Some thoughts and a minor existential crisis over online courses/OERs

I’d like to say I discovered this video when researching the use of digital media in learning or something, but really, I stumbled across it in between watching that stray dog that completed a 1700km road race, and watching some Japanese women make cartoon characters from rice and seaweed. (Procrastination is a very large part of my creative process, I believe).

Back to the education video, blog readers. I’m in favour of making education resources available online since it democratizes education (which is getting more and more expensive), and it encourages life-long learning. I even work for a literary themed online educational resources project (which now has a development site in beta!). My first arts project offered free recordings of poets reading their own work, and I like to think that throughout my career I can have a positive effect on learners both within and outside the academy by never losing sight of how things connect to the world outside the library.

Encouragingly, people are engaging with the content universities are putting out there. That video makes that clear, and the Great Writers Inspire project had more than 38,000 downloads of short lectures and talks on iTunes U in our first fortnight on it. So, delivering free online content obviously find a willing audience.

However, I think we still have some way to go in the digital learning community to make these projects feasible. How do academics, already under more and more pressure to publish/teach/mark/lecture/go to conferences/etc. find the time to give their expertise away for free? And, should they really be giving things away for free when students are paying £9000 a year for access to it? Are these OERs just an academic zeitgeist, or a marketing tool for universities? Are more basic introductory online courses really the premise of higher education institutions in the first place?

We still have a long way to go, and in some senses it is true that the Open University and other distance learning programmes have been quietly doing these things for years.

However, in this slight existential crisis I’m having over this, I did discover udemy which is like an app store for online courses, which can be paid for or free. Perhaps this kind of direction would allow universities to offer meaningful courses in a new way. These sorts of ventures do not replace a face-to-face seminar dynamic, or permit the tangential meanderings that make higher education learning so stimulating for academics and students alike – but they do certainly raise some questions about how we can do what we do in different ways.

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#phdadvice in the news… and some #lecturingadvice

In a bizarre turn of events only possible in the twilight zone that is the Internet, I am quoted in today’s issue of Times Higher Education. This follows on from my earlier blog post on the hashtag academic community.  For those of you who can access a print copy, the article is on pages 22-23. It can be read in full on their website too, which is nice.

Last week I asked those following the #phdadvice tag for their advice before I delivered my first lecture as part of the Developing Learning and Teaching programme. The lecture was aimed at first year undergraduates doing a ‘Doing English’ module, and we were lucky enough to have complete freedom on our topic and content. I chose to cover ‘Modern Poetry: Form and Function’ since learning to decipher the links between the two was something of a watershed in my own undergraduate study.

Super Woman Nadine is curating the responses to the hashtag over at the newly created The New Academic, but since I had such a positive response, I thought I’d share them here too for anyone else seeking lecturing advice.

@Rick_Hall, who has more experience than most people of communicating with large groups, told me to ‘relax and enjoy the experience of sharing ideas (oh and keep breathing)’. Very true.

Fellow blogger and PhD student @theplathdiaries tells me ‘I focus my vision on a specific point in lecture theatre & don’t take it to heart if people look bored!’. Also true. The natural facial expression of some undergraduates does look like boredom.

@NulaPimple should be a mind-coach or possibly a mind-controller, because she told me to ‘Fool them into believing you are incredibly confident, comfortable and in control even if you don’t believe this yourself..’.

Poet @JoanneLimberg shared some advice from readings ‘When I do a reading, I look out at the audience and think: ‘Right, you are all my b**ches now…’ Oh, and make eye contact.’ Yes, I thought, they are my undergraduate b**ches.

@lisa_the_drama is not an academic, but the woman talks sense. She told me to buy their love with sweets. Lecturing could be as easy as giving candy to undergraduate b**ches.

@claireocall liked my new summer hat, which she thought I should wear to lecture. Everyone likes a jaunty hat.

Having given the lecture, I can report that they looked confused more than bored (I promise they were confused by the sestina and not my headgear). I’m a fairly calm public speaker by nature, but I did have to reign in my speed. I am a notoriously fast speaker and I have a Northern Irish accent which doesn’t help. I also enjoyed the slightly performative aspect because I basically just like attention.

I’m pleased with how it went because as Rick said, sharing your thoughts is enjoyable. While lecturing is a less immediately rewarding form of teaching (compared with seminar discussion or one-to-one tutorials), it is something I’ve always wanted to do because I know that many of my most memorable learning experiences as an undergraduate came from dynamic lecturers.

Making (up) Your Name

One of the challenges of my PhD topic comes from its contemporariness. There are various things to tackle, from a lack of critical material and a lack of awareness of this poetry in the academy, to the seemingly shifting contexts of the work I’m attempting to criticise (new poems published and so on).

The following isn’t a serious issue, more a bug bear often encountered. It is is this – people, with all the best intentions, get the poets’s names completely wrong. I’ve met people who familiar with the work of O’Morrissey, or once heard Letitia Flynn read. Particularly withering was an email exchange with a (nameless) MA student who was writing a dissertation on Collette, rather than Colette, Bryce.

All things considered, though, I’m lucky to get to work on such current writers, and in many ways the challenges of the poetry’s modernity is part of the process and increases my enjoyment of it. Sean O’Brien recounts a humorous block he encountered – which is also testament to the distance contemporary Irish poetry has come in the past half-century.

‘As an undergraduate in the early 1970s when I applied to the Cambridge English Faculty Office for permission to write my Long Essay on Heaney I received a curt note to the effect that ‘Seamus O’Heaney’ was not considered a suitable subject for study. Such moments make it all worthwhile, in retrospect. My then tutor sympathetically suggested I tackle R.S. Thomas instead – ‘who, though Welsh, is also a Celt’, as he put it.’

  Sean O’Brien, The Deregulated Muse (Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 1998), p. 11.

The Hashtag Academic Community (#phdadvice)

Within days of beginning my first term as a graduate student in October 2009, I was told by peers and mentors that being a graduate student was isolating. I hadn’t really considered this before – I certainly hadn’t found any aspect of my undergraduate study isolating. Even a few months later, as I started to submit PhD applications, there were well meaning friends and advisors telling me that doing a PhD would be lonely. By this time, the chorus of voices was joined by some nagging doubts of my own.

The main thing that worried me wasn’t necessarily being alone per se – I was well aware that individual work is central to literary study. I didn’t worry about not having friends because I was lucky enough to have besties behind me. Obviously there were lots of niggling concerns like if I had the ability, if my topic was ‘good’ enough, if I could afford the time and expense, and what I would do at the end of it all. However, what concerned me the most, entering this apparent wilderness, was that if PhD research is so isolating, who could advise me?

Over 2 years on from the PhD application process, I’m happy to report that I’ve found advice and support in some likely and unlikely places. I have peers here in Oxford, and the companionship of others in my field from a research network – this much I might have hoped for. At the time, this fair blog was only a glint in my eye, and engaging with readers through this and reading other blogs (such as those in my blogroll) during my work has also been a source of support.

Increasingly, though, it is Twitter which is my most prevalent academic comfort. In the past year there has seems to have been a boom in academics and students using the network to discuss aspects of their work. I can post something about my working day, ask a question, make an observation, and receive almost immediate feedback. Yesterday, I noted that I was starting work on a conference paper in order to free up time for actual thesis writing at some stage. @EKSwitaj from QUB tweets back ‘See, that’s why I don’t write conference papers anymore. I just get up and blag.’, and @DrMagennis agreed. This, I hasten to add to any budding academics, is not exactly wise advice (but full time wisdom is time consuming and boring).

Better advice is currently being dispensed with great fervor, tagged #phdadvice. Initially started by @Nadine_Muller from the University of Hull, flagged up by mailing lists and spreading like wildfire, this hashtag has prompted questions and varied responses from those considering graduate research and from those of us already engaged in it. Such is the speed and appeal of this simple tag, that I see (on Twitter, naturally), that Nadine has already been interviewed by THE about it.

I already felt quite strongly that social networks were providing me with a very fruitful and engaging community, but this recent hashtag has me even more convinced that we can strengthen our working relationships and academia more widely by our participation and awareness of each other. Isolation isn’t trending, but #phdadvice is.

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