[Humanist] 26.252 brave new world & its institutions

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Aug 27 09:05:17 CEST 2012

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 252.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sun, 26 Aug 2012 14:44:22 +0100
        From: Andrew Prescott <andrew.prescott at kcl.ac.uk>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 26.250 brave new world & its institutions
        In-Reply-To: <20120826062002.2B4C62867DE at woodward.joyent.us>

Dear Willard,

Professor Kessler is right that I did not address the main point in his 
letter, which is that the use of new technologies in learning does not 
automatically mean that the academic profession is doomed. He is right 
on this. What I wanted to point out is that we have over forty years of 
experience in Britain of providing university education through a 
mixture of television, radio, internet, radio cassette and other media, 
and it seems to me very strange that the current fevered discussion in 
the United States does not ever refer to this experience which provides 
very clear pointers for future development.

The idea of a 'university of the air' was proposed in Britain as early 
as 1926 when a historian working for the BBC suggested the development 
of a 'wireless university'. The idea of a 'university of the air' 
gathered momentum in the early 1960s, and the creation of an 
experimental university using television and radio was a prominent part 
of the Labour Party's manifesto when it was elected to government in 
1964. The intention was to offer university education without the 
requirement for any prior educational qualification. That seems to me 
one important difference between the discussions in the 1960s and the 
debates on which Professor Kessler comments - in Britain, we have always 
seen new technologies as providing a key to offering wider access to 
education; the current discussions in America seem to focus almost 
entirely on technology as a cost-saving option.

The Open University was established at Milton Keynes in 1969. The Tory 
minister Iain McLeod called the idea of a 'university of the air' 
'blithering nonsense' and threatened to abolish it if the Conservatives 
formed the next government, but fortunately Margaret Thatcher, the new 
Education Secretary, decided to allow the experiment to go ahead and the 
first 25,000 students were admitted in 1971 to be taught by a mixture of 
television, audio cassette, home science kits, course packs and 
residential courses. Today, the Open University is the largest single 
university in Britain with more than 260,000 current students. Since 
1969, over 1.5 million students, many without previous formal 
educational qualifications, have graduated from the Open University. As 
I mentioned in my previous post, the Open University is pioneering 
on-line methods of teaching. But, above all, I think the most important 
achievement of the Open University was that (in the words of its 
website)'The Open University was the first institution to break the 
insidious link between exclusivity and excellence'.

The Open University has been revolutionary in many of its pedagogical 
methods and many of these have been since adopted by conventional 
British universities. But, to support Professor Kessler's key 
contention, what the Open University demonstrates above all is that such 
innovative educational achievement depends on first-rate academic staff. 
The Open University currently employs more than more than 1,200 
full-time academic staff and more than 3,500 support and administrative 
staff. Above all, it has a network of 7,000 tutors locally based (as 
famously depicted in 'Educating Rita'). The chief lesson of the Open 
University experience supports Professor Kessler's argument - to 
successfully use new media to widen access to higher education then you 
need committed and inspirational academic staff. I think this alone 
shows why current discussions about the use of new technologies in 
teaching should take the experience of the Open University in Britain as 
a starting point.

Much more information about the Open University can be found on its 


I suggested in my previous post that the Open University stands 
comparison within the National Health Service as one of the greatest 
social achievements of Britain in modern times. On reflection, I wonder 
if the Open University isn't the greater of the two achievements. To 
create a collectivised medical system chiefly requires a society with a 
strong sense of a social justice and a political and administrative 
determination to put a fairer and more civilised system in place - it 
wasn't necessary to do much new in terms of the medicine. The creation 
of the Open University required an equally strong social sense of social 
justice but also needed to develop completely new ways of providing a 
university education which didn't compromise on standards. We need a 
similar set of values in approaching the pedagogical possibilities 
provided by new technologies.

For further reflections on some of these themes, I would recommend the 
blog on the history of the Open University maintained by my friend Dan 


A recent post by Dan is pertinent to these discussions:

"Open learning is a movement that isn’t going to go away

The idea that technology can be deployed to support learners isn’t new 
to those who work at the OU. Suddenly, however, it is in the headlines 
because Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have 
formed a $60m (£38m) alliance to launch edX, a platform to deliver 
courses online – with the modest ambition of ‘revolutionising education 
around the world’.

Paying relatively little attention to the decades-long history of 
sophisticated use of television, radio, video and the internet that has 
occurred at the OU the director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial 
Intelligence Laboratory and one of the pioneers of the MITx online 
prototype. Anant Agarwal said ‘This could be the end of the two-hour 
lecture…You can’t hit the pause button on a lecturer, you can’t fast 
forward’. While MIT might be struggling to catch up pedagogically this 
development could be a challenge to the OU, as well as an opportunity 
for it to demonstrate its experience in the field of supported open 
learning. As Dr Anka Mulder, head of Delft University in the Netherlands 
and President of the OpenCourseWare group which advocates free online 
course materials, said ‘Open learning is a movement that isn’t going to 
go away’".


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 26/08/2012 07:20, Humanist Discussion Group wrote:
>                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 250.
>              Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                         www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                  Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>          Date: Sat, 25 Aug 2012 21:21:20 -0700
>          From: Jascha Kessler <urim1 at verizon.net>
>          Subject: Re: [Humanist] 26.247 brave new world & its institutions
>          In-Reply-To: <20120825082608.6771E288ABD at woodward.joyent.us>
> I do appreciate the earnestness revealed in Prof. Prescott's comments.  I
> do think he rather misses what is the point of the present discussions.  He
> concentrates on "learning." Viz., *"** 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..."*
> *Methods of learning? * What does that mean, exactly?  I was a schoolchild
> in the 1930s-40s.  I dont think there was or is a method of learning,
> unless it is taught somehow.  By digitized instructors?  Kids learn, Homo
> sapiens learns as it learns, sans "method" or methodologies concocted
> by...whom?  A robot might learn by implantation of code.  Okay, we stick
> silicon chips in newborn heads?  But then the chips learn, and what does
> each unique individual brain make of it all internally?   There may be
> methods to teach say violin technique, but they are applied and tested one
> on one: teacher and pupil. Results vary by talents.  Apart from all that,
> what I questioned in my letter to the FT was the costs of teachers vs.
> internet teaching. The learning part requires foot soldiers, future
> teachers in higher Ed, what schools have been and been about since Sumeria,
> to test what has been learned,  grade and tutor or instruct it.
> When the Univ of California at Santa Cruz was inaugurated, Prof C Page
> Smith [in my letter] went up to organize it.  It was all Pass/Fail...no
> grades.  Assuming perhaps Humanists and Historians and Lit and the rest
> reviewed the written work, not multiple choice Xses, of students.  It took
> but a few years until the scientists rebelled at the lack of grading for
> qualifications in hard subjects, not philosophical or literary chatter. And
> grading was back, and how, even for a largely pothead and hippy university
> student body in the 70s and 80s and perhaps beyond, up in the Redwoods
> paradise.
> Even with an Open University scheme, Lenin's question remains: *WHO, WHOM?*
> All may enter and study... but what has been learned by each individual?
> That costs, and doing away with the absurdity of OxBridge doesn't solve the
> question of judgments by individuals, referees.  You cannot get away with
> anything in competitive sports.  Some are better than others, as in horse
> and dog racing, and judging there is easy: whoever finishes first second
> third, etc.  Not including Lance Armstrong, et alia, as it turns out.
> Then, too, we are advised:  "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."  What, it may be asked, is meant by that
> phrase in italics?  More integration of what?  Service meaning...teachers?
> Who, Whom? what qualifies?  Integrated whos? Serviced by Whoms? * O,
> Orwell, thou shouldst be living at this hour!*
> I take Prescott to be serious, but the questions I raised about Humanities
> and the Internet remain.  It is *not* a matter of tv lectures.  When the
> few expert lecturers have retired, who takes their place?  Who has learned
> what from the medium?  I like documentary films, How it is made, where the
> penguins walk? but then all that may be teaching me what is out there.
> Still, what goes on, how and why, stanza by stanza in the Divine Comedy?
> Who will learn or teach what the Divine is, the Commedia means?  Or even
> says?  E=MC2 says what it means, and means what it says, and a digitized
> quiz can locate my grasp of those letters.
> However,  and for example, I offer an Honors Seminar for Frosh, first year
> students, pass/fail, just show up, and select one assignment.  I provide
> 100 pages of poems; I lay out the fundamental 3 modes of poems written from
> history. I require each to pick a poem, read it aloud and deliver orally 1 written
> page that tells the rest what the poem says.  I forbid students
> to say what anything, lines, stanzas, whatever *means*.  *Meanings are
> idiosyncratic and arbitrary.  If anyone imagines  contemporary student of
> 19-20 can write one double-spaced page of sentences stating what the poem
> says, lines say, that one is mistaken.  These University of California
> youth are admitted as of the top 17-19% of high school graduates. We have 2
> dozen State Universities for the lower tiers; and many community, 2 year
> colleges for all the rest who want something after high school and need a
> lot for work and life and career.  A sort of Open system a la UK.
> But...there is hardly any system to integrate persons tomorrow who have
> not studied and learned and been graded.  Quality is quality.
> Finally re my Honors Seminar: I attach Plato's Symposium, and tell them to
> read that short work.  As all will recall, each principal vocation speaks
> in turn all that night, and each man speaks only of what he knows from his
> craft or profession.  Not a one is able to tell the group what it is that
> the god Eros does to discipline or inspire or create their work[s].  They
> are all good and educated senior Athenians.  But as for understanding the
> matter of daily life and work's structures and statements, let alone
> meaning...*nada, nada e pues nada.  *In the end, Socrates overturns the
> evening, although what he has to say remains a mystery, clearly presented.
> And he got it all from some old Sybil in the mountains. The SYMPOSIUM, in
> short, remains exemplary regarding this problem.  The scientists and
> technologists are crystal clear about what things say, not what they [might
> or could] mean; they measure, and measure has always been, or measuring,
> the foundation effort of civilization: Tekne, the Greeks called it. But I
> am sure it was known to the painters of Paleolithic caves. That is clear
> enough, or should be.  As for *meaning?* Alas, that is the burden of
> would be Humanists, digital, digitized, or whatever.
> Jascha Kessler
> *
> *
> On Sat, Aug 25, 2012 at 1:26 AM, Humanist Discussion Group <
> willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:
>> 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

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