[Humanist] 26.247 brave new world & its institutions

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Aug 25 10:26:08 CEST 2012

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 247.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Fri, 24 Aug 2012 11:31:29 +0100
        From: "Prescott, Andrew" <andrew.prescott at kcl.ac.uk>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 26.243 brave new world?
        In-Reply-To: <20120824084320.AA78D2883D4 at woodward.joyent.us>

Dear Willard,

It is interesting how this issue which, as you observe has been around in
different forms for many years, is suddenly causing such anxiety in the
United States - concerns about readiness for on-line activities underlay a
lot of the recent controversy about the unsuccessful attempt to dismiss
the President at the University of Virginia. I assume that the reason this
is causing such concern is what one might call the I-tunes effect - the
way in which the success of music downloading has heightened awareness of
senior managers in all types of activities of the potential for new
digitally-based business models to cause radical transformation quite
rapidly. It is by no means certain that disruptions (that favourite
neo-liberal idea) evident in one area of activity will necessarily be
replicated in another - indeed, part of the nature of disruptive
tendencies must be their unpredictability, which must include the
possibility that they do not occur. However, in terms of this American
discussion (and it is very much as framed here about the relative
inflexibility of the structures developed by North American Higher
Education over the past fifty years), the following considerations from
the UK might be relevant:

- The first and most important point is I think that there has been a
lamentable rift between much digital humanities work and new developments
in pedagogy over the past ten-fifteen years. In the early 1990s, we
believed that not only would new digital and networked technologies would
transform research and our access to research materials, we also believed
that equally important was the transformation that would occur in
pedagogy. However, much of our effort since then has gone into creating
and financing digital humanities centres which were supported by soft
funding and therefore necessarily concentrated on a series of short-term
research projects. Teaching activity has tended to be rather an
after-thought for most digital humanities centres. However, in the
meantime, e-learning and technology-enhanced learning have made enormous
strides and for many universities in Britain have been a major focus of
activity and funding. The rift is illustrated by the separate professional
organisations that have been established. I am not aware that bodies like
ADHO or ACH have any significant contact with the parallel bodies for
learning technologists, such as the Association for Learning Technology
(http://www.alt.ac.uk/). The ALT conference is at the University of
Manchester from 11-13 September 2013, and looks very interesting. It might
be a good way of starting to explore these links in a better way. Another
organisation which has of course championed the importance of pedagogy in
the digital humanities is HASTAC, and I think this is one reason why
HASTAC is the most exciting and interesting organisational activity in the
digital humanities work at present. There is a great deal of the HASTAC
website which bears closely on the themes you have raised.

- While you shudder at the thought of American experiments in lectures by
television, we should also remember that we have one enormously successful
institution in the UK which sprang from precisely such activities, namely
the Open University. To my mind, the Open University is, after the NHS,
the most important piece of social innovation in Britain in modern times,
and deserved a place in the opening ceremony of the Olympics. The Open
University has of course long ago moved on from the late night television
lectures on BBC2 which we remember from the 1970s, and Open University is
pioneering new types of online approaches, including a major development
in enhancement of Moodle. A hint of some of the Open University's
initiatives in this field can be gleaned from the Open Learn section of
their website: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/. OU have also been
pioneering work on mobile access, particularly mobile libraries. The OU of
course famously links its distance provision to residential courses, but I
suspect its structures are one that provide a good guide to future
developments. I think it is sad that the antiquated insistence of UK
higher education on educational autonomy prevents a more co-ordinated and
strategic development around the Open University. Given that is quite
probably that new online methods will cause changes, it would make great
sense if in the UK we scrapped absurd anachronisms like Oxford and
Cambridge Universities, and created a more integrated and strategic
service based around the OU.

- Finally, it is worth noting that concerns about the mechanisation of
learning are not new. The use of numerical grades for assessment began in
Cambridge in the 1790s in direct response to an increase in the number of
students, and may be considered at a number of levels a response to the
increasingly industrialisation of society. When marked examinations for
school children were introduced in the 1850s, there were many concerns
that it privileged repetitive learning, short term memory and the
retention of conventional knowledge. As a schoolchild myself in the 1960s,
I was always struck and enthused by the willingness at that time of many
educational bodies to try and break down the obsession with exams and
measurement and try new methods of learning. And of course our excitement
about digital technologies is that they open up precisely such
possibilities. Maybe our aim should be to try and bring that kind of
pedagogic liberalism to the new learning environments which are emerging?

Professor Andrew Prescott FRHistS
Head of Department
Department of Digital Humanities
King's College London
26-29 Drury Lane
London WC2B 5RL
+44 (0)20 7848 2651

On 24/08/2012 09:43, "Humanist Discussion Group"
<willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:

>                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 243.
>            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>        Date: Fri, 24 Aug 2012 09:37:21 +0100
>        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
>        Subject: Brave New World, version ?
>Our colleague Jascha Kessler has sent me a letter he wrote to the Editor
>of the Financial Times, for Saturday, 18 August 2012, "Brave new world
>without teachers, or learning, or thinkers". It concerns dire
>predictions of what will happen to higher education as a result of
>prominent efforts to teach very large classes by online means. (I send
>it along as my first attachment, below.) Perhaps this effort will be as
>successful as various tsunamis have been in wiping out costal
>settlements. (The metaphor is columnist Christopher Caldwell's, for
>which see my second attachment.) But I recall prominent efforts at the
>University of California at Berkeley in the early 1960s to promote
>teaching by television, accompanied at registration by enthusiastic
>posters declaring e.g. "See Professor Helson on television!" One can
>still find the large, now empty, brackets for the televisions in some
>I spit nails, but not here. I think of all my years in classrooms, with
>people, face to face. "Now we see through a glass darkly, then face to
>face" reversed? I know, Paul's words are more accurately for us
>translated "by means of a mirror in an enigma", but the point remains,
>does it not?
>*** Attachments:
>4_willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk_17636.3.pdf
>4_willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk_17636.2.pdf
>Willard McCarty, FRAI / Professor of Humanities Computing & Director of
>the Doctoral Programme, Department of Digital Humanities, King's College
>London; Professor, School of Computing, Engineering and Mathematics,
>University of Western Sydney; Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews
>(www.isr-journal.org); Editor, Humanist
>(www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist/); www.mccarty.org.uk/
>List posts to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>List info and archives at at: http://digitalhumanities.org/humanist
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