Culture skills – reflections on the online Umwelt

Ross Kendall, Waikato Institute of Technology, New Zealand

In 2013, using WordPress, I put ‘Critical Thinking’ online as a semester-long elective in Wintec’s Bachelor of Media Arts (BMA). Untitled1This second-year paper, using a blended learning/flipped classroom approach, followed my popular ‘Introduction to Psychology’ and attracted a large number of students, so that it was offered in parallel as two identical papers. The approach had immediate benefits:

  • First, students compared, collaborated, combined and reflected on their work across the classes,
  • Second, students were encouraged to comment on blogs from their fellows in the other class and frequently did so,
  • Three voluntary Saturday classes (9am-2pm), offered as enhancement, attracted full attendance and engendered much spontaneous fun, new friendships and laughter and creativity – learning at its best. These Saturdays were festive occasions, with pizza ordered in, impromptu discussions about positionalities in the NZ context, and imaginative presentations at the end of each session.

My aims in the class were pretty much the same since I first began teaching in higher ed. I’ve tried to develop and apply strategies that connect the autonomy of persons and their communities with the objectivity of facts about the world and the systems within which people operate. The operative understanding is that immersion in particular learning environments should take account of the constitution of persons as both biophysical and sociocultural organisms in fields of relationships. On this view – informed by the theories of Engeström, Mezirow, Uexküll, Gibson, Esbjörn-Hargens and by Lacanian psychoanalysis – profound learning occurs, and attributes of learners emerge, under particular conditions, through certain processes and at different levels, in a wonderfully spiral looping.

The point is to conceive learners as individual loci of creative growth within continually unfolding phenomenological spaces of varying human and (other) environmental relationships.

What does this mean exactly? For the learner, it means that her individual beliefs need to be Untitled2connected to appropriate skills practice, developed by knowledge of her cultural and ecological milieu, performed in a structured environment of her current surroundings and at a level consonant with her level of ability and potential achievement. Conscious perception of these things involves the acquisition of narratives grown by a deep engagement with, and understanding of one’s identity: students need to be able to tell their own stories; they need to tell what others’ behaviours imply, to tell what sensory experiences signify, and to understand that understanding does not end at the skin’s boundary.

Untitled3 Indigeneity is significant in this respect: it is essential, I believe, to know and to be able to perform the rituals and traditions of one’s heritage. For me, claiming descent from colonialist Pākehā (Southern England) and defiant Māori (Tūhoe), it means not simply possessing Untitled4knowledge of my genealogical lineage but also being able to enact the customs and practices of both cultures and being familiar with the vastly different landscapes. It is important to me to see through two sets of eyes, to speak both languages, to assert my ancestral homes as London and Ruatoki. 

Big expectations for an online course, considering the considerable diversity among students, especially for those who lack a well-defined sense of their culture, ethnicity, class, culture or ways of being! Especially considering that the course demands crackling debate, sizzling intellectual fervour, outrageous creativity, wondrous collegiality and large dollops of fun! Especially considering that New Zealand currently boasts the world’s grossest per-capita pollution output, worst intimate partner violence (IPV) records, hideous child poverty statistics and greatest inequality movement over the last decade.


Under a tough (some might say brutal) neo-liberalist government, the institution is encouraged to market its programmes aggressively overseas, and accordingly, in my classes, the proportion of International to home-grown students runs at about 80:20%. Consequently, the imperative to provide safe and encouraging activities for students to engage and reshape their experiences in the development of new meanings is paramount. The students in the course, I hoped, would engage in the exercises in ways that enable them not only to tell the various accounts of who they are by threading activities in the Western theoretical, rational tradition to their customary affective and signifying practices but also in ways that provoke a creative confidence in constructing new knowledge and effecting change in their lives. In Saussurean (1959: 102ff ) terms, I wanted a mapping of systems of differences on the plane of concepts to a system of differences on the plane of physical events and objects; in Gibsonian terms, (1979:129) I tried to engender an awareness of what the social and physical environment offers as affordances. In these processes, the collective is enhanced and experience is generated, offering greater meaning and clarity. A poetics of learning, you might say.

Phew! But maybe not so hard. When students are given permission to freely engage in new experiences, their ‘‘becoming’ [ is like] a creative advance into novelty’ (Whitehead, 1929: 28). So exercises included sociological field-work (conducting an audit of household energy costs, the ‘making-stUntitled6 range’ by performing unusual activities in public spaces, the examination of unconscious racism in the academy, the revelation of dressing as the other gender); analyses of ideological frameworks in mainstream media, the Western family, traditional logical and non-traditional reasoning, deviance, corporatisation; a pair investigation into a local environmental concern; and debates. Some of these exercises were conducted online, others required students to self-organise into groups of particular numbers and some (e.g. debates) were held in class.

The course was configured thus:

  • online journal (8 entries and 5 commentaries on other students’ work: 40%)
  • research essay (30%)
  • multi-choice test (10%)
  • debate (20%)

Lectures were recorded and placed on line as Screenflow videos with accompanying slides, readings and review questions. VoiceThread was used twice as a synchronic strategy: it proved too unwieldy for large numbers and was discontinued. The test was conducted online, available for an hour on a particular evening.

What were the positive outcomes? WordPress is very user-friendly and feedback indicated that students greatly enjoyed the freedom to engage in learning at times that suited them, that the exercises were stimulating and fun, that the opportunity to engage with and learn about other cultures (one requirement of group work) was exciting and led to the formation of new friendships, that the anthropological approach was one that could usefully be incorporated into other courses, that they wished other classes were like this … I welcomed the opportunity to allow learners to generate emotional valencies that the usual classroom approach ignores.

The downside? A few (International) students wanted more structure and direction. Novices’ practical engagement and attention to new experiences was difficult to assess and monitor; nor could I determine the extent of learners’ involvement with, and learning from one another. It was impossible to identify the different levels of ability and involvement that makes teaching so much a mentoring role. (I can only hope that behaviour rose to a level where agents felt they were achieving something useful to add to their repertoire and that all learned some appropriate strategies to use in relationships with people and objects in the environment.) The work required was significantly more than the f2f classroom style. It cost a fair bit of money. And of course, I felt a keen sense of lack of control, but I’m getting over that.

Untitled7 Will I do it again? I think online learning depends on the nature of the learning, the expectations and commitment of students and the competence and desire of the teacher. In many ways, the anonymity and autonomy of the Internet allows for a degree of intimacy and engagement that is often overlooked in the classroom. Furthermore, on a personal note, I live in paradise, a 35 minute drive from work and it’s wonderful to work in my office with the view above and not be in the city five days a week! Moreover, I was prohibited from further use of WordPress (the less inviting Moodle is the institution’s preferred platform). But online delivery lends itself so much to contemporary students’ desire for meaningful and interesting educational experiences, so yes, I’ll continue, perhaps using a flipped classroom approach, where tutor and students meet fortnightly, in class or one-to-one. Meantime, I’m working on those aspects of integral andragogy that I find so difficult to elicit via the Web. Ka kite ano!


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