Looking to the Future and Metaphor

goopI’ve just been reviewing the “week 2 responses” digital artefacts posted by our full-time cousins, the MSc students on this course. I’m afraid they’re all a bit too arty-farty abstract for my taste (or stage of cognitive development, you decide). I feel like I’ve just eaten a bowl of what Dozer would call a…

…single celled protein combined with synthetic aminos, vitamins, and minerals. Everything the body needs.

from the Nebuchadnezzar.

Popular Cultures

gazBack in the 1970’s I was an avionics technician in Her Majesty’s REME. I remember thinking, as I was stuck in the cramped access hole under the screaming turbine and gearbox of a Westland Gazelle helicopter, balancing a 2kg AVO meter, instrument screwdriver and cables as I adjusted the flight idle busbar voltage, “wouldn’t it be nice to have some kind of head-up display device here, showing me the procedures and settings for this operation?”. I’m not claiming to have invented augmented reality, having seen head-up displays on fighter jets. I think I did see that it would be a logical application of technology to make operations like this safer and quicker.

Later, working at Boeing in Seattle, there was talk – never realised as far as I know it – of having maintenance procedures available for ground crew working in difficult places or situations, through the use of a lightweight helmet-mounted display system. How different are these ideas in principle from the visions offered by Microsoft and Corning of a future day of glass? Or indeed, the cheesy short, “Sight“?

Metaphor and learning

As a student and teacher of physics, the use of analogy, simile and metaphor is essential to developing cognitive models of the universe. When used intelligently, they are a powerful tool for understanding. Intelligent use means being aware of the device when using it – many teachers and students fall into the trap of accepting the analogue as reality. This is OK on a temporary basis such as when teaching children about electricity but when the development doesn’t proceed beyond a certain stage, people can be stuck with a seriously wrong understanding of the thing they think they know, often for the rest of their lives. The metaphor’s limitations should be understood when put to use. XKCD again:

It could be said that all learning, if you subscribe to the constructivist model of learning, is based upon building analogies or connected patterns of related things. Our brain has evolved as a pattern matcher and it makes synaptic connections very quickly between associated patterns. These patterns could be ideas, sensations, emotions: we are, after all, limited to experiencing the universe through our senses and only consciously through what our brain’s processes allows us to perceive as significant.

The Fad of the MOOC or a new MP3?

My father had a collection of long-playing records (ask an older person) called, “teach yourself code”. I still have them. These were a course which, if completed, would render the student an expert in Morse Code. He didn’t get past the first disc.

The MOOC is for me a modern analogue of those LPs. Modern, in that it represents the new internet expectation that things are free, including information. The MOOC, through structure and content, gives me information and the opportunity to acquire it in a critical and thinking way. This for me is its value.

Learning is changing. Schools in Scotland are beginning – in small numbers, but watch this space – to offer students a blend of learning experiences which include academic “traditional” school and vocational opportunities, with online courses from the likes of the Open University. This is a fantastic development which blurs – and will break – the boundary between school and life-long learning.