A manifesto is a statement of principles and intentions, often written before putting those into practice. In this manifesto, I intend to set out a vision for the type of teaching I want to practice. It will be a constantly evolving document, as experiments will question the vision and draw its edges.
Higher Education in England can be summed up as a Highly Exclusionary system.
Universities continue to be restructured as private businesses:1
- their primary function is understood as supporting economic growth
- they are expected to train the knowledge workers the economy demands by providing them with marketable skills
- they are required to adopt a student-as-customer business model2
As the government withdraws state funding3 and universities increase tuition fees, for the current generation the university experience starts by plunging into a financial debt that will dictate many of their future choices.
It is no surprise that a value-for-money rhetoric has become a common way of framing higher education.4 To many prospective students (and their families) the leading question becomes
Is a degree worth the debt?
In this scenario, where creativity is meant to be a subsidiary of business innovation and students are pushed to think and act as passive consumers of an exclusive product, what's an educator to do?
If we are to borrow the student-as-customer model, then my courses would be akin to a creative gym membership:
I am your coach.
Together we will decide which brain muscles you want to develop, which mental habits you want to train, what technical workouts you can do. I will challenge you with creative briefs to push you out of your intellectual comfort zone.
To take full advantage of your membership, you will regularly work with your peers, teaching each other what you are learning.
Simply showing up, grazing around and bullshiting your way through the workouts is a massive waste of money.
Yet this bootcamp-style approach is not enough. I don't want students to conceive university as a (solitary) treadmill run. I want students to be producers,5 or more specifically: hackers of their own learning and contributors to the production of shared knowledge.
I am using the term hacker because it describes a mindset rather than a job role. A hacker is intellectually curious, a critical thinker who is not afraid of subverting systems to her own needs, responding to the principles of the communities she belongs to. It also denotes an experimental approach that practices creativity as hacking the new out of the old.6
If students become hackers, then teaching and learning are subversive activities7 and education is the process of questioning the dominant culture and shaping it into something fit for purpose, rather than the re-production of what already exists.
As a student, your learning is more effective if you teach to someone else, because teaching makes you reflect on what you know and how to communicate it. As a teacher, you are constantly learning. If we, teachers and students, are in the business of learning together, then we should practice it as reciprocal teaching,8 challenging each other with questions we don't know the answers to.
No matter how much tech we pump into education, the killer-app is still (and will be) human relationships.9 My primary role is to facilitate collaborative relationships between students, and between students and practitioners. Working together in the same (real) place as part of a community of practice, is the actual privilege of taking a university course, and its competitive advantage over alternative (and hyped) solutions like MOOCs.10
And then there's creativity. This word has become an empty container for vaguely positive ideas around producing new meanings, perspectives, products, systems and anything in between. Who wants to be uncreative? Everyone reveres creativity, yet it is often reduced to consulting, styling, and formatting. I consider creativity as an endeavour that is neither frivolous nor politically neutral. The question is therefore
What are you going to create and why? What is your agenda?
I encourage students to take responsibility for their creations, to challenge industry practices rather than simply chasing them. In this light, technical skills are as important as deconstruction skills: delving under the surface of digital artefacts to understand and interrogate the cultural assumptions that produce them.
The student-as-hacker re-appropriates and re-mixes cultural references, designs critically and dreams dangerously.11
...ok, nice words but how do we do that?
We understand and practice teaching as a collaborative activity, based on mutual trust between learners and educators rather than authority.
We operate as co-learners.
We don't pretend to know everything. We welcome questions we don't know the answers to (yet).
We propose study plans and creative briefs (not impose), discuss them with students and amend them if necessary.
We ask students to devise their own learning goals, which we review as often as possible in person. This has proven challenging for young people that have grown up in a system where they're spoon-fed knowledge they haven't asked for, where they've rarely (or never) been asked "So, what do you want to learn?"
We promote team work via group projects where students take turns in different roles and responsibilities.
We provide a scaffolding for reciprocal teaching. Simply placing students in groups or pairs and telling them to "work together" is not going to automatically yield results. We must train students to become co-learners, drawing out the knowledge they already possess, asking open-ended questions, explaining how to provide constructive feedback. We can gradually reduce our interventions (removing the scaffolding).
We ask students to routinely share their new skills and knowledge in class, leading mini-tutorials and moderating debates.
We ask students to credit their sources of inspiration and discourage secrecy (ideas are cheap anyway).
We facilitate structured peer-assessment and demand self-assessment.
We value formative feedback more than grades. We plan a tight feedback loop into our courses, as ongoing regular conversations with individual students and groups (at least 1/3 of our time should be contact time).
We make our formal assessment process as transparent as possible: publishing assessment criteria and discussing them with students. Grading sucks but it can be useful if students know what to expect and are encouraged to exceed it.12
We offer informal mentoring on student-initiated projects. Never say "This is not a uni project, and I have no time for it".
Sometimes encouragement may take the form of a gentle push. It may feel coercive if students don't trust us, which is why it is crucial to develop trusting relationships.
Students often seek our approval (and/or the approval of their peers): we must strive not to "tell them what to do" but educate them to be open to suggestions yet firm in their decisions.
We move away from education as knowledge transfer and push towards education as shared knowledge production. In this system, students actively learn by hacking new knowledge out of the existing.
We reject the notion of creativity as politically neutral, and the subsequent role of creatives as deresponsibilised knowledge workers who mortgage their creations to the interests of others.
We introduce students to ideas that challenge their assumptions and ask them to produce work in reaction to these ideas.
We constantly ask the question why and demand students to show evidence of their thinking.
We stimulate debate and welcome all opinions, whilst helping students articulate their thoughts and explore different ways to express those. We don't tolerate the lack of opinions.
We exhort students to question everything that we do and talk about. Even if it does not lead to change in the situation in question, it does lead to a development of their understanding.
We actively promote experimentation. Learning by making enables students to build technical skills and confidence, while developing their personal aesthetic.
We push students to observe and conceptualise their experiments. Only through reflection they can truly take ownership of their learning paths.
We ask students to document their creative process and research, and publish their reflections (on the Web).
We embrace mistakes (instead of punishing them): they are an opportunity to learn and hack something new into existence.
There's no win and no fail: there's only make.13
We push students to research and re-mix cultural references, subverting their intended purpose to new meanings and agendas.
We invite students to share their work outside the class and actively seek feedback and challenges from other communities of practice.
Teach the Web
The Web has a reputation for being a disruptive "new" medium, which has so far managed to erode the borders between producers and consumers, deeply transform "old" media businesses, as well as shape the way we interact with one another (shop, learn, talk, write, date, work..).
The Web should make it easier to practice that principle of education as a subversive activity, rather than a reproduction of the status quo. We should have more room to experiment, less (or no) traditions to confront and more opportunities to discover something new.
At the same time, this discovery process may be challenging and even painful at times. Compared to many established subjects, teaching the Web can feel like chasing an elusive and ever-changing beast in a vastly unexplored field.
As old business models are merged with new technologies (see Amazon14) and online corporations continue privatising once "open" spaces on the Web, we resist the status quo by encouraging students to think critically about their daily habits mediated by technologies.
That's just a starting point however, we can push students further to envision radically different uses for Web technologies.
We use code as a creative tool, a powerful means to an end rather than an end in itself.
We use code to manipulate data and create meaningful, purposeful information. We ask students to put as much thinking in the purpose(s) of their Web-making as in the making itself.
We encourage students to print out their code and visualise their understanding. Digital technology is not the solution to everything. Even if we're designing and developing digital artefacts, pen and paper are and will continue to be effective thinking tools.
We promote Web literacy15 as a set of competencies, which go beyond reading and writing the Web (aka coding skills). Web literacy starts from understanding the wider context in which Web technologies operate and the people, organisations and cultures behind them.
We understand the Web as a library and a lab, operating on a global scale. We make the Web relevant to us by participating in communities and contributing ideas, feedback and work to projects that resonate with our values.
We teach and practice computational thinking16 as a way to get computers to do the heavy lifting for us. It is about using code creatively to solve real-world problems, to break down behaviours in specific and precise ways that can be communicated to other people, and eventually to computers.
We advocate the Web as an open, accessible and editable platform and resist commercial silos. We prefer open-source software and transparent services.
We publish our courseware (curricula) with copy-left licences which allow it to be repurposed.
What we do is not just for an elite of students who can afford the extortionate cost of a university degree.
Outreach projects are often perceived as a sort of moral debt repayment, but it's actually in our interest to engage with the communities that orbit around our university and learn from those people who are geographically close but excluded from our daily filter bubbles.17
We work with local schools, where our students take on a facilitator role and share their knowledge with pupils from culturally diverse backgrounds.
We push students beyond their comfort zones, to approach and interview strangers for their design research.
We ask students to create and publish how-to tutorials and reward their initiative.
We support and contribute to open-source projects.
We encourage students to volunteer in their communities and attend vocational meetups.
1 A decades-long process which has been extensively documented. It's interesting to note how the department responsible for higher education has morphed from Department of Education and Science (1964), to Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (2009). ↩
2 This model has been advocated by the 2009 Browne Report and implemented by the government from 2010. I'm not just talking about lifting the cap on tuition fees and cutting funds to universities. Other policies are shaping the public perception of students as consumers of education, and enshrining that in law: for example the Consumer Rights Bill (of which I'm not discussing the merit) applies to universities and is scheduled to become law by 2015. ↩
4 What happens if we truly frame students as paying customers?
Let's imagine. (I'm making this thought experiment because it starts to become hard to envision a different model.)
- As a customer, a university student purchases a subscription to a 2-4 years (typically 3) educational product (the "course").
- The subscription has to be renewed annually.
- The product includes a membership to the university, access to its facilities and resources, group training sessions, one-to-one consultancy and assessment (verbal and written) of the student's output.
- For the duration of the course, a student is deemed to be engaged with her course: attending as required, responding in a timely manner to the needs of the programme and progressing adequately.
- At the end of the course, the customer will be accredited by the university a certificate of attendance and achievement (the "degree certificate").
- A degree certificate is no guarantee of future employment, however it is differently valued by customers, their families and potential employers.
- Degree certificates are only accredited upon completion of the 3 years contract. A customer cannot claim a half-completed degree, for instance.
- Students in debt to the university will not be permitted to "graduate" (obtain the degree certificate).
- The closer customers are to the end of the course and subsequent degree accreditation, the less likely they will be to stop their yearly subscription (regardless of overall satisfaction).
- As a customer, a student needs money.
- Given that (most of) her time is contractually devoted to the university subscription, her spending must be on credit. This is usually provided by bank loans specifically designed for students: easy credit (or, from the other perspective, debt accumulation) for the duration of the university subscription, which must be repaid after the contract ends, regardless of the acquisition of a degree certificate.
- As a customer, a student uses private loans to advance and sustain the costs of their years at university, effectively turning their subscription into a financial investment.
- As a customer, a prospective student will consider the risks of subscribing to degrees that may not pay off in the future. By this she means that certain unpractical degrees may not allow them to land jobs that enable their future selves to repay the loans.
- As a customer, a student (and her family) may consider her university subscription as a status symbol: I go to university because I can afford it.
- As a paying customer, a student could demand her money back in case she's not satisfied with the education she purchased.
- As a customer, a student would logically want to select the courses and teachers she's going to be taught, rather than be given a "package". Perhaps the best teachers should also be more expensive.
- As a customer, a struggling student is a business problem
- As a business that depends on paying customers, a university is primarily concerned with recruiting them. The point of sale is crucial.
- As a business, a university must grow (or at least maintain) its revenue. The largest income for universities is currently tuition fees paid by students.
Can you spot the differences between this and the current HE model? ↩
5 The Student as Producer framework, developed by the University of Lincoln, focuses on research-engaged teaching and learning, which is defined as
A fundamental principle of curriculum design whereby students learn primarily by engagement in real research projects, or projects which replicate the process of research in their discipline. Engagement is created through active collaboration amongst and between students and academics.
Student as Producer is based on a number of intellectual projects, including Walter Benjamin's Author as Producer (1934).
When Benjamin called for authors to become producers, he did not mean for them to become factory workers alienated from the form and purpose of the manufactured thing. Our challenge as educators today is to help students become the hackers, not the mere consumers, of technology. ↩
6 I'm standing on McKenzie Wark's shoulders here. In A Hacker Manifesto he states
Whatever code we hack, be it programming language, poetic language, math or music, curves or colourings, we create the possibility of new things entering the world. Not always great things, or even good things, but new things. ↩
7 In Teaching as a Subversive Activity Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner argue that, rather than preparing people to live in society as it is, an inquiry-based education should encourage young people to interrogate the status quo, to generate new thinking and to move society forward. ↩
8 Visible Learning is a comprehensive review of educational research, in which John Hattie ranked many teaching approaches and various other factors that can have an impact on learning. Reciprocal teaching ranks as the third most effective teaching approach.
Numbers aside, I am using Palincsar's definition of reciprocal teaching as
a dialogue between teachers and students in which participants take turns assuming the role of teacher
My hypothesis is that reciprocal teaching is not just an effective approach to develop reading skills, but an essential ingredient for any collaborative teaching strategy. ↩
9 I heard this from Simon Breakspear and in its vagueness it stroke a chord with me. It's a similar statement (a remix perhaps?) to David Preston's
Devices will never replace or even compete with the learning benefits of human interaction. ↩
10 Massive Open Online Courses ↩
11 ... as popularised by Slavoj Žižek. I understand ideology in the way that Žižek describes it as "the frame within which our world is produced, but we are not aware of it". He also argues that in our so-called post-ideological age we are aware of this overarching frame but we don't really care.
As educators today we should urge students to care, constantly deconstructing ideologies and designing alternatives to the mainstream. ↩
12 John Hattie demonstrated how students are very accurate at predicting how they will perform in tests. So what's the point of tests and grading? Hattie argues educators must help students exceed their expectations, rather than formally acknowledging them. ↩
16 Computational thinking doesn’t mean to teach young people to think like computers. Computers don’t think anyway, we program computers to perform tasks that are still quite far from thinking in a human sense. ↩
17 According to Eli Pariser, technologies that tailor content based on our preferences generate filter bubbles: we are exposed only to what we like and affirms our beliefs, don't learn about conflicting viewpoints and become intellectually isolated. ↩