Posted by & filed under Continuing Conversations.

Thanks to graduating through the Open University (OU) I’ve spent the last thirty or so years continuing to learn. Through the OU I became a confident learner, an independent learner and a life-long learner. My ongoing interests include ways that digital technologies disrupt education, and what that disruption can mean to teachers and learners. I’ve explored these issues in theory and practice from various perspectives.

My related work began around the time when micro-computers became available. My experience ranges from infant teaching and management training in the UK, to in-service ICT training for teachers in rural Africa, plus other writing, design and consultancy work.

During the past fifteen years I have focused on the Internet, and aspects of living and learning in an Internet-connected world, much of it from the dramatically different perspectives of urban UK and rural Africa (Nigeria and  Kenya).

Much of my knowledge, my ideas and my experience about education systems in the 21st century can be traced back to my OU studies, not just because of what I learned then, but also because of how I learned it. As a learner I had started life with the confident, courageous, curiosity that is common in pre-school children. I had been through the education system, and been taught various things, some beneficial and some not. I had come out of secondary school with a somewhat skewed idea of what education and learning was about. There had been an emphasis on exams and long-term rewards that had little to do with curiosity, interest and finding things out for myself. The Open University changed that, and much of my earlier confidence as an independent learner was restored, but this second-time around I had the addition of academic skills.

Some of my post OU learning has been closely connected with my paid work. Much of my learning has been done independently to satisfy my curiosity – meanwhile I was doing some kind of part-time or intermittent day-job (often helping other people to learn).

This post is longer than usual, because the conversation that prompted it lead to a rather detailed ‘thinking aloud” continuation, so  I’m giving it some numbered subheadings:

1 – Choices

2 – Some reasons for my OU studies

3 – Practicalities of OU study

4 – T101 – the technology foundation course

5 – Expectations based on previous study

6 – Combining infant education and “The Man Made World”

7 – Hidden connections

8 – Combining theory and practice

9 – Choosing formal or informal studies

10 – A question of identity and motivation

11 – Focus, identity and professionalism

1 – Choices

One of the best things about my OU degree was the way I could pick courses as I went along. As a result of this delayed decision-making the courses that I studied were very different to the courses that I expected to study when I enrolled. It was a part-time degree so it went on for much longer than a full-time one. Each year my choices were influenced by what I’d learned the previous year in my studies and in my life. This points to another of the many benefits of part-time study as a mature student i.e. my studies happened over a prolonged period alongside “normal life” not inside a silo of “being at uni”. Theory and practice could be intertwined. The ongoing relationship between theory and practice, and the “dance” between living and learning, and the role of curiosity are all themes I keep returning to in my theoretical work.

2 – Some reasons for my OU studies

Part-time study wasn’t an easy option. I was working full-time and I had heavy family responsibilities, but I needed a degree.

I had trained as a teacher at a time of change. Teaching was about to become an all graduate profession. The students  who were training in the year behind me would come out with a BEd, having done a course that was almost identical to the three-year course that led me to a Cert Ed. I decided I’d better upgrade my official qualification to degree status as soon as possible. The Open University provided that opportunity.

3 – Practicalities of OU study

I needed to gain six credits for an ordinary degree, or eight for an honours degree.  Courses were worth one credit or half a credit, and each course took one year to complete. In theory it took a minimum of ten to twelve hours study a week to gain a full credit. The courses started at foundation level, then went to level 2 and level 3 (with a few experimental level 4 courses on the fringe of things). Foundation level courses were one-credit courses. All undergraduates had to start with one or two foundation courses, partly to get in the swing of studying with the OU, and partly to widen our horizons. My three years of full time study for the Cert Ed counted as the equivalent of one foundation course so I only had to study one OU foundation level course. Once I’d completed my mandatory whole-credit foundation course I always tried to choose two half-credit courses each year instead of a single one-credit course in case of unexpected happenings in my work or family life. With two half-credits on the go I had the possibility of reducing my commitment if necessary, but still making some progress. Fortunately I was able to complete a whole credit each year.

4 – T101 – the technology foundation course

My foundation level choice was made for pragmatic reasons. I was in a hurry to get started with the OU and some courses filled up more quickly than others. If I chose the technology course (T101) then I’d soon be at the front of the queue. Anything else and I’d have to wait another year to get in. T101 was The Man Made World (and back in those days the sexist aspect of the title completely passed me by). There were some options within the course that meant I could choose how heavily technical I wanted to get, and it looked interesting. Little did I guess how interesting I would find it and the directions it would take me. For a start it introduced me to systems thinking. Subsequently I have often discovered that people who I connect with, who think about things in a way I relate to, also have some background in systems thinking. T101 was also the catalyst for my interest in computers.

5 – Expectations based on previous study

I was expecting to do courses related to education and child development. If you teach infants, as I was doing at the time, you are continually challenged to imagine how the world looks from the perspective of someone who has only a handful of years of life experience to draw on and has only a limited vocabulary related to it. How much of what you are saying or asking has any meaning to them? How can you enrich their experiences to help develop their language and thought and practical skills?

My dissertation for my Cert Ed had been called “Think Child!”. It explored the way that, as adults, it’s tempting for us to say “Think child!”  (often in a somewhat exasperated tone) when a child has failed to deliver some “right response” that we expect.  But it’s not always easy for a child to give the “right response” (even if the adult has framed the question or task accurately, which we often fail to do). There are many levels of complexity involved. They include the child’s

  • understanding of the initial question or task set
  • previous knowledge and experience relating to the question or task
  • ability to recognise what knowledge and experience is relevant
  • ability to apply that relevant knowledge and experience to the current question or task
  • ability to pull all that together and communicate it to the adult in a way that the adult understands and that fits the adult’s expectations

I forget the subtitle that went with “Think child!” but (as an aside for education geeks) I can say that it related to Blooms taxonomy of educational objectives.

I expected that once my OU technology foundation course was over I’d come back to education, to study courses on child development, educational theory, cognitive psychology and perhaps a bit about the inner workings of the education system and how to get ahead in my career. It didn’t work out like that because of the way the technology course impacted my thinking.  The OU was right about foundation courses expanding our horizons.

6 – Combining infant education and “The Man Made World”

My OU degree was built on the surprisingly complementary foundations of infant education and technology.

Systems thinking crept into my choices, and so did an interest in computers and how they process information (and “decide what to do”).

I was interested in how children think and decide and learn. Learning about computers, and the disciplined and orderly kind of steps and binary decision making that makes up a computer program, offered a fascinating new perspective. Systems thinking and its applications introduced me to worlds I had never entered before. I was already interested in young children and cognitive psychology.  I became interested in many other aspects of information collection and processing, and decision making, which involved organisations, technical systems and computers. The course names I remember are

  • Decision making in educational systems
  • Systems organisation
  • Systems management
  • Computers and computing
  • The digital computer

Given my preference for half-credit courses there were probably two or three more.

7 – Hidden connections

My course choices may not seem to be much to do with early education but there were strong connections, though they were not visible or obvious ones. The courses were connected to education through the things that I didn’t need to study through the OU. These were things I already knew, or could learn informally as I went along. One of the strengths of the OU approach for me was the way that the central core of my studies was informal. The focus could always be “me and my current interests” not some predefined, recognised and tested body of knowledge. From that central point I could look out in many directions.

In my subsequent life I’ve struggled to articulate that kind of connecting point to people who criticise my lack of focus and say that I’m  spreading myself too thinly. To me the connecting point, the focus, is still “me and my current interests” just as it was in the OU. My multiple interests and activities are all relevant parts of the same whole. Each of the different “spreading myself too thinly” interests informs another. If I was a formal academic, instead of an independent learner, then my different interests and practical projects would be seen for what they are,  richly rewarding field work that informs my theoretical work and analysis.

8 – Combining theory and practice

Some key ideas impressed themselves on me during my formal OU studies. One idea was that computers are good at routine repetitive tasks.

Now if there is one thing that I hate doing it is routine repetitive tasks, so it was obvious to me that computers and I needed to develop some kind of collaborative relationship.

Another key idea was that systems design is tricky if it involves people who are part of a work group or some other group that “does things together”. This is because it’s very hard for an outsider to understand the subtleties of “how things work around here” with all the cultural norms, unwritten rules and miscellaneous workarounds that enable things to function in the real world. It’s not just about what we’re visibly doing, or what we say that we’re doing. It’s about what we’re trying to do (or avoid doing) and what is helping or hindering.  I learned that if I wanted a computer to enhance my working life in the classroom (or elsewhere) then I needed to decide for myself exactly what help I needed. It would also be a good idea to find out how to tell the computer what I wanted it to do. Even if I could get other people to do techie things for me later, it would be important to know what was, and what was not, possible and why that was so.

By the time I’d graduated I’d done some serious systems analysis regarding my role as an infant teacher. I’d spent an entire term analysing which elements of my job were routine, repetitive and ‘programmable” and which were far too creative, skilled, or unpredictable to be tackled by  anything other than a real person.  Some of my observations surprised me. Having done my systems analysis I developed my programming skills so that I could try some of my ideas out in practice. It was before the days of the national curriculum so there was more freedom to innovate, and my head teacher liked what I wanted to try. Gradually my independent “project work” started to compete with my formal studies, so I had to make a choice between continuing with formal courses (which would get my ordinary degree upgraded to an honours one) or continuing my informal practical research.

9 – Choosing formal or informal studies

I remember recognising that I had to make a choice. I had been studying with the OU for years and I had never dropped out of a course. I’d got my ordinary degree but needed at least two more years of study to get an honours degree. I didn’t want to drop out, but with my family commitments and my job I didn’t have much “discretionary time” and I was fascinated by what I was learning through my independent research. I was increasingly involved with other innovators who were pushing the boundaries of what computers might do in schools.  Something had to give.

There was a strong OU ethos of studying for the sake of learning, rather than “jumping hoops” in order to “get the piece of paper” at the end. I remembered a fellow student who had  repeatedly challenged other students on their motivation. At an OU summer school I’d seem him repeatedly “innocently” engage some new acquaintance in conversation about motivation for studying.  One after another his fellow students would assure him they wanted to learn, so he’d push the conversation further, get more assurances about learning for its own sake, and finally issue a challenge – “Have you ever got so interested in what you’re learning that you’ve decided to keep learning more on that topic, even if it meant failing to complete an assignment?” No one ever had. Getting accreditation won out every time.

I decided that I was going to make a decision to leave the formal studies to follow the interests the OU had given me. I would quit as a positive step, not as a “failure”. I was, after all, an educator who valued learning for its own sake. I dropped out of the course I was about to start and carried on with the independent research.

(Sadly, it seems that learning for its own sake is no longer the ethos of the OU – see  The End of the Open University As We Know It by  Kash Faroo )

10 – A question of identity and motivation

Looking back, that decision point to drop formal study was probably the start of my life as an informal, self-directed, life-long learner. My OU experience helps to explain why I have lived much of my life “in a dance between theory and practice”. It’s what got me started on innovating and experimenting independently. It started my informal research into things connected with education, systems, and some deep systemic changes related to our Internet-connected world. The OU isn’t the full explanation, but it’s a considerable part of it, and one I’m reasonably comfortable with.

Certainly when it comes to the unpaid work I’ve done with my friends and contacts in Africa I’ve been greatly rewarded, both through the relationships that I’ve had, and through all that I’ve been learning. If philanthropy was my thing (as some people assume it to be) then it would have made more sense for me to spend less time learning about the issues, and more time on my paid day jobs. Then I could have afforded to do generous charitable giving directly to the people and projects that I know and value.

Instead of that philanthropic approach I’ve done all kinds of practical work, face-to-face and at a distance, in my own time and at my own expense, pushing my day-jobs (and earning capacity) increasingly to the side over the years. I’ve spent fifteen years learning about realities on the ground (mainly in Nigeria) and discovering gaps between, on one side, what I have experienced as true and, on the other side, the impressions I have gained through websites, policy documents and so on.

I’ve experimented with various combinations of online and face-to-face collaboration between UK and Africa. I’ve been involved in different kinds of online communities engaging around various issues and using a variety of tools and approaches. I’ve observed emerging patterns that show intriguing similarities between apparently unconnected systems.  I’m one of the “expert generalists” who inhabit the spaces between the usual silos, who turn up on the edge of a wide range of things, and who bring an unusual perspective.

11 – Focus, identity and professionalism

My contacts usually think I’m interested in “what I’m doing” for its own sake, especially when they first meet me. Very few of them understand that I’m more interested in what I’m learning through “what I’m doing” and then analysing my experiences, and reflecting on connections.

This emphasis on learning  also explains why I never know how to introduce myself. At events and formal meetings strangers tend to expect introductions in terms of organisational affiliations and job titles, especially if they are accustomed to mixing professionally with their peers who are in “traditional” paid employment. In my case, the paid (or unpaid) practical work that brings me to an event is never as “fully me” as the things I’m learning by doing it. That learning emphasis is hard to explain unless you happen to be a student studying for a specific qualification within formal, established academia – and I’m not.

Perhaps it’s time to start celebrating my unconventional “outsider” status and to rejoice in the freedoms that come from a lack of formal affiliations. I’ve done this long enough to claim some “official amateur status” in my area of expertise and probably I need to start saying so. As a learner who is also a teacher I’d like to share what I know.