Posted by: crumphelen | September 7, 2013

A funny thing happened on the way to the museum, and other musings prompted by my travels to China and Mongolia.

I just got back from a month long trip where I spent a couple of weeks exploring both China and Mongolia, well exploring bits of them at least because they’re massive, and I thought I’d put together a bit of a blog post to share some of the things that the trip made me reflect on, things loosely to do with learning that is.

It’s true, a funny thing did happen on the way to the museum. In Xi’an, my husband, Steve, and I wanted to gen up on Chinese history and the Terracotta Army but we’d read that the queues for the museum were gargantuan and that early arrival was advised. So one morning, armed only with the number of the bus that passed by the museum and a city map splattered in Chinese writing, we set out sharp. Believing we were somewhere in the vicinity, we got off the bus and began to walk in what we thought was the general direction of the museum. Happy days, almost immediately we found a large modern building with a ginormous queue snaking its way around.

Xi'an: the queue for the library.

Xi’an: the queue.

Naturally enough, we tagged on the end and joined the queue. After a while, I told Steve to wait in line whilst I checked out the front of the queue – to see if I could glean any info about entry to the museum. I scoured the front of the building for clues, anything written in English. There wasn’t much to go on, but eventually, above the main door, I spied the words ‘Xi’an library’. All these people were waiting for the library to open!! I couldn’t believe it. The queue was enormous. On closer inspection though, everyone in the queue had books under their arm. They were indeed going to study. When I got back to Steve, I said “this isn’t the museum; you’ll never guess what all these people are queuing for; they’re queuing to get into the library!”, to which he replied “if you told people back home, they’d never believe you.” It’s true. Here you just don’t associate libraries with queues, or with that much ‘pulling power’, I guess.

Anyhow, the incident got me thinking about the difference between studying and learning. Those in the queue were obviously going to the library to study (obvious once you allow the notion of queues and libraries to hang together that is). To me, studying seems to imply formal learning with motivation largely influenced by extrinsic factors, whereas learning seems to be something more ‘natural’ and somehow more intrinsic. However, when I looked at the definitions I got

  • to learn = to gain knowledge or skill by studying, practising, being taught, or experiencing something
  • to study = to read, memorize facts, attend school, etc., in order to learn about a subject

So, regardless of the motivation, a fraught topic in itself, it seems that studying is the action required to reach the learning goal.

The incident also made me reflect upon the role that libraries have played in my life. Certainly, I remember going to the library as a child and picking out my ‘reading books’, but the incident particularly made me think back to the time when I was nineteen and when, having returned home from a working holiday in Norway eager to know more about Polar exploration and the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, I received from the British Library, via an inter-library loan, a first edition copy of Amundsen’s account of his 1912 South Pole expedition. Well, at least I think it was a first edition copy; certainly, it was old and certainly, it was a thrill to get my hands on it. Also, I’ve long said that the thing I miss most about no longer living in a city is the library, the hours I spent in Nottingham City Library, all those free books and Ordnance Survey maps!!

So, although libraries aren’t exactly synonymous with eager queues, they’re a valuable, often unsung, public resource that, as we hurtle into the digital and online era, hopefully won’t be sidelined or diminished or, more worryingly given the current economic climate, won’t be axed as cuts in public spending are more keenly sought.

That was in China, but with my propensity for wandering around and my particular affinity for nomadism the other part of the trip was to Mongolia, and notably a “Ger to Ger” homestay with Mongolian families. This part of the trip was fabulous as we stayed in the guest ger (yurt/tent) of four different families and were able to interact and observe their daily life, which totally revolved around herding and milking their livestock. Getting an insight into the macro world of domestic life that takes place in a ger was a real privilege, and the ger itself is a real triumph of human ingenuity: not only simple, easy to erect, dismantle and move but cool in summer and warm in winter (temperatures on the Mongolian Steppe range from plus 30 degrees to minus 30). Though what I really would’ve liked to have discovered was where could they move to, who owned the land and what was the system for allocating it and/or enforcing the land rights. However, with just a phrase book that tellingly gave more space to the vocabulary of animal husbandry than eating and drinking (ooh, the food’s very basic, and at best might only be described as is “sustaining”), I wasn’t able to get to the bottom of this. It’s an important question, and one that transfers directly to matters of the Internet and digital technology. Where can I go and who says so; what affordances and constraints do our new technologies sanction? It’s questions like these, as a matter of critical technology literacy, that I always try to keep to the forefront of my mind.

Just where can a nomad pitch their ger?

Just where can nomads go?

In “gerlife”, technology is pretty much limited to a light bulb and a TV (powered by a solar panel) plus a mobile phone, with the mobile phone being a really valued piece of kit. In fact, if you’ll pardon the antediluvian metaphor, in every ger we stayed the mobile phone was “ringing off the hook” as families and neighbours chatted away the day and, ha ha might I suggest, “narrated their work” (Harold Jarche just jumped into my head there). Without all the other tech and the myriad of distractions that we’ve got in our lives, it was just plain obvious that at heart people are social beings who need to be connected. Our new digital and social technologies just amplify or scale this.

One final thing that my trip to Mongolia made me think about was open/digital badges. On the very first day we arrived, gathered in the main square to take wedding photographs or photographs to mark a special day out, were groups of Mongolians all finely dressed in traditional outfits. What struck me though was that a lot of them had medals, not military medals but civic/community medals, pinned to their outfits and that these medals were clearly a source of great pride. Back in the ger these medals were also proudly displayed. I don’t know how the “credibility” of open/digital badges will play out, but I’m certainly interested to follow the discussion in the MOOC that starts next week, Badges – New Currency for Professional Credentials. I can definitely see the appeal for the learner, being able to digitally display with pride the learning achievements that mean something to them.

Display your achievements with pride.

Display your achievements with pride.

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Responses

  1. Hi Helen,

    Sounds like you had a good trip. I liked the part about badges and the public display of accomplishment. Comes to mind that the supposedly humble nature of not displaying accomplishment might actually work against pushing yourself to be more. Why not show off how cool you are? People could approach you and lean stuff if they knew who to ask and credit could be fairly apportioned to those who openly display their activities rather than hide them.

    We used to go to all staff meetings where the same group of administrators would mount the stage to self-congratulate for an hour on their accomplishments then pass out “years of service” slips to those who actually did the work. It was clear the prize went to those who “accomplished” by some force of hierarchical mojo and nothing to those who “served.” Treating people like their contribution was something paid for in wages and nothing exceptional was sad, nothing more. Should have made up medals saying: “Oh Yeah! Well We’re the Ones Who Frickin’ Did the Work!”

    Do they have boats in Mongolia? Know it’s a strange question but I’m thinking of building a boat this winter and this part of Canada seems Mongolian and frozen 6 months of the year. Where to next?

    • Hi Scott,
      Thanks for commenting. Your comment about making your own medals to show who did the work made me properly LOL. However, it’s kinda similar to a question that I wouldn’t mind poking around a bit. That is, can/should learners make their own badges – self certificate – as it were? I think that’s a dead interesting proposition.
      Sorry, can’t help you with any boating info but it sounds like a neat idea, building your own. I’m working on kitting out a campervan.
      Helen

  2. Wow, what a brilliant holiday that would have opened your eyes and minds. I loved the story of the library and I have fond memories of our local library. Many hours have been spent in there studying and reading – or just getting away from the family! It’s amazing that time away from our own routine and environment opens our eyes. Thanks for sharing!

    • Yes, travel or time away from your routine and home environment definitely gives you the chance to have your eyes and mind opened, and to make connections between different experiences too >> just as hanging out online with different individuals and communities does. Happy days.

  3. I have a picture of boats as upside-down yurts but there doesn’t seem to be any water the picture, just cattle that look like the Scottish Highlander breed with their winter fur pulling the “boat”. Mix up in my mind from pictures of Eurasian ox wagons to carry the Bronze Age family kit across the grasslands. Proto-camper van idea. We’ve always been canoe people but bad knees and bad balance is causing us to need something more stable. In this area there are hundreds of glacially scraped out shallow lakes between the prairie and Boreal Forrest, so no shortage of water.

    The idea of self-made badges appeals to me. I understand the notion of validation but it seems to have gotten out of control. Where I last worked ability took second place to “qualifications” that were determined by some obscure club of deciders and justified by their being the ones who decide. Worked with a lot of people who just plodded along and often edited lectures written by people making 10 times my income by could explain how to do up their zipper.

    Making your own badges could be a way of confirming a dedication to a way behaving in the world that the maker would have to defend. Of course some would fake their qualifications but they’d soon be caught out as imposters.

    Be interesting to research the idea qualifying people. Bet it began with reputation and abilities demonstrated as a characteristic of the way someone was in the world, and then went on to become a symbolic award. Representation of skill by badges is good subject to study when many skills haven’t even been defined yet…off to POTcert for mentoring and mayhem.


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