Tag Archives: LSE

Blue Rain at the LSE library

Blue Rain

Whether you’re making your way into the LSE library or fall just short of your destination to have a couple of pints at the George IV (local pub just opposite the library, for those who’ve never been), you are likely to notice a new embellishment to the otherwise pretty uninviting university campus: a several feet tall arrangement of flickering blue LED lights. No, it’s not to deter the pigeons. What? No, it’s also not the school’s latest attempt to raise money by selling advertising comparable to that at Piccadilly Circus.

It’s art. Art by the San Francisco based artist Michael Brown, paid for by a former LSE graduate from the class of 1965. His work is called “Blue Rain” – which makes sense because it does indeed look a bit like rain running down the side of the building, or a waterfall actually (especially if you belong to the “couple of pints at the George IV” audience).

I had a quick chat with the artist just after the work had been installed today. He explained what the cryptic flashing of the blue LED lights are meant to read (and eventually will read, after some adjustments to the ticker speeds and the brightness). In several overlapping layers, they present information retrieved directly from the inside of the library – “the research being carried out”.

First I thought this meant that everyone can read my essays as I sit inside, typing away. But “Blue Rain” will only retrieve the library catalog searches, books being checked out, and new additions to the collection. Still, if I type in some funny search term at the right time, will it make its way onto “Blue Rain”?!

I’ll leave all matters of aesthetics to the reader. Please leave your comments… One LSE student passing by already opened the debate. He critically asked about the cost of the thing. And what about any return on investment?

Please visit the artist’s website at http://onsights.com/, where the photoshoped picture above was taken from. The pictures taken today by a photographer will be available on the LSE website soon.

Learning and Technology – Give a voice to those who learn!


Together with a bunch of LSE Media & Communication students, I attended the “one-day international conference” on “Maximizing Opportunities for Young Learners in the Digital Age” in Oxford today.

As young learners that we consider ourselves to be, we had hoped to get an overview of the latest research regarding technology and learning. Our hopes were not entirely disappointed, but it turned out that the debate was about some bigger questions that go way beyond the role of technology. In fact, what was really at stake was the (power) relationship between teacher and student, as mediated by technology.

After writing the post, I decided to go straight into my thoughts on what was said at that conference, moving a summary of the presentations to the end.

What it was all about

To be critical, all of the presentations raised more questions than they answered. One of the reasons for this is that the research is not specific enough about what is meant by “young learners”, by “technologies”, and (most crucially) by “learning”. Just these three variables can be configured in so many different ways that generalizations seem very problematic.

The conference also left some people in the audience wondering what the debate was actually about. If you didn’t know that it was about technology and learning, you could have assumed at times that it was the entire schooling system that was up for discussion.

All arguments quickly led to questions about the nature and purpose of learning, the role of schools in learning, and even about the nature of knowledge itself. What is it that we want our children to learn and know?

What was really at stake at this debate was something that no speaker at the conference explicitly talked about: the relationship between the teacher and the student. The teacher is supposed to have the ultimate authority over knowledge. That defines his identity and professional self-understanding as a teacher.

If technology enables students to go out and discover (possible more recent or conflicting) information by themselves, the position of the teacher is undermined. Her role would have to change from preaching knowledge to guiding students in finding it themselves. Teachers would have to be accountable for what they teach and their teaching would be more transparent. Do they like that? Most of them probably wouldn’t.

I couldn’t help the feeling that some of the researchers in this field also don’t fully embrace such a change in the way the teacher-student relationship works. If we think about the many interviews they conduct with young people as a discourse (as Foucault would like it), then the patronizing undertone in their questions and the way they frame their studies possibly reinforces the powerful position of teachers and lecturers (that they are) as the ultimate source of knowledge. Those who this research is about – the young learners – are not given a loud enough voice in this discourse.

What was said

Justine Cassell, Northwestern University in Chicago, opened the conference with an intriguing presentation of the Junior Summit project, which she was involved in. In short, the Junior Summit was a global online community that was set up to be run by teenagers themselves. Given this opportunity, the young participants actually managed to establish a strong sense of community and activism. One of her findings was that adults should stay away as much as possible. “We need to build communities, not classrooms.”

Ole Erstad, University of Oslo, continued from there by questioning the notion of a “digital generation”. Teens and their media habits are in many ways quite “normal”, he suggests. He also questions any distinction between “formal” or “informal” ways of learning. To understand how young people use technology for learning, we should adopt a “learning lives” approach that focuses on learning in everyday life, across many different contexts and places.

Sonia Livingstone, LSE, gave a concise summary of current empirical research on technology and learning. Does technology improve students performance in the usual school subjects? Yes, no, maybe. There is no conclusive empirical evidence for this relationship. Maybe technology allows for new ways of learning, like experimentation, tinkering, social learning, and so on? Yes, no, maybe. The problem with empirical research in this area, she suggests, is that we don’t seem to know what to look for. “The pedagogy of the Internet has not been worked out yet.”

Finally, John Furlong and Chris Davis, University of Oxford, asked “Do young people need help in using technologies to maximize their learning out-of-school?” They made the distinction between formal, quasi-formal, and informal learning settings (that Ole Erstad had rejected), providing quotes for each of them, taken from their interview research. They suggest that adults need to better understand young people and technology in order to guide the youth.

Computer-based examinations – Writing exams my marker can read

I found it very paradoxical that after a year of taking electronic notes and handing in neatly typed essays, I had to take handwritten exams. We’ve complained a bit, as students do, with no real hope that this anachronism would disappear anytime soon. Turns out, there is some hope – although it’s a bit down the line. According to the Guardian

Simon Lebus, chief executive of Cambridge Assessment, said that traditional examinations are likely to disappear within 10 to 15 years, to be replaced by computerised testing.

Really? That would be a huge relief for all of us, for a number of reasons. First, it would spare us the pain of having to write for three hours straight. Every time after 15 minutes may hand would be suffering from cramps, looking like some alien claw.

Second, it would mean that markers and students themselves can actually enjoy reading exam answers without having to decipher what it might say in between those two crossed-out paragraphs and the scribbles on the margin.

Third, and most importantly, it would improve exam answers because computers allow students to write them in a way that reflects the way they think – non-linear, in creative outbursts, at first incoherent, and always wanting to change it around.

A global thing

Interestingly enough, this seems to be some kind of global trend in the “examination industry’, if you want to call it that (it actually is an industry, by the way).

The moves are part of a global shift towards computerised assessments. The US is leading the way with multiple choice and computer marking, while South Korea is rapidly developing new e-assessment models. Denmark is piloting the use of the internet during some essay-based exams, seen as the equivalent of the move to allow calculators in maths exams.

Are there problems with this shift to computer-based examinations? Of course, as always there are. I will not mention again the skill requirements for operating a computer comfortably (not just operating it, but feeling at ease with it) and how they are far from equally distributed.

What I might find more disturbing is that computer-based exams are a temptation to introduce computer-based grading. I am a firm believer in the argument that when people have data available, they will want to analyze it – even if it’s just because they can. And then the question becomes whether we can program computers to grade something as complex as an essay. Most of the markers I’ve ever encountered wouldn’t be able to tell you how they do it…