Does Virtual Reality work for education?

Back to more familiar territory: technology. The other week our research centre put on a morning event about virtual reality. Much of it was new for me but the questions it posed about what to do with new technology were familiar ones.

So what is VR? One definition I liked came from Lavalle [1] for whom VR was about tricking our senses to feel we were present in a computer simulated world. I liked the idea of ‘tricking the senses’ as this suggest that there is something more intense going on than if you were playing around within a ‘two dimensional world’ in, say, Second Life or the Sims.  But it also suggests that there is, with the best will in the world, a deceit going on. Key to understanding this deceit is that VR provides a world with depth (technically the three dimensional feel works by a process of ‘stereopsis’ – presenting a separate picture to each eye) and one without boundaries (objects remain stationary while you interact and move around however you like). A good question is ‘who is the ‘you’ in all this?’. Are you yourself or are you a mental model of yourself, perhaps an Avator or other form of on screen presence.

To get the idea of VR find someone with an appropriate Smart phone and head set. Alternatively there are thousands of examples  on YouTube – presented in flat 2D video clips but they give the idea of what is possible. For example:

Clouds of Sydria: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUosdCQsMkM

VR Goggles Gender Swap Experience: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WCprfChibTE 

Our First Look at Kraken Unleashed VR Coaster: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mYv8qH1wZj4 

Birdly: The Dream of Flying: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYPJLRVrC18

Chess:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4sRt5t8eA4w&frags=wn

BeAnotherLab experiments with gender identity

Of these examples two – the Clouds of Sydria and gender swap – were about stepping into the shoes of ‘the other’. These intrigued me, though how far you can be tricked into really taking on another identity, even temporarily, is an open question. One, the theme park idea, crossed over into the world of augmented reality as the computer experience was meant to work synchronously with the physical roller coaster ride.  It was probably close to the very last thing I would want to do but I could see the enthusiasm it promoted. The birdly example was about experiencing something in a 3D world that was impossible in our physical world. I liked it and wonder how far it could give us the sensation of flying. The chess example was about showing off the technology but I think any chess player would find it distracting and pointless. What is missing in my examples are more conventional online game environments and for that matter sex industry applications which in their separate ways figure significantly in the early adoption of technology, but I wanted to focus on the more mainstream. In fact VR is increasingly mainstream as you can see in the ways it is sold  by Smart Phone providers, for example the Samsung Ostrich Commercial [2].  It is also interesting to see  big budget films, most recently Speilberg’s Ready Player One [3], engaging with the concept of VR.

So is VR relevant for education?

It struck me how discussion of VR in education feels similar to discussion of any technology in the past. That is to say the technology is generally developed in the wider world and then educators react by finding things to do with it. This is not meant as a criticism. It would be sad if educationalists were not thinking about how the world is changing, and how those changes can be put to use, but it does suggest that the cross over into education is not straightforward. As regards VR we are at the stage of ‘early adoption’ and you can see early examples of VR applications in an education context [4] as well as a number of Ted talks promoting VR as a (possible) solution to engagement of young people [5]. Much of the rhetoric around VR, as with other technologies in the past, refers to young people’s supposed preference for technology and the sheer range of contexts that would not be accessed without VR (e.g. via VR you can visit an ancient civilisation, go up into space, travel around  the human body). There is also the idea that VR experiences are more intense and thus more memorable than other online ones or even ones in the physical world. Put like this we may expect to see VR taken up more and more.  But in practice technology, and there is no reason for VR to be any different, runs up against considerable barriers including ones of access, curriculum and training. All this leads to a growing realisation that the visions for technology held by enthusiasts are not universally held.

So what future does VR have in education?  First it is going to take a while to overcome access issues. Even if many learners bring their own smart phones this is not creating a classroom where everyone has kit which is fast, reliable and compatible with the software. You cannot as a teacher turn up assuming everything is in place, you are still talking of niche contexts for the foreseeable future. But supposing you really could access VR as and when you wanted to, would it be worth it? I can see possibilities. For example short episodes of VR that would give a unique insight into an environment. But the key thing to remember here is that education is not about the experience but telling a story about the experience. So what you are after is not a class that had memorable experiences of, say, walking with dinosaurs [6] but students who can ask questions such as: does  this VR application offer faithful representations of prehistoric worlds? Do these animals bear likenesses to ones we see today? How do animals adapt to change ecologies?

I would also like to see more questioning of claims about the intensity of the experience. For example via VR you can step into someone else shoes but, let us face it. it is not for real.   You may be more aware of what it is like to be a refugee and that might be important and valuable to your developing sense of who you are, but it is all temporary. Finally, VR adoption is not helped by health concerns. Of course such concerns have always popped up with new technology. I remember teaching spreadsheets years ago and there was always someone who said that the screens made them feel dizzy.  It was easy, if wrong, to dismiss this. But  VR headsets do seem to create problems on a wider scale and these might not be so easy to ignore.

[1] Lavalle, S. (2016) Virtual Reality [online] http://vr.cs.uiuc.edu

[2] The Samsung Ostrich Commercial https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vEEVu4w5LTE

[3] Ready Player One trailer at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVDE6-e96yY

[4] You can see some thinking about VR in higher education at: https://er.educause.edu/articles/2016/3/the-promise-of-virtual-reality-in-higher-education

[5] This Ted talk, led by Michael Bodekaer looks at VR in  Science education https://www.ted.com/talks/michael_bodekaer_this_virtual_lab_will_revolutionize_science_class

[6] VR dinosaurs at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0DLPWe5KHLY

 

Do the drugs work?

I was struck the other day by the reporting in the press of an academic paper on antidepressants and their impact [1]. According to these reports antidepressants were now officially verified as very effective and should be taken by more people. But was this really what the study was saying? This is the story.

In the paper Cipriani et al (2018) argued, on the basis of a systematic review of the evidence, that: ‘All antidepressants were more efficacious, though some more efficacious than others, than placebo in treating adults with major depressive disorders’.  There were important qualifications. The review was looking at short-term effects; it was not being claimed that anti-depressants worked better than other treatments; gains came with side effects; the gains were at times modest. But nonetheless there was an impact. There was less about implications for practice in the paper so I went to the press release from the University in which the lead author was based to see if I had missed something. In the release the implications were summed up as:

‘Antidepressants can be an effective tool to treat major depression, but this does not necessarily mean that antidepressants should always be the first line of treatment. Medication should always be considered alongside other options, such as psychological therapies, where these are available. Patients should be aware of the potential benefits from antidepressants and always speak to the doctors about the most suitable treatment for them individually.’ [2]

The reporting in the press was however quite different from this press release and can best be described as victory narrative about the power of science to solve whatever ails us, in this case major depression. This narrative was carried across the UK press and, I think, was taken up internationally as well. To turn to the UK, the left leaning Guardian proclaimed in an opinion piece: ‘It’s official: antidepressants are not snake oil or a conspiracy – they work’. The author of the piece summed up the research by saying ‘we should get on with taking and prescribing them’ [3]. The Times led with ‘More people should get pills to beat depression. Millions of sufferers would benefit, doctors told’ [4]. The Independent went further ‘Doctors should prescribe more antidepressants for people with mental health problems, study finds’. And the same article went as far as to claim ‘Research from Oxford University, which was published in The Lancet, found that more than one million extra people would benefit from being prescribed drugs and criticised “ideological” reasons doctors use to avoid doing so.’[5]. This left the Mail, which can usually be relied upon to offer the most far-fetched take on evidence based practice, looking quite mainstream. It suggested that ‘Millions MORE of us should be taking antidepressants: Largest-ever study claims the pills DO work and GPs should be dishing them out. [6]

I have nothing of value to say about the treatment of depression [7] but I am familiar with systematic studies, particularly in education. Their obvious value is that they tell you something really useful about the sweep of evidence (here that antidepressants tend to work better than placebos) and their scope makes their findings intuitively convincing (Cipriani et al aggregated over 500 studies and included over 100,000 patients). Systemic reviews are not however reliable guides as to what to do in individual cases as they are focused on the general picture. Further, systematic review might establish a measure of correlation but doesn’t tend to engage deeply in saying why doing X might work better than doing Y. Systematic reviews are only as good as the studies they aggregate. Here some argue that the whole field of medical research is distorted by pharmaceutical funding which makes any reported research unreliable. However this was not the stance of Cipriani et al and their research was independently funded. Instead a more widespread criticism of systematic review is that the case studies they access are often stilted to showing impact quite simply as the ones that show no impact are a lot less interesting to write, let alone publish. At least this is how it often looks in education.

Whatever we think about systematic review, the press went way beyond what was presented in the Cipriani et al paper and, in doing so, exaggerated the strengths of systematic review. We can put forward different reasons why this happened. Some [8] would see this as the influence of vested commercial interests but more likely in this case is that a big and wild claim was more likely to catch readers’ attention than a small and balanced one. I also think that reporting of anything that comes out of academic research is distorted by a desire to believe that there are simple solutions to complex problems when clearly there are not. So in one sense over-inflation of academic findings should be expected but what most disappointed me was the uniformity of the response. A head of steam was built up around the unqualified efficacy of antidepressants which was not the story in the original research.

Before moving on from this story, I became interested in the way that the press reports had been discussed in the online comments sections. The comments turned out to be civil and insightful, at least more so than I had predicted. There were blanket statements condemning pharmaceutical companies and accusations that the authors were part of a conspiracy to have us take drugs for private profit. However there was no shortage of people giving balanced and insightful accounts of their own experiences of antidepressants. In fact these experiences tended to be positive though writers were at pains to say this was their personal experience and they could not generalise for others. It was a case of the comments doing a better job than the reporting and I wonder whether this was because the politics of the issue did not follow predictable lines and this allowed a greater degree of openness.

References

[1] Cipriani A, Furukawa TA, Salanti G, et al. Comparative efficacy and acceptability of 21 antidepressant drugs for the acute treatment of adults with major depressive disorder: a systematic review and network meta-analysis The Lancet. Published online February 21 2018

[2] University of Oxford Antidepressants more effective in treating depression than placebo,

http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2018-02-22-antidepressants-more-effective-treating-depression-placebo

[3] Rice-Oxley, M. (2018) It’s official: antidepressants are not snake oil or a conspiracy – they work. Guardian [online] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/feb/21/its-official-antidepressants-are-not-snake-oil-or-a-conspiracy-they-work

The paper’s regular health correspondent (Sarah Bosely) concluded along the same lines that ‘The drugs do work: antidepressants are effective’. Guardian [online] https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/feb/21/the-drugs-do-work-antidepressants-are-effective-study-shows

What I found misleading here, and in other press reporting, was that commentary about the Cipriani et al paper was mixed up with a comments by other experts on the widely acknowledged lack of support for people with depression. The implication was that to be critical of the study was to condemn people to untreated depression.

[4] Smyth, C. (2018) More people should get pills to beat depression, Millions of sufferers would benefit, doctors told. Sunday Times [online]

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/more-people-should-get-pills-to-beat-depression-sv5vhczss

[5] Khan, S. (2018) Doctors should prescribe more antidepressants for people with mental health problems, study finds. Independent [online] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/antidepressants-prescribe-mental-health-problems-oxford-university-lancet-a8222371.html

[6] Pickles, K. (2018) Millions MORE of us should be taking antidepressants: Largest-ever study claims the pills DO work and GPs should be dishing them out. Mail [online]
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-5419967/Millions-taking-antidepressants.html#ixzz58mtfeilm

[[7] If you have a special interest then go to the NHS Choices Review of Evidence aimed at practitioners and the general public. They conclude from reading Cipriani et al that:

People are more likely to see their symptoms improve if they take an antidepressant than if they take a placebo. The researchers said the effects of the drugs were “mostly modest” and noted that antidepressants are just one of several evidence-based treatments for depression.

They also comment that Cognitive behavioural therapy, rather than antidepressants, remained the first-choice treatment for people with mild symptoms. This however was  not a concern of the study itself.

NHS Choices (2018) Big new study confirms antidepressants work better than placebo [online] https://www.nhs.uk/news/medication/big-new-study-confirms-antidepressants-work-better-placebo/

[8] A full on critique of the research and its reporting was offered in particular by Dr Joanna Moncrieff who appeared on television and wrote to the papers offering her objections. To get a flavour go to the blog Mad in America below where she is interviewed by James Moore. [online]

https://www.madinamerica.com/2018/03/dr-joanna-moncrieff-challenging-new-hype-antidepressants/

 

It does not make the job very appealing

Although my work focuses on education and technology, rather than party politics, the book I enjoyed reading the most last year was Harriet Harman’s biography [1], or more accurately her reflection on a career as a leading Labour politician in UK. The book is largely about being a woman in a man’s world. Harman was the first candidate to fight and win a by-election while pregnant and joined a House of Commons which was 97 per cent male. She went on to bring up three children while working all hours in Westminster and in her constituency.

Harman’s book is unusual in political memoirs as having a focus on women and the challenge of changing attitudes, not just by taking on the Conservative governments but also entrenched sexism in the Labour party. Although she achieved much in advancing women’s rights on a national stage, when just to be a committed constituency MP would have been an achievement in itself, what shines through is her vulnerability. In particular she was very firm in her feminist principles but acknowledged that she felt it much more difficult to stand up for herself than to stand up for others. She had to be persuaded to fight her constituency by-election in the first place and was worried in case her campaigns for more family friendly working hours in parliament might be seen as about her. Not surprisingly she needed encouragement to stand for leadership positions. The photo chosen for the book cover conveys this vulnerability well. It shows the young Labour candidate looking rather out of her depth, and this provides a sharp contrast to the conventional steely gaze on the dust jackets of most political biographies.

The book has been reviewed sympathetically. Interestingly these reviews have nearly always been written by women. McNicol [2] in particular provides a good description of the book and begins by saying that Harriet Harman ‘doesn’t make being a female MP sound very appealing’. In fact it does not make the job of an MP in general appealing and Harman was only ever able to go on and achieve what she did as she was part of a network of women who were determined to change the system. The surprise for me was that I had seen Harman as a rather inconsequential political figure, worthy but not very effective but I realized that I was reading this wrong. She was consistent and determined. She found the everyday sexism she encountered demoralising and at times it got through to her. She could have walked away. I had underestimated her leadership. She was offering a kind of servant leadership, though this is not a term she used herself. As a politician she put her ego backstage and tried to articulate the wishes of her network of women colleagues, it is a collective leadership though of course does not rule out standing up for your beliefs or making difficult decisions.

I was particularly interested in the early part of the book. She described her difficulties in fitting in at school (she went to a school which was academically very successful but was ‘carrying a smug sense of superiority’ quite out of tune with the changing times). She benefitted from the expansion of higher education in the 1960’s and went to York University where again she asked herself what she was doing there. In the reviews much is rightly made of a story she tells of a lecturer who, told her if she slept with him he’d make sure she got a 2.1. She turned him down and got a 2.1 anyway.

After university she found herself beginning legal training, encountering more sexism, and none of it making much sense. She started volunteering in her spare time in a legal rights centre in Brent, London. This was part of a network of centres offering legal advice and support for those who could not afford to pay for it. She found herself becoming involved with tenants associations, trade unions and radical lawyers. She felt at home and became committed to women’s rights and by extension to support for the Labour party. This led to working for the national Council for Civil Liberties, becoming deeply engaged with feminist politics.

Harman’s story of Labour in Parliament follows an arc that is well known to those following UK politics over the last 20 or 30 years. There was a right wing Prime Minister, Thatcher, opposed by a sectarian militancy that almost wrecked the Labour party. Next came the movement to make Labour more mainstream and electable. This was followed by three terms of successful labour government which only fell apart due to external events – the world financial crisis 2008 / 9. We now have had three conservative (led) governments and the unpicking of what Labour had achieved with the danger of left sectarianism re-emerging. There is a lot in this version of events but did Labour leaders like Harman end up losing the plot at least as far as their supporters were concerned? There are two events that stand out. The first was the Iraq war. Harman explains she supported the war on the grounds of there being weapons of mass destruction. She was wrong and the decision taken had tragic consequences for everybody concerned. Labour supporters and women became particularly critical of the decision, at least in its aftermath [3].

The second incident was local and purely symbolic. It was the decision she took as stand- in leader of the Labour party after the lost election of 2015 to have the party abstain on the conservative government’s welfare bill that included cuts to social security. To abstain on what was the first reading of a bill was not unusual and to vote against would have made no practical difference. However to Labour supporters it signalled that the party had lost focus in fighting the cause of the people they represented. Jeremy Corbyn was the only leadership contender that voted against the Bill and went on to win the Party leadership. It is difficult to comprehend why Harman had got this so wrong.

Harman’s book makes a timely contribution to the debate on gender and sexism, but I would recommend the book as much for its tone as for its content. She does that rare thing of showing modesty and humility at the same time as conviction and persistence. I would particularly recommend it to anyone not enjoying higher education or over committed to getting a ‘good degree’ as well. Looking at her account of volunteering in the Law Centre, she shows life will fall into place, you don’t need a first class degree to see it, just be alert enough to notice.

[1] Harman, H. (2017) A woman’s work London, Allen Lane.

[2] McNicol, J. (2017) The Angry Men, London Review of Books, 39, 24, 13-16

https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n24/jean-mcnicol/the-angry-men

[3] Dahlgreen, W. (2015) Memories of Iraq: did we ever support the war?, You Gov   https://yougov.co.uk/news/2015/06/03/remembering-iraq/

[4] Wintour, P. (2015) Anger after Harriet Harman says Labour will not vote against welfare bill, The Guardian, 12 July 2015

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/jul/12/harman-labour-not-vote-against-welfare-bill-limit-child-tax-credits

 

 

In praise of Kazuo Ishiguro

Last week the Nobel prize for literature was awarded to the writer Kazuo Ishiguro – Ishiguro was born in Japan but grew up, and continued to live, in England, and took UK nationality. The news of his award was covered widely in the papers and on television and Ishuguro himself appeared well regarded by his peers and popular with the British reading public. However Ishiguro did not stay in the news for very long – though, to be fair, longer than Richard Henderson who shared in the Nobel prize for Chemistry. Ishiguro was newsworthy, the award was well received but it was all a long way from dancing in the street. This muted response seemed to say quite a lot about British attitudes to literature.

Other countries do it differently. I remember years ago in Costa Rica when García Márquez, a Columbian and ‘leftist’, got the Nobel literature prize. It was headlined on the front pages of all the papers and seen as an honour for the American continent – even though the press was conservative and Columbia was a long way from Costa Rica. I don’t know how they celebrated in, say, Iceland when Halldór Laxness got the prize or in Germany when Gunter Grass won it, but we were told that if it had been Haruki Murakami this time his Japanese fans would have hit the roof, though they found plenty to cheer about in the choice of Ishiguro, with his Japanese heritage.

I wondered how Ishiguro’s prize went down in other European countries, with British insularity being such a live issue. What struck me was the interest and seriousness with which the award was discussed, albeit in the more liberal arts centred press. In Italy, La Republica [1] had several online articles and a long discussion of Ishiguro contribution to literature. In Spain, El Pais also offered a literary breakdown of Ishiguro’s work [2] and in France, Le Monde dealt with it in less depth but helpfully reminded readers that France had the most recipients for the literature prize. Most strikingly Deutsche Welle, a German portal aimed at an international audience, led their news of the day with a twenty minute discussion of Ishiguro [3].

I don’t have much to offer about Ishuguro as a writer. Most commentators describe his writing as intelligent and accessible and an ex-editor describes it as a ‘weird mix of classic English and minatory Japanese prose’ (weird is a good thing in this context) [4]. I can recognise this description in the books I have read.

I am more interested in how literature talks / or does not talk to social research. A friend of mine believed that there was no point in reading social research (at least that part that dealt with how we live) when fiction was much more interesting and covered most or all of what could be said. Ishuguro provides a good example of this.

Ishuguro’s two most well-known books are the Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go – both made into films. Both covered, amongst other things, the capacity we have for self-deception. In the first, a butler (Mr Stevens) reflects back on his life in service to a ‘great family’ and we can see that in the telling this is a story of denial: denial about the pro-Nazi sympathies of his employer; denial that there was anything emotionally absent in his relationship with his father; denial that there was an opportunity for love or at least companionship with the housekeeper [5]. Through Ishuguro’s subtle telling we can see the deception and by the end the Mr Stevens comes tantalisingly close to seeing it himself. It is a gentle account and we are sucked into sympathy and understanding – Mr Stevens has hung on to what he calls his dignity by turning his back on other ways of living. In sociological terms he entirely inhabits the role of butler; he has closed down any inner voice telling him that there was any other way of seeing the world.

In the second, Never Let Me Go, we are also given an unreliable narrator, this is Kathy. The story is about the experimental cloning of children for donations of body parts. What I really liked about the novel was that it countered expectations: you imagined that this was going to be about the ethics of cloning or a kind of horror fantasy. Instead, it was recognisably about the everyday. The setting was very different from Remains of the Day but Ishuguro had the same concern to show how we rein in our ambition and accept the life that is mapped out for us [6]. Again he does this with subtlety and considerable compassion.

Of course the Nobel prize has generated a fair amount of controversy both for the choice of particular awardees; for a general male white bias; and for being funded by Alfred Nobel, who made his money in arms manufacturing. However, at least in literature, the Nobel prize is the highest accolade for writers and in the main, I don’t think we made enough of Ishuguro’s achievements.

References
[1] Know How Nobel Letteratura – La vittoria di Ishiguro at
https://video.repubblica.it/spettacoli-e-cultura/know-how-nobel-letteratura-la-vittoria-di-ishiguro/286418/287036
[2] PREMIO NOBEL DE LITERATURA 2017
https://elpais.com/cultura/2017/10/06/babelia/1507307119_168668.html
[3] Literaturnobelpreis an Kazuo Ishiguro: Stiller Meister der Seelenerforschung
http://www.dw.com/de/literaturnobelpreis-an-kazuo-ishiguro-stiller-meister-der-seelenerforschung/a-40819390
[4] My friend Kazuo Ishiguro: ‘an artist without ego, with deeply held beliefs’
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/oct/08/my-friend-kazuo-ishiguro-artist-without-ego-nobel-prize-robert-mccrum
[5] This is a well known clip of Mr Stevens retreating in the face of his housekeeper’s teasing. I think it is a bit more melodramatic than what Ishuguro intended:

[6] The children are brought up in a kind of 1950’s private school, here a sympathetic teacher tries to tell the children the grisly future that awaits them.

Graffiti and comment forums: An essentially social act gone wrong?

When I find myself disappointed by the tone of online comment forums my mind goes back to toilet graffiti.

I am no expert, but there was, I think, a spike in interest in researching toilet (or what Americans might call ‘restroom’) graffiti in the 1970s and 1980s. It is not difficult to see why. Graffiti research sounds quirky and it is instantly relatable to the general public.

I missed out on the golden age of toilet graffiti reporting, but the other day I went back to look at some of these past studies. The paper that interested me most was one by Bruner and Kelso (1980) on bathroom graffiti in a university in the USA. The university is not identified but the study seems to have taken place in Chicago with some of the students described as coming from ‘rural downstate Illinois’.

Bruner and Kelso (1980) discussed two well established ways of approaching the study of graffiti – or let us call it ‘on wall’ (rather than online) text.

The first was a kind of thematic content analysis. Here you choose a ‘corpus’ of text. Labels are then selected / constructed which to help to capture the meanings of these these texts. In graffiti studies these labels may include terms such as racial insults, sexual insults, racial/sexual insults, general insults, sexual humour, general humour, political, drugs, religion, morals and so on. Researchers can then apply these labels to texts, or parts of text, and draw conclusions based on the frequency with which labels are applied and associations between the content of discussion and, say, gender difference.

The second approach to research graffiti and one which Bruner and Kelso saw as mainstream, perhaps reflecting the spirit of the age, was a psychoanalytical one. This approach analysed texts in term of ‘unconscious impulses, infantile sexuality and primitive thoughts’.

Bruner and Kelso rejected both these two approaches and went with what they described as a ‘semiotic’ approach. As they put it:

restroom graffiti are communication, a silent conversation among anonymous partners. Although written in the privacy of a toilet stall, the writing of graffiti is an essentially social act that cannot be understood in terms of the expressive functions performed for an isolated individual. To write graffiti is to communicate; one never finds graffiti where they cannot be seen by others. A new person coming to a toilet stall who chooses to write a graffito must take account of what has previously been written, even in the minimal sense of choosing an appropriate location on the wall, and a message is left for those who will subsequently come to that stall. The graffiti writings build up on the walls until an anonymous janitor comes in the night to wipe it all away, and the cycle of the silent discourse begins again the following day.

They wanted to understand the purpose of graffiti and they did this by looking at power. Not surprisingly this led them first to focus on male and female communication. They felt that female graffiti was more interactive and interpersonal (they cite a supportive on-wall discussion prompted by a female student pondering whether she should sleep with her boyfriend). In contrast much male graffiti tended to be ‘individualistic, graphic and derogatory’. In fact the examples they cite are quite vile. In particular they argued that some men were using use the opportunity to communicate in a public space to assert their dominance and seek to put others in their place – in this case, ‘others’ were ‘Jews, blacks, homosexuals and women’. This had to be understood in a context of the promotion of affirmative action programmes at the time and in many ways the men were not so much putting these others in their place but questioning whether they had a legitimate place at all.

The paper interested me on different levels. First, and this is a side point, it struck me that I see very little graffiti today. The paper talks about graffiti disappearing at the end of the day – it used to hang around for much longer but now seems to disappear in many private / public spaces, such as Universities, right away. The second, and main point for me, was the obvious link with research into online texts. When we research any online activity we tend to think we are doing something completely new. However anonymous public forums are not new and we can learn from the past. In this case Bruner and Kelso help me to understand power and voice online. Let me expand.

I have spent a great deal of my research time looking at online texts, counting categories and drawing conclusions. Much of this has been looking at the rather particular context of forums for members of taught programmes and, for the most part, the kinds of discussions I have looked at are often tentative, interpersonal and thoughtful. At their best forums can stimulate ideas but they can also help you see where the writer is coming from in terms of past experience and present expectations.

Forums can often disappoint of course. For example there are considerable constraints on engagement, but in my experience students are never derogatory and, for that matter, when I have looked into it, I have not seen a great gender divide in styles of communication in mixed groups [1]. I remain positive about the role of forums for education but very aware of the constraints.

I have been much less interested in open forums, though of course I do come across some from time to time. However, recently with a research student colleague, I became interested in comparing closed education-focused discussion with open comment forums. One story I followed concerned the BBC political correspondent Laura Kuenssberg. (For overseas readers BBC is our public broadcaster and BBC political correspondents are expected to offer a balanced analysis of events, without being servile to the main parties or unduly bland.). Discussion of her work was triggered by an article claiming that she was ‘the most divisive woman on TV’ [2]

Kuenssberg was also discussed in the Guardian, a liberal newspaper with an international online reach. Most of the comment forum debates in the Guardian web site are reasonably well mannered but anything associated with Jeremy Corbyn (Kuenssberg is not seen as sympathetic to Corbyn, at least by Corbyn supporters) brings out more vitriolic comments far removed from the general tone of the paper’s reporting. Some of the comments made about Laura Kuenssberg for example included:

  • Well Laura Kuenssberg’s been saying “fuck Labour” for long enough. Just less swearily.
  • Laura Kuenssberg is a disgrace to journalism.
  • And yet the BBC still refuses to acknowledge her bias.

I wanted to compare the responses in the right wing press but got sidetracked into looking at a web site for ‘Conservative woman’ [3]. Opinion on BBC and on Laura Kuenssberg was extreme and derogatory as well:

  • Cancel your licence fee payment today.
  • You do not have to pay for the paedobeeb’s poisonous and pervasive propaganda.
  • Never give them any information at all.
  • I don’t watch BBC news or current affairs my wife can’t stand Laura K, and it doesn’t sound like a good old British name anyway.
  • In years to come, dictionaries will have the following entry: Smug – see Laura Kuenssberg

So why should this be happening? Why should public spaces, even ones occupied by special interest groups, put their case in such a derogatory manner. Why should people who are taking the trouble of making an argument have no interest in trying to win opponents around to their point of view by the force of their argument? Here my thoughts went back to Bruner and Kelso. As they suggest we can understand anonymous postings in terms of transgression at some psychoanalytic level and / or we can count the labels and say how many times this or that happened. For that matter we can understand texts as shaped by technology itself (for example the way that technology seems to trigger an instant response). But, as Bruno and Kelso explain, we can see texts as ways of exercising power – the power not so much to organise opinion in favour of something but the power to deny legitimacy to anyone you disagree with. It is about making sure others know their place and that is at root all I can say about the way some people write online or for that matter the way they write on walls.

[1] For a counter example see

Eve, J., & Brabazon, T. (2008). Learning to leisure? failure, flame, blame, shame, homophobia and other everyday practices in online education. The Journal of Literacy and Technology, 9(1), 36-61.

[2] The claim about divisiveness was made in the Telegraph, a conservative newspaper, and discussed in several publications, see for example Huffington Post:

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/bbc-laura-kuenssberg-telegraph_uk_59524553e4b02734df2d42b0

[3] http://www.conservativewoman.co.uk

I thought for a minute that this was a mainstream Conservative party web site but in fact it is a fringe group.

[In my original post I did not provide a reference for Bruno and Kelso. It is:

Bruner, E. And Kelso, J. (1980) Gender differences in graffiti: a semiotic perspective, Women’s Studies International Quarterly, 3, 239-252

 

 

Football, schools and a changing world

Every year our research students put on a conference and the theme for this year was education in a changing world. For me one of the most obvious but far reaching features of this changing world is our interconnectedness. What happens faraway can have a resonance in ways that were not envisaged in the past. This has many implications for education but, as often seems to happen these days, during the conference my thoughts ended up focused more on football than teaching and learning.

I grew up playing football, it seemed like every day, with friends in streets and parks and became attached to a local team. I got a glimpse of international footballers on when there was a World cup on television, but after these competitions were over they disappeared as far as I was concerned. Football was local – the players lived locally and modestly. Indeed, without too much difficulty my friend and I, as ten or eleven year olds, found out where one of our team’s leading strikers lived. We went round and offered to wash his car. He declined but chatted to us for a while about his international career and being a footballer. It is impossible to imagine that today. We were only vaguely aware of clubs being owned – but they were – usually by long established local families with business connections.

English football was historically slow to take part in European and World cup competitions but both clubs and the national team had some success [1]. To grow up supporting England was to carry a sense of superiority which lingered for long after its sell by date. It is only in more recent years that most of us not only rule out the possibility of England winning an international competition but we hardly expect the national side to progress beyond the first world.

Like many others I fell out of love with the game in the 1980’s. I still went when I could but at worst football became tribal and intolerant. This is touched on well by Nick Hornby [2] who describes taking a group of international students to Wembley to watch an England play Holland in 1988. He explains how he first had to negotiate a ‘determined and indiscriminate’ mounted police charge and he and his students were only reluctantly let into a stadium in which the entrance doors were ‘hanging by a thread’. Once inside they found themselves outnumbered by thuggish looking individuals who had taken their seats:

There wasn’t a steward in sight we stood and watched for half an hour during which Holland took a two one lead; the dreadlocked Gullit, the main reason why the game had sold out in the first place, provoked monkey noises every time he touched the ball. Just before half time we gave up and went home. (Hornby, 1992: 202)

For me (and for many) attachment to the game changed with 1990 World Cup in Italy. It was by some accounts one of the poorest events in terms of the football played but England for the first time in a while were great and were involved in most of the best, or at least most watchable, games in the tournament [3]. Even those not interested in football would talk about Lineker and Gascoine the morning after a game.

Since then English league football, as with other European leagues, quickly went on to become a global phenomenon. Owners, players and coaching staff came from around the world, top games were televised globally. Why did this happen? Well you don’t have to be an economist to see that those with money are chasing markets and doing so in a world with fewer borders. It becomes quite attractive to buy into the top clubs in Europe. It is not that they make a lot of trading profit but the value of the club goes up year on year as the money going into the game increases. And you don’t have to be technologist to realise that this global appeal is made possible by technology. But with what consequences?

If you want to draw up a balance sheet you will find, the game is played better, barriers of nation state seem looser, football seems to capture a cosy cosmopolitanism. The unthinking tribalism of the game has not gone away but is much reduced. We periodically take international footballers to our hearts; what matters is style, commitment and results [4].

Football’s global appeal works in good ways. Consider here the example of five-year-old Afghani Murtaza Ahmadi. His image ‘went viral’ on the Intenret when he was captured wearing a shirt made of a blue and white plastic bag with 10 coloured on on his back. Ten was the number of his hero Leionil Messi and the blue and white ‘shirt’ was the colour of the Argentinian team. According to reports Murtaza knew about Messi as the family could watch a solar panel powered televison in his village in Afghanistan. Murtaza became an Internet hit, he got to meet Messi. The end of the story is complicated but in short, and I am relying on journalist accounts, Murtaza and his family found it difficult to continue to live in Afghanistan. [5]

So what is the flip side of this globalization. First, we don’t ask enough questions about where the money is coming from and where it is going. It can leave as quickly as it came and it leaks in and out in appalling ways – even as became the case in Spain with the brilliant and saintly Messi [6]. In England we now has several clubs who have been taken over by owners who have led them close to ruin. Of course the common element here is naivety (the new owners do not get the fundamental point about football that you do not know if you are going to win), rather than international ownership, but there is no doubt that the connection with the local is being lost [7]. In the past you had supporters with a higher sense of identification with their club albeit with all the risks of insularity and conservatism that brought. Now you can have looser knit supporters and clubs with global appeal, but this has left many alienated from the clubs they have long supported [8].

I did manage to refocus my thoughts on the conference and away from football and this confirmed for me this almost universal challenge of balancing local and global attachment [9]. At the conference I was able to speak to several teachers strongly committed to their local communities but also trying to help their children think about global citizenship. As ever some of this work took your breath away in terms of imagination and commitment but I was left thinking that, once again, that we are asking a lot of our schools and our teachers.

[1] The UK is unique in world football in having recognised leagues in each of the countries of the union. For the record, Scottish clubs (Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen) all experienced success in European competitions too.

[2] Fever Pitch – this is Nick Hornby’s account of obsession with Arsenal, the book was first published in 1992.

[3] England were knocked out in the semi-final on penalties.

[4] To be fair this was always the case. Bert Trautmann a German prisoner of war who stayed on in England at the end of the war (1945) became a legend at Manchester City, as did the Argentinian Osie Ardiles at Spurs even with the interruption of war with Argentina (1982).

[5] Here is some background to Murtaza Ahmadi

http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/38301293

and a follow up story at:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-36192300

[6] More on Messi, who is on some accounts paid 400, 000 Euro a week, at:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-36721892

[7] If you want to follow these things further here are blogs and articles on English clubs in trouble. This is Coventry (owned by hedge fund SISU):

https://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2016/oct/12/coventry-city-decline-despair-league-one

and Blackburn owned by Indian entrepreneurs, the Venkys:

https://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2017/feb/18/blackburn-manchester-united-venkys-fa-cup

This is a more general piece including the goings on at Blackpool (owned by the Royston family) and Charlton (owned by Belgian entrepreneur Roland Duchâtelet:

https://www.theguardian.com/football/the-agony-and-the-ecstasy/2016/oct/03/football-fans-protest-club-owners-blackburn-coventry-charlton

[8] Here are some filmed interviews around identification with a club, covering supporters of Charlton and then supporters of Leyton Orient. The latter owned by the Italian Francesco Becchetti

https://www.theguardian.com/football/video/2017/apr/26/charlton-athletic-and-the-fight-for-the-clubs-future-video

https://www.theguardian.com/football/video/2017/apr/24/its-like-a-circus-here-leyton-orient-fans-furious-with-owner-after-relegation-video

[9] I tried to think about this more in the context of social media at

http://www.inderscienceonline.com/doi/abs/10.1504/IJWBC.2017.082717

 

 

 

 

 

 

Post-truth and a good argument

The term post-truth was, according to Oxford Dictionaries, the Word of the Year 2016. It was defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2016

In USA of course the term became widely used in the context of the US presidential campaign, and in UK it was aired in the debates on Brexit. It was these two recent campaigns that formed the backdrop to a fascinating programme on a BBC Radio 4 on post truth politics:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b086nzlg

One thing the programme did very well was to alert us to different kinds of untruths and facts [1]. For example Trump in his campaign said many things which were simply untrue by any reasonable definition of the word. This was illustrated when, talking about the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York 2001, he said ‘I watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down’. It either happened or it did not and as much as far as we can take anything as objective, then Trump is simply wrong [2]. However pointing this out seems to have had little effect; those disposed to vote for Trump did not care, the statement expressed a sentiment – presumably that there were groups of different ethnicity that were not patriotic in the same way as they were.

In our own Brexit campaign a different kind of fact emerged: if we left the EU then there could be £350 million extra for a new hospital to be built every week [3]. You can say it is a lie if you like, and I don’t think any economist would say that we would have an extra £350 million a week by leaving the EU – or if by some miracle we did have the money it is unlikely that it would find its way into building hospitals. However the claim about the hospital is not an untruth in the same way that Trump’s claim about the Twin Towers is. It is describing something counter factual, extremely unlikely, but not a fact that can be disproved.

Finally there are arguments which seem to be about facts which are really about values –for example more egalitarian societies are better than ones in which wealth is unevenly distributed. This has an appeal to the facts and is often dressed up as an argument about the facts but it cannot really be divorced from value judgements about what kind of society we want. The distinction was put very well in the BBC Radio 4 programme by Professor Peter Mandler who offered objective comments as an academic on Brexit (again as far as objective has any meaning) while recognising that in terms of values and identity he was aghast at the decision taken.

Why is post-truth on the rise? One presenter felt that all this started with the claim that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction in 2002, but I don’t really buy that, at least not in UK. For example, the issue of missing WMD was well known before the 2005 election in UK and it did not seem to be a significant factor in the result [4]. Of course the consequences of missing WMDs has been lingering and toxic particularly for those who supported the war in Iraq but I don’t think it has undermined our belief in the possibility of establishing truth. Quite the opposite. For example when it came to the Chilcott Inquiry into the war it was striking how far most people believed that this inquiry had really got to the truth by painstakingly sifting through evidence.

A second candidate for the rise of post-truth is that we increasingly live in ‘echo chambers’ – another term that has ‘spiked’ over the last couple of year. The idea here is that we tend to move around only with ‘people like us’ so that what we take for granted is rarely challenged; when we meet at work or socially, opinions are  echoed not challenged. Predictably the internet gets the blame for this increasing polarisation as, particularly in the USA, people are said to get their news from social media and block out dissenting views – or social media algorithms block dissenting views for them. To compound matters, if and when we do access views from those outside of our echo chamber then we make an active attempt to rationalise our views rather than reason about them. In fact this process of rationalisation might end up strengthening our prejudices, for rather than loosely go along with something we have now actively worked out a line of defence; interaction with others no longer seems a way to strengthen democratic debate but to reduce it. I find interesting  here the claim that those with ‘cognitive advantages’ (e.g. higher levels of literacy or numeracy) might be more adept at rationalising and better able to undermine the arguments that disturb their thinking. This offers a new take on the idea that the problem with democracy is that it leaves those with less education vulnerable to populist movements, but that is for another day.

The thing about echo chambers is that by design or by accident, or more likely both, we have ended up living in increasingly segregated worlds [5]. This argument is expressed particularly strongly in the USA. It is something that is widely discussed in UK too though my hunch is that the effects of ‘echoing’ are softened by the position of the BBC as a national broadcaster and the more inclusive character of organised religion.

Hope for addressing the consequences of the echo chamber was given by a ‘die hard’ conservative Bob Inglis, someone who had changed his view of climate change, but nothing else as far as I could see. As he put it, if the arguments come from  ‘another tribe’ (‘liberals and Al Gore’) you don’t need to engage with them, it is only, as in his case, when the argument came from someone with similar values that he was prepared to listen.

I find post-truth disturbing as a phenomenon. My career has been in teaching and learning and like many others I believe that being educated is about being able to weigh up arguments and to understand values. It is also very much about learning to get on with other people as a community. Some of my recent work has been about what it might mean to strive for a rational consensus online; we might not ever be objective but we have the concept of objectivity for a reason, it is something that we can measure our patterns of argument against. We know we can do much better online than attack others and shut down argument.

It is tempting to see post-truth as a new phenomenon but it is not. We have always stayed firm in a belief when evidence points the other way and we have always been manipulated by the media and those controlling the media have always sought to manipulate us [6]. My hunch is much of the thinking about post-truth is generated not by WMDs but by the recent banking and economic crises; we are returning to politics as a zero sum game with whatever advantage going to one group being seen as at the expense of another and it is in this climate in which selective reasoning thrives.

[1] Toulmin is a common point of reference for those interested in theory of argument – Toulmin, S. (2012) The Use of Argument, Cambridge, CUP.

[2] See for example fact checking sites such as:

http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2015/nov/22/donald-trump/fact-checking-trumps-claim-thousands-new-jersey-ch/

[3] I am not sure anyone wants to revisit this but the claim was:

‘The EU costs us £350 million a week. That’s enough to build a new NHS hospital every week of the year. We get less than half of this money back, and we have no control over the way it’s spent – that’s decided by politicians and officials in Brussels, rather than the people we elect here.’

[4] If interested in the result go to the BBC site at

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4360597.stm

[5] On the day after the Brexit vote I was talking to a friend who said how pleased he was with the result and how he had not met anyone who voted to remain. Until that point I don’t think I had met anyone who voted to leave. This kind of polarised experience was I think fairly common.

[6] This is Orwell in 1943 reflecting back on the Spanish civil war:

I remember saying once to Arthur Koestler, ‘History stopped in 1942’, at which he nodded in immediate understanding. We were both thinking of totalitarianism in general, but more particularly of the Spanish civil war. Early in life I have noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie. I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories; and I saw newspapers in London retailing these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that had never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines’.

Looking back on the Spanish War http://orwell.ru/library/essays/Spanish_War/english/esw_1