Therapy Time: Networked Personal Learning and a Reflection on the Urban Peasant…

Way back when I was a postgrad, I used to spend a coffee fuelled morning reading in bed, and then get up to eat a cooked breakfast whilst watching the Urban Peasant, a home kitchen chef with a great attitude:

My abiding memory, in part confirmed by several of the asides in the above clip (can you guess which?!), was that of “agile cooking” and flexible recipes. A chicken curry (pork’s fine too, or beef, even fish if you like; or potato if you want a vegetarian version) could be served with rice (or bread, or a baked potato); if you didn’t like curry, you could leave out the spices or curry powder, and just use a stock cube. If a recipe called for chopped vegetables, you could also grate them or slice them or dice them or…”it’s your decision”. Potato and peas could equally well be carrot or parsnip and beans. If you needed to add water to a recipe, you could add wine, or beer, or fruit juice or whatever instead; if you wanted to have scrambled egg on toast, you could also fry it, or poach it, or boil it. And the toast could be a crumpet or a muffin or just use “whatever you’ve got”.

The ethos was very much one of: start with an idea, and/or see what you’ve got, and then work with it – a real hacker ethic. It also encouraged you to try alternative ideas out, to be adaptive. And I’m pretty sure mistakes happened too – but that was fine…

When I play with data, I often have a goal in mind (albeit a loose one), used to provide a focus for exploring a data set I want to explore a little (typically using Schneiderman’s “Overview first, zoom and filter, then details-on-demand” approach), to see what potential it might hold, or to act a testbed for a tool or technique I want to try out. The problem then becomes one of coming up with some sort of recipe that works with the data and tools I have to hand, as well as the techniques and processes I’ve used before. Sometimes, a recipe I’m working on requires me to get another ingredient out of the fridge, or another utensil out of the cupboard. Sometimes I use a tea towel as an oven glove, or a fork as a knife. Sometimes I taste the food-in-process to know when it’s done, sometimes I go by the colour, texture, consistency, shape, smell or clouds of smoke that have started to appear.

Because I haven’t had any formal training in any of this “stuff”, using “approved” academic sources (I’ve recently been living by R-Bloggers (which is populated by quite a few academics) and Stack Overflow, for example), I suffer from a lack of confidence in talking about it in an academic way (see for example For My One Thousandth Blogpost: The Un-Academic), and a similar lack of confidence in feeling that I could ever charge anybody a fee for telling them what I (think I) know (leave aside for the moment that I effectively charge the OU my salary, benefits and on-costs… hmmm?!). I used to do the academic thing way back when as a postgrad and early postdoc, but fell out of the habit over the last few years because there seemed to me to be a huge amount of investment of time required for very little impact or consequence of what I was doing. Yes, it’s important for things be “right”, but I’m not sure my maths is up to generating formal proofs of new algorithms. I may be able to do the engineering or technologist thing of getting something working, -ish, good enough “for now”, research-style coding, but it’s always mindful of an engineering style trade-off: that it might not be “right” and is just something I figured out that seems to work, but that it’ll do because it lets me get something done… As Artur Bergman puts it using rather colourful language – “yes, correlation isn’t causation, but…”

(This clip was originally brought to mind by a recent commentary from Stephen Downes on The Internet Blowhard’s Favorite Phrase, and the original post it refers to.)

Also mixed up in the notion of “right” is seeing things as “right” if they are formally recognised or accepted as such, which is where assessment and peer review come in: you let other people you trust make an assessment about whatever it is you do/have done, publicly recognising your achievements which in turn allows you to make a justifiable claim to them. (I am reminded here of the definition of knowledge as justified true belief. That word “justified” is interesting, isn’t it…?)

As well as resisting getting in the whole grant bidding cycle for turnover generating, public money cycling projects that are set up to fail, I’ve also recently started to fall out of OU-style formal teaching roles… again, in part because of the long lead times involved with producing course materials and my preference for network based, rather than teamwork based, working style. (I so need to revisit formal models of teamwork and try to come up with a corresponding formulation for networks rather than teams…Or do a lit review to find one that’s already out there…!) I tend to write in 1 hour chunks based on 3-4 hours work, then post whatever it is I’ve done. One reason for doing this is becuase I figure most people read or do things in 5 to 15 minutes or one to two hour chunks and that in a network-centric, distributed online online educational setting small chunks are more likely to be discoverable and immediately useful (directly and immediately learnable from) chunks. There’s no shame in using a well crafted Wikipedia as a starting point for discovering more detailed – and academic – resources: at least you stand a good chance of finding the Wikipedia page! In the same way, I try to link out out to supporting resources from most of my posts so that readers (including myself as a revisitor to these pages in that set) have some additional context, supporting or conflicting material to help get more value from it. (Related: Why I (Edu)Blog.)

Thinking about my own personal lack of confidence, which in part arises from the way I have informally learned whatever it is that I have actually learned over the last few years and not had it formally validated by anybody else, my interest in espousing an informal style networked learning on others is an odd one… Because based on my own experience, it doesn’t give me the feeling that what I know is valid (justified..?), or even necessarily trustable by anybody other than me (because I know how it’s caveated because of what I have personally learned about it, rather than just being told about it), even if it is pragmatic and at least occasionally appears to be useful. (Hmm… I don’t think an OU editor would let me get away with a sentence like that in a piece of OU course material!) Maybe I need to start keeping a second, formalised reflective learning journal as the OU Skills for OU Study suggests to log what I learn, and provide some sort of indexable and searchable metadata around it? In fact, this approach might be a useful approach if I do another uncourse? (It also brings to mind the word equation: Learning material + metadata = learning object (it was something like that, wasn’t it?!))

To the extent that this blog is an act of informal, open teaching, I think it offers three main things: a) “knowledge transferring” discoverable resources on a variety of specialised topics; b) fragmentary records of created knowledge (I *think* I’ve managed to make up odd bits of new stuff over the last few years…); c) a model of some sort of online distributed network centric learning behaviour (see also the Digital Worlds Uncourse Blog Experiment in this respect).

I guess one of the things I do get to validate against is the real world. When I used to go into schools doing robotics activities*, kids would ask me if their robot or programme was “right”. In many cases, there wasn’t really a notion of “right”, it was more a case of:

  • were there things that were obviously wrong?
  • did the thing work as anticipated (or indeed, did any elements of it work at all?!;-)?
  • were there any bits that could be improved, adapted or done in another more elegant way?

So it is with some of my visualisation “experiments” – are they not wrong (is the data right, is there a sensible relationship between the data and the visual mappings)? do they “work” at all (eg in the sense of communicating a particular trend, or revealing a particular anomaly)? could they be improved? By running the robot program, or trying to read the story a data visualisation appears to be telling us, we can get a sense of how “right” it is; but there is often no single “right” for it to be. Which is where doubt can crop in… Because if something is “not right”, then maybe it’s “wrong”…?

In the world of distributed, networked learning, I think one thing we need to work on is developing an appropriate sense of validation and legitimisation of personal learning. Things like badges are weak extrinsic signs that some would claim have a role in this, but I wonder how networks and communities can be shaped and architected, or how their dynamics might work, so that learners develop not only a well-founded intrinsic confidence about what they have self-learned, but also a feeling that what they have self-learned is as legitimate as something they have been formally taught? (I know, I know: “I was at the University of Life, me”… As I am, now… which reminds me, I’ve a Coursera video and Feynman lecture on Youtube to watch, and a couple of code mentor answers to questions I’ve raised on various Stack Exchange sites to read through; and I probably should check to see if there are any questions recently posted to Stack Overflow that I may be able to answer and use to link out to other, more academic “open educational” resources…)

[Rereading this post, I think I am suffering from a lack of formality and the sense of justification that comes with it. Hmmm…]

* This is something I’ve recently been asked to do again for an MK local primary school in the new year; the contact queried how much I might charge and whilst in the past I would have said “no need”, for some reason this time I felt obliged to seek advice about from the Deanery about whether I should charge, and if so how much. This a huge personal cultural shift away from my traditional “of course/pro bono” attitude, and it felt wrong, somehow. To the extent that universities are public bodies, they should work with other public services in their local and extended communities. But of course, I get the sense we’re not really being encouraged to think of ourselves as public bodies very much any more, we’re commercial services… And that feeling affects the personal responsibility I feel when acting for and on behalf of the university. As it turns out, the Deanery seems keen that we participate freely in community events… But I note here that I felt (for the first time) as if I had to check first. So what’s in the air?

See also: Terran Lane’s On Leaving Academia and (via @boyledsweetie) Inspirational teaching: since when did entertainment not matter?

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...

3 thoughts on “Therapy Time: Networked Personal Learning and a Reflection on the Urban Peasant…”

  1. Very interesting post, Tony.

    Back in the mid ’80s when I (along with many many others) was starting out with computing and IT, when there were no IT courses, it was almost impossible to get informal learning on micro-computers validated. I recall that I became the computer expert in the company I was working at, on the grounds that I was the only one who had a microcomputer (I had a BBC micro that I used mainly for word processing). I recall some extreme moments of ‘personal lack of confidence’, especially when learning the hard way about the critical importance of back-ups and having to design only ‘good enough’ technological solutions. Much of my first 10 years of IT knowledge and understanding was built on experience and various types of informal learning. I then took a few UG and PG Open University modules to fill in some gaps and to formalise the learning with OU certificates I could point to. A year after I stopped doing these courses, the OU offered me a brand new qualification called the ‘Diploma in Systems Practice’, so I do actually have a ‘proper’ qualification in something technical!

    Having worked in my own company since 1998, I’ve had to overcome that feeling that informal learning is somehow not valid or legitimate. I strongly believe that personal learning comes in many shapes and sizes and that formal learning is only a (small) part. It’s what is learned and applied successfully that counts – and of course, unsuccessful application leads to further learning, so it *can* be all good.
    Since about 2005 I’ve been working on / thinking about the concept of ePortfolios and personal learning spaces, both for personal use and also through various JISC-funded and other projects, most often through the University of Nottingham’s Centre for International ePortfolio Development (CIePD). With a good quality ePortfolio service(s), you can obtain and use a framework for private and shared reflection on your personal learning, which can go some way towards validating informal learning, at least in your own mind, I find.

    As a freelancer since 1998, I’ve had to learn new techniques and find those that have ready application to current problems. This sounds quite a lot like your situation. It means I’m a low-level Perl hacker, I can modify bits of PHP or Python (though I don’t programme in them properly), I’ve learnt how to create and how to teach how to create DTDs, schemas and such like, I can ‘do’ requirements engineering (though I have no engineering qualification), I can hand-craft web pages (still), and use a huge range of blatantly useful software. Therefore I have large toolbox to use to make stuff I need to do to earn money.

    My problem is almost the reverse of your’s. I feel that I’d rather some university paid me a salary to follow my interests – which seem to have been of use to the ‘course related information community’ over the years (in the sense that I’ve been paid for projects at least), rather than have to always charge for what I do. I’d love to do some pro bono work, but unfortunately it doesn’t pay the bills.

    My own main reflection on informal learning and the application of it to ‘doing stuff’ is that the proof is in the usefulness or otherwise of the learning. I would say that the material you produce on your blog is, to re-use the term, ‘blatantly useful’, so you must be doing something right, even if it isn’t subject to conventional academic validation.

    Kirstie Coolin at the CIePD is getting more heavily into the open badges idea, as a way of addressing the gap between informal learning and properly validated assessed credential-based learning. I think that it might be possible in the future to marry up the ePortfolios / personal learning spaces / informal learning networks with light-weight recognition such as badges. This type of initiative might result in making more explicit the value of informal learning and expertise not recognised in more conventional ways. And then we might be more confident of the non-validated learning we’ve all amassed.

    1. Ha Alan – thanks for the comment… I know I shouldn’t talk down the really fortunate and priviliged position I am in at the moment, but I increasingly feel that I need to start paying may way within the OU somehow (the charging I have starting trying to levy recently has all been invoiced through the OU: I figure that if I’m not bringing grant money in, I should be bringing consultancy money in; arguing that the payback comes through “generating wider benefits” and “demonstrating impact” (not that anyone can ever tell me what “impact” really means when I ask them?!;-) is, I suspect, going to become harder and harder to get away with!)

  2. So I know this doesn’t really have anything to do with the main point of your post, but – The Urban Peasant! He was a Canadian icon and a total inspiration to me too (I still do most things this way – use what I have at hand, make it work “good enuff.” What a fantastic blast from the past, I had totally forgotten how much I loved his show and his approach.

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