a lot of them in my student evaluation reports…but more on this some other time!)….So picked myself up, and carried on. Frankly, there were a few weak areas that needed further improvement!! But I did not spare the yawning villain student (sorry, used the term in a figurative, dramatic and metaphorical sense… now you know I am often dramatic in my utterances)! Called him to the front of the class, and made him do the role play! Anyway, at the end I felt that the show went well. How? Got lots of ‘see you sir’ at the end!! (from experience I can tell that when a vast majority of the students leave class at the end, without acknowledging you, this means things are not good….but I might be wrong here….reading too much there!)

Here is an informative article on role plays for active learning:
On another note, Cathy my roommate is doing some very interesting stuff in her Organizational Behaviour class. She made students study team behaviour by giving them a task: build a structure using limited number of straws and paper clips.  These are the things I would like to do to make students do some ‘concrete, physical stuff’ in class, then just read, write, listen and talk. Cathy, keep it coming!

Happy learning and teaching!
Cathy’s students made ‘friendship towers’ this week to increase team rapport! Here are some of those towers.

Written by Amer Khan

March 2, 2012 at 2:16 pm

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