The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Monday, January 06, 2014

Leveraging Open Courseware in Martial Studies

When people who study a martial art want to learn more about the culture of their arts' origin. The language, history and so on.

Over at Kung Fu Tea, there is a good article on free college level resources for this very purpose. The article specifically addresses Chinese Martial Studies, but with a little extra research based upon this post, it shouldn't be hard to find resources for Japanese, Korean, et al material. 

An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

Introduction: Technology, Disruption and Education

The current renaissance in the academic study of the martial could not have come at a better time.  In fact, it is probably a powerful confluence of forces, both theoretical, political and technological that are making the our current progress possible.  This is especially true for students of Chinese martial studies.  The unprecedented growth of the Chinese economy over the last two decades has led to a steady increase of interest in its culture and history.  Globalization has not only brought us closer through immigration and trade, but it has also provided powerful new tools that can benefit students of cross-cultural studies.

Many of the most obvious of these innovations are linked to the rapid advances in communications technology.  The growth of the internet has led to an almost unimaginable drop in the cost of all sorts of communications.  This has had far reaching effects on a number of industries.  Certain services that were just not cost-effective previously (such as Amazon’s book selling strategy) have exploded.  

Other products, typically those that relied on geographic proximity and a dedicated customer base (independent book stores), have fared less well.

This example should serve to remind us of the fundamental nature of any change in market prices.  

Every time a price for some good or service moves (either up or down) there will be a certain group of individuals who win, and another market segment that loses.  Adam Smith tells us that in a perfect market we can be mathematically sure that the winners will win more than the losers forfeit.  In other words, innovation and trade make the economy as a whole bigger.  But that might be cold comfort if you were a clerk at an independent bookstore who just lost your job.

The academy itself is currently feeling the sting of a number of these “disruptive” technological innovations.  Fundamental shifts in the book market mean that university presses are publishing and selling fewer titles every year.  Likewise libraries (facing budget cuts) are purchasing fewer journals.  

Neither of these trends bode particularly well for young academics still hoping to establish themselves in a field.

We may also be on the cusp of some radical changes in how teaching happens.  In the previous era instruction was by definition a local industry.  A classroom required students and a capable instructor.  Needless to say, there were limits on how far students were willing to travel, or how many papers a professor could grade.  But the internet is changing all of that.

With the advent of cheap streaming video it is now possible to record a single set of lectures, textbooks, lab notes and other course materials and then make them available to students all over the world.  A weak application of this technology has been around for a decade now in the form of increasingly common on-line degree programs.  These have typically been aimed at professional students and have been somewhat technical in nature.  But at heart this was still an individual professor and a limited number of students who were paying quite a bit of money for whatever instruction they received.

This familiar dynamic is starting to shift.  Increasingly top ranked universities (Harvard, Yale, MIT, Cornell ect…) are starting to enter this field.  They have a different game plan.  Instead of simply offering online sections of existing classes (usually taught by a graduate student or adjunct) they are simply digitally recording their most popular classes and making them available on the internet for free to anyone who wishes to enroll in them.

Generally speaking these classes do not offer “college credit” (though there are a couple of notable exceptions).  But in many cases the universities are now offering students the chance to turn in course work and to receive “certificates of completion.”  These programs are currently just getting underway, but it does not take a crystal ball to understand how this has the potential to fundamentally upset the existing university system.

The economic savings that come by teaching students remotely are substantial and many departments are under considerable pressure to offer more of these sorts of courses (either the traditional on-line classes, or the pre-recorded variety).  I suspect that the basic monetary constraints on higher education, and student demands for greater flexibility, mean that in not too many years this sort of instruction will become the norm.

As a teacher I am not sure how I feel about this.  I like my lectures, and suspect that they would do rather well as a podcast.  Yet actual personal interaction with faculty members and mentors is a vital part of the educational experience.  It was my relationships with my professors, both at the graduate and undergraduate levels, that made me the scholar that I am today. 

At this point in time I don’t remember most of what they said in lectures, but I remember the things that I learned as I worked for them and with them on various projects.  The great shortcoming the various electronic educational plans that I see now is that they simply give up on the very possibility of this sort of interaction.  Yet it is precisely that which creates the scholars and innovators of tomorrow.

Sifting an Embarrassment of Riches

Nevertheless,  every market–shift creates patterns of winners and losers.  And all academics have two hats to wear.  We teach students and do research.  I am not sure that a broader shift to on-line instruction will be great for either professors or students.  But these same trends are excellent if one wishes to conduct more sophisticated research into Chinese martial studies.

This is not a field that any of us studied in graduate school.  As we have previously discussed, martial studies is a deeply interdisciplinary research area.  We constantly find ourselves being asked to employ new research tools, or to make new comparisons.  In short, many of the most interesting questions in the field require one of two things, either a co-author who is already an expert in an area that we are lacking in, or the resources to acquire these research skills for ourselves.

The current trend of making university courses available to the public for free over the internet radically reduces the price of this second option.  If a project requires an understanding of the major debates in film studies, an introduction to ethnographic methods, or a quick brush up on Ming and Qing dynasty Chinese history, it is now possible to get exactly that at no cost.  Best of all the lectures and class material can be viewed when most convenient for you, and not the scheduling office.

Resources like this can be a mixed blessing.  There is enough stuff out there that one can get lost in the possibilities.  Nor is it easy to judge the quality of the instruction and discussion in a field that you are not familiar with.  Nevertheless, these courses offer anyone an incredible opportunity to both keep their skills up to date and expand their intellectual horizons.

I suspect that the more background one already has in a given area, the more useful a little understanding of a related field is likely to be.  It is easier to make the jump from political science to Asian studies than it is from physics to history.  But that’s basically the way most interdisciplinary research projects work anyway.  They are often attempts to apply the research methods of one related field to the research questions of another.

The remainder of this post introduces three different web portals that offer free access to university classes taught at some of the most elite academic institutions.  Each of these programs differs in terms of the number of courses offered, degree of formality and class format.  Each of them also offers a number of classes that could be of great interest to students of martial studies generally, so it will be necessary for readers to explore each of them to determine which best fits your needs.

To assist in this process I have highlighted a number of course that might be helpful to a students of Chinese martial studies.  I tried to select courses that had lots of interesting media content (on-line video lectures, podcasts, interactions with teaching assistants, free digital text books) just to showcase the sorts of stuff that is out there.  Not all classes offer all of these tools.  And many of the most specialized classes are the simplest (lecture note, reading lists and exams).  Once you have familiarized yourself with these systems you can then look for classes matching your own particular interests.

Or should you?  There is a common tendency among students to assume that if you want to know more about a subject you should only take a class that directly addresses that topic.  So if you are researching the Chinese martial arts you might be most interested in classes on military history.  But maybe what you really need is something that will improve the way you think about history in general.  Maybe a class on historical research methods?  Or possibly you need a class on imperialism and 19th century trade to actually make sense of the history that you are reading. 

So don’t be afraid to cast a wide net.  Introducing new theories or approaches brings value to the field.  And besides, it’s not like you have to pay anything for these courses.  Feel free to experiment.

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