Session at #MobilityShifts

Starbucks on the corner of 29th and Park in NYC has to be the friendliest coffee shop I’ve ever been in. I’m writing this post in its cosy confines after telling my excited four year-old son via Skype that he’ll see Daddy again tomorrow morning. I’ve one more post in me after this one, but this will be the last one I write whilst in New York.

I know I say this every day, but Mobility Shifts is such a good conference. Yesterday I saw Michael Wesch speak, interviewed Cathy Davidson, and then saw her speak along with Geert Lovink and Manu Kapur. I also had some great conversations with Margaret Fiore and Sean Justice at the New School (and bumped into Matthew K. Gold again). 🙂

The three things I did yesterday, then, were:

  • Emerging Learning Environments
  • Interview with Cathy Davidson
  • The Future of Learning: Academic Publishing, Peer to Peer Grading and Text Books

I go to quite a few conferences and see a lot of people present. Can I ask you a favour if you present at conferences? Put your contact details (especially your Twitter name) on your first slide and provide links on your slides (using or similar, if necessary) to the things you mention. If you can get them up on Slideshare before you start talking, even better.

Emerging Learning Environments (Michael Wesch)

Just before this session I got talking to Sean Justice who is involved in Art Education at the New School and whom I’d met in a previous session earlier in the week. We both got talking to Margaret Fiore, who teaches writing and then Karen DeMoss (one of the conference organisers) got involved. I mentioned how I was at the conference courtesy of Scott McLeod (Karen says hi, Scott!) and they’re going to write up my story for the New School newspaper. I also got talking briefly to Michael Wesch in the elevator after the session and he said he knew my work. You could have knocked me over with a feather. Unbelievable.

Mike Wesch is well known for his work on changing learning environments and focusing on New Media Literacies. He said that we need to stop focusing on students knowing ‘answers’ all of the time and inspire them to ask really big questions. Knowledge and meaning, after all, isn’t just ‘out there’ in the world but has to be created. The sad thing, Mike said, is that the questions students ask put limits on their learning, like “how many points is this worth”. He juxtaposed an image of his 400-capacity lecture theatre with the audience for American Idol saying that the problem isn’t generational but (to use a term that Mike didn’t actually use) attentional. This is very much a dominant theme of the conference, and point also made by Cathy Davidson (below).

“There’s something in the air” said Mike. “And that something is… wifi”. He got a chuckle from the audience, but he was deadly serious. Students can share and collaborate in ways never before available yet we give them a standardised test. That’s why we need to move away from hierarchies and groups towards networks; we need to get students using productively technologies that are currently viewed as ‘distractions’.

Our learning environments shape what goes on within them. What do our classrooms say about learning, wondered Mike?

  • To learn is to acquire information
  • Information is scarce
  • Trust authority for good information
  • Authorized information is beyond discussion
  • Obey the authority
  • Follow along

I can’t possibly cover everything that Mike said, but if you haven’t seen his stuff, just try typing ‘michael wesch’ into YouTube. The big take-away for me was that we should be empowering students to make a positive difference in their communities and the world. We have the tools to help them do so.

Interview with Cathy Davidson

Prof. Cathy Davidson

Over the last few months I’ve had my horizons expanded by coming into contact with people around Mozilla, HASTAC and DML Central. One of these is Cathy Davidson, a Professor at Duke University and author of the New York Times bestseller ‘Now You See It’. I recommend that everyone go and read it right now! Rarely have such important points about education, attention and the workplace been so cogently and persuasively argued.

You can find this interview (which was carried out with the assistance of Pete Woodbridge) below, or at


The Future of Learning: Academic Publishing, Peer to Peer Grading and Text Books

Cathy Davidson was at the New School to speak about her book and peer-to-peer grading. She was one of three speakers at the final session I attended yesterday, with the other two being Geert Lovink and Manu Kapur. The former talked about digital publishing experiments at the Institute of Network Cultures whilst the latter focused on digital media and learning within the Singapore school system. Whilst Manu’s presentation about Singapore sounds like something that school administrators would be interested in (given their PISA scores) I’m sceptical. Having researched the Singaporean school system for my thesis I’m all too aware that a little bit of experimentation counts for very little when you’ve got one of the highest-stakes testing regimes in the world. This, after all, is a country where painkillers are routinely sold alongside study guides.

Geert Lovink, on the other hand, was interesting in the way that he pointed towards the future of the book (another emerging theme of the conference). The Institute he works for is now producing only digital books becuase of the rise of self-publishing services such as and print-on-demand machines such as Espresso. In conjunction with the Baker HTML5 ebook framework and Google’s Sigil (WYSIWYG ebook editor) the future of publishing is democratic.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Geert’s talk was his statement that the peer review system is “corrupt to its core”. He believes, obviously very passionately, that the current peer review system is destructive of self-esteem and make private and anonymous something that should be out in the open. The dialogue before an article or book is published should be as available as the work itself. Although he didn’t use it, the analogy that sprang to my mind was the ‘Talk’ page attached to every Wikipedia article.

Finally, it was Cathy Davidson turn to talk. Much of what she mentioned is in the interview above, but I’ll cover just a few of the things she said. Cathy made the point that there’s not a person – students, teachers, administrators – who believes the current education system is working. That, explained Cathy, is because we’re focusing our attention on the wrong things. If you haven’t seen this selective attention test video, it provides the context for Now You See It.

We’re privileging the wrong things because our education system is stuck in a previous information age. “Since when”, asked Cathy, “has ‘high standards’ meant ‘standardization’?” Like Mike Wesch, she used humour to make an important point. Grading, as in A, B, C, D, was introduced before the First World War in one college. The next people to take it up? The American Meatpackers Association. But they rejected it because it wasn’t a workable system. Cathy very persuasively argued (and again, I’d encourage you to look at her book) that the multiple choice test, the grading system and the IQ test were all historical accidents, not well-thought-through policies.

I think the most powerful thing that Cathy Davidson said came in the Q&A session after her talk. She looked at the room, which comprised progressive educators, and pointed out that almost every one of us would have been labelled as ‘learning disabled’ if we were at school today. Why? Long hours, narrow subjects, poor diets, to name but a few reasons. What are we doing to our children?

I’ve mentioned Mozilla’s Open Badges framework several times in these posts. Like me, Cathy’s a big believer in the power of alternative accreditation systems and technology. However, she gave an extremely important warning: you cannot simply drop a new form of assessment or technology into a classroom setting and expect everything to be made better. We’ve made that mistake with interactive whiteboards (for one). Rigour, Relevance and Relationships are Cathy’s new 3R’s.


Unlike in the UK where conferences, conversation and debate are siloed between schools, further and higher education, this conference is refreshing in looking at the bigger picture. Those children in nurseries and kindergartens will become teenagers, and then will go (hopefully?) to university. We need to think of the long view. What will the world be like in five, ten, twenty years’ time? Are we preparing them for it? What kind of world do we want to see? Gandhi’s famous exhortation to “Be the change you want to see in the world” is buzzing around my head this morning.

The most random thing I’ve seen in New York

Just before I started writing this, whilst on a (video) Skype call with my wife and children, what looked like a homeless guy came into Starbucks. He verbally abused staff, telling them off for touching his bag. Then he left. My wife now thinks that kind of thing goes on in New York all of the time when, given my (albeit limited) experience, nothing could be farther from the truth. I’ve found NYC to be friendly, welcoming and quite possibly the most civilised place I’ve ever been. 🙂

Encouraging clearer thinking in education, technology and productivity, Doug Belshaw is an educator and activist. He lives in the north of England with his wife and two young children. Doug is currently Researcher/Analyst at JISC infoNet (hosted by Northumbria University) after spending seven years as a teacher and senior leader in various UK schools. He has just submitted his doctoral thesis on the subject of ‘digital literacies’.

Blog: Twitter: @dajbelshaw / @dajbconf