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How an image of the where and how my grandfather fought during the First World War has changed over 45 years

Fig. 1. How the six-eight year old me thought a farmhouse in the Ypres Salient looked like during the First World War in October 1917

For 45 years I have dwelt on how the images in my head associated with stories my grandfather told me about the First World War changed from those of a six year old, to an eleven year old, through my thirties and forties … my childhood conception of the imagined world depended on the little I had personally seen and experienced. When my grandfather spoke of keeping his machine gun in a pillbox pointing at a farmhouse held by ‘Jerry’ For three days I at first pictured an intact farm building, the kind I often saw in a rolling and lush Northumbrian landscape, with the heavy stone walls and full deciduous trees I knew from being driven down bouncy country lanes north east of Alnwick heading for Chathill and our fisherman’s holiday cottage in Beadnell.

The pillbox in my imagination would have had to been like those left from the Second World War on the beach that my brother and I played in – and used as a urinal.

Fig.2. The reality of life on the Front Line

Age eleven a few ghastly black and white pictures from the First World War and the title sequence from the BBC Series ‘The Great War’ coloured my imagination: it added a soundtrack, skulls and broken trees, but not the scale, nor the mud, not the rain, the cold, thirst and hunger. Although he could mimmick every shell the sound effects my grandfather made could never get close to the terrifying sound os something large and dangerous approaching and then the almighty bang that followed.

In my twenties I got to the Ypres Salient in summer: it was dry, a new autoroute split and the noise of traffic created a barrier. Several TV efforts at recreating the war failed, not least as my thoughts expended to take in the thoughts of a what it meant to be a young man in those conditions, that you were in and out for a bout of two or three days. The rest of the time if not on fatigues or carrying parties you were looking for things to do.

Fig. 3. The reality. A ‘camouflaged’ pillbox, recently taken while a couple of hundred yards beyond that low, light grey strip is a similar pillbox still in enemy hands.

‘Not a worm could live.” My grandfather would say. He lived, as did the German who in error entered my grandfather’s pillbox and got clobbered for his trouble.

Only now, thoroughly immersed in hundreds of curated photographs and having looked on destroyed, wet massively scarred landscapes from open mining, having smelt rotting flesh – not human, but a dead sheep several days gone, am I starting to develop a true image. With teenage children of my own it is too easy to imagine the horror of sending them to war. Images of what happens to a body when hit by shrapnel or bullets, or blown apart by shells are readily available.

Fig 4. As it was. The dead behind a stone wall. The very same image my grandfather had while he sat it out in the remains of a recently captured ‘Jerry’ strongpoint.

There is little left for my imagination to do, other than to see another drama reconstruction and feel that nothing has done it better than ‘All Quiet on the Western Front.’ It looks dated, somehow caught in the early 1970s when it was finally made, but ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ leaves you with the desired sense of hopelessness, horror and despair that one ought to have.

Fig.5. Returning to ‘Courage Post’ to mark the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele. Corporal John Arthur Wilson MM recalls too friends who died at his side and that he buried in the rubble never to be found. 

75 years after leaving that pillbox with two friends buried my 96 year old grandfather broke down: telling his stories as stories had been his escape from it, but back on the same soil, at the very spot with the light and low landscape just as it had been it once again had become horribly real. He withered away after that as if the reality of the war brought home to him made him whither from the inside out.

I know this part of the world well enough to walk it, step by step from the bivouacs outside Poperinghe, over the Yser Canal, through Langermarck and along the light rail track, then used to move men and matériel, now a cycle path. On towards Houthulst forest and the exact location of his machine gun company’s HQ at ‘Egypt House’ (a three roomed concrete strongpoint built into a farm building) and on another 300 yards to ‘Courage Post’ a pillbox on the edge of the road into the ‘forest’ – then ten thousand shards of broken tree trunks, now, buried in its midst, where they handled, until very recently, and destroyed old munitions from the extensive battlefield.

For all this ‘Jerry’ to me is still a black cartoon cat and the ‘Hun’ something barbaric from the fall of the Romans as a drawing in a Ladybird book. We are our own film directors when it comes to reading; an author is a catalyst to our thoughts that can conjure up anything – which, in part, is the fun of it. We inhabit a world of our own in the orchestra of our minds, the author the composer, as readers we conduct, as listeners or viewers the director injects a piece of their own mind.

Parts of ‘Lord of the Rings’ is more evocative of the conflict of two massive armies than much that I have seen or read – and I have seen and read most of it, including now one divisional history after another, and long out of print obscure autobiographies. It has created an image in my head. Of a screwball world where the daily job was to plan and execute slaughter against the enemy on a massive scale – slaughter than in those days treated men like so many bullets, shells or mules to expend, the only fear being whether or not they could be replaced.

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An exploration of the MOOC

From E-Learning V

Fig.1. My mash-up of a correct answer to a quiz in the FutureLearn course from the University of Nottingham ‘How to read a mind’ that ties in directly to The OU course on the same platform ‘Start Writing Fiction’.

As these MOOCs complete I have a few weeks over Christmas to reflect on a busy year of Moocing about and to catch up with regular coursework on L120, assisted with a necessary business visit to France.

My MOOCing is enjoyed all the more while reading Martin Weller’s new book that covers MOOCs, ‘The Battle for Open’. These are interesting times indeed.

With friends yesterday I evangelised about MOOCs on FutureLearn and found that what worked was to describe a MOOC in layman’s terms as the equivalent of a hefty, hardback, coffee-table book you buy because you have an interest in a thing. Let’s say it is architecture. The book is written by an expert with engaging photographs, charts and maps. From time to time you indulge yourself. A good MOOC is similar, different and better. Online you have an expert who leads the course. The introduce themselves, the course and perhaps the team. And then over the weeks they drop in to say something with a pre-recorded video piece or text. They may even appear from time to time to contribute to the discussion: though you may miss them if the thread is running into the hundreds.

I explained how threaded discussions work: that there can be thousands of comments, but you know everyone is talking about the same thing. That if you don’t get a point you can ask and someone offers a response. You may still not get it. So you ask again. Once again, there is a response. You may do this a few times. Even come back to it a day or so later, but you are likely, eventually to see something that says it for you – your fellow students have fulfilled the role of the tutor that a tutor could never manage: they only have one voice and they can’t give up the huge number of hours – there is one thread in ‘Start Writing Fiction’ that runs to 7400 posts.

These are filtered in three useful ways: activity, following and your comments. In this way you either look only at the lates posts, the posts of those you are following: say 10 out of 23,000 or, of course, you look back at your comments.

It works.

As for my graphic? Does obscuring the writing assist with anything? By making an effort to read the question are you any more likely to remember it?

How to read a mind

How to Read a Mind: The University of Nottingham[Two Weeks] Fig.1. The image I’ve used for a decade to represent my blogging under the pseudonym ‘mind bursts’.

79% Complete

Four activities remaining to complete. A touch more academic than some. I guess this is undergraduate English Literature, but third year. Or is it pitched at postgraduate level. I have had to spend more time with the reading than I expected in order to grasp the main thesis relating to ‘Theory of Mind’. It is proving complementary to ‘Start Writing Fiction’ as it shows how we conceive of, and follow imagined and real characters in a world, in our heads, that is always part factual, part fictional.

Why lifelogging as total capture has less value that selective capture and recall.

Beyond Total Capture. Sellen and Whittaker (2010)

Abigail Sellen and Steve Whittaker

Abigail J. Sellen (asellen@microsoft.com) is a principal researcher at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, U.K., and Special Professor of Interaction at the University of Nottingham, U.K.

Steve Whittaker (whittaker@almaden.ibm.com) is a research scientist at IBM Almaden Research Center, San Jose, CA.

may 2010 | vol. 53 | no. 5 | communications of the acm 77

You read about people looking at ways to capture everything – to automatically lifelog the lot. They constantly look for new ways to gather and store this data. What’s the point? Because they can? Who are they? Is it a life worth remembering? And do we need it all?!

Far better to understand who and what we are and use the technology either to ameliorate our shortcomings, aid those with memory related challenges and tailored to specific needs captured moments of worth.

There’s ample literature on the subject. I’m not overly excited about revolutionary change. It is as valuable, possibly more so, to forget, rather than to remember – and when you do remember to have those memories coloured by perspective and context.

My interest is in supporting people with dementia and cognitive difficulties – perhaps those recovering from a stroke for whom a guided path of stimulation into their past could help ‘awaken’ damaged memories. If lives are to be stored, then perhaps grab moments as a surgeon operates for training purposes, recreate a 3:1 tutorial system with AI managed avatars so that such learning practices can be offered to hundreds of thousands rather than just the privilege, elite or lucky few. Use the device on cars, not people, to monitor and manage poor driving – indeed wear one of these devices and see your insurance premiums plummet.

What does it mean to support human memory, rather than capturing everything.

Five Rs

  1. Recollect
  2. Reminisce
  3. Retrieve
  4. Reflect
  5. Remember

Despite the device SenseCam stimulate memories are as quickly forgotten as any other.
Whittacker 2010 – Family archives of photos are rarely accessed

Of less value than the considerable effort to produce these archives justifies.

  • Can’t capture everything
  • Need to prioritise – selectivity (as SwimTag and swim data)
  • Visual
  • Memory taxonomies
  • Quick and easy to use better than accuracy – good enough
  • Cues not capture – the data cues memories that are different to the image captured.
  • Memory is complex

Play to the strengths of human memory, help overcome weaknesses.

Incorporating the psychology of memory into the design of novel mnemonic devices opens up exciting possibilities of ways to augment and support human endeavours.

REFERENCE

Sellen, A. J., & Whittaker, S. (2010). Beyond total capture: a constructive critique of lifelogging. Communications of the ACM, 53(5), 70-77.

Whittaker, S., Bergman, O., and Clough, P. Easy on that trigger dad: A study of long-term family photo retrieval. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing 14, 1 (Jan. 2010), 31–43.

 

JISC 2011

I might be 275 miles away from JISC 2011 but when I heard my ‘jj27vv’ Twitter ‘handle’ used I felt as if I’d been transported to Liverpool. I certainly had to remind myself that I wasn’t there …

The question/s were to do with the use of Open Content, that there never was a blank sheet and that in something like a wiki a history of authorship is tracked.

The resonses came from:

Amber Thomas, Programme Manager, JISC

Chris Pegler, Senior Lecturer, Open Univeristy;(Our Course Chair in H808 for a while)

Stephen Stapleton, Open Learning Support Officer, University of Nottingham

Vivien Sieber, Head of Learning and Research Services, University of Surrey

Tony Hirst, Lecturer, Open University.

This session and the others are available as podcasts.

Of most use will be the top tips for use of Open Educational Resources by each of the panelists.

 

 

JISC Conference 2011 – in my PJs 275 miles away.

I might be 275 miles away from JISC 2011 but when I heard my ‘jj27vv’ Twitter ‘handle’ used I felt as if I’d been transported to Liverpool. I certainly had to remind myself that I wasn’t there …

The question/s were to do with the use of Open Content, that there never was a blank sheet and that in something like a wiki a history of authorship is tracked.

The resonses came from:

Amber Thomas, Programme Manager, JISC

Chris Pegler, Senior Lecturer, Open Univeristy;(Our Course Chair in H808 for a while)

Stephen Stapleton, Open Learning Support Officer, University of Nottingham

Vivien Sieber, Head of Learning and Research Services, University of Surrey

Tony Hirst, Lecturer, Open University.

This session and the others are available as podcasts.

Of most use will be the top tips for use of Open Educational Resources by each of the panelists.

 

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