Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Nigella Lawson: Electric Hyperteacher

Printing, McLuhan tells us, created Authors. Gutenberg's invention, by lowering the marginal cost of reproducing books changed them fundamentally. It became possible to write a bestseller, like "A Tale of Two Lovers' (a racy proto-romp printed in 1467 whose author went on to become Pope Pius II). and later, more serious writers like Desiderius Erasmus, who could actually make a living as a semi independent intellectual, respected in his own lifetime.

If printing created authors, what has the internet created? To see it clearly, we really need to step back from the Internet as one piece of the puzzle and think of the bigger picture, including all of what McLuhan would call 'The Electric Media' - Radio, TV, The Paperback and the Magazine.

We usually call them 'Historian/Chef/Economist, author and broadcaster'  - whatever their discipline is, with Author and Broadcaster tacked on. It's a clumsy name which implies that they do something we don't really have a name for yet. - I'll call them the Electric Hyperteachers, until a better neologism comes to mind. These are not conventional educators gunned up with new tools. Why should they be -  first authors weren't book copyists. Appropriately, Marshall McLuhan himself was one of the first of this breed, appearing on the relatively new TV medium, although not, perhaps, selling as well as Simon Schama or Alain de Botton. They are now abundant, from economists like David McWilliams here in Ireland, to highly visible academics like Niall Ferguson or Stephen Hawking. It is the chefs, however, who lead the way and show us total mastery of the discipline, Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver and their kindred.

They educate by combined arms warfare - Blitzkrieg for learning. They use all available media, in a tightly integrated way, to put their message across. First, air assault, ten episodes in a good slot on the Autumn TV lineup. Then ground war - massed hardbacks surging out of the bookshops, every December. Book tours and syndicated columns bring the message to key target zones, iPhone apps provide mobile hitting power, and twitter allows them to get right on the front line, clearing out the misconceptions, tweet by tweet, room by room, mind by mind.

We can dismiss them as trivial, but in Gutenberg's time they said that about anything that wasn't theology.
We can dismiss them as mere entertainers, but being entertaining is just a psychological hack to keep our attention and get the knowledge past our ramparts of apathy.
We can dismiss them as shallow, but those that are reach wide, and open the way for others.
We can dismiss them for being unable to engage with students, as we go off to lecture to classes of hundreds.

These creatures can cross the research barrier too - and I don't just mean Heston Blumenthals culinary labs. Time Team, the British Archaeology show, not content with teaching my five year old more Saxon history than I ever wish to know, claims to have published more academic papers than all the Archaeology Departments in the UK combined.

These are new beasts, and they are genuinely new, but they can't do everything a Teacher does. Not yet. Three things are missing, that I can see, Assessment (formative or otherwise), Peer to Peer learning, and Accreditation.

Nigella Lawson, sadly, does not come to my kitchen to assess my roast potatoes, but she is on Twitter. I can see on Facebook which of my friends likes Jamie Oliver, I could, if I wished, organise a cook off among them, and tweet him to tell him how it went. The new forces of social media provide both the possibility (perhaps, the illusion) of engagement with the teacher, and a relatively easy avenue to find and interact with others interested in the same topic. It enables unstructured peer to peer learning and assessment. In practice, at any scale beyond the smallest of seminars, conventional assessment by the teacher doesn't scale, as anyone who has ever marked exams papers knows to their aching bones.

As for accreditation, I cannot, for now, earn any module credit from any culinary institution for competently turning out one of Nigella's Feasts (even if I could), but how long until one of them snaps a TV series / Book package into a franchised local cookery course model,  and if there was a paying interest, gives the attendees a certificate on completion? You may consider cooking trivial, but the model is easily applicable to any discipline, if an audience and a profit can be found for it.

Over the last half century, the profusion of new broadcast media created new gurus of transmission model education - mainly Chef's but Economists, Historians and Scientists too. The addition of social media might well give them to toolkits to step past that and become Educators in a much richer, truer sense. They will not be like the ones we have known before, no more than David Starkey is like Herodotus.

They are, of course, mainly in it for the money. The new media, for the first time, allows creates the possibility for educators to actually make large amounts of money. It's almost a thousand years since Peter Abelard taught from 'pecunie et laudis cupiditas' - Greed and Ambition, and now it seems that, if you have the knack, that might not be such a fanciful ambition after all, for the few.

And it will be for the few. A century ago, people could make a living as an opera singer. Not a great living, but a living. If you wanted to hear Opera, you had to get in a room with an Opera singer, and pay them. There were lots of them, and they made a living. Them came the Victor Talking Machine Company, Caruso and McCormack. Now Carreras and Ntrebco fly privately, and everyone else in the business takes the bus. The new media creates a long tail, to be sure, but it also creates a high peak - books created Bestsellers, and records created Rock stars. What will full contact transmission and social media do to our educators?

Interesting times.



  1. I suppose we need to divide the "talking heads" between those who actually know something vs. those who simply want to appear to know something.

    There are means for accreditation of the talking heads, first and foremost giving them face time on the broadcast media, but also including media critics and book reviews.

    I am with you in not seeing means for assessment of the audience's learning (other than self assessment, and clicking to another talking head when necessary).

    I suspect that in some cases there are peer-to-peer interactions, as people sit together to watch a talking head and talk about what it said. So too, we have comments on blog posts or posted news articles.

    Schools and libraries are seeking to teach "information literacy". Thus society is institutionalizing some approaches to self-assessment.

    Perhaps we should be looking to institutionalize approaches to your triad of needs. Could we do something with the kind of feedback that are embedded in Amazon.com and ebay.com.

  2. Have you seen "Harvard University's Justice with Michael Sandel". It is broadcast on U.S. public television, but can also be watched online. There are means for some peer-to-peer interaction online.

    One feels that the course is worthwhile since it is offered in person by a great university, is extremely popular with that university's undergraduate students, and then broadcast by public interest television.

    I suspect that people watch the sessions because they are interesting and provide a learning experience, rather than for certification. Perhaps some automated approach to self assessment might help the viewers to deepen the learning experience. How would one develop such an approach?

  3. I haven't seen the show, but the model sounds compelling. Scope for assessment on that model is fairly limited.
    The easy approach is online MCQ type assessment, but that can only test fairly low level comprehension - essentially, whether the observer was paying attention - although smart MCQ's can be challenging - for example http://www.philosophyexperiments.com/fatman/Default.aspx

    Peer to peer assessment of essays or presentations is possible, and there is evidence that multiple blind peer assessments of a work can grade as accurately as lecturers assessment.

    So you can go a long way really on assessment without generating a transcript marking choke point.