Summary: Ten simple rules for structuring papers

Good scientific writing is essential to career development and to the progress of science. A well-structured manuscript allows readers and reviewers to get excited about the subject matter, to understand and verify the paper’s contributions, and to integrate these contributions into a broader context. However, many scientists struggle with producing high-quality manuscripts and are typically untrained in paper writing. Focusing on how readers consume information, we present a set of ten simple rules to help you communicate the main idea of your paper. These rules are designed to make your paper more influential and the process of writing more efficient and pleasurable.

Mensh, B. & Kording, K. (2017). Ten simple rules for structuring papers. PLoS Computational Biology, 13(9): e1005619.

Thank you to Guillaume Christe for pointing to this paper on Twitter. While I’m not convinced that the title should refer to “rules” I thought it was a useful guide to thinking about article structure. I’m also aware that most people won’t have time to read the whole thing so I’m posting the summary notes I made while reading it. Having said that, I think whole paper (link here) is definitely worth reading. And, if you like this you may also like this table of suggestions from Josh Bernoff’s Writing without bullshit. OK, on with the summary.

First, there’s this helpful table from the authors as a very brief overview.

https://journals.plos.org/ploscompbiol/article/figure?id=10.1371/journal.pcbi.1005619.t001

Principles (Rules 1–4)

Rule 1: Focus your paper on a central contribution, which you communicate in the title. Adding more ideas may be necessary but they make it harder for the reader to remember what the paper is about. If the title doesn’t make a reader want to read the paper, all the work is for nothing. A focused title can also help the author to stay on track.

Rule 2: Write for flesh-and-blood human beings who do not know your work. You are the least qualified person to judge your writing from the perspective of the reader. Design the paper for someone who must first be made to care about your topic, and then who wants to understand your answer with minimal effort. This is not about showing how clever you are.

Rule 3: Stick to the context-content-conclusion (C-C-C) scheme. Aim to write “popular” (i.e. memorable and re-tellable) stories that have a clear beginning, middle and end. While there are many ways to tell stories, each of which engages different readers, this structure is likely to be appropriate for most. Also, the structure of the paper need not be chronological.

Rule 4: Optimize your logical flow by avoiding zig-zag and using parallelism. Only the central idea of a paper should be presented in multiple places. Group similar ideas together to avoid moving the reader’s attention around.

The components of a paper (Rules 5–8)

Rule 5: Tell a complete story in the abstract. Considering that the abstract may be (is probably) the only part of the paper that is read, it should tell the whole story. Ensure that the reader has enough context (i.e. background/introduction) to interpret the results). Avoid writing the abstract as an afterthought, as it often requires many iterations to do it’s job well.

Rule 6: Communicate why the paper matters in the introduction. The purpose of the introduction is to describe the gap that the study aims to fill. It should not include a broad literature review but rather narrow the focus of attention to the problem under consideration.

Rule 7: Deliver the results as a sequence of statements, supported by figures, that connect logically to support the central contribution. While there are different ways of presenting results, often discipline-specific, the main purpose is to convince the reader that the central claim is supported by data and argument. The raw data should be presented alongside the interpretation in order to allow the reader to reach their own conclusions (hopefully, these are aligned with the intent of the paper).

Rule 8: Discuss how the gap was filled, the limitations of the interpretation, and the relevance to the field. The discussion explains how the findings have filled the gap/answered the question that was posed in the introduction. If often includes limitations and suggestions for future research.

Process (Rules 9 and 10)

Rule 9: Allocate time where it matters: Title, abstract, figures, and outlining. Spend time on areas that demonstrate the central theme and logic of the argument. The methods section is often ignored, so budget time accordingly. Outline the argument throughout the paper by writing one informal sentence for each planned paragraph.

Rule 10: Get feedback to reduce, reuse, and recycle the story. Try not to get too attached to the writing, as it may be more efficient to delete whole sections and start again, than to proceed by iterative editing. Try to describe the entire paper in a few sentences, which help to identify the weak areas. Aim to get critical feedback from multiple readers with different backgrounds.


And finally, here’s a great figure to show how each section can be structured using the guidelines in the article.

https://journals.plos.org/ploscompbiol/article/figure?id=10.1371/journal.pcbi.1005619.g001

PSA: Writing is hard

A few days ago I submitted a chapter for an edited collection on Speculative Futures for Artificial Intelligence and Educational Inclusion and I thought I’d take a moment to share some of my experience in writing it. When I talk about writing with colleagues I get the impression that they’re waiting for the moment when writing becomes easier, and are therefore in a continuous cycle of disappointment because it never does. This public service announcement is for anyone who thinks that you will one day arrive at a point where writing is easy.

The original abstract was submitted about 4 months ago and represented what I thought would make a compelling contribution to the collection. But over time I realised that the argument I was trying to make felt forced and I just couldn’t get enough out of it to make it worthwhile. This is after 2 months and about 6000 words. About a month before the due date I decided to throw most of it away and start again, this time from a new position that I thought was stronger and would make more of a novel contribution. I deleted about 4000 words.

After a few weeks, I had my first full draft of about 8000 words that needed to be cut to 6000. At this point, I started printing it out and editing by hand. After editing on paper I go back to the digital version and rewrite. Then I print it again, edit, revise and print. I usually do this 3-4 times before a final submission. The pictures below were taken on the 3rd revision of the full draft. You can see that I’m still pretty dissatisfied with how things were going. Maybe it’s because I’m not a very good writer, or maybe my thinking was still incoherent.

When I finally submitted the chapter I was still pretty unhappy with it. There were significant parts of it that felt rough. There were still a few weak arguments. Some of the sentences were awkward. And to top it all, I’m still not entirely convinced that the contribution is going to add much value to the collection (because, imposter syndrome). Now that I’ve spent 3-4 months thinking about the topic I can’t help feeling that it’s pretty average.

Maybe I’ll get better with the next one? Maybe that’s the one that will be right. Or, maybe writing is just hard.

A critical pedagogy for online learning in physiotherapy education

Earlier this year the Critical Physiotherapy Network published Manipulating practices: A critical physiotherapy reader. The book is a collection of critical writing from a variety of authors dealing with a range of topics related to physiotherapy practice and education.  One of the interesting features of this collection is that it is completely open access, which means that the authors, and not the publishers, have the intellectual property rights to make choices about what is permissable to do with the content of the book. So we get to experiment with what it means to publish something in an academic context. While the entire book is available in different formats, including PDF, HTML, EPUB and XML, there is no audio version.

I’ve therefore taken the liberty of reading and recording my own contribution to the book, a chapter entitled A critical pedagogy for online learning in physiotherapy education, and making it available both here and as an In Beta podcast. I’m interested to know if this is something that might be useful so if you listen and appreciate having an audio version as an option, or even if you just think it’s a good idea (or a bad one), please let me know.

Abstract

In order to graduate physiotherapy students who are able to thrive in increasingly complex health systems, professional educators must move away from instrumental, positivist ideologies that disempower both students and lecturers. Certain forms of knowledge are presented as objective, value-free, and legitimate, while others – including the personal lives and experiences of students – are moved to the periphery and regarded as irrelevant for professional education. This has the effect of silencing students’ voices and sending the message that they are not in control of their own learning. While the integration of digital technology has been suggested as a means for developing transformative teaching and learning practices, it is more commonly used to control students through surveillance and measurement. This dominant use of technology does little more than increase the cost-effectiveness and efficiency of information delivery, while also reinforcing the rigid structures of the classroom. Physiotherapy educators who adopt a critical pedagogy may use it to create personal learning environments (PLEs) that enable students to inform their own learning based on meaningful clinical experiences, democratic approaches to learning, and interaction with others beyond the professional programme. These PLEs enable exploration, inquiry and creation as part of the curriculum, and play a role in preparing students to engage with the complex and networked systems of the early 21st century. While the potential for pedagogical transformation via the integration of digital technology is significant, we must be critical of the idea that technology is neutral and be aware that our choices concerning tools and platforms have important implications for practice.

Give feedback on “A critical digital pedagogy for education in the 21st century”?

Update (12-02-18): You can now download the full chapter here (A critical pedagogy for online learning in physiotherapy education) and the edited collection here.

I finally managed to put together some ideas for my chapter on critical digital pedagogy in the CPN book on critical perspectives in practice. I split the chapter into 4 sections, excluding an introduction and conclusion (because they’re likely to change with future editing), which you can find here:

  1. Background: In which I explain the point of this short series of posts.
  2. Command and control: In which I describe how higher education today revolves around the idea that students should sit still, be quiet, and do nothing that might be considered interesting or creative.
  3. Weapon of mass instruction: In which I argue that technology is being used to reinforce the conditions promoting conformity and  a culture of oppression.
  4. Education as the practice of freedom: In which I discuss critical pedagogy as a way of thinking about teaching that aims to liberate students and teachers from institutionalised education.
  5. Teaching at the edges of chaos: In which I explore some aspects of the open web that may be used to implement a critical digital pedagogy in higher education.

Now that the draft is finished, I thought I’d try a little experiment. In addition to being able to comment on the posts above, I wondered what it would be like to get public feedback on the whole chapter. I’ve shared the document in Google Drive and would love to hear any thoughts you may have on it. If you’d like, you can also download the full document as a PDF here. Please note that this is a first complete draft and so there’s probably going to still be some heavy editing.

As Yeats said: “I have spread my dreams under your feet. Tread softly for you tread on my dreams.”

Critical digital pedagogy: Weapon of mass instruction

Update (12-02-18): You can now download the full chapter here (A critical pedagogy for online learning in physiotherapy education) and the edited collection here.

Update (22-02-17): This post has been modified from the original. Changes include updated in-text citations, minor grammatical improvements and an added reference list.

Yesterday I posted the first section of my CPN book chapter on critical digital pedagogy. That section lays out what I think is especially problematic in our classroom teaching and learning practices, informed largely by the work of Paulo Freire and Henry Giroux. If you haven’t read it then you might want to check it out quickly, since this post continues that argument. Today I’m sharing the second section of the chapter where I describe how the use of technology reproduces and reinforces these problems, only in digital and online spaces. Remember, this is a first draft. If you do comment, please be gentle.

The title for this section comes from John Taylor Gatto’s Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling (2010).


“We shape our tools and then our tools shape us” (Marshal McLuhan)

Education is not neutral. It either serves to programme people into conformity or gives them the tools to engage critically and creatively with the world in order to transform it. Given that context, we can analyse the predominant way in which technologies are used in higher education, and ask if that use is oppressing or liberating our students.

The best thing we can probably say about the use of technology in higher education is that it serves to support traditional methods of teaching and learning; we use it to improve lectures with slides and interactive whiteboards, we make our notes available online, libraries provide access to digital resources, and tutorial discussions can be performed asynchronously online. These are positive, incremental improvements in the quality and flexibility of our classrooms, but are nowhere near being transformational (Laurillard, 2007). This is not the use of technology that I’m interested in. There is nothing wrong with teachers using technology to make small iterative changes to their teaching and learning practices. However, for this chapter I want to get to the more insidious aspects of technological integration that needs our attention.

The Learning Management System (LMS) is by far the most ubiquitous use of technology in higher education. The LMS enabled universities to bring new technology into the institution without any of the bother of actually changing anything. The plug and play, template driven, user friendly LMS meant that we could provide universities with a digital facelift that made us feel like we were moving with the times (Campbell, 2009). The reality is that we simply took an oppressive pedagogy and reproduced it in software. The LMS manifests a form of curricular design and implementation that substitutes technological control for democratic processes and goals, making both teachers and learners passive. At its core, the LMS means that course is behind a wall, and everything in the course happens behind that wall (Watters, 2014). At the end of the course students lose access to it, and to any of the content or data they’ve created as part of their learning process. In some cases, their creative works may be signed away as part of the Terms of Service. As Watters’ puts it: “There is one instructor and possibly a few course assistants. They grade. They monitor the forums. The teachers are at the center. The content is at the center. The learner is not at the center.” (Watters, 2014).

Insofar as the educational process can be controlled, the LMS is the digital equivalent of Benthem’s Panopticon; the closest thing we have (so far) to a perfect system of observation and control. As we saw in the previous section, the Panopticon is a representation of power in its ideal form, increasing the number of people who can be monitored, recorded, and controlled, while at the same time decreasing the number of people needed to operate it (Foucault, 1977). Digital technology has taken this concept to astounding new levels. An information Panopticon need not rely on physical arrangements, such as building structures and direct supervision. The information Panopticon is defined as a form of centralised power that uses information and communication technology as observational tools and control mechanisms (Berner, Graupner & Maedche, 2014). Software tracks and records everything about a student’s online interactions, from the time a task is started to the time it is completed, and every click along the way. Based on the data that this process generates, the teacher monitors a students’s performance and intervenes when necessary.

A central idea of Foucault’s panopticism concerns the systematic ordering and controlling of populations through subtle and often unseen forces. Such ordering is apparent in many parts of the increasingly digitalised world of higher education. The LMS, used mainly to distribute content and monitor progress along the assembly line, is a claustrophobic space where students consume information, rather than create knowledge. Students know they are being monitored at all times. Even if a teacher is not physically there, the software records their every move and this data is available to the teachers at all times. Like the prisoners in Foucault’s Panopticon who never know if they’re being watched, students feel the need to conform and satisfy the system rather than do their best work. The purpose of technology in higher education – as it is generally implemented via the LMS – is not to enhance learning, but rather to enhance the control of learning through surveillance, measurement and control.

How did we get here? Castells (2001) has argued that the events leading up to the production of a new technology determines the content and uses of the technology throughout its existence. If we want to better understand when and how we lost our way with educational technology, we must go back to the early days of the Internet. The system began as a military-oriented project that embodied the key elements for the military requirements of a communications network that was “survivable”: flexibility, absence of a command centre, and maximum autonomy of each node. Even though it was – at the time – rejected by the military it was reborn at ARPANET, an experimental non-military network that extended the communications architecture of the nascent network based on three main principles: 1) the networking architecture must be open-ended, decentralised, and multi-directional, 2) all communication protocols and their implementations must be open, distributed, and susceptible to modification, and 3) the institutions of governance of the network must be built in accordance with the principles of openness and cooperation (ibid.).

The Internet is therefore a cultural creation where the culture of the Internet is the culture of the creators of the Internet (Castells, 2001). To explore this culture, Castells draws on the lessons derived from an analysis of the history of the Internet. The first lesson is that the Internet grew from an unlikely collaboration between university based academics and graduate students (the hackers), and the government. The second is that the network was shaped by those who were using it.

In the 1960s and 1970s there was a flourishing of a culture of individual freedom across university campuses in the United States. The students involved were not social activists but nonetheless had strong beliefs about freedom, independent thinking, and cooperation. In most cases this culture was seeking technological innovation for the pure joy of discovery, and community networks were established in many university towns. But these networks were small and limited and in order to grow they needed a backbone anchored in more powerful machines. This was only possible through collaboration between science-based networks in government, and the student hacker communities in the universities. The second lesson that Castells derives from his analysis is that the early Internet was shaped as the users of the network became producers of the technology by adapting it for their own purposes. The source of the Internet’s strength was its openness. For example, the development of the world wide web was only possible because Tim Berners-Lee was supported by the Internet community and his project stimulated by contributions from hackers all over the world. Some of these contributors went on to commercialise the web, seeing it as a space of enormous opportunity, while others, including Berners-Lee continued working in the public interest.

One interesting side effect of the openness embedded in the culture of the early hackers is that changes to the network were communicated back to the whole world in real time. This is the reason why the Internet grew – and continues to grow – at unprecedented speed. When the Internet was first conceived, it was made open as a way to learn and share, designed to provide people with the power to free themselves both from governments and corporations (Castells, 2003). Thus, the internet emerges as a tool of liberation, expressive of individual freedom produced through the practice of openness both in its technical architecture and its social organisation (Castells, 2001). However, at the same time, the network was also influenced by the contributions of government-based entities with an interest in controlling the network, and entrepreneurs focused on commercialising it. Without the cultural and technological contributions of these early groups, the Internet may have been very different today. The Internet has been robbed of its historically open architecture. What we currently have is a theoretically open network, infiltrated by capitalist and governmental motives that disregard openness as crucial for the Internet to continue to be an instrument in acquiring knowledge, aiding innovation, and encouraging democratic engagement (Castells, 2001).

Back to the present where we can now better understand our current predicament in the roots of our history. Unlike the early days of the Internet that saw little distinction between the users of the Internet and the creators of the Internet, we could reasonably ask how much development in the domain of educational technology is being driven by teachers? How are we contributing back to the network, ensuring that the tools developed by third party organisations are designed with learning in mind, rather than shareholders? It is increasingly clear that education is influenced by a Silicon Valley narrative proclaiming that more technology is always the answer to whatever problem we’re currently experiencing – as well as for some things that we didn’t know were problems. More servers, more apps, more data, better algorithms and more integrated services mean that we’ll be able to make better choices (Morozov, 2013). Maybe we don’t need better relationships with students, we just need more technology. How much time did that student spend on the page? At what point did they exit the book? The emphasis is a preoccupation with the instrumental use of knowledge, where it is “prized for its control value — its use in mastering all dimensions of the classroom environment.” (Giroux, 2011; 33).

Castells said that “the Internet is indeed a technology of freedom – but it can free the powerful to oppress the uninformed, it may lead to the exclusion of the devalued by the conquerors of value.” (Castells, 2001; 275). While the world wide web is considered to be relatively open – we can still create personal spaces through blogs and social networks – our freedom as online agents is limited by governments and corporations (and, as we have seen here, universities). When the intentions of these corporate and government actors are made clear, one questions how freely the self can be extended in this conceptually liberating spaces.

We had an opportunity to choose the open web over the LMS. To choose creativity and opportunity over limitation and constraint. But we made poor choices because we – the teachers – were not involved in the process of building the web we need for democratic and critically informed learning spaces. This is why we have third parties who control our digital learning environments, who profit from our work and the work of students, and who allow learning materials to exist on their servers only as long as it makes financial sense (Gillmor, 2014). “We’re in danger of losing what’s made the Internet so important: a decentralised platform where people don’t need permission to communicate, create, and innovate” (ibid.). The open web has increasingly become the corporate web and despite their frequent invocation of “personalisation” in learning, these technologies “present users with a very restricted, restrictive set of choices of what they can do, of who they can be.” (Watters, 2014).

Marshal Mchluhan said that the medium is the message, and that new communication paradigms change what can be imagined and expressed. The printing press didn’t just mean that we could do better calligraphy, and the web is not just a more efficient telegraph (Campbell, 2009). We didn’t realise that we could use the web to transform, instead of simply to transmit. Jesse Stommel has said that “remote proctoring tools can’t ensure that students will not cheat. Turnitin won’t make students better writers. The LMS can’t ensure that students will learn. All will, however, ensure that students feel more thoroughly policed. All will ensure that students (and teachers) are more compliant.”(Stommel, 2016). “We can’t get to a place of listening to students if they don’t show up to the conversation because we’ve excluded their voice in advance by creating environments hostile to them and their work” (Stommel, 2016).

Audrey Watters (2014) has asked if we’ve even considered the implications of adopting tools that surveil and extract and control students? What happens to identity formation under these circumstances? What happens when we give students little leeway in expressing themselves as learners online? What are the implications of adopting tools that give students only a small range of avatars and status updates and profiles and backgrounds? Education technology has become a new and powerful way to demand conformity from students – and to demand they play out that conformity in the classroom (Watters, 2014). The Internet is no longer a free realm but is instead a contested space, where a new battle for freedom in an increasingly digital society is being fought (Castells, 2001).

As teachers we need to ask, what are we going to bring to that battle?

References

  • Laurillard, D. (2007). Foreword. In H. Beetham & R. Sharpe (Eds). Rethinking pedagogy for a digital age: designing and delivering e-learning. Abingdon, Oxon. Routledge
  • Berner, M., Graupner, E. & Maedche, A. (2014). The Information Panopticon in the Big Data Era. Journal of Organization Design, 3(1):14-19.
  • Campbell, G. (2009). A Personal Digital Cyberinfrastructure. EDUCAUSE Review (44)5.
  • Castells, M. (2001). The Internet Galaxy. Oxford University Press.
  • Castells, M. (2003). Communication Power.
  • Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish.
  • Gillmor, D. (2014). Why the Indie Web is so Important.
  • Giroux, H. (2011). On Critical Pedagogy. Continuum. The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., The Tower Building, 11 York Road, London SE1 7NX.
  • Morozov, E. (2013). To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. Public Affairs.
  • Stommel, J. (2016). Against Counteranthropomorphism: The Human Future of Education.
  • Watters, A. (2014). Beyond the LMS. Hack Education, September 05.

Critical digital pedagogy: Command and control

Update (12-02-18): You can now download the full chapter here (A critical pedagogy for online learning in physiotherapy education) and the edited collection here.

Update (22-02-17): This post has been modified from the original. Changes include updated in-text citations, minor grammatical improvements and an added reference list.

Yesterday I shared the background for this short series on critical digital pedagogy, as well as the initial abstract I submitted for the chapter. Today I’m sharing the first complete draft of the first section of my CPN book chapter on the topic.


“There is no such thing as a neutral educational process.”

Freire (2005)

As society and the health systems within it become increasingly complex and the needs of populations change accordingly, we are seeing increased calls for transformation, not only in how health systems are managed but in how health professionals are prepared to work in those environments (World Health Organization, 2013). The ability to drive change in complex systems is a function of the ability to generate and connect ideas, and then implement new processes based on them. Not only do these activities take time but they are highly social, as success often depends on who we work with. In other words, teams are not only important for effective work but also for the kinds of generative, creative work that 21st century problems require (Jarche, 2016). And yet health professions education continues to follow traditional lines of thinking and implementation, based in a pedagogical model that not only ignores our understanding of how people learn best, but also fails to consider the changing needs of the communities we serve (Frenk et al., 2010). The knowledge and skills required to work with wicked problems in complex systems are so diverse that it is impossible for a single individual or profession to make any appreciable impact (Fraser & Greenhalgh, 2001). Taking this into consideration, it seems pertinent to ask if our current education system is capable of preparing physiotherapy graduates to not only work in such environments, but to thrive.

The positivist ideology that permeates all levels of education can be seen in the way that teachers view knowledge, the way that knowledge is mediated through teaching methods, and the way students are taught to view knowledge. In this paradigm, knowledge is seen as being objective, bounded and something “out there” that can be neatly packaged and delivered to students (Giroux, 2011). Specifically, knowledge is treated as an external body of information that is produced independently of human beings; universalised, ahistorical, and expressed in technical language that is value-free. Knowledge is therefore not only measurable and decontextualised but also impersonal. From a positivist point of view, knowledge is defined in terms that are verifiable and aimed at achieving goals that are unquestioned. Teaching in this positivist paradigm is usually discipline- based and categorises content into discrete compartments; domains of objective facts that can be collected and arranged in the interests of empirical verification (ibid.).

Ilich asserted that schools initiate students into a world where “everything can be measured, including their imaginations” (Illich, 1970; 29). The message we send our students is that what counts is measured, and anything that is not measured does not count. This approach sees our students “reduced to cheerful robots” by an instrumental rationality that removes notions of justice, values, ethics, and power from the classroom (Giroux, 2011; 3). Efficiency and control are uncritically accepted as appropriate educational goals and then used to promote curriculum models that enshrine them as guiding principles. The objectification of students through measurement and their reduction to numbers in a spreadsheet by a positivist pedagogical model leaves them with little reason to generate their own meaning in the curriculum, or to evaluate their own learning experiences. When this point of view is used to guide curriculum design, our pedagogies are necessarily informed by the same notions (ibid.).

Teachers working from a positivist perspective tend to see teaching as an act of depositing information into the minds of their students. When we confuse teaching with talking to students who passively receive information, the content of the narrative is lifeless and decontextualised. Freire (2005; 71) says that our “words are emptied of their concreteness and become a hollow, alienated, and alienating verbosity”. This pedagogical approach emphasises the sonority of the words, rather than their transforming power and turns the student into a container to be filled. The more the student meekly allows themselves to be filled, the “better” they are. Education is therefore an act of depositing, where the teacher issues facts that are received, memorised and repeated by the student (Freire, 2005). In this banking model of education, Freire describes knowledge as a gift to be given to those who do not have, by those who do. The teacher is presented to the students as their opposite – knowledgeable, authoritative and powerful – and students must then begin working to imitate and resemble their oppressors. Having been inducted into this system, students believe that the more treatment there is the better are the results. They begin to “confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.” (Illich, 1970; 4). Once they have allowed their imaginations to be dulled by the curriculum, they are conditioned to accept – maybe even need – institutional planning on their behalf, leading to stagnation through education (Coles, 2014).

Education has long been used as a tool of oppression in society and it is no accident that classrooms resemble prisons. In addition to the physical appearance, schools mirror prisons in other ways too. Students are kept under observation, classified and tracked with numbers, and required to conform to professional and disciplinary norms that limit expression of their personal identity. In addition, there is no copying, no noise, and no chatter; the crowd is abolished (Foucault, 1977). hooks (1994) has suggested that teachers’ power over students dulls their enthusiasm and cultivates an obedience to authority, where students are managed in an assembly-line. Indeed, classrooms seem designed and optimised to keep a population under control, and Illich went so far as to describe schools as places of confinement, “preparing students for the alienating institutionalization of life by teaching the need to be taught.” (Illich, 1970; 34). In the classroom, knowledge and authority rest within the teacher who stands at the front of the class. Students are arranged in rows, and must listen to the teacher who is the source of (the right) knowledge. Occasionally students may raise their hands and ask to be allowed to speak. Once these lessons are learned, students lose their incentive to develop as independent beings.

In order to better understand how the system manifests power in the classroom it is useful to consider Jeremy Benthem’s notion of the Panopticon, a building with a tower at the centre from which it is possible to see each cell in which a prisoner is incarcerated. Power should be visible but unverifiable, so that individuals always see the tower but never know if, or from where, they are being observed. The Panopticon therefore guarantees the functioning of power, even when there is no one actually asserting it (Foucault, 1977). Over time, we develop passive learners because this is the only option available to them. There is no possibility of expressing oneself or of questioning the status quo. Most students (and teachers) accept this situation as an inevitable aspect of the system, coming to believe that they are impotent to control or change it in any way. The layout of the classroom and the way that control and authority are vested in the teacher seems purposively designed to develop within students an awareness that “their words have been stolen from them” (Freire, 2005) and that the system – including teachers – cannot be trusted.

Health and education systems are increasingly recognised as complex adaptive systems that are characterised by high levels of uncertainty and constant change as a result of rich, non-linear interactions that cannot all be tracked (Bleakley, 2010). This means that complex systems are inherently ambiguous and uncertain, and that they lack predictable outcomes or clear boundaries. As systems have become more complex and integrated at the beginning of the 21st century, it is no longer possible for single individuals or even single disciplines to work effectively within these systems (Frenk et al., 2010; Bleakley, 2010; WHO, 2013). We must therefore ask if our classroom pedagogies – rooted in a positivist paradigm that sees knowledge as objective and independently verifiable – are suited to prepare graduates to thrive in complex, adaptive systems. Our pedagogies are instrumental, geared toward memorisation, conformity and high-stakes assessment, leading to classrooms that are what Giroux (2010) has called “intellectual dead zones”, as far removed from expanding the imaginations of students as one can imagine. If the positivist view of the world is assumed it leads to a perception of teaching and learning as objective and value-free. When this point of view becomes a guiding principle of the curriculum, it influences our pedagogy so that teaching and learning practices are inherently bound by the same notions.

Education should be aimed at cultivating “…citizens who are critical, self- reflective, knowledgeable, and willing to make moral judgments and act in a socially responsible way.” (Giroux, 2011; 3). It must therefore be understood as a process of emancipation guided by a pedagogy of liberation, as well as the cultivation of the intellect. But instead, teaching and learning have become fragmented processes reduced to a series of predetermined and lifeless gestures, stripped of it’s moral component, striving only for accountability and measurement. Institutions of higher education are increasingly associated with “market competition, conformity, disempowerment and uncompromising modes of punishment”, informed by corporate ideologies, standardised, managed, and reduced to job training sites (Giroux, 2010). Educators are increasingly frustrated by “a system that values assessment over engagement, learning management over discovery, content over community, outcomes over epiphanies. Education has misrepresented itself as objective, quantifiable, apolitical.” (Stommel, 2015).

Where some have suggested that the use of technology in the classroom is an opportunity for educational transformation, others have argued that we have missed that opportunity and have instead used technology to further reinforce our authority and control over student learning. The use of technology has simply become a more powerful and efficient means of oppression in the classroom.

References

  • Bleakley, A. (2010). Blunting Occam’s razor: Aligning medical education with studies of complexity. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice,16(4):849-855.
  • Coles, T. (2014). Critical pedagogy: schools must equip students to challenge the status quo. The Guardian.
  • Fraser, S.W. & Greenhalgh, T. (2001). Coping with complexity: Educating for capability. BMJ, 323(7316):799-803.
  • Freire, P. (2005). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th Anniversary Edition. Continuum. The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., The Tower Building, 11 York Road, London SE1 7NX.
    Frenk, J., Chen, L., Bhutta, Z. A., Cohen, J., Crisp, N., Evans, T., … Zurayk, H. (2010). Health professionals for a new century: transforming education to strengthen health systems in an interdependent world. Lancet, 376(9756), 1923–58.
    Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish.
  • Giroux, H. (2010). Lessons to Be Learned From Paulo Freire as Education Is Being Taken Over by the Mega Rich. truthout.
  • Giroux, H. (2011). On Critical Pedagogy. Continuum. The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., The Tower Building, 11 York Road, London SE1 7NX.
  • hooks, bell (1994). Teaching to Transgress. Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017.
  • Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling Society.
  • Jarche, H. (2016) Valued work is not standardized.
  • Stommel, J. (2015). Critical digital pedagogy.
  • World Health Organization (2013). Transforming and scaling up health professionals’ education and training.

Critical digital pedagogy: Initial abstract for the chapter

Update (12-02-18): You can now download the full chapter here (A critical pedagogy for online learning in physiotherapy education) and the edited collection here.

This post is linked to a short series I’ll be sharing on the process of writing a book chapter for a publication by the Critical Physiotherapy Network. I’ll add links to posts as we move forward. In the meantime, here is some background to this post.

Initially the chapter was going to be called Physiotherapy education for the 21st century, but as I worked through the ideas I found myself unsatisfied with the lack of a critical perspective in my thinking. As I tried to find the link between critical pedagogy and online and digital learning, I realised that the original abstract wasn’t saying what I wanted it to. I began by thinking that the chapter was going to look more like the image at the top of this post but it soon became clear that it wasn’t going to work. Anything that was that specific would never age well. Anything I wrote would – like the technology it described – would be obsolete within a few year.

It took me a few iterations to begin linking together the bits and pieces of the texts I was working with, including Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), hooks’ Teaching to Transgress (1990), Giroux’s On Critical Pedagogy (2011) and a few others. But when it started to come together I was hopeful that my choice to switch direction would pay off. I’m still not 100% sure that it’s going to work but over the next few posts I’ll get closer to figuring that out.

Anyway, here’s the original abstract.


The beginning of the 21st century has seen more technological progress than any other time in our history, at an accelerating rate of change. The introduction of robotics, gene therapy and nanotechnology into ever increasings domains of health care, combined with advances in computing power, see us on the brink of a new understanding of what it means to be human. As society and the health systems within it become increasingly complex and the needs of populations change accordingly, it seems appropriate to ask if our current education system is capable of preparing physiotherapy students to not only work in such environments, but to thrive. Given the scope of these changes we should expect to see a significant shift in how physiotherapists are prepared for practice. Yet, physiotherapy education continues to follow traditional lines of thinking and implementation that fails to consider the changing needs of society.

In order to graduate professionals who are capable of adapting to complex systems, we cannot afford to continue teaching in spaces that have not changed in 500 years. There is little evidence that physiotherapy educators have acknowledged society’s changing conceptions of therapy and health, nor that they have adapted their teaching methods accordingly. We need to ask ourselves what attributes physiotherapists require in order for them to effectively negotiate the challenges of future working environments and if our current learning spaces help students become capable, effective leaders in complex health systems? As we develop a more nuanced vision of what it means to be human in an increasingly complex world, we must ask critical questions that challenge the profession to think differently about what it means to be a physiotherapist and consequently, how physiotherapy education needs to change.

Who cares about “referencing”?

Why do we teach our students how to reference? Mendeley, EndNote, Refworks, etc. all do it for you. In my experience the emphasis for students in higher education is almost always on what the citation looks like and not on the work the citation does. When it comes to learning about referencing for students, the focus is almost always on:

  1. Plagiarism: If you don’t reference, you’re stealing.
  2. Format: If it doesn’t conform to [insert style guide], it’s wrong.

This is problematic. The first point begins with the assumption that our students are cheats and frauds. I prefer not to go into the relationship with that as a starting frame of reference. The second point is irrelevant because style guides explain exactly how to format the citation and software formats it for us.

What matters is that students understand the underlying rationale of attribution and of building on the ideas of others. I’m way more interested in talking about ideas with my students, than on where the comma goes. Instead of talking about the importance of referencing maybe we should aim to instil in students a love of ideas. Sometimes those ideas originated from someone else (citation required) and sometimes those ideas are your own. What does the world look like when we use ideas – some our own and some from others – to think differently? That seems like a more interesting conversation to have.

Writing about the software that I use to write

Note: I started writing this post more than a year ago and have regularly pushed it back in the queue. It began as a list of text editing software that I thought might be useful for people who are stuck using MS Word but has since grown beyond a simple list.

I like to think that I write a lot. I’m not nearly as prolific as I’d like to be but I think I do a decent job of getting words onto the page, either here on the blog, journal articles, research proposals, lengthy emails to students, conference presentations, or notes in workshops I attend. I thought I’d give an overview of the different places I write because I know that many of my colleagues think that Microsoft Word is the only option, which makes me sad.

Web-based editors

There is a certain appeal to the idea of writing tools that are web-based. They’re always up-to-date, you don’t have to worry about backing up or even saving, and they don’t burden you with too many features that you’ll never use. By and large, they get out of the way and let you write. Of course, the downside is that you have to be online to use them, which isn’t always possible.

The first service I tried was Draft. It has some amazing features (great for productivity, rather than power), is regularly updated and has a really nice UI that gets out of the way when it’s not needed. My only concern is that the offline access isn’t entirely intuitive and is still under development. I tend to use Draft to get the ideas out of my head and onto a “page”. It has a really minimalist interface, and with the browser in full screen mode, I can just write without any distractions. Once I’ve put as much as I can into Draft, I export the document as a plain text file and either move it into a desktop editor or something like Google Drive (if it’s something I’m going to share with others).

Draft aims to not only provide you with a writing service, but to help make your writing better.
Draft aims to not only provide you with a writing service, but to help make your writing better.

I should probably also mention the Google Drive app, which runs on Android and iOS devices, as well as through the browser. While Google has made enormous improvements in the file management features of Drive and the new Docs has done a lot for offline access, native editing of Word documents and collaborative writing, it sometimes feel like it’s trying to kill a mosquito with a cannon. However, if you need your writing editor to do heavy lifting, then Drive and Docs may be good choices for you.

I use Google Docs / Drive regularly as part of various collaborative research projects I’m involved in, as well as some classes that we team teach. While I think it’s probably best in class when it comes to collaborative writing and editing because of the range of services (Docs, Sheets, Forms and Slides), the online requirement can be problematic. The early versions of the Docs app on iOS and Android were also a bit clumsy. However, Drive is constantly getting better and it is now a service that I really can’t live without.

Google-Drive

Desktop editors

I also do a lot of more formal writing for research projects and for that I have always used a combination of LibreOffice and Dropbox to sync between machines. However, there’s a growing movement among academics who are switching from writing in Microsoft Word (or LibreOffice) and simply using markdown and plain text editors. If you’re thinking that, as an academic, Word has features that you absolutely must have, it seems that with a little bit of thought, you can avoid it completely.

I’ve also worked with Focuswriter, Gedit, and ReText on Linux, and MarkdownPad on Windows. They’re great text editors (as opposed to word processors) that I use almost solely for the initial stages of my academic writing and I’ve switched almost entirely to text-only editors for the original drafting of my work. One of the huge advantages of using text only is that I can edit any document on any device. Dropbox keeps them all in sync and every device can edit text. I do however, still use LibreOffice for the final editing of documents.

As you can see, Gedit is a very simple text editor.
As you can see, Gedit is a very simple text editor.

I should also note that I recently moved all of my note-taking to Evernote. What I really like about Evernote is that it has native desktop and mobile clients, as well as being browser-based, which means I can use it anywhere to capture almost anything.

Mobile editors

On mobile devices it’s a bit more complicated because there are literally hundreds of options. Also, the tools that are available for mobile are often not cross-platform, which means you really do have to go with text editors. I wanted something that integrated with Dropbox – which is where I keep all of my writing – and that allowed me to edit in plain text. Without going into the details of all the writing apps I’ve installed (and subsequently uninstalled), I finally settled on Plaintext on the iPad and Jotterpad X on my Nexus 7 and HTC One X. They’ve got the right balance between useful features that make writing easier and light enough that I can just write and not get distracted with features.

JotterpPad X running on an Android tablet.
JotterpPad X running on an Android tablet.

Something that has become very clear to me while writing this post is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between a desktop, web-based or mobile writing app. Services like Drive (with it’s associated Docs, Sheets and Slides) are easily accessible across all three, and with the offline access available in Chrome and on mobile, it’s hard not to think seriously about moving there altogether.

Moving between consuming and creating: Thinking about workflow

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I use Pocket a lot. It’s not unusual for me to have more than 500 articles saved to read later, which to be honest, causes me a bit of anxiety. It’s a list of “things to do” that I know I’ll never finish. But I keep adding stuff to the list because I know that it’ll be interesting when I get around to reading it at some point. The recommendation from the guys at Pocket is not to think of the reading list as a list of things to “get through”. Rather, think of it as a queue of reading that you know you’ll never finish.

The key is to think of it like a Netflix queue. You are never overwhelmed or concerned about the number of items in your Netflix queue. You just keep putting things in there because you know that when you have the time to view something, you can guarantee you’ll have something great in there that you’ve been meaning to check out. If you view Pocket as a todo list then you better hope you have a LOT of free time.

– Nate Weiner

But this doesn’t work for me because it’s not the finishing that bothers me, it’s the cognitive space that the list represents. It’s the psychological load knowing that in that reading list are things that I’ve made a mental note to do something with. There are things in there that relate to projects I’m working on or to ideas that I want to develop. For me, Pocket isn’t just a reading list…it’s a thinking list.

That led to me start looking around for others who have had similar issues. I liked Emmanuel Quartey’s post (“Getting to Pocket Zero“), where he explores how Pocket is positioned as a reading app and how, if it were reconceptualised as a content creation app you would change how you use it.

Emmanuel Quartey's suggestion as to how Pocket could actually be used i.e. it's not just about reading great content.
Emmanuel Quartey’s suggestion as to how Pocket could actually be used i.e. it’s not just about reading content.

I’ve found this exact problem in my own use of Pocket. When I’m reading I’m often struck with a thought that I want to develop, or that links to another thought from another article (that is also probably also saved in Pocket). At the moment, I’m stuck trying to copy and paste quotes, links and my own thoughts from Pocket to Evernote. But what if I could create those links and drafts right from inside Pocket?

I’d like to be able to highlight passages within articles and then tag those passages only. Instead of thinking of the article as being a single entity (“the article”) we should understand that an article is created from words, sentences and paragraphs, and that each of those constructs are not only pieces of the whole, but can be complete ideas in themselves. By tagging these discrete items (words, sentences or paragraphs) we can add metadata (the tag name or description) to them that then allows us to perform operations on the item.

For example, “Create New Article from Tag” would take all of the tagged items at either the word, sentence, paragraph or article levels (with original URLs) and paste them into a blank editing space, with the option of rearranging, annotating, commenting and publishing into another space (maybe WordPress). What about “Share this Tag with others”? I could allow others to read the sections I’ve highlighted, and give them options to add their own thoughts comments in the same space. It’s not difficult to see how this could really make a reading app like Pocket far more powerful as an idea-curation-app.

As it is, I’ve tried to deal with the issue by moving my reading / thinking / writing process from Pocket into Evernote. I have a set of “Project” folders in Evernote that are mainly writing and research projects that I have going on at any one time. As I read something in Pocket that is linked to one of the projects I’m busy with, I share the article (the full article) to the relevant project folder in Evernote, tagging it and adding additional notes. When I have time, I go into the project folder and edit the articles I’ve saved. From there, I move the idea / note into the main note in the folder, which is where I integrate the ideas from the various posts. Evernote allows me to share project folders and with that enable collaborators to edit notes in the folder. It’s not perfect but it works for me right now.