Research directions

I’m lining up some serious research time in the new year.  It should give me space to pull together a lot of interesting strands.  But I do need to focus on what I’m ‘interested’ in, in that funny academic sense of ‘interested’.  I’m actually interested in all sorts of things – I find pretty much all human endeavour endlessly fascinating.  But that’s not going to get papers out and bids in so I need to narrow down.

Fundamentally, as I mention on my ‘about’ page, I’m interested in new technology in teaching in Higher Education, although I’m increasingly minded to widen ‘Higher Education’ to ‘post-compulsory education’.

Within that, the two main areas I’m most interested in are the ongoing transformation of the online world (with a strong link to OpenLearn) and the ongoing transformation of the physical world (with a strong link to the new labs).  The U3A stuff I blogged about before definitely fits in here.

For various reasons, I want a reasonably strong theoretical take.  The theory du jour when I did my PhD was constructivism, but that has various shortcomings, rehearsed over the intervening decade, and has been eclipsed in the area by Activity Theory.  Only trouble with AT is that I’m not mad keen on it.  Either I don’t fully understand it, or I don’t agree with it, or quite possibly both.  (Exploring that is something else I’d like to do with a bit of research time.)

What’s more promising to my mind is Theory, as in the literary-criticism/media studies idea of Theory, expounded on David Gauntlett’s Theory.org.uk.  (I knew Dave quite well as an undergraduate but lost touch since, although I’ve long been a fan of his web presence.)  I see that he’s recently published a book called Media Studies 2.0, which sounds just the job as a starting point.  I’ve no taste at all for the obscurantist tradition that often comes with the lit-crit po-mo world, but there are some extremely valuable and interesting ideas there, and I’ve always found David’s writing extremely lucid.

This feels like a great idea since I already have a grounding in that area from personal interest, so pulling that in to the day job should pay off well.  (Although it’s a different matter to decide to give up struggling with unmediated Judith Butler when you need it for urgent revisions to a paper, rather than because it seemed interesting when you started.)  Pulling my personal interest in computers and new technology in to the day job worked out well in the past, so I have a happy precedent.

Not sure where this will end up – working this all out is a project for the research time itself – but I am getting quite excited about it.

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Third Age

Had a really interesting meeting a couple of weeks ago with Jean Goodeve from the Third Age Trust, the national body that supports local University of the Third Age (U3A) groups. The OU has a Memorandum of Understanding with the Third Age Trust, and there seems like there’s lots of potential for collaborative work. I’d have been keen to meet them anyway, but I had a double motivation since Jean’s son happens to be a very good friend of mine.

U3A is very much about learning for fun. The OU is about learning for accreditation … which can also be fun (I like to imagine). The boundary between those two is increasingly blurring, and there’s a lot of potential for us to expore that new space between us. We’re both organisations with the stamp of the marvelous Michael Young on them. We share a fundamental belief that our learners are experienced, smart people who can help themselves to learn, particularly if appropriately supported.

(I note in passing that U3A’s commitment to learners being teachers and vice versa is explicitly stated in their founding principles; at the OU it’s more diffuse and part of best practice … and probably a lot patchier as a belief if I’m honest.)

They’re obviously very interested in OpenLearn, and we’re very interested in what they make of it. In conversation with Patrick McAndrew (my colleague currently leading the research and evaluation of OpenLearn) this week, we realised that U3A provides an organisational layer that’s exactly what we’d like to be able to provide with the tools around the OpenLearn content. Groups of people who want to learn something come together, find what resources they need, and support each other as they try to understand the topic. At the moment U3A operates more along geographic lines, but that’s changing, and the potential that online tools offer for forming interest groups for learning nationally or internationally seems pretty huge. A bit like Martin Weller‘s ideas about very-niche learning. (I’m sure he’s said something about this but can’t put my hand on the post quickly.)

One of the ideas that came out of the meeting with Jean that I’m very keen on is using U3A people as co-researchers: they get to learn about the research process and are partners, rather than subjects; we paid research types get access to a network of active, intelligent co-researchers who can snowball out to an even larger sample. Everyone benefits from each others’ expertise.

As well as the obvious link to OpenLearn, there’s the potential for getting U3A folk involved in some of the more close-up work in the new lab we’re building in the new Jennie Lee Building (which I’ve not blogged about here much yet). The idea there is to explore new and near-future prototypes of ambient and ubiquitous technologies (previously mobile devices were hot, now it’s multi-touch interfaces and there’ll be others) with learners to see what the potential is for expanding how people learn.

I think U3A people would be great as groups to bring in for this. They’re motivated, smart, used to learning, and represent a sector of the population who are growing in both numbers and influence. If this is starting to sound like a pitch for funding … that’s the plan! Although I think there’s a lot we can do with our own resources.

Content Battles

Martin has another interesting post, arguing that “Digital content wants to be free, and will seek the path to maximum access.”

He makes a good case based on some examples from photos, broadcast and music. I’ve two points of departure.

Firstly, I think ‘photos, broadcast and music’ are old-media concepts that don’t have a guaranteed right to exist in the new-media world. Online, these map – in a complex way – on to images, audio, video and combinations of those. (FWIW I don’t think ‘streaming audio/video’ category is a stable, separate category in to the future either – it’s a workaround for limited bandwidth.) It’s a tribute to how embedded that way of thinking is that even an analyst of Martin’s stature and experience paints the world in those terms.

Secondly, the analysis is incomplete without acknowledging that digital content also wants to be expensive. The original information-wants-to-be-free quote was from Stewart Brand back in 1984, and is worth restating in full:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

And that’s what’s been going on with the music/audio industry.

And that’s what’s just starting to go on in the video industries. We’ve got YouTube playing the Napster role and any number of consumer-hostile walled-garden DRM solutions from bone-headed unimaginative existing market incumbents.

These include, alas, a lot of people who should be in a position to Do The Right Thing, but sadly aren’t, such as the BBC and Google. The BBC have made what I reckon is their worst decision of recent years by going for a DRM-ed offering (tied to Microsoft), despite overwhelming public offering. For stuff the licence-fee payers have already paid for! And Google Video is another disaster. Google is shutting down its video service. Punters who signed up in good faith and bought DRMed video from them now face being unable to play those videos.

The battle in audio is far from over. The battle in video hasn’t really got started.