Guerrilla Education: Teaching and Learning at the Speed of News

Wikinomics author Don Tapscott has been at it again, (giving @liamgh yet another Mexican Wave opportunity), complementing a recent essay in which he argues “that the universities are entering a period of crisis” with a linkbait post asking Will universities stay relevant?

[UPDATE: this post is way to much of a ramble; the point is in the last para, republished here because I know you’re just skimming this post and will probably miss it: How about engaging in a bit of guerrilla teaching and looking for opportunities to help people understand something better, or learn how to do something they are currently struggling with. If we help people learn at the point of need, maybe they’ll be inspired enough to engage in more formal learning opportunities? And even if they don’t, maybe we’ll have helped make the world a slightly better informed place? ]

I posted a comment there – for what it’s worth – and by linking back to the post from here as well, I’ll maybe raise my profile on that thread via a trackback (and perhaps even get a tiny bit of traffic from that site flowing this way too;-)

Shameless traffic mongering? You got it!

Anyway, anyway, as I’m here, here’s a quick thought about guerrilla education, and engaging with the news cycle.

Somewhen over the last couple of weeks, I stopped in my tracks whilst reading the opening section of The culture of copying on the BBC News dot life blog:

Oh no: another boring report about piracy by a strange body with an obscure title.

That was my first reaction on getting hold of Copycats? Digital Consumers in the Online Age – a report for the Strategic Advisory Board on Intellectual Property.

But when I read on, the report was full of fascinating insights into the way that we’ve all begun to think about the rights and wrongs of online piracy – or rather, “unauthorised downloading”, which is how this report for the government carefully describes it.

The authors, from University College London, point to evidence that what they amusingly call the “UK’s unauthorised downloading community” now stands at nearly seven million people, and they question the assumption that these are just teenagers and students – it seems older people are downloading too.

What shocked me? Well, here’s a report, maybe interesting, maybe not, in an area that borders on things I’m interested in, that maybe has something to contribute to a course I have a loose affiliation with (Beyond Google: working with information online), written by academics (but does that matter, except maybe I can trust it without further verification…?!) and just released (i.e. the data shouldn’t be more than a couple of years old!;-)

Now the situation as it currently stands is that the media find these reports and then report on them, interpreting the report contents for a larger audience as they do so. Sometimes they even go to academics for further comment (for example, we had a request round for comment on a Sunday Times piece that was being put together yesterday (I wasn’t in a position to field it at the time) and my colleague Ray Corrigan provided a comment for a piece in today’s Technology Guardian (online at Sweden’s Pirate party sails to success in European elections). A sleeper podcast from John Naughton has also picked up significant amounts of traffic lately from the 40th anniversary of the internet (The Internet at 40).

I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that there’s a group in the OU who are currently looking at the way we engage with ‘the wider web’ through the current hotch-potch of web properties such as, OpenLearn and Platform. For those of you who aren’t familiar with these sites: is the site that is used to support OU BBC programmes (the Reith Lectures are a current major feature);
OpenLearn is th home of the OU’s open educational content initiative; and
Platform is the OU’s social soft edges, a community site (open to all, not just OU students, current and past).

(There’s also the OU Research website, which has still (IMHO) yet to find its feet. And the Faculty websites – the Science Faculty website is probably the most engaging at the moment. There are departmental websites too (e.g. my department’s website: Communication and Systems, which is in yet another holding pattern as we wait for yet another relaunch!;-); and there’s the OU Podcast site too, of course (I won’t mention the various Youtube channel pages, iTunesU, Steeple, etc etc;-).)

Of all those sites, news related items feature on a surprising number of them, and yet the disconnect between our formal teaching, and exploiting news related, ad hoc teaching opportunities is significant (although it has to be said that the folks working on /Platfrom do seem to have been keeping an eye and the sorts of thing that are likely to pull in traffic at any given time:-)

Anyway, one of the things I’ve been mulling over for a some time has been the extent to which journalists, academics and students are all engaged in trying to make sense of the world. Timescale is one of the differences, I think? Another is that academics tend to strive for a model of how things work in general (e.g. how populations behave in general), whereas journalists often seem to take a generalised issue and humanise it by illuminating a general case with a particular case (the story of a particular person with a particular condition or in a particular exemplar situation, for example).

So here’s my starter for 10 (which is a shame, because this post is already long enough…): should we as academics be engaging with the news cycle in order to deliver informal, opportunistic “teaching” at the point of need (i.e. at those points where people might be confused about a topic, realising they don’t understand it as well as they might, or where they may be minded to learn more.)

One of the now well worn ways of thinking about this (in the OU and BBC at least) that comes in and out of fashion (current status: IN) is the idea of a learning journey, that takes a generally interested viewer down a path of discovery from an informal encounter with a topic, through some “further information” about the topic, and possibly a free open education course, until they eventually sign up for a formally delivered course.

Traditionally, the OU has had several starting points for learning journeys: BBC driven traffic to, local recruitment onto Openings courses from various regional Widening Participation initiatives, as well as planned (or opportunistic) “marketing” initiatives such as the Outsmart the Recession site. More recently, Platform looks (to me at least) like it’s also trying to deliver contextual/content lead marketing in a community based environment.

(Just by the by, I really think we should be running our own ad-platform across OU sites that serves up personalised course ads and related educational content, cf. Arise Ye Databases of Intention.)

But where else might we provide an entry point to a learning journey. How about out there? How about keeping tabs on what’s going on in the wider world, and us engaging with it, creating opportunities (e..g. by commenting on third party posts) for people to follow a path back to OU sites; and failing that, maybe they’ll learn something useful from us anyway (we are paid for using public funds, after all). How about engaging in a bit of guerrilla teaching and looking for opportunities to help people understand something better, or learn how to do something they are currently struggling with. If we help people learn at the point of need, maybe they’ll be inspired enough to engage in more formal learning opportunities? And even if they don’t, maybe we’ll have helped make the world a slightly better informed place?

Or not…

PS if there’s an argument in there somewhere that I’m fumbling towards, it maybe contains some or all of the following pieces:
– good advertising (relevant, timely, appropriate) is content;
– people need help to understand the news (readers as well as journalists);
– educational material is content;
– educational material sampled from a course may act as a tease, advert or lead-in for that course;
– if someone learns something from content that’s a Good Thing;
– people don’t just learn when they’re studying a formal course;
– there’s news everyday (i.e. lots of opportunities to wrap new content with other content);
– news is often syndicated;
– news can provide context for learning;
– any given learning topic may provide a context for republishing news stories;
– etc…


Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

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