Over the decades I've been a sucker for every piece of writing software that has come along, feeding it into my Mac from the early 1990s: Final Draft and PowerStructure both have their place, as does Word or PPT. These days I so far more of my thinking on paper, on cards and on a white board. And when I write I use Google Docs - swear by it. Thanks to the OU SWF course last year and over 4 months working and reworking a series of stories I am at last familiar enough with the characters and context to think I can devise and link a series of scenes to make a novel. On verra.
This is a fascinating insight into the way we learn and educate is changing with students exploring, creating and sharing from an App 'smôrgasbord' of rich, interactive content.
I picked up this thread in the WW1 Buffs Facebook pages
This conversation will keep me busy for several months. The debate on the guardian site is heated, personal and too often Luddite in tone. Why try to say that a book is better than an eBook is better than an App that is 'book-like?' I'll be pitching in as I believe what he argues is right and applies immediately to Geography too. I've studied online learning, history and geography - all to Masters level. I'm not an historian, geographer or an educator: I'm simply deeply curious and fascinated by the way we learn.
Key to Apps is immediacy, relevancy and motivation.
Put content into a student's hands in a way they appreciate: at their fingertips, multi-sensory and connected. An App can take all that is a book, and add several books and angles; all that is TV or Radio and have the person sit up, create content of their own, form views, share opinions and therefore learn, develop and remember.
If I have time on my hands in a town I've not visited for a while I might wander by the war memorial. During these centenary years you might even find a museum: a local exhibition on a regional division or local battalion, or a house that was used as a hospital. Until 2019 York Castle Museum have the exhibtion:
York Castle Museum has ample space to spread its narrative. It offers visitors carefully chosen narratives that a visitor might follow. I wonder if from the start they could be invited to think about a great grandparent or great uncle who may have served in the war. We are invited to think in turn about Alice, Thomas, John, Albert and John; the bookkeeper, the mechanic, woodman, shop assistant and a doctor.
Who will you follow?
Fig. 1 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum
My grandfather, Jack Wilson, was two weeks short of his 18th birthday when war was declared in August 1914. He'd already been working for four years as office boy then brewer's clerk for the North Eastern Brewery, Consett, Co. Durham.
Fig.2. Studio Portrait of Private John Arthur Wilson, DLI (before transfer to the Machine Gun Corps) This picture was used by the Consette Gazette in 1917 when Corporal Wilson of the MCG was awarded the Military Medal.
My grandfather joined up a few months after his 19th birthday; a few of them from the office went along from the office. Jack's kid brother joined the RFC shortly after, lying about his age as he wasn't even 17.
Can you think of someone from your family, or from your family history who joined up? Or who would have had a story such of those above? Do you know if someone from your street joined up? A typical street during the Great War would have seen most men, some far younger, some far older joining up and lying about their age. It can be a shock to discover just how many from the local school lost their lives.
The York Castle exhibition uses objects that would have been familiar to the typical recruit. For example, an eye-test as part of the medical.
Fig. 3 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum
My grandfather Jack, age 18 did this test in the recruiting office, Consett in November 1915. He repeated it at the Hotel Cecil at the beginning of 1918 as part of his transfer to the Royal Flying Corps over three years later. I took him for an eye test in 1989 when sadly he could even see the first letter and age 93 it was suggested that he didn't drive any more. Whilst you could lie about your age, many 15 year olds got it, you couldn't fake your height. In 1914 you had to be 5ft 6in, though this soon dropped to 5ft 1in. To join the Guards you had to be 6ft ... unless you were the Prince of Wales. Edward was 5ft 6in ... he looks diminutive and childlike by far taller, and fall older looking men.
Fig. 4 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum
On 22nd October 1917 my grandfather buried the 42 year old Henry Gartenfeld. 'He shouldn't have been there. A married man with three kiddies.' That's how my grandfather talked about it. 'It didn't matter about me, not being a married man.' The reality is that older men not only joined for patriotic reasons: they joined because they thought it a better alternative, than say working in the cotton mills or down a mine.
Fig. 5 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum
Here the exhibit in the York Castle Museum talks about the bible. Jack Wilson, who was transferred from the DLI to the 'Suicide Squad' the just forming Machine Gun Corps, prized matches about everything else. He swapped his cigarettes for matches whenever he could. He never smoked. One reason he lived to be 96 then. He didn't drink much either, though worked in the brewery business for the better part of fifty years. He wasn't a Quaker, but many were.
Fig. 6 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum
I recognised this clasp knife because my grandfather had his and still used it 75 years after it was issued. I have it somewhere. A little oil and it is what I take sailing with me. As well as photos, a watch, a paybook, his Vicker's Machine Gun manual, and his RAF Log Book and medals he had a couple of harmonicas from the war.
Fig. 7 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum
My grandfather would play a few tunes when we were little; he was quite good. He could also do tricks with coins. These, and many other minor skills, such as repairing watches, he picked him in the trenches or out on reserve where for the bulk of the time you were looking for something to relieve the boredom. He often spoke of finding smashed up cars they would fix, or taking bits on one occasion from a plane that had come down near to their pill-box.
Fig. 8 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum
Were these the standard issue? Great for a swap according to my late grandfather John Arthur Wilson MM. We're asked to consider where each of our feature characters have got to by the end of 1914. A map of Western Europe pinpoints them.
Fig. 9 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum
If you haven't caught any of the episodes yet it is worth listening to BBC Radio 4's drama serial 'Homefront.' It's back from the 25th May.
The choices have been carefully made for this exhibition. It is intimate. My ticket gives me entry for a full 12 months. Unfortunately I live 261 miles away at the other end of England. All the more reason to make these notes and to have all these pictures to remind me what I saw.
Fig. 10 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum
Some of the most harrowing stories I heard from my grandfather were of the soldiers who took a long time to die. Dick Piper, a machine gunner like my grandfather, took a piece of shrapnel in the belly on the 21st October and died the following day. There was nothing to do for him other than put on dressings and make him comfortable by wedging bricks against his feet so that he could keep his legs pressed into his stomach. My grandfather described it as very matter of fact to wait until the body stiffened up before dragging it out and 'burying' it under rumble. 75 years later he marked the spot with a Commemoration Poppy. Imagine that. Returning to the very spot, where, on that occasion, two of his mates had died.
Fig. 11 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum
On the edge of Houthulst Forest in late 1917 - he returned to pillboxes north of Poelcapelle repeatedly in October, November and December, my grandfather took a prisoner - this German soldier got lost in the early morning fog and simply wandered into the pillbox they'd taken from the Germans a few weeks earlier. He was with the MGC crew for the entire day showing off photograph, a Mausser Pistol that was taken off him and looking at the odd looking currency.
What have you discovered?
Fig. 12 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum
Every story you hear of the First World War fascinates. Everyone who took part, whether the volunteered or were conscripted, is a story where someone who last all that was familiar and near to them behind. 1/7th were killed.
Fig. 13 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum
At the very end of 1917, have survived all of Third Ypres, my grandfather's papers came through to transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. It was 27th December. The officers wished him well, and gave him pictures of themselves. The company Sergeant gave him a Webley Revolver, just like this one. Saying he'ed have to buy one otherwise once he joined the RFC. He had this gun until there was a weapon's amnesty in Britain and being a law-abiding man he handed it in.
Fig. 14 Kodak Box Brownie 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum
As a flight cadet my grandfather had several months of training to get through. He started with military training at RAF Hastings, then to Bristol to learn aeronautics billeted in Haig's alma mater, Clifton College. on to Uxbridge for bomb training and finally up to Scotland for flight training He bought a Kodak camera though and made a visual record of his RAF training between June 1918 and November 1918.
Fig. 15. Flight Cadet John Arthur Wilson MM. RAF Crail, September 1919, age 23.
He stayed on with the RAF until February 1919 to help demob. Very sadly, in June 1919, his kid brother, who had joined the RFC as a 17 year old and at 19 only was a Flight Sergeant, crashed his bomber over Belgium delivering mail.
We come to the end of the exhibition and are asked to think about our featured characters and what happened after the war.
Fig. 16 1914: When the world changed forever. York Castle Museum
My grandfather was lucky. He had survived unwounded. He returned to the job he had started as a boy of 14. He'd been away for over 3 1/2 years. Money put aside to him by work colleagues bought him a motorbike. Things weren't to run smoothly though, recently married and with a one year old he was made redundant in 1932 when the North Eastern Brewery was sold to Vaux. He had 22 years service if you include the war years. He joined Scottish & Newcastle Brewery the following year and put in nearly 30 years with them. His war never ended. Growing up I was the grandchild who listened to his stories. How I envisaged these stories changed as my knowledge of the war grew.
FIg. 17 John Arthur Wilson MM meeting Belgian dignitaries with his only daughter, during the 75th anniversary commemoration of Third Ypres, the Battle of Passchendaele in July 1992 at the Menin Gate.
Jack attended the 75th anniversary of Third Ypres, Passchendaele in 1992 - one of five veterans that year. He also attended events marking the formation of the Machine Gun Corps and the formation of the RAF.
Fig.18 Memorial to the fallen of the York Law Society
At the end of the York Castle exhibition on the First World War visitors are invited chalk up a thought or memory on a series of large black boards. And finally we pass through an ante-room which features a couple of memorials to the fallen. These are made all the more heartbreaking when you think they could be your brother, son or father, where this 100 years ago. I find such memorials in schools harrowing.
Fig. 19 Lewes War Memorial Pinned.
The above shows where those commemorated on the memorial lived. In some houses both a father and son were lost. In several streets every other door had a son, husband, father or brother a fatality. School parties walking passed these houses are left in tears. Imagine how many of your friends you lost.
My grandfather said of those who joined the DLI in November 1915 within him only he returned. Whilst 18 months in the Machine Gun Corps appeared 'suicidal' with his transfer to train with the Royal Flying Corps he was given 11 months grace and the war ended. His training had been delayed by influenza on the ground, then dreadful weather which delayed his training. My grandfather always regretted not getting back to the Western Front to 'have a go at the Hun.'
Fig.1. My goal. To write scenes as fluidly as changing gear.
Goal: What does my central character want from this scene?
Conflict. Who is the conflict with?
Disaster. What is the disaster for this scene?
Fig.2. Common scene writing errors. From Bickman.
I have characters, locations, events and situations in my head. For some characters the story runs for fifty years, most intense age 6 to 21. Armed with this editor's tool I can ruthless delete, rewrite or come up with fresh scenes that meet the above criteria. It fits the pattern I want in my head of a story with momentum - that could be made into a linear drama for TV or film. I particularly recognise the need to ask repeatedly 'what is the disaster?' to conclude a scene. I related to this from a career in writing persuasive copy and videos where you repeatedly ask, then ask again 'what is the problem?" The first answer is usually weak, though compelling ... more likely the ninth or tenth idea will fit the brief.
Fig.3. Elements of Fiction Writing
I continue to read, note and try ideas from Jack M. Bickham's book 'Elements of Fiction Writing - Scene & Structure.' I continue with the Open University course on FutureLearn 'Start Writing Fiction', as well as content on Open Learn of the same title.
We are all hung up on something – the terrible ex, the neighbours from hell, mothers, spiders, fitting rooms, flying or being alone. Anything you like. Some of the best stories come from the deepest and darkest obsessions (just ask Alfred Hitchcock). So dig deep and find your own personal heart of darkness.
I like this tip on writing from the Open University.
I've come to it a very roundabout way. Via a FutureLearn initiative to get people writing 140 word fiction on Twitter. I think I've posted a dozen @mymindbursts.
What do I get hung up about?
- People parking up on the kerb in residential streets
- Dogs, and cats, allowed to run about as they please yapping and shitting as they like.
- Rubbish left to burn and smoulder for days
- Loud radios played in gardens as soon as the sun comes out.
- Exceedingly loud petrol-engine driven strimmers used in gardens on a Sunday morning.
- Anyone who recites the party line instead of saying something truthful or original.
- Overtaking on the inside lane.
- Hogging the central lane.
- Cyclists riding abreast on narrow roads.
- Motorbikes revved and diddled with as their relaxing weekend activity.
- Wheelie bins left out for days
- Littering at beauty spots - some people regularly pull over a layby and toss their MacDonalds out of the window on leaving
I have this story called 'When the green man saw red.'
Like Michael Douglas in "Fallen' he goes mental trying to set the world straight and probably gets done over as a result. Sounds like me? I attract vandals and abuse. Was I born an arse who made one through parenting and boarding school. One wonders.
Collect words ....
Fig.1. How I listed new words in my teens.
This was during A'Level English age 17. I'd done it a bit age 12/13 ... not a big reader, or writer then, I never kept it up. Making lists was one thing, using fancy words quite another. More importantly, as a professional writer the opposite applies: communication is clearest when you use short, every day words, not fancy latinate terms or foreign phrases.
This is a tip three of ten from the Open University and FutureLearn supporting 'Start Writing Fiction' the online course and a Flash Fiction, 140 character Twitter challenge next week.
“Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.” Will Self
This is tip one of ten from the Open University course 'Start Writing Fiction' and its launch of a Twitter Fiction campaign.
Fig.1 Fig.1. Steven Pressfield's 'Foolscap Method' to write a novel
Once more I am loving the Open University's free online course 'Start Writing Fiction' on FutureLearn: it only started this week so there is plenty of time to join now. This free online course is all about character, so us novice fiction writers struggle with thoughts on plot. I love this from author Steven Pressfield: 'The Foolscap Method' is for me the 'Creative Brief' by another name, or even Churchill's dictum of being given reports on a single sheet of paper. By setting parameters and being succinct you are forced to get to the kernel of an idea. When constructing a story then, say a novel, answer the following. I find I return to and refine this often and eventually have it on the wall to stop me wandering off ... those ideas and stories can be kept for another project.
Fig.2 Close up on Steven Pressfield's 'Foolscap Method' used to write his first novel
Steven Pressfield's Foolscap Method : From his blog.
THE FOOLSCAP METHOD
Story telling device
Looks easy? Then add 70,000 coherent, clear, exciting words!!!
|Blue Bells 30th April 2015 HH|
Every years it's the same. Every year I pop back often.
Metaphors teach us to think and well chosen can, with some caveats, initiate and stimulate meaning. The educator, Gráinne Conole, Professor of Learning Innovation at the University of Leicester often talks of 'metaphor for meaning making' in our efforts to unravel and explain the complex. However, metaphors have an inbuilt bias: their creator. It is helpful to talk of a 'tree of life' when it isn't? Is it OK to teach it to Junior School Kids in the knowledge that they will be given a more complex visualisation, explanation and metaphor as graduate students? Should we talk of a 'War of Drugs' as if beating a disease is a conflict, when actually it is collaboration and aspiration that leads to communities accepting vaccines ...
What do the educators use and what do we participants remember from the courses we do: flat vocabulary, more complex vocabulary, classification schemas or models or metaphors? I hazard a guess that we remember indiscriminate moments of insight from a comment here, a visualisation, a comment, a shared point of view ...
I then read around the subject and often go back to the sources the author used and eventually form my own opinion. These days I will share it online and have it shot down or applauded - or both. In due course I read more and adjust my original perspective which is fluid. The origins of the First World War, Haig and Passchendaele are points of interest - also all factual and fictional interpretations on TV ... and RFC/RAF flight training (because that was part of my grandfather's story).
Unable to get near a mountain this winter I've nonetheless gloried in watching the seasons start and gradually melt away into spring from the Katalys HD livecams at 1250m, 2750m up in the French Alps.
Fig.1 La Grande Rochette looking south east towards Mt Bellevarde from summer into early winter.
Once there is snow the landscape changes little. The weather changes dramatically. People comes and go. The snow mounts up, then sinks away.
Climate change is telling. Three decades ago the winter 'season' kicked off in Val d'Isere with the first races of the World Cup on the 17th November - they are now lucky to race at all at this height in December. Three decades ago, closer to four in fact, having worked 12 hours days 6/7 days a week since early December I finished my 'season' on 2nd May and could still ski down to 1250m ... just. The snow below 2000m has, without artificial snow largely melted away.
A paper studying fifty years of snowfall in the Alps paints a convincing story: snow cover is variable, the season later and shorter, the freezing level consistently higher making rain as likely as snow even as high as 2000m through-out the season. Yet to confound the 'industry' a nice fall of 47cm this weekend and early next week falling down to 1500m is forecast. All but a handful of resorts with glaciers close this weekend.
Twitter I: JJ27VV
Twitter II: Mymindbursts
LinkedIn: Jonathan Vernon
Facebook: J F Vernon
Google: Jonathan Vernon
As well as others ... Quora, CloudBursts, FutureLearn, OpenStudio, SimpleMinds, Studio ...
The courses I've done with FutureLearn over the last 18 months.
- World War 1: A history in 100 Stories: Monash University
- Medicine and the Arts: The University of Cape Town
- The Mind is Flat: University of Warwick
- Understanding Drugs and Addiction. King’s College, London
- World War 1: Changing Faces of Heroism. University of Leeds
- Explore Filmmaking: National Film and Television School
- How to Read a Mind: The University of Nottingham
- Start Writing Fiction: Fall 2014. The Open University
- Word War 1: Trauma and Memory: The Open University
- World War 1: Aviation Comes of Age: University of Birmingham
- World War 1: Paris 1919 - A New World: University of Glasgow
- How to Succeed at: Writing Applications: The University of Sheffield
- Introduction to Forensic Science: University of Strathclyde, Glasgow
- Shakespeare’s Hamlet: University of Birmingham
- Climate Change: Challenges and Solution. University of Exeter
- Managing my Money: The Open University
- Community Journalism: Cardiff University
- Developing Your Research Project: University of Southampton
Those I'm on or have pending
|From E-Learning VI|
Fig.1. © University of Cape Town CC-BY-NC-ND
It has been a lifelong, and rather futile quest of mine expressed in writing and art, diaries, blogs and stories and fed by academic study and non-academic spiritual and cranky pursuits to understand who I am - not what I am. There is in consciousness something rather odd going on that no amount of research into my ancestry, or to living relatives, no amount of writing or painting or visualising of ideas can explain. Is it not a trait of being a teenager to feel alien to the world? Although in my fifties I don't think the euphoria of being a teen is a phase I've yet to pass through Fascinating. I could study neuroscience or get drunk and paint a mural on the side of the house like Jackson Pollock, but I don't think it would get me any closer to finding an answer ... even if I had fun doing so. To sum it up for all of us, to excuse and explain all behaviour from Gandhi to Hitler, from Hockney to Terry Gilliam, Richard Dawkins to Robert Winston, I simply think that each of us is unique - yet ironically society and others repeatedly fight to contain us.
I've been prompted to express this by a question posed to participants on the course 'Medicine and the Arts' from the University of Cape Town on FutureLearn.
An utterly absorbing, heartfelt conversation so sympathetically and convincingly shared. Worth of many return visits and further deep study. I'm driven by a limiting interest in everything. My curiosity knows no bounds - which is limiting, as it might be enlightening. It is easy to visualise the dog chasing its tail, though in my mind, excusing the vanity and narcism of it I see myself more as that omnipresent foetal child from the end of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
|From WW1 FL Memorials|
Fig.1 The Response, Newcastle
There are several ways to enter thinking relating to the First World War courtesy of Open University subsidiary FutureLearn. Each of the First World War courses takes a different tack: aviation, Paris Treaty, idea of heroism and coming up soon, through one hundred personal stories.
During the recent course on heroism we were asked to share images of out favourite First World War Memorials.
Born and raised in Newcastle my late mother went to the Art School on the other side of the road, then King's College, Durham. She often talked of this memorial, knew its history and had done studies of it as a student.
|From WW1 FL Memorials|
Fig.2. Lewes War Memorial
I know Lewes War Memorial as I have lived here for nearly 15 years. As a member of a bonfire society we stop at the memorial every 5th November ... so whether there is a centenary or not, we make a lot of fuss about it. This memorial features online where Steve George has pinned every name to an address in the town. This make for very painful viewing as you realise how many households lost husbands and sons to the war.
|From WW1 FL Memorials|
Fig.3 My late mother and grandfather at the Tynecot Cemetery marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele (Third Ypres).
If I were to add a couple of other memorials it would be the extraordinary First World War memorial to mariners at Tower Hill with sumptuous stone carvings around the miniature garden where it is set, and the oddly incongruous memorial to the Machine Gun Corps at Hyde Park Corner which shows the figure of Boy David. I was a standard barer at a memorial to the 75th anniversary of the formation of the Machine Gun Corps in which my late grandfather had served ... he was there too, age 94.
|From WW1 FL Memorials|
Fig.4. The Tower Hills memorial to mariners of the First World War
And most recently, at my daughter and son's school, I came across this extraordinary mural that fills the assembly hall of the old Grammar School. Surely this achieves its goal of creating a lasting memory amongst students?
From WW1 FL Memorials
Fig. 5 Brighton Grammar School First World War commemoration mural
My First World War Future Learn (MOOCs) ... online courses:
Completed with repeat dates:
World War 1: A New World Order (The Paris Treaty of 1919) Follow at #FLtreaty Starts 22 June. Duration Three Weeks. Study time: Five hours a week.
Having completed all but World War 1: History in a 100 Stories my sincere suggestion would be to set aside seven hours a week. I aim to do an hour a day during the week and complete on Friday. I generally achieve this unless I get deeply engrosses in the conversation, or have to go over a point a few times to understand it. Maybe 45 minutes every day then. Skip the discussions and these are easily done: then it becomes akin to watching a bit of TV and reading a few leaflets - not the same as testing your thoughts, and having your ideas tested, turned around, built upon and altered.
Fig.1 A 'Block Reminder' for scene building based on the ideas of author and writing coach Susannah Waters. Last September I attended a writer's retreat in Devon with Susannah Waters. On day one she introduced me to simple ideas on how to build a scene. For the last six months I have tried to keep this in mind as I write up first one, then a second novel. Often, the comments I receive would have been addressed had I given these pointers some thought. Too often, I know, I upload a treatment, not a draft. I tell the story, but I don't 'show it' in the sense of engaging the imagination of the reader. This homemade die covers six key points: W = who am I? PH = stay in the person's head 5S = refers to the five senses: see, hear, smell, touch and taste D= asks what am I doing SY=asks what am I saying while T=asks what am I thinking. I used a seed box and my son created the fonts on a template, cut it out and stuck it to the box. This morning, before I used this, I ran through eight episodes each more of a synopsis than a treatment. Each now is far longer, but this is good if I am now keeping the reader in my head. Controlling plot is another issue; I never can. The very process of writing for me, like telling someone a dream I have head, means that new things come into my head and want my attention.
|From Great North Museum|
Fig.1 From a display case in the Great North Museum, Newcastle.
As a kid visits to the Hancock Museum, as it then was, were rare but memorable: perhaps every other year from the age of four. The shift in how the objects are curated today is to make the connection between the visitor and the object: to indicate its relevance.
The Internet doesn't simply but one thing next to another, but many. The steps from the display cabinet above could take you to buying the football shirt, google maps to the place the artefacts were found, TripAdvisor on whether to go there and how, clips from Newcastle's greatest moments ...
Fig.1 me, bis sis, and big brother.
I remember the shorts and the wellingtons. I loved it when I stepped in a puddle so deep and the water came over the top. I had a habit of not wearing underpants which meant that dangling from a tree or turning backward somersaults gave a view of my 'bean sprout.' It also resulted in my getting my willy caught in the zip on my trousers more than once. I guess I am four and a half. There's a very similar picture of me dressed in school uniform a few weeks before my fifth birthday: shorts again, tie, blazer and cap with one sock up, and the other one down. I remember that first day at Ascham House as I waited forever to have a go on a huge rocking horse but couldn't because Nick Craigie was having a turn, also the mashed potato in the school lunch made me sick because this sloppy gunk still had the eyes in it. The response from the teachers: all spinsters of at least 90 years of age was the same 'eat it up or you won't get any pudding!' The gooseberries and custard made me sick too.
I'm recalling all of this as I try to get my head into that of a child for the FutureLearn course 'Medicine and the arts' in which we are recalling stories of children in hospital. I had a hospital visit to have stitches put in my willy. It was a short, traumatic visit where I recall at least three people having to hold me down.
Children begin to release what matters to them with paintings and figurines, in song and play. It matters that it takes a little thought and care to figure out what a drawing, poem, song or dance means to a child. My late mother, who taught art, said that on looking at a piece of work created by a child you should only ever say, 'tell me about it.' i.e. never presume that what you are looking at is a 'house,' or a 'dog' as you may discover that this is a 'castle and a dragon,' or a 'hutch and a mouse,' or a 'prison and someone escaping.' Let them talk it through and elaborate.
Fig.1. What do a million people look like?
I learnt when the figure was around 100,000 that these figures should be dismissed as 'pingbacks' - these automatic links to sites that link to my blog and vice versa. It's reciprocal, but it is not the same as a person reading what I have written.
It's trapped me though. At various moments over the last five years at 100, 1,000, 10,000, 500,000 views I have looked to the next figure and kept on posting content. The reality is that 1,000 'views' a day has been the norm for the last year whether or not I post anything. These 'pingbacks' are historic then: my linking to other sites, and then linking back to me. And what percentage of the views are me coming back, even linking to my external website Mind Bursts?
And if this is a record of my five years with the Open University where has it got me?
An MA in Open and Distance Education, halfway towards either an M. Ed or an Open Degree, a third of a way towards an MA in History (from another institution, but armed with 60 credits I can bring this to the OU). I worked for the Open University for a year, and I got so close to joining FutureLearn that I checked the cost of a season ticket into London. I've worked in commercial e-learning while remain attracted mostly to e-learning in higher education. The problem here is that all the roles are very junior first jobs, often technical rather than production or strategic. I can talk about the current state of e-learning for hours if asked.
Academics are odd folk: buried in their expertise for decades they believe they should transfer their expertise and retain their status on other platforms and in other situations. It's like an author wanting to direct the movie of their best selling book; few can pull it off. Or a consultant surgeon feeling they should chair management meetings.
Those academics who take on the e-learning mantle are institutionalised academics who know their subject, and how to give a lecture series and run a seminar; does this qualify them to understand the potential of learning online with a mix of media and approaches? Whilst Clint Eastwood made the transition from actor to director, not all academics should or can make the transition to producer and writing e-learning: contributors as presents or interviewees yes ... play to their strengths, in other words, rather than revealing their weaknesses.
There are plenty of examples of academics, never at the OU, blundering into the online learning market believing that their academic reputation is enough to carry a course in a series of head and shoulders shots of them talking to camera ad nauseam.
Things are changing, and the OU, OU students and OU staff are leading the way.
Fig.1 Mosaic by featured in the University of Cape Town FutureLearn course 'Medicine and the Arts'
Don't even call them online courses. I suppose therefore, don't call it e-learning either or even online learning ... it is simply 'learning'. I am on my eighth or ninth course with FutureLearn. I may have three or four open at any one time and complete two of these at least. I love 'Medicine and the Arts' from the University of Cape Town while I am both maddened and intrigued by 'The Mind if Flat' from Nick Chater. I'm certain that online courses longer than a couple of weeks should not be treated like books or TV programmes. What works best, as the University of Cape Town shows, is to get the entire team involved. They have a lead host and presenter who each week introduces several colleagues, something like four to six each week. It is stimulating and necessary to hear from so many different voices.
The Platform Provider
Brand and technical aspects
Think of this as the channel. It has both technical and brand qualities. Is it smart? Is it current? Does it all work faultlessly? Is it intuitive? Is it simple? I've done many FutureLearn courses but struggle every time with Coursera and EdX.
Funding/Cost or Cost Benefit
You can’t make a movie in $125,000 dollars. If a 30 point 16 week distance learning course from the OU costs £1.5m to produce should a 3 week MOOC cost up to £300k? It's a poor comparison is the cash cost may be a fraction of this: a university team's job is to plan a programme of teaching anyhow. What matters is how a budget is spent. The learning designer for an online course is like the scriptwriter for a movie: they provide the blueprint. Is the investment worth it?
The Subject matter
Are you true to your subject? Don’t try to be something you are not. Is it ‘made’ for an online course, rather than shoe-horned from a regular, traditional ‘classroom’ lesson plan? Would it be better served on a different platform in a different way? Can you teach sports coaches or movie directors online? Or rather, what can you, and what can you not teach them? Are you fully exploiting the affordances of the platform and easily linked to alternatives on the Internet?
Who do you attract and is this the same as who you get? Who do you attract by level of education, age, gender, culture and location. Are you getting the audience you want as participants? The contribution participants make is crucial. Are there enough active voices to sustain this? Be aware of the extreme differences in digital literacy skills and competences. Do you know your audience? How do you relate to those who start the course?
One advocate over more than a couple of weeks will tire. It will feel like an ego trip any way. How good is the mix of contributors? Both in what they have to saw and show, and their levels of and variety of experience. An online course is not necessarily akin to a TV documentary that can be carried by a single presenter. Is it a one man show or a team effort?
What are the hidden and implicit goals? To attract students, to build reputation, for the good of mankind? To make money? To massage an ego? What do results say in terms of those completing a course? Doing assignments and getting to the end then singing the praises of the team? Another guide can be whether as a production fulfils the initial Creative Brief. Both qualitative and quantitative research is required to provide answers.
Your Brand and production values
Is is possible to stay true to your own brand, even have a distinct image, when on someone else’s platform? Are the values of the design, creation and delivery consistent with the standards and image of your institution?
These must never be taken lightly. There are examples of trite, ill-thought through multiple-choice quizzes: these are a learning opportunity. A good quiz makes you think, challenges your knowledge, and provides feedback whether you get it right or wrong. Bravely 'Medicine and the Arts' has both quizzes and a regular written assignments. These are not onerous yet some participants are scared by a 300 to 500 word piece of writing. They oblige you to read back through the week's activities before replying.
Age 12 Stacey Pidden was diagnosed with Pulmonary Hypertension (PH) and given a couple of years to live unless she went on a new trial drug which, with her parents behind her, she did. A decade later and she was given two years to live and put on the waiting list for a double lung and heart transplant - that was three years ago. She blogged her story to us students here at the Open University from 2011, then a couple of years later started her public blog. One friend with PH stopped taking drugs and died. She shares everything openly and honestly. From age 4 she underwent heart surgery and had a couple of operations every year or so. What is immediately apparent in blog is her skill as a writer and her view that “life is worth fighting for.”
Stacey is a feisty and determined and would be far weaker had she not found her voice and even a purpose in life: she is the voice of a new NHS donor card campaign.
Doing the FutureLearn course 'Medicine and the Arts' we hear from Marc Hendricks who express concern that children’s voices in medical institutions have been marginalised.
I see value in blogging as a creative outlet: it combines so much that the University of Cape Town team addresses in this course: giving young patients a voice - their voice, in a way that suits them.
Tracey, for example, is in close contact with the 17 other in the UK waiting for a double lung and heart transplant like her: this empowers her and reassures her - there are other people in her situation and she has a voice that requires no filters. Susan Levine in 'Medicine and the Arts' talks of a person’s life world.’ Tracey shares her ‘life world’ with us; whilst we may think of our community as neighbours and friends, hers includes her transplant team and regular consultants. A blog is text, voice, photos, artwork and even song; whatever the author wants in fact. It’s certain than visual metaphors as Kate Abney in 'Medicine and the Arts' found are an important way to express meaning too. While hospital radio is another way to enable storytelling as Nina Callaghan from in 'Medicine and the Arts' has found.
Creatively Stacie is a erudite, witty and frank voice representing those waiting for a transplant. Where permitted, children, not just young adults, should be given such freedoms to communicate and share beyond the confines of their ward and so give them confidence to speak their minds, improving their lives, their motivation to live and the quality of communication with hospital staff.
I've been learning online since 2001. I took my MA ODE between 2010 and 2013. I am still here. I've done between eight and twelve FutureLearn courses - finished six 100%. I am struck by the quality of the course from the University of Cape Town called Medicine and the Arts: both as a piece of e-learning and for its content I believe it to be the best of its kind and a fine example to any university or institution planning a course such as this.
I'll run through the criteria I posted here earlier and consider what it is that makes it work. These include accessibility, variety and quality of speakers, the professionalism and quality of all things from art work, copy and video production, the 'less is more' approach that keeps things simple, the engaging conversations with fellow participants and the involved of educators too.
I've abandoned the computer screen and QWERTY keyboard for writing; I think better pen to paper - in my case ink pen to refill pad.
I am using notes from Kurt Vonnegut on story shape, from Susannah Waters on scene building tips and cheats and from the zoologist and anthropologist Desmond Morris who wrote 'Man Watching'.
Between them I've been standing back from my efforts of the last few months to try to see the wood from the jungle; to give it some order, like a closely managed English deciduous copse rather than a wild and vast forest.
There is masses online to feed you with tips, hints and cheats.
Meanwhile, despite the number of variations I've had on 'The Form Photo' I feel there is a shape worth cutting from the growth I have laid down.
From Kurt Vonnegut I take and overlap two story shapes - am I allowed to do that? Robbie, follows the 'man in the whole' pattern - unable to thrive in the rarified wealth of her 'sinks' with some relief into a few more modest years living with his maternal grandparents. While Kizzy, is a Cinderella story shape - it has to be as she comes from some a deprived background: on the round, illiterate, abused and poor. She makes a few bids at escape and is then rescued through adoption. Any of this make sense? It does to me. Simplified it is a 'Boy meets Girl story' where Kizzy and Robbie meet and become fond of each other as kids ... then meet again in the later teens but she says she wants nothing to do with him unless he proves himself in various ways for her.
I'm posting all draft of my current writing in 'Start Writing Fiction.'
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