About Michael Hammond

I am interested in social research, new technology and education. I work at the University of Warwick.

Reporting Atrocity (3): Lidice Shall Live

10 June (the date of this post) is the anniversary of the Lidice massacre in what is now the Czech republic.   If the previous two posts were about disinformation then in this case the facts are not denied.  On 27 May 1942, members of the Czechoslovak resistance wounded Reinhard Heydrich, a top Nazi official in an ambush. Heydrich died a few days later. Hitler was incandescent and ordered the destruction of Lidice in revenge. There was, as far as I know, no particular reason to pick on Lidice though the Germans claimed that two families from the town of Lidice were in some way connected to the Czech resistance. 

Over two days, June 9–10,  German police and SS officials destroyed the town. The Germans shot 173 men (and boys over fifteen) as well as seven of the women. The rest of the women (including girls 16 and older) were sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp where many of them died. Lidice was burned the town to the ground and a further 20 townspeople were executed. Lidice was to be erased from the map of Europe.

Most of Lidice’s children were sent to Lodz, a city in German-occupied Poland. There, nine of the children were judged as sufficiently Germanic to be given new German names and taught to speak German. There were then placed with adoptive German parents. Many of the other children were sent to camps and killed outright. 

The massacres at Lidice became well-known around the world. There were atrocities on a larger scale throughout the second world war but Lidice really caught the imagination of ordinary public as well as world leaders. Solidarity events were held and ‘Lidice Shall Live’ campaigns were set up. In Britain there was a particularly strong response in the city of Stoke through the efforts of Barnett Stross, a doctor, local councillor and labour activist. There was also an evocative film produced in Wales by the wartime Crown Film Unit entitled ‘The village that died’. This was a reimagining of the events as though happening in a village in Wales. For many the film captured what was at stake in fighting the war. 

Lidice was rebuilt after the war and a museum and memorial site were agreed. Many of the Lidice survivors worked at the memorial and so kept the story alive in Czechoslavakia (as was) and throughout the world. 

There was a connection with my city, Coventry, as an official twinning arrangement with Lidice was set up in 1947. The city donated the first 1,000 roses for the memorial garden in Lidice and peace committees from other countries donated thousands more. (The rose grower and media personality Harry Wheatcroft was called in to design the rose garden and he produced a new variety: the Lidice Rose.) 

There has never been a counter narrative about Lidice.  Hitler did not seek to deny the massacre took place, but quite the opposite had the story broadcast around the world and produced pictures to back up the account.  However, remembering Lidice is not entirely devoid of controversy. It was suggested by one Czech historian that a Jewish woman, who had been secretly living in Lidice, had been denounced by a neighbour – this happened before the massacre took place. This was rejected by Czech authorities and it led to the departure of Martina Lehmannová, director of the Lidice memorial, who felt that academic freedom was in danger if we could not discuss the past openly. 

On a wider scale, questions have been asked about who and how we remember. For example, why were allied governments were so quick to take Lidice to their hearts and not the plight of Jews in the concentration camps? But that is another question. Enough to say on this day that ‘Lidice Shall Live’.

Notes

The story of the massacre told in many places including a particularly accessible account at the encyclopaedia produced by the United States Holocaust Museum [online] 

https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/lidice

Within the same site there is also a clip from the testimony of Maria Doležalová speaking at the war crimes trial  

https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn1000383

Maria Doležalová (her later married name was Marie Šupíková) recently died – see Radio Prague International for a pen portrait.

https://english.radio.cz/memoriam-marie-supikova-one-last-survivors-lidice-massacre-8712796\

There are various blogs which recall the Lidice massacre including: 

‘Lidice lives’ a blog by an academic by Elizabeth Černota Clark, at Texas State University School.

https://lidicelives.wp.txstate.edu

‘Cultural value’ blog site produced by academic colleagues at Staffordshire University, in Stoke.  

https://blogs.staffs.ac.uk/culturalvalue/

There are photos of the village before and after the razing of the village on a web site produced by ‘Dobromysl’ (sorry I cannot provide more details of the site owners).  

http://www.indiannet.eu/galerie-exhib09.html

The controversy around academic freedom is covered in the Guardian newspaper

Tait, R. (2020)  Czech village razed by Hitler at heart of row on truth and history, Guardian 24 March 2020  

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/14/lidice-czech-village-razed-by-hitler-truth-history-row

You can view the film ‘The Village that died’ for free at the British Film Instittute web site:

https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-the-silent-village-1943-online

For more on Barnett Stross, who comes over as a remarkable man, go to a local history of Stoke web site (be sure to scroll down the page to see relevant pictures) 

http://www.thepotteries.org/portraits/007.htm

There is more on Harry Wheatcroft from his son at the Garden Trust web site:

Reporting Atrocity (2)

Discussion of the reporting of the war in Ukraine takes me back to a much more serious case of misinformation / disinformation in UK some years back. This concerned a libel of UK television reporters Penny Marshall and Ian Williams in an article published way back in February 1997.

The bare facts are that ‘Living Marxism’ a newspaper of a little known trotskyist group had published an article by the German journalist Thomas Deichmann casting doubt on the conditions experienced by Bosnian muslims in two Serb-run camps in Bosnia. The focus for the article was the claim that these reporters had deliberately misrepresented the image of an emaciated Bosnian muslim, Fikret Alic, to show him being caged behind barbed wire at Trnopolje camp, something achieved by careful use of ‘camera angles and editing’. In fact the article went on to argue the muslims in the camp were there for their own protection and free to come and go as they wished. The report ran under the headline ‘the picture that fooled the world’.The television journalists sued and the case finally made its way through court with a decision reached in March 2000.

It is not really clear to me why LM ran the story but it looked part of an unlikely morphing from a far left group to a more loosely aligned group of libertarians; part of this process seemed a desire to take up contrarian positions almost as a matter of principle, especially positions which would provoke the liberal left.   The verdict of the jury was clear: the journalists had been libelled and, unable to pay damages, the magazine folded. As far as I know no-one connected with the magazine LM apologised, quite the contrary. Yet this did not stop Thomas Dietrich or the publishers of LM from becoming media personalities, and in one case being a regular guest on the BBC. 

Notes

Discussion of these camps has remained a difficult issue in Serbia and the story of denial has run and run with a recent film on Serbian television again arguing that the camps were there to protect Muslims. In response Fikret Alic is reported as saying:

It is unfortunate to see that today some people make fun of our suffering and deny it, although personally I don’t pay too much attention to it, because I know what we lived through. This is not a matter of opinion, as our testimonies and the trials in British and Bosnia-Herzegovina courts confirmed. I think it would be good to punish the genocide deniers in order to look ahead to the future. And that requires a clear picture of what happened, and means facing the truth.

Source: Pita, A. (2022) Man whose harrowing image defined Bosnian conflict takes denialists to court.html El Pais 4 January 2022

https://english.elpais.com/usa/2022-01-04/man-whose-harrowing-image-defined-bosnian-conflict-takes-denialists-to-court.html

For a detailed account of the trial and an exploration of media reporting try:

Campbell, D. (2002). Atrocity, memory, photography: Imaging the concentration camps of Bosnia–the case of ITN versus Living Marxism, Part 1. Journal of Human Rights, 1(1), 1-33.

One journalist who reported on the camps but who was not part of the libel claim discussed his experiences nearer the time of the original report:

Vulliamy, E. (1997) I stand by my story, Observer, 2 February 1997.

https://www.theguardian.com/itn/article/0,,191236,00.html


Reporting Atrocity 1

The other day BBC Radio carried a programme on academics who had tweeted or retweeted posts that cast doubt on atrocities carried out by Russian soldiers during the Ukraine war. (There is at the time of writing access to both the programme, ‘File on Four: Ukraine: The disinformation war’, and transcript of the broadcast at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0017thr)

The focus was on the discovery of over 1,000 corpses in the village of Bucha just East of Ukraine, many of the bodies were found with their hands tied behind their backs. The evidence seems clear: they were killed by Russian soldiers and indeed satellite images show corpses lying in the street days before the Russian occupiers left the city. But the Kremlin said that not a single civilian was injured and instead the Russians are the victims of a hoax. This was a deliberate attempt to mislead – as the programme makers have it to disinform or, in simple language, lie – about the killings. However, some saw support in the Russian position in that the Mayor of Bucha did not mention the bodies when celebrating the liberation of the village.

The Mayor’s comments (or lack of comment) were tweeted or retweeted by various people including it seems a London based academic who was concerned that we gave space to both sides of the story even if he was, in his own words, very much anti Putin and against the invasion of Ukraine. However, by giving space to the Russian claims he was accused of sending out misinformation (the accidental sharing of false narratives).

The second case was similar and concerned the Russian claim that they had not shelled a maternity hospital in Mariupol in the south of the country. This shelling made headlines around the world, not least as there was something shocking about the juxtaposition of bombs and rubble and of all things a maternity hospital.  The claim by the Russians was that Ukrainian forces were being hosted in the hospital and again an academic in Scotland shared this claim in a tweet. However, it seemed later that in making their case the Russians were referring to hospital number 1 some miles away and not hospital number 3, the maternity hospital. Again the academic explained that he was not a supporter of Putin or the invasion but claimed that it was important to hear both sides, not just to rely on Western reports.

I think in both cases discussed in the programme the academics were treated harshly – the examples might have made a small item on a current affairs programme rather than merit a full ‘File on Four’. You might also get the impression from the programme that universities and university staff are neutral when it comes to the war when in fact like the rest of the country they are firmly behind the Ukrainians in this conflict. However, there is a real problem in my mind in the way the academics talked about the cases. Yes it is important to hear both sides but it is not right to suggest that there is an equivalence in the reliability of the reporting from in this case western media and Russian lies.

Of course we never know 100 percent what really happened if we were not there and no reporting can ever completely capture the entire truth. However, I have, when it comes to the reporting of the Ukraine war, an overwhelming sense that the reporters from western news organisation such as BBC, Deutsche Welle, NBC are trustworthy and have no professional interest in misleading us. Of course, they have their own biases but they do report critically on the actions of their own governments and in the case of Ukraine there is no clear reason why they would want to misinform. Intuitively these reports seem highly likely. Invading armies from every nation end up committing atrocities and who would not expect a hospital to be bombed either by accident or design? In contrast, Russian officials have habitually lied and in many cases seem completely blasé about lying. To repeat these lies and question what people have suffered without strong grounds for doing so seems particularly cruel.

What I take away from this episode is that when academics engage with wider society (and they are rightly being encouraged to do so) we do not get a free pass – our motives are going to be questioned. I also learn from this that Tweets and retweets are not the way to put out nuanced arguments – it is too easy to give credence to a viewpoint through a Tweet and without taking responsibility for the view expressed.

For more on this

The stories are well covered in a various of news items, see for example

‘Life under Russian forces in Ukraine’ BBC 6 April

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-7KaGZ7WPk

Ukraine accuses Russia of bombing children’s hospital in Mariupol Al Jeezera 9 March 2022

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/3/9/ukraine-accuses-russia-of-bombing-childrens-hospital-in-mariupol

Culture Wars: when did they start?

I am not sure there is agreement on what a culture war is but for me it is not simply disagreement over a policy or idea, or even heated disagreement, but the kind of disagreement which does not allow for compromise or acceptance that the other side has a point.  As such you are not just arguing about x or y but there is something more at stake in terms of identity, including party political identification, going on beneath the surface. To be a culture war and not simply a skirmish, the argument needs to be taken up by large groups of people in society – something that tears families and friends apart. [1]

The best example, we had in UK of a full-on culture war in terms of scale and refusal to listen to the other side was the Brexit referendum. However, over time Brexit has lost its potency: many of those that voted remain have reluctantly accepted they lost the vote, and many of those that voted leave see little to revel in.  Of course, we do have culture skirmishes on topics such as taking the knee, taking down statues of civic leaders involved in the slave trade and what should be included in the school history curriculum. These are all important issues, and anyone offering forthright views might be pilloried on social media and, if high profile enough, subject to hate mail and worse, but most of these skirmishes have not really hit home beyond supporters of different positions, at least not on the same scale as appears the case in USA. Two examples of this less fevered atmosphere are vaccinations (over which there is a huge consensus that they are good thing) and mask wearing which is supported by voters of all parties in more or less equal measure, though supporters may differ a little on the reasons they do so. [2]

This talk of culture wars is by way of reviewing Jon Ronson’s new series ‘Things fell apart’. Ronson’s niche as a journalist is dealing with off the wall opinions, often beliefs in conspiracy theories. When presenting he is is ‘faux naif’; he is rarely shocked, more curious, about why people think such outlandish things with such apparent conviction. 

To give a flavour of Ronson’s earlier work, have a look at his documentary on David Icke [3]

Icke was a minor sports commentator in UK but achieved notoriety in the early 1990s when he took the mantle of ‘son of the godhead’ upon himself and made apocalyptical predictions about the disasters about to befall the earth.  Later, he offered more off-the-wall ideas including, reportedly, the idea that reptilian beings had taken over leading positions on earth. Ronson followed Icke on a tour of Canada and while his stance is not sympathetic Ronson does not mock in the way that Icke was routinely mocked by most commentators. Reflecting later on conspiracists, Ronson became more concerned by their psychopathic behaviour but this did not stop him recognising the following they attracted. Writing in 2021 he noted: 

… there was something that the mainstream media, in its hubris, failed to notice about David Icke: a growing number of people were feeling more aligned to him than to his tormentors. These were people who also, for their own reasons, felt ridiculed and shut out of the culture. And so when Icke re-emerged with his paedophile lizard theory he immediately began selling out concert halls across the world. It was an incredibly surprising and, I suspect, spiteful story born from injury: conspiracy theory as grievance storytelling. And it was a dangerous theory, with its appeals to paranoia and delusion. [4]

In this present series on BBC radio [5] Ronson is building on his work in the field of conspiracy theories to ask when did issues that should have been questions of reasonable debate become toxic, in other words when did arguments about school textbooks, abortion and today vaccination against Covid and mask wearing become part of a culture war? This leads him to the USA and in the first of his series he covered the abortion debate. 

It was surprising to me and I guess to most of his UK listeners to find that abortion was not a key concern of evangelical Christians in the 1970s or even at the time of the Roe v Wade case back in 1973.  As Ronson explains abortion was very much catholic territory but this changed and one key player in making this happen was Frank Schaeffer. Perhaps Ronson is bigging up Frank’s influence, but it is a good story nonetheless. Schaeffer produced a film for his father, Francis, to illustrate his grand opus on belief and civilisation, ‘Should We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture’. The film ended up as a ten-part series looking at large themes of art, history and culture. As a film it is low budget and clunky, especially so after all these years, but it has to said by and large it works. There is a lot of talking to camera but the backdrops change and documentary footage is frequently spliced in dramatic effect (not sure if there were copyright infringement here but never mind). Francis comes over as stern and unyielding as a narrator but speaks clearly; he does not rant and rave, and he has a genuine interest in art and civilisation.  What particular appealed to evangelical audiences was that he was saying it was alright to be interested in culture and so gave religious belief some gravitas and a sense of higher purpose.  That said, the films are, from my point of view, largely propagandist and the relentless message is humanism (in Francis’s view the mistaken idea is that we all have a right to express our agency, and the right to use reason to set out laws to address the problems of the day) is failing, we should get back to the word of God to regulate our affairs. [6]

Ronson is interested in these films as abortion is thrown in towards the end of the series as illustrative of the perils of secularism. Apparently, its inclusion had come about as Frank had linked the ‘pro-life (or anti pro-choice)’ argument with his own experience of having become a father, rather than any insistence from Francis.  The film was shown to large evangelical Christian audiences in USA as well as countries in Europe. Frank had a keen eye for publicity to trigger initial interest and after that it became a a word-of-mouth phenomenon. 

‘Should We Then Live’ was followed up with the much less popular ‘Whatever Happened to the Human Race?. This differed in that the anti-abortion stance was laid on with a trowel. There were repeated images of gurgling babies contrasted with gruesome images of dolls floating around in the Dead Sea to represent aborted foetuses. According to Frank he had to push and push to get evangelicals to take notice of the film and they only did so when it had generated sufficient controversy. This led Frank to take the ‘credit’ (in inverted commas as he came to regret his stance and disowned the evangelical movement) for tying in anti-abortion positions to evangelical Christianity. 

It seems clear that Francis and Frank Schaeffer played a part in making abortion a left-right issue but others point to baser political concerns. Jimmy Carter was standing for re-election. As it happened events in Iran scuppered his chances but this was not to be known at the time and opponents were looking to drive a wedge between the liberal Carter (who described himself as a born-again evangelical Christian) and evangelical voters. Abortion was the issue to do this and it was pursued relentlessly by Republican strategists iin the service of Ronald Reagan, the republican challenger who ironically had enacted some of the most liberal abortion laws as state governor in California. Increasingly from then on abortion became a toxic political issue [7].

Ronson is a good story teller and the idea of understanding how culture wars began is a good one: we need to remember when it became normal to refuse to listen to the other side.   What we learn is that culture wars did not begin with the internet but were always there. Abortion became an issue of political identification through using old style media, interest group networks, print advertising coupled with party political manipulation. Maybe divisions later became amplified by social network algorithms and online echo chambers but the process is not inevitable. The conditions existed for abortion to be a touchstone issue in England (it remains so in Northern Ireland) but it did not happen. Of course, this might all change, but we need  sociological and political explanations as well as technological explanations to explain how and why they do.  

Notes

[1] Writing about his stint as Washington correspondent the BBC correspondent Jon Sopel started by mentioning the things he most liked about living in the USA but then commented on growing culture wars in US. He felt that the list of of no-go topics for the thanksgiving dinner table is now so extensive, that many families have simply decided it is better to call the whole thing off  https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-59395804

[2] See Chris Anderson and Sara Hobolt (2020) No partisan divide in willingness to wear masks in the UK

[3] The Secret Rulers of the World – David Icke, The Lizards and The Jews – Jon Ronson was broadcast 6 May 2001 it is to that easy to find but try https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HBMw2QErYzs

[3] Things Fell Apart available as a podcast on BBC and other outlets https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/series/m0011cpr

[4] This is from Channel 4 in UK but not difficult to track down on YouTube and other networks.

[5] Jon Ronson (2021) Making sense of conspiracy theorists as the world gets more bizarre, The Observer, 11 April, 2021

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/apr/11/making-sense-of-conspiracy-theorists-as-the-world-gets-more-bizarre

[6] How Should We Then Live (1977) is easily tracked down on YouTube and other outlets

[7] See Luis Josué Salés (2021) Christian attitudes surrounding abortion have a more nuanced history than current events suggest, The Conversation, 13 July 2021 7]

https://theconversation.com/christian-attitudes-surrounding-abortion-have-a-more-nuanced-history-than-current-events-suggest-162560

Seeing through other eyes: City twinning

I have covered more global themes on this blog but now something local. Coventry, where I live, has been putting on events as part of its UK City of Culture status. There is very little extra money associated with becoming a city of culture but it is a good boost for community arts around the city and provides a focus for doing the city up. The programme has been delayed by COVID but you can see more here. Coventry UK city of culture 2021: https://coventry2021.co.uk

The University of Warwick, where I work, is half in Coventry and half in Warwick. It has traditionally been keener about the Warwick link probably because it taps into Shakespeare and heritage. However, the university, along of course with the city centre Coventry University, has been very supportive of the City of Culture and has sponsored various projects.

University of Warwick support for city of culture https://warwick.ac.uk/about/cityofculture/

The project I have been involved in has been about city twinning. We carried out research using archives, interviews with people who had exchanged visits and with people who had come to live in Coventry. We created a web site as a resource on twinning and we worked with local artist, Gemma Foy, to produce a short animation.

Our web site https://warwick.ac.uk/coventrytwinning

The project focused on Coventry and the story is distinctive. Twinning was a response to the destruction carried out in the second world war (1939-1945) and to a subsequent desire for Coventry to be a city of peace and reconciliation. In recent years Coventry has gone on to become an international city and some of our twinned city links reflect the diverse communities we have in our city.

Through the project we came to see how exchange can create enduring links between people and places even when national politics become fractured.

So what is the recurring value of twinning? We come back to a theme which was raised by everyone to whom we spoke– that of broadening horizons. To us as educationalists this is a powerful message as education aims not only to provide young people with skills and knowledge but a sense of curiosity as to how others live. The history of twinning gives us powerful insight into how we can see through other eyes and learn that we are all fundamentally similar when it comes to our hopes and anxieties, even if we differ according to accident of birth and upbringing.

We were funded by a small grant from the university’s City of Culture fund and from Coventry Creates, a joint Coventry and Warwick university initiative to support the City of Culture. We acknowledge the support of the Coventry Association for International Friendship.

We are talking about the work online Thursday 24 June, at 12.00 UK time.

Click here to join the meeting

Remembering school

In the London Review of Books the other day, the academic Laura Finlayson wrote a short memoir on her school days [1] . She was very far from happy and she explains:

When I was thirteen, I left school and never went back. I don’t remember much about my last day. I don’t remember what lessons I had, or what I did when I got home. I only remember trying to make a mental recording as I walked down the corridors, into the foyer, out the automatic doors and onto the bus. I’d made a decision not to tell anybody I was leaving and waited until the end of the autumn term so that nobody would know what I’d done until the new year. It would be my own secret, daunting escape. My private anti-climax.

I was jolted reading her account as it took me back to my own feelings about school, which were similarly negative, and my belief at the time that there was something going on in the everyday routines of schooling that had little to do with learning. I also identified with Finalyson’s uncertainty in dealing with authority. As she put it, she had ‘little appetite for a confrontation I knew would be futile.’

Like Finlayson I left school early (at 16) and enjoyed learning in adult education and further education. However, my path diverged strongly in that I became a school teacher, though like many of my colleagues at that time more by accident than design.  Unexpectedly, I became a fan of school. I was fortunate that in my first post I saw some excellent teaching and not the kind of arbitrary power that knocked me off balance as teenager.  I wrote about  some of these experiences in reflection on technology and teaching:

What struck me was the deep moral compass of the school.  It had, at the time, a remarkable mix of students from different ethnic backgrounds and it sought very much to create a sense of belonging for all students and for the wider community. For example, music teachers promoted a strongly inclusive steel band, ‘community’ languages were taught, some post 16 teaching was open to the community and at Christmas lunches were put on for local pensioners. Many teachers spent a lot of time mentoring youngsters both informally and formally. I saw impressive ‘active’ tutorial work and a constant appeal to students to behave responsibly and be reasonable when considering other people.  Those struggling for language or other reasons were given whatever boost to self-esteem and self-confidence was possible.  I remember one girl, let us call her Shahira, an eleven year old who had been working with a teaching assistant in one of my mathematics classes. The assistant sent her to me to show off some work she had done. I said ‘thanks that was good, well done’. Perhaps it was a shade perfunctory and Shahira looked a little disappointed. The teaching assistant picked up on this and said: “well done Shahira, this is very good, you are pleased with it? Mr Hammond is very pleased with it, shall we now show the head of the department and see if he is pleased with it?”. Shahira duly went out to show her work to the head of department and was told, with more enthusiasm than I had mustered, how well she had done. The point is that the teaching assistant understood Shahira’s fragility as a learner in a way that I did not. She would not let Shahira go until she had been convinced about the value of her work and was willing to accept that she had the capacity to learn. I know this kind of reinforcement is maddening for conservative commentators who see explicit ranking of performance as core to the work of a school and ultimately in the best interests of students themselves. However, the liberal ethos in my school was very inspiring for me and very different from my own schooling.  I had never properly understood what it might be like to struggle academically before. 

Later I was involved in teacher training and what saddened me most in Finlayson’s account is that she was referring back to the late 1990s when I was regularly visiting schools and observing new teachers. This was, I firmly believed, the start of a golden age of teaching and by 2010 Ofsted (the inspection service) claimed that we had the best trained teachers of a generation; unusually I thought they were right. So I came to love many things about schools and remain instinctively defensive of teachers and teachers even though now my work has taken me into different directions. This defensive has only increased during COVID as I am very aware of the work teachers have been doing, not just to keep learning going, but to make sure children from deprived areas have access to food [3]. Yet, I welcomed Finalyson’s account and I am very conscious that schools do not work for everyone and for that matter did not work for me.

[1] Finlayson, L. (2021) I was a Child Liberationist, London Review of Books, 43, 4 [online] https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v43/n04/lorna-finlayson/diary

[2] Hammond, M. (2014) My work among the keyboards: Remembering the early use of computers in the classroom in (Eds) A. Tatnall Reflections on the History of Computers in Education. Berlin: IFIP Springer.

[3] Butler, P. (2021) One in five UK schools has set up a food bank in Covid crisis, survey suggests, Guardian, 4 March, 2021 [online] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/mar/04/rise-in-food-banks-in-uk-schools-highlights-depth-of-covid-crisis-survey

School closures and educational disadvantage

We are now getting a better idea of the impact of school closures on children’s education (as I write this some students are going back to school but the picture is mixed, it is still not education as normal). Many schools have been going well beyond what is formally expected in supporting access to free school meals, contacting children at risk and supporting children on-line but there is overwhelming evidence that children’s learning has been adversely affected.

I noted in my previous blog that I was struck by the growth in live classes during this period of ‘lock down’ – i.e. synchronous classes where the teacher tries to as far as possible teach over Zoom, Teams or the equivalent in a style that mimics as far as possible what they would do in a physical classroom. Before ‘lock down’ live classes were very rare though I do remember some initiatives for hard to reach children, for minority subjects such as Latin when there not the numbers to teach in school, and on-line classes for gifted and talented students across a cluster of schools. Live classes were rare in most other countries too but were, I believe, a feature of rural schools in China.  My own on line teaching during lock down is limited. I have mostly been working  one to one with research students while the university is closed but I have done some live classes.  It is quite doable but there is a sense of talking into a void which makes you realise how many signals you pick up in a face to face classroom in ways that are hard to do on-line, especially if you are working through a presentation on a shared screen. Live classes can also feel overwhelming if you try to follow the chat feedback while listening for on screen questions at the same time. I think this means there is a tendency to ‘overteach’, or less politely talk too long and ask fewer questions, especially as on-line break out groups can be difficult to set up. Of course most school teachers  have been teaching far more live lessons than I have, and have developed confidence and skills with time,  but most look on these as a stop gap until institutions re-open.

So how has online learning been going in the school sector in England? In spite of the best efforts of many parents, teachers and students, recent research is suggesting that it has not been going well. School children are not accessing on-line classes as consistently as they did face to face but more striking is the disparity – the most disadvantaged pupils are getting the least teaching [1]. This seems primarily due to absent or inadequate technology which means that disadvantaged students cannot access the lessons in the first place. It is clear too that disadvantage is self-reinforcing. Parents with higher levels of education and professional jobs are better able to support the children through the school curriculum, are more likely to have networks to support their children’s learning and more likely to have access to adequate technology. They are more likely too to go to schools in which teachers have found it worthwhile to develop on-line resources prior to school closures. In contrast, in many schools in disadvantaged areas teachers have not developed the same level of  innovation on-line as significant numbers of students could not access anything they produced. Educational disadvantage has become a live political issue due to the very visible inequalities during lock down. But, in truth, differentiated outcomes have been particularly stark in England over many years and require something more than a quick fix to address.  School closures have simply accentuated the problem.

[1] Two recent reports give a similar picture:

Lucas, M.,Nelson, J. and Sims, D. (2020)  Schools Responses to Covid-19: Pupil Engagement in Remote Learning, Berkshire: NFER / Nuffield.

Montacute, R. (2020) Social Mobility and COVID-19: Implications of the Covid-19 crisis for educational inequality, London: Sutton Trust.

 

 

 

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What we can learn about technology from school closures?

Technology, Pedagogy and Education, a journal I am close to, has put out a call for papers on the Covid-19 and the role of technology in teaching [1]. The deadline for abstracts is soon, 17 April, so hurry if you are interested.  I’m not writing a paper for it but the lockdown has pushed those of us interested in technology and learning to reflect on how education is coping. Four observations:

  1. The lockdown has shown that there is no mystery, technology will be used when it serves a purpose. Researchers have always fretted that technology seems to be so under-used, but the message is clear that when teaching and institutional objectives align, technology will come into its own [2]. Though having said that I am surprised at the speed with which many institutions have responded and the willingness of so many teachers to suddenly start working online.
  2. We’ll get back into face-to-face teaching again after working online. This is not so much an issue for schools, they need to be face to face, but I think we will see the same in higher education as well.  There will, I hope, be a new flexibility around online learning but I hear from so many people that they do miss the direct contact even if the online teaching has gone better than they thought it would.
  3. Live lessons and webinars have worked. In the past live classes were always the least used of online tools within virtual learning environments, there were too many logistical demands and teachers did not like teaching to camera. Yet, when asked to, teachers have offered bursts of live classroom teaching, in some cases longer lessons.
  4. ‘How do you teach online?’ is still one of the least helpful questions about technology being asked. Instead let’s reframe it as ‘How can you be the kind of teacher you want to be when working at a distance?’. For example if you are an inquiry kind of teacher then get the learners exploring (e.g. ‘Using online and other available sources find out: Where did this Covid-19 virus start?; Why isn’t there a vaccine?; What does the future hold for schooling’ and so on). If you like group work then try asking groups to tackle one or more of the above questions together and report back (either live or by uploading a document to the group forum). If you like guiding learning then offer more input (eg lead the learners through a comparison of a false news site and an authoritative site reporting on Covid-19 and ask them to carry out a short comparison using online sources of their own). Only if that is the kind of lesson you are happy doing should you give them an hour-long live lecture!

I hope your online teaching / learning / entertainment is going well and look forward to talking about our experience when all this is over.

[1] Download here Covid special issue call for papers

[2] I write about this at more length in Hammond, M. (2020) What is an ecological approach and how can it assist in understanding ICT take‐up?, British Journal of Educational Technology, (early view).

Why do some people wear a Fitbit?

I was thinking back to a conference that took place some time ago on the theme of data capture, in particular to the presentations on wearable physical activity devices or trackers [1]. These were still fairly new at the time and I quickly picked up that the people in the audience, most of whom were much younger than me, were quite sniffy about them. This contrasted with their enthusiasm for hearing more about music streaming. We talked about this over coffee and one participant mentioned his disappointment that his partner would only listen to the same songs again and again on Spotify rather than accessing their Daily Mix (a collection designed to extend your listening based on what you had already accessed). I sympathised. In contrast there was not much talk about activity trackers; they were not cool and they were not going to take off.

Well, I don’t think trackers have turned out to be cool but they have slowly taken off, at least among certain social groups, though nothing like to the same degree as social media [2].  But it remains easier to see the limitations of the wearable devices than their advantages [3]. An obvious constraint on take-up is that users have to invest in hardware (wearable devices) to get the full benefit and this costs money and is another piece of kit you need to look after. There are doubts too about the accuracy of trackers and concerns over privacy and sharing of data.  Activity loggers can play into people’s anxiety about health and advertising can take the form of  gender stereotyping.  Ceaseless logging of physical activity can become an end in itself so that you end up gaming the system, e.g choosing your terrain carefully to increase step count. For that matter you can cheat outright – for example by attaching the device to a bike or dog! The key point, however, is that if you are comfortable about your fitness level the devices serve no real purpose; if you are naturally fairly active you just get on with it, you don’t need to measure what you are doing. This is even more the case when it comes to logging sleep activity. Those who sleep well don’t talk about it, record it or even think about it, they just do it.  In fact were they to monitor sleep they might well become more self-conscious and disrupt what was working perfectly for them in the first place.

So why trackers? They can help users who have a special need to focus on physical activity and this seems to be particularly the case as you get older and are aware of becoming less active. The evidence is fairly slim, surprisingly these are still early days in research of activity logging [4], but as Ridgers et al. (2016) put it ‘there are some preliminary data to suggest these devices may have the potential to increase activity levels through self-monitoring and goal setting in the short term’. This is not a ringing endorsement but sounds about right to me.

Aside from large scale quantitative work, we also need to know more about the experiences of wearing these devices. Again there are some papers often based on what particular types of wearer get out of it, e.g. those recovering from serious illness, using activity as part of weight reduction programme, older people. The key point made by Jarrahi et al (2018) is an obvious one, but worth repeating: if you are disposed to see wearable devices as motivating then you will find them to be, if not forget it.

Noticing gaps in the literature I spoke to people I knew who used activity trackers and asked them for their opinions. They had found the devices generally useful as they helped with focusing on activity levels. Users had particular goals in terms of improving fitness or weight watching so that if they noticed their step count was falling they would deliberately do something about it, i.e. go for a run or walk. Some spoke of friendly competition with others. The devices were worthwhile though their usefulness was linked to the short term goals they had set themselves, future use was less clear.

I don’t wear an activity tracker. However, I did once have a Garmin watch which I used for a while for tracking runs. I got some satisfaction from knowing I was improving my speed and I liked to check that I was pacing myself evenly. I got out of the habit of using the device when, as age was catching up on me, my times were getting longer rather than shorter. Of course logging might be most useful when performance is dropping but I felt knowledge of my own tail-off was only go to depress me. I also found charging the device to be a faff and worried about the power running out. At one point I was disappointed about a run because the battery had discharged half-way through and I would not get a full reading to download. This was ridiculous. Why did I need to measure it to believe I had done it and enjoyed it? However, even if I no longer use my watch, I still line up with other runners after a weekly Park Run to get my time recorded [5]. We clearly have no need to do this, so why do we do it? I found some comments by Engeström [6] useful here. Drawing on Vygotsky and Russian social constructivism, Engeström sees exercising agency (i.e. getting to do what we would know we want to do or must) as a two fold process: first design it and then do it (the execution phase). He gave the example of an alarm clock. Finding the will to get up earlier is not easy. The alarm clock helps reminds us that we must do it. However, an alarm set by someone else would not work, we need to have planned for its use, i.e. we calculate what time we need to get up and set the alarm accordingly. In fact very often the planning is enough and we wake up any way before or as the alarm goes off. I think tools to measure physical activity work in a similar way. We design the use of the tool, i.e. we personalise the device with our details, we look at captured data and we make judgments about what we need to do, and having designed it we feel encouraged to do it. We are using the device to put into effect an otherwise vague intention to take more exercise; the device is helping us do it. I don’t want to go out and buy a tracker or Smart watch but I am not as dismissive of them as my fellow conference participants once were. And I will still queue to log my time at Park Run even if the data are only pointing in one direction.

[1] Wearable devices will capture data on movement, including how far one has moved and how many steps completed. They will also do a calorie used count and may monitor heart rate, sleep length and sleep activity. Waterproof devices will do distance and strokes when swimming. Data can be shared by users.  Probably the best known companies for producing wearable devices are Fitbit, Garmin, Huawei and Withings. A smart watch is not dedicated to physical activity but will include physical activity tracking. A smart phone App such as Map My Fitness can log runs,  but does less than a wearable device.

[2] Estimates of numbers of users are in the tens of millions, e.g. 30 million estimated active Fitbit users and 55 millions Apple watch wearers, 20 million Map My Fitness users, These are large numbers but not in the same league as, say, numbers of Facebook users.

[3] There are several contributions on trackers and other devices to ‘The Conversation’ which are fairly sceptical of their value, e.g.:

Siek, K. (2020) Why fitness trackers may not give you all the ‘credit’ you hoped for [online]

https://theconversation.com/why-fitness-trackers-may-not-give-you-all-the-credit-you-hoped-for-128585

Duus, R. and Cooray, M. (2015) How we discovered the dark side of wearable fitness trackers

https://theconversation.com/how-we-discovered-the-dark-side-of-wearable-fitness-trackers-43363

Kerner, C., Quennerstedt, C. and Goodyear, V. (2017) Young people oppose Fitbits in schools [online]

https://theconversation.com/young-people-oppose-fitbits-in-schools-84311

[4] There are several systematic reviews, e.g. Ridgers et al. (2016) and Shin et al. (2019), with most concluding that there is not much to systematically review in the first place.

[5] Park run is a free 5km run held in many parks in UK [https://www.parkrun.org.uk] and now around the world.

[6] Engeström’s key example concerns ‘cheating slips’ used by students. These are notes which student might access during an exam but Engeström argues it is the making of the notes rather than the access to them that make them effective.

References

Engeström, Y. (2006). Development, movement and agency: Breaking away into mycorrhizae activities. In K. Yamazumi (Ed.)  Building Activity Theory In Practice: Toward The Next Generation. Osaka: Center for Human Activity Theory, Kansai University. (CHAT Technical Reports #1).

Jarrahi, M., Gafinowitz, N. & Shin, G. (2018) Activity trackers, prior motivation, and perceived informational and motivational affordances. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 22, 433–448.

Ridgers, N., McNarry, M. and Mackintosh, K. (2016) Feasibility and effectiveness of using wearable activity trackers in youth: a systematic review.  JMIR mhealth and uHealth 4, 4: e129.

Shin, G., Jarrahi, M.H., Fei, Y., Karami, A., Gafinowitz, N., Byun, A. and Lu, X. (2019) Wearable activity trackers, accuracy, adoption, acceptance and health impact: a systematic literature review. Journal of Biomedical Informatics, 93: p.103153.

 

 

 

 

Hunting sound

I was researching technology and international exchange the other day and came across two stories in the history of technology which were new for me. The first concerned World Tape Pals [1].  This was an organisation set up in 1950 to encourage the sharing of news and perspectives from people around the world. A kind of discussion forum before its time. The technology used was recorded tapes and members not only stayed in touch with family living overseas but linked up with people they had not previous met to share culture and languages – they were ‘sound pals’ rather than ‘pen pals’. In the mid-1960s the World Tape Pals was reported to have about 25,000 members worldwide though of course many more people would have used tape recorded exchanges in informal ways.

The story of Word Tape Pals led me on to a couple of articles on sound hunters by Karin Bijsterveld [2] [3].  Simply put sound hunting was about capturing everyday life and was popular, although always a very niche activity, in the 1950’s and 1960’s. At the time people were asking what they could do with the new technology of the tape recorder. Suggestions from the early manufacturers included recording the gurgling of a new born baby; capturing conversations with family members; recording concerts; dictating letters and so on. Bijsterveld shows some of this in the publicity photographs which put out – a couple of them are reproduced below [4].

Ambitiously it was suggested that with these recorders you could produce  your own radio plays, complete with special effects, or record yourself singing or practising a foreign language. But one further unexpected use of the technology was to ‘hunt sounds’. Sound hunters took out their devices – quite large and heavy reel to reel machines  – and tried to record ‘how everyday life sounded’: the noise made by an aeroplane engine; thow laughter in the street; the song of garden birds; the ringing of church bells; in fact anything and everything. Clubs of sound hunters grew up and competitions, including a kind of sound hunter Olympics, took place in which international teams were given limited time to produce a fully documented sound collage around a common theme.  These competitions were judged by level of difficulty and Bijsterveld (2004: 624) explains how one contestant, a salesman in wristwatches, set out to record the sound of wristwatches, for his five-minute production ‘Insomnia’:

During the recording each separate sound had to be isolated and subsequently much amplified, in order for it to be audible as a separate phenomenon on the magnetic tape… We did not succeed in fully suppressing the breathing and background noises …We tried for months and probably needed over 100 hours of work to realize these recordings.

My interest in sound hunters came about as I was simply amazed that this went on, on reflection I should not have been but it just appeared so whacky. Sound hunting is also interesting as it was a precursor and became entwined with more mainstream use of sound collage. For exmaple, in UK radio and television history you can sense the influence of sound hunting in the early radio series Radio Ballads [5] which aimed to collect songs, conversations and sound effects in a story of everyday life, and in the seminal use of sound mixing in the first Dr Who theme tune, 1963 [6].

Another reason why I found sound hunting so interesting was that it exemplified two of the ways we still respond to technology. First, the desire to capture everything (something today we see in our preoccupation with taking photos and monitoring how many steps we take). Second, the belief, pushed by manufacturers, that technology use will be creative even if this comes up against the reality that what is simpler or more instantly appealing takes over. In the case of sound hunting there was not enough to hold the attention, and in any case cassette recorders replaced reel to reel tapes and these were so much more difficult to access and edit. A further parallel between sound hunting and our attitudes to digital devices today is our belief that technology will break down international barriers only to find that they can also be used for control and surveillance. Bijsterveld (2013) provides a timely account of the first international sound hunter competition in 1972 in what was then a Warsaw Pact country, Czechoslovakia. Here the enthusiasts came up against eavesdropping by the security services and covert participation. This was capturing sound but with malice. Imagine such a thing!

References

[1] Scribner, C. (2017) American teenagers, educational exchange, and cold war politics. History of Education Quarterly 57(4) 542-569.

[2] Bijsterveld, K. (2004) ‘What do I do with my tape recorder …?’: Sound hunting and the sounds of everyday Dutch life in the 1950s and 1960s, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 24:4, 613-634.

[3] Bijsterveld, K. (2013) ‘Eavesdropping on Europe: The tape recorder and East-West relations among European recording amateurs in the Cold War era’. In (Eds) A. Badenoch  and A. Fickers Airy Curtains in the European Ether, pp. 99-122. Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft mbH & Co. KG.

[4] The source for the first is given by Bijsterveld as Grundig Radio Handelmaatschappij J.N.J. Sieverding N.V., Amsterdam 1962. The source for the second is the Photo Archives NVG, Wassenaar Courtesy Grundig Benelux. I believe I can reproduce these photos but apoligise for any inadvertent breach of copyright. The first is an early advertisement, the second shows a sound hunter in an air field.

soundhunting1                               soundhunting2.

[5] A brief description of Radio Ballads can be accessed at the BBC site

https://www.bbc.co.uk/radio2/radioballads/original/ but to be honest the Wikipedia entry is fuller https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radio_ballad . It is not difficult to track down programmes on You Tube.

[6] The story of the theme tune is again covered by both the BBC but quite fully in  Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_Who_theme_music