Students as curators: Cargo cults and chasing the answers

Yesterday during the Vice Chancellor’s Teaching and Learning Conference at Plymouth University, I presented a think piece with Oliver Quinlan.

Quote collectors

 

The thrust of our thinking is that students arrive at University conditioned to chase the answer that they think the lecturer is looking for.  That we can use a range of online tools to bring to the surface skills in engaging with the body of knowledge rather than collecting quotes for an essay.  We argued that we need to take students through a paradigm shift, to enable them to understand how to read and curate that reading, having taken a critical, forensic approach to the reading they undertake.

Content Curation is a vital skill and reasonably closely aligned with the role defined as a maven and made famous in Gladwell’s book Tipping Point.  We are seeking to turn our students into the nation’s leading mavens of their discipline.  To fall in love with their body of knowledge and then write their answer, rather than seeking our answer.

outputsWe want our students to develop the “habit” of engaging with their discipline and to read to develop their understanding, confident that some of the reading and thinking will lead to glorious, unresolved loose ends. And eagerly anticipating the opportunity to unearth a “spork”, an unexpected and delicious moment of synthesis leading to a moment of inspiration and innovation.

We outlined two online mash ups (Oliver takes all the credit for these ideas, I have plumbed new heights of web 2.0ness since I began to work with him) available to make the process of content curation evident and transparent to students:

  1.  Twitter and Delicious, linked through packrati.us it is possible to archive articles of interest as they present themselves online in such a way as to make that archive searchable by key hash tag.
  2. To use Evenote to develop an online access anywhere archive where every word, including words in photographs of pages of text become searchable terms.  This results in no reading for an essay, just reading, confident that whatever context the knowledge and reading is required, it can be found and mined for its contextual value.

Oliver concluded our presentation with a fascinating story about Cargo Cults, and equated it to superficial learning

responses. Cargo Cults are an interesting socio-cultural phenomenon, because they derive from a collective misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the world, brought about by simplistic beliefs. One example of cargo cult can be found in the Melanesian Islands of the South Pacific, where, during World War Two, the islanders were invaded by the Japanese and then liberated by the Allied forces. Both occupying armies were far more technologically advanced than the society that hosted them. On both occasions, the primitive islanders were exposed to the advanced technology, and the alien culture and philosophies of their visitors, which altered their world view. They benefited for a while from them. Both the Japanese and Allied forces gave them manufactured goods such as clothing, tents, food and other commodities, which expanded their consciousness and increased their collective wealth.

When finally the war ended, and the Allied forces departed, the islanders were left with an interruption to their new found wealth. They attempted to regain this wealth by creating replicas of many of the iconic technologies their visitors had used. For example, they created landing strips and aircraft from straw or made wireless radios from coconuts. One could perhaps imagine them today carving a mobile phone out of wood. They attempted from their collective memories to fashion their society into the image of their technologically advanced visitors. Some staged marches and parade drills using sticks to represent rifles, and painted military style insignia on their bodies to make them look like soldiers. They tried to recreate a set of circumstances that they believed would attract the wealth back into their communities. Essentially, they fell into the trap of commodity fetishism, and an entirely new belief system grew up around it.

Oliver explained how many novice learners, and in particular undergraduate students, attempt to build into their work what they believe their lecturers require from them. this is often exepmlifed with over complex, “plucked from a thesaurus”  language.  This is replicating the obvious sophistication of academic writing, without having to address the core issue of having a relationship with a body of knowledge.   We want students to write from the heart about what they know, based on what they have read over many years.

Just as the Melanesian islanders failed to understand the inner   workings of technology, but attempted to recreate it from its surface appearance, so undergraduate students who ‘don’t get it’ attempt to write critical essays by stringing together references into some form of meaningful narrative.  Oliver   was clear, the clarity of language matters, we need Ronseal Terminology, so    that we send our students a transparent message. For example if we ask    students to ‘cite the reading which has informed their writing’ from the   literature, rather than asking them to ‘reference their work’.  Once students get  the idea that they can write critically by being forensic and striving to understand the concepts and theories rather than simply creating replicas of texts they have only half read, they will begin to assimilate   these ideas successfully in to their own thinking and ideology.  We want to  ensure that students become curators of their discipline, rather than magpies intent upon adorning their world with shiny disconnected baubles of information, with no care as to where the information came     from, its author or its relationship to the rest of the body of knowledge.

 

 

This post is an ameliorated version of the blog post from Steve Wheeler, 29th June 2013 via http://steve-wheeler.blogspot.co.uk, creative commons licence
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