Are you a digital polymath?


Screen Shot 2017-08-25 at 10.02.57I think it might have been an bit of a radio interview early one morning a couple of weeks ago that got me thinking about polymaths. It was one of those just waking up moments so I didn’t get a lot of context, but I now have figured out that it probably was a bit of BBC trailer disguised as in interview thing, for a programme aired early this week on Radio 4 –  Monkman and Seagull’s Polymathic Adventure.

The hosts, Monkman and Seagull led teams on last year’s university challenge and both were memorable for their quizzing prowess and become almost instant social media celebs (well in the UK anyway).

The half hour programme is a good overview of the history, rise and fall(?) of the polymath. Well certainly from a Western European perspective and is well worth a listen.

Through conversations with a range of academics, and ubiquitous polymath, Stephen Fry our hosts tried to get answers from questions such as, is it possible to be a useful know it all in the 21st century?  is the notion of the polymath an outdated concept harking back to the renaissance?  Even by the 18th century there was a developing discourse around the need for specialists as opposed to polymaths. At that point it was felt that the world was too complex for anyone to have in-depth cross disciplinary knowledge.

So in the 21st century when knowledge and information is being created and shared at an ever increasing rate is there a role for the polymath? Is it even possible to be an expert across multiple domains just now?

There was a really interesting thread running through the programme about the differences between specialists and polymaths. In terms of education are we forcing specialisms at too early an age?  There was a striking comment that actually that any paradigm shifts in any discipline might actually need the input from those with a broader perspective.

When talking about the characteristics of the polymath, Stephen Fry described himself as someone who has “learnt a lot not someone who knows a lot”.  His greed for knowledge he likened to putting on epistemological weight (sic).

Of course underlying the whole programme and concept was education. The conclusions, were around the challenges of contributing to new knowledge and making connections/communicating knowledge between specialists and new audiences. That sounds quite a lot like a large part of a learning technologists/educational developer role to me.

I can’t remember if it was Seagull or Monkman who concluded that for it it was ultimately about  “what you do with what you know and make a positive difference in other people’s lives”.  Sounds a lot like teaching to me.

The whole programme got me think about digital capabilities too. Perhaps that is where the future of the polymath may lie.  The focus an developing digital capabilities could help us develop a new 21st notion of a digital polymath, someone who has a broad knowledge and in-depth understanding of using digital tools, which in turn should help many, not just the few make a positive difference in their own and others lives.

I often feel that my role is a bit like being a jack of all trades, so the notion of being a digital polymath does help make sense of that a bit. I still won’t ever make it onto University Challenge . . . but I can live with that.

NMC Digital Literacy take 2: the power of a good rant

I was pleased to spot last night that the NMC has published its second Horizon Project Strategic Brief on Digital Literacy :

a follow-up to its 2016 strategic brief on digital literacy. Commissioned by Adobe, this independent research builds upon the established baseline definitions of digital literacy from the 2016 brief, examining digital literacy through a global and discipline-specific lens to reveal new contexts that are shaping the way learners create, discover, and critically assess digital content.

Now,  dear Reader,  you may remember when their first one came out last year, it provoked me to have, as they say here in Glasgow “a right good rant“.  My rantiness seemed to strike a chord and, as wordpress likes to tell me now and again, got my stats booming.  It’s also caught the eye of the folks at NMC who got in touch and we exchanged a few emails about my concerns with the first report.

The second version is much better. It isn’t being driven by products (one of my main concerns about the first report)  but by international research and practice. I was particularly pleased to see the work of Helen Beetham and Jisc featuring.

Now I know that my rant wasn’t responsible for this change of heart, but it is always gratifying when one of my (quite frequent) rants actually seems to chime with others and more importantly I can see something tangible a few months later.  Just shows that sharing your views does matter and can make a difference.

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2Oth Century fiction and 21st Century Facts – trying to find the words

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Sometimes it is hard to write. Like many people I am struggling to comprehend and article what is going on in the world right now.  Catherine found some beautiful words as did Anne Marie calling it like it is.  Audrey reminded us of the need to teach history.   Being able to connect with the Hybrid Pedagogy folks last week once again reminded me of the joy, simplicity and complexity of connections and context.

During a conversation last week I mentioned that I had never read any John Le Carre. The next day I was given a copy of Call for the Dead, the first outing of his quiet (anti) hero, George Smiley.  Reading that book which is set post WW2, pre cold war, in a post cold war, as close to the start of WW3 as we’ve been this century, almost a century on from the end  WW1 was quite something. Particularly for someone who grew up during the height of the cold war. I have been reflecting if that is why I’ve never really engaged with thriller/espionage fiction.  It all comes back to context.

The narrative is still relevant, governments are still involved in covert operations based on political and economic ideologies,  but the pace is almost surreal in the 21st Century. Our hero gets bashed on the head, spend three weeks in hospital and is still able “hot on the trail” when he sort of recovers.  In our instant, internet age that would never happen? Well it would be very unlikely and certainly in fiction, everyone would have been “locked and loaded” within about 3 minutes.

Last night just before listening to the fabulous radio adaptation of Midnight’s Children (again particularly relevant as we mark the 70th anniversary of the partition of India), Salman Rushdie said in relation to the current political climate in India

“the world is full of things no one saw coming but here they are”

But maybe we did see them coming, we just didn’t want to talk about the consequences of displacing millions of people, the consequences of a President not condemning white supremacists, a government using “the will of the people” to justify an weak, unstable and unplanned exit from the European Union.

We need to talk, we need to call out, we need to share, we need to be able to contexualise – as educators we need to help our students contextualise this increasingly crazy world, to understand the need for context for politics, for action, to question status quo news narrative, to help create and share the truth.

I still don’t have the right words, but I do know now, more than ever our political leaders need to find them. They need to be able to articulate their views, to lead with compassion, with humanity, with grounded understanding of history and the consequences of inaction, of meaningless and provocative soundbites.  They will be judged, but by then it might be too late for the rest of us.

What I did on my holidays . . . some thoughts on NGLEs

I’m just settling back into work after my annual summer holiday. I did my very best not to check work email or twitter and to slow down my digital networking activities, and keep any activity purely related to the nicer things in life.  But I did have a holiday experience that made me reflect a lot on work and some of the discussions around the Next Generation Learning Environment (NGLE) that have been floating around the twitter/blog-o-spheres recently.

Luckily for me and my not quite full powered brain, Anne Marie Scott has written a really thoughtful  blog post about the recent NGLE debate, which highlights a number of concerns I share, particularly around the apparent lack of student involvement in some work, data presumptionism (not sure if that is a word!)  and the technocentric stance that seems to be underpinning much of the debate. I urge you to read the post, and have a think about Temporary Autonomous Zones.

But back to my holiday.  I spent a week in the Lake District on a painting holiday called Colour Expression with Mixed Media.  Now, although this was an informal learning experience there were a number of elements of a learning environment involved.

In terms of an NGLE, it certainly was for my next generation in that the average age on the course was about 75.  Whilst I got some amusement from the long lost thrill of being the youngest person in the room, it was an eye opener of the potentially good things I could spend my time doing when I (if I can actually afford to) retire.

The learning space, both in the centre and when we were working en plein air were flexible.  We all had to bring our own materials (byod if you like) so that gave another level of personalisation and flexibility. The supporting structures around the course were great –  very helpful staff,  great food, lovely location, free wifi.

wild fowers and hills

However despite all this I found the experience to be not quite what I had expected. It was in parts quite surreal – a bit like being in an extended Victoria Wood sketch –  and in parts quite frustrating.   The frustration was caused by a really crucial element in any learning environment – the teacher.

Unfortunately my “teacher” had no understanding of some of the basic elements of what makes a good learning and teaching experience.  Although a competent painter, he lacked some basic facilitation and people skills.

He had a great time all week. I’m not sure he even realised that some of us didn’t quite get the same thrill from hearing all about him, all about the gear you “must have”,  the (very expensive) paper you need to use (which handily he could sell us at a more reasonable rate) all week that he did.  There was no attempt to get us to share experiences, have some fun working together, and don’t even start me about critique and review. . . it was quite amazing and amusing (in the wtf sense) how that all came back to his work.

All of this had a huge impact on my learner experience. I spent much of the week frustrated and that impacted on my work,  my confidence and my overall enjoyment of the experience.

However, I did learn a lot about what I don’t want to do in terms of my artistic endeavours and hat I should do some more research on tutors and venues before signing on the dotted line.  It also reaffirmed in my head the role of the teacher within any learning environment.  In that week I lacked scaffolding, I needed someone with the pedagogical (innate or more learned) knowledge and understanding to encourage and support me, to care about my learning experience, to help me turn my frustrations into something more positive.  Someone who could adapt a fairly flexible learning design into a really effective and personsalised experience. There were only 7 of us on the course.

Now I have been around a bit and so have the self regulated learning skills to be able to reflect on this experience and actually turn it into something more positive. But many of our students don’t. It was also only a week of my life and it has given me a whole new range of anecdotes. However it was a salient reminder of the lack of understanding of the art of teaching.

Discussions around the future/next generation learning environments shouldn’t presume that personalised, data driven, adaptive learning is the holy grail for a successful learning experience. Whilst I’m all for interoperable, light weight services being easily available, we can’t forget the need for the teacher; the need ensure that our teaching staff have the time to reflect on their practice, learn how to use some of the new “stuff” that is out there to really make our old, current and next generation learning environments really effective.