Trained as a physicist, I quickly learned that the world is not as it seems. Space and time not only stretch like elastic, but can also morph one into another, and matter and energy can appear out of nothing, like rabbits from a magician’s hat. But the great shock to me in recent years is not simply that the physical world is an illusion, but that so too is the human world, as portrayed by our mainstream media and politicians.
This is from a review by Marcus Chown of ‘The Joy of Tax‘ by Richard Murphy. I haven’t read the book, but readers of this blog might note that I too am ‘new’ to much of this. John Naughton, Larry Lessig and James Boyle educated me that much of the un-natural world was not as self-evident as I had once imagined. This is the real danger of STEM.
This post is essentially an excuse to share the sight that greeted me when I was visiting family in Rome last weekend. Taken from my bedroom window at around 9:24am (that is metadata for you…) at a small hotel Ilpostiglione in Campagnano just outside Rome.
Rich DeMillo spent some time in Italy, and one section of his first book on Higher Education, dealt with the issue of how the Jesuits disrupted and dealt with the prevailing civic model of university education in Europe in the 16th century (for more on the Jesuits and higher education see, O’Malley JW (1993) The first Jesuits, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press; and Carlsmith. DeMillo drew parallels with attitudes around Open CourseWare at MIT in the early 21st century. If the materials you use, are freely available, what value do you add to them in return for fees? Content commoditisation forces you to think sharply about what the value you bring.
The first Jesuit universities realized that they could not possibly produce the quantity of course materials that had been in use for many decades at civic universities. That presented a dilemma to new colleges that wanted to concentrate their meager resources on teaching, not on textbook publishing. “It has been said in town that we do not have a method for teaching,” Father John Paul Nicholas explained in 1558 to the bishop of Perugia, who had asked why Jesuit instructors were reluctant to adopt Latin grammar textbooks. It so happened, said the bishop, that there was an adequate text, written by a professor at the University of Perugia named Christopher Sasso. John Paul replied, “If we use Sasso’s book, they will say what our students have learned, they learned from Sasso, not from us.
When I was a student the only ‘free’ course material were photocopied handouts. Since I didn’t enjoy most undergraduate lectures, I didn’t attend very many(the best bit of advice I received from a lecturer was: ‘perhaps you shouldn’t go to lectures’). I did of course go on the first day, but I remember the apparent disquiet of lecturers who would see me stride in before the lecture, grab the handout, and then walk out. I sympathise with their disquiet, but they needed a reality check. So, in DeMillo’s most recent book this meme is followed up, and it makes me laugh. The scene in not Italy now, but France.
In 1229, the liberal arts faculty members of the University of Paris decided that the lecture was primarily for their own benefit when they enacted the following statute: The masters of philosophy [must] deliver their expositions from their chairs so rapidly that, although the minds of their audience may grasp their meaning, their hands cannot write it down.… Henceforth in any lecture, ordinary or cursory or in any disputation or other manner of teaching, the master is to speak as in delivering a speech, and as if no one were writing in his presence. A lecturer who breaks the new rule is to be suspended for a year. Students had little say in the matter. The statute prescribed a one-year suspension for any student who complained by “shouting, hissing, groaning, or throwing stones.”
So maybe this is the underlying logic of abysmal lecturing (and of Powerpoint)? Of course, it seems to me that we have only moved on a bit. Presently, people claim it is unethical for students to recall — and pass on — exam questions (or in the case of the for profits, possibly illegal). I think this view will soon look as absurd as the views of the ancient French faculty do now.
They all have smartphones, good laptops and experience exemplary content on all of these devices. Education needs to meet those expectations. This is really hard. Learning is not entertainment and often damaged when it becomes too glitzy. The stuff that’s produced within Blackboard looks like the stuff that was done on computers before these kids were born
“Would you trade a bad bout of constipation for an erection?” he asks. “I would.”
Ross Anderson writes:
Each year we divide our masters of public policy students into teams and get them to write case studies of public policy failures. The winning team this year wrote a case study of the care.data fiasco. The UK government collected personal health information on tens of millions of people who had had hospital treatment in England and then sold it off to researchers, drug companies and even marketing firms, with only a token gesture of anonymisation. In practice patients were easy to identify. Theresultingscandalstalled plans to centralise GP data as well, at least for awhile.
No industry can remain immune to technology. Kushner says. “We can have engineers look at [any industry] and say ‘this doesn’t make any sense’, and do it better. There’s government, education, financial services… but healthcare is the most screwed up — it is a total train wreck.”
From a review by Gillian Tett of the ‘Utopia of Rules’ by David Graeber.
Americans do not like to think of themselves as a nation of bureaucrats — quite the opposite actually,” Graeber observes. “[But] the final victory over the Soviet Union did not really lead to the domination of the ‘market’ [but] simply cemented the dominance of fundamentally conservative managerial elites . . . no population in the history of the world has spent nearly so much time engaged in paperwork.”
And I have (literally) just had to spend almost 30 minutes filling in a terminally tedious Health and Safety online form about how to position my chair. This has less to do with staff health (let alone sanity) but rather more with protecting the institution from perceived legal challenge. Of course, what is most annoying is how badly designed the elearning module is. It is not meant to inform, but to punish.
But even if you disagree with his politics, Graeber’s book should offer a challenge to us all. Should we just accept this bureaucracy as inevitable? Or is there a way to get rid of all those hours spent listening to bad call-centre music? Do policemen, academics, teachers and doctors really need to spend half their time filling in forms? Or can we imagine another world?
There are no easy answers. But the next time you see a bureaucratic form — and I have several sitting in my inbox right now — it is worth asking who really benefits from it? And, more importantly, who would suffer if we were to all suddenly rip them up? It is, perhaps, one of the more subtly revolutionary ideas of our age.
And do not get me started on revalidation or the GMC…
Ugly word, but true: massification and higher education. “India, China, Brazil, Nigeria, Russia, Pakistan, Indonesia, the United States and the United Kingdom together enrol more than half of the world’s higher education students.” Follow the money, if you want to know what will happen.
The Compleat lecturer, by the Baron of Jesmond, an article on how to lecture, and a defence of lecturing. I agree with much of it, but the issue is few have the intellectual skills — or integrity — of the Baron. For much of medicine, lectures are a shambles. Another article that talks sense about lecturing, from Patrick Henry Winston.But then if you read the MIT view of teaching, you will realise how shallow much of the higher education world is. And while we are at it, can we reconsider the ppt handouts.
Basic stats or research methods: beware of ratios. An article suggesting that people are being blinded by sex ratios and an apparent higher participation by women in some domains, when what is happening is that men are withdrawing. Seems about right.
Via John Naughton. My default position is that most personal health related material on the web or via ‘secure’ email is not private, and open to NSA / GCHQ etc.
Well his father was a dermatologist, and he held the first patent on an antihistamine, but I knew neither of these facts before reading this obituary of the great Carl Djerassi.
Dr. Djerassi (pronounced jer-AH-see) arrived in America as World War II engulfed Europe, a 16-year-old Austrian Jewish refugee who, with his mother, lost their last $20 to a swindling New York cabdriver. He wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt, asking for assistance, and obtained a college scholarship. It was a little help that made a big difference.
I think it was Jacob Bronowski who said that most of twentieth century physics was made by the sons of cobblers, but just note the phrase: he wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt, asking for assistance, and obtained a college scholarship. If you haven’t read any of his fiction, you are missing something. (and I assume it wasn’t an Uber cab).
Learning management systems are, indeed, the undead of education technology,
Lectures: ne quid nimis (no more than enough), adding, “If an angel was to preach for two hours, unless his hearers were angels likewise, I believe the greater part of them would wish he had done.” Quoted in the THE
‘While public dissatisfaction is high, Beijing sees improving healthcare as critical to maintaining social harmony. However, many interactions between healthcare staff and patients are far from agreeable, with hundreds of attacks on healthcare workers every month. Many doctors say the last thing they want their children to do is study medicine.’ FT
“History is full of examples of young people who were working on important problems that no one else at the time thought were important, and in particular that their parents didn’t think were important. On the other hand, history is even fuller of examples of parents who thought their kids were wasting their time and who were right……Parents can sometimes be especially conservative in this department. There are some whose definition of important problems includes only those on the critical path to med school.” Paul Graham on terrific form
“Liston operated so fast that he once accidentally amputated an assistant’s fingers along with a patient’s leg, according to Hollingham. The patient and the assistant both died of sepsis, and a spectator reportedly died of shock, resulting in the only known procedure with a 300% mortality.”