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Archive for February, 2011

Critical Thoughts on the Critical Thinking Text

Thu 17 Feb 2011 00:04:21 2 comments

The first textbook I’ve chosen to dive into is Critical Legal Thinking (3rd edition) by Nick James. There were two critical reasons for that choice:

  1. it was the smallest book; and
  2. it was also the only book not shrink-wrapped.

As a successful engineer, critical thought is a skill I already possess and use regularly. In fact, it’s my natural abilities at critical thinking are what lead me to become an engineer in the first place. Even so, I was mildly curious as to whether this book contained some mystical new way of thinking. As far as the chapters I’ve read so far are concerned, it doesn’t. In fact, the three types of critical thinking put forward by the book map quite well to the tasks I undertake as an engineer. For example, for the task of reviewing the source code:

  1. consistency with legal authority“: this could perhaps be more generally phrased “Consistency with immediate rules”. In the case of implementing software this would be identifying the consistency between the source code and the software design.
  2. consistency with theoretical, ideological and ethical standards“: this maps a bit more directly for software. There are numerous theoretical standards covering how to implement software as well as ethical standards, such as risk and safety analysis, that apply.
  3. equity of outcome“: while it might not be equity in consideration, it is important to consider the outcome, or behaviour, of the software. To consider whether it will do the job in a way that makes sense and satisfy the user, independent of how it meets the other more structured criteria.

As for the broader course topic of “Law and Society”, for which the book is a required text, I felt that it was a topic I’d covered in the process of deciding whether to do a law degree in the first place. So again, I was curious. This time as to how my ad hoc self education in this topic would line up with the structured text of a university course. I’m about two-thirds of the way through and for the most part concepts covered are ones with which I am already familiar. There have been a few things new for me learn though, such as the history of legal education, some of the detail on judicial reasoning, and the extent of existing anti-terror legislation. Overall I felt able to pick up those bits and pieces of knowledge and fit them comfortably within my existing knowledge and understanding of the topic.

It’s only with respect to my previous concerns that I can find significant problem with the book. That is, my problem is not with the book, but with its position as required text for the course. As a book that teaches the subject matter it appears to be quite adequate, if perhaps a little shallow for the cost. It contains clear descriptions of the concepts, references to external resources along with mini-quizes and suggested essay topics. It’s divided into 12 chapters that take roughly an hour to go through; these clearly matching up with the scheduled lectures for the course. The books structure makes it clear that its purpose is to teach the course material and only the course material1. I expect a text to go further, to compliment the course and be a comprehensive reference, not simply duplicate the basic course material. For students struggling with the course material it could be beneficial. However for students that can keep up with lectures or are able to read up on the various concepts on the internet I’m not sure it offers value for money, particular for students with limited funds2.

I’d hoped my first ever book review would have been a little bit more positive. In retrospect, perhaps I’ve been a little too critical3. To end on a more critically positive note, I’ve discovered4 added a new site called Critical Thinking Applied to my reader. The author bios indicate a wide range of backgrounds and the site shows potential for being an interesting resource of critical thought. I look forward to seeing how it progresses.

1. Perhaps I’m overestimating the coverage of the lectures and tutorials, in which case I’ll probably be disappointed in the course.
2. Fortunately, this time I’m not one of those.
3. Groan.
4. Courtesy of Lorenzo, one of the authors there.

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A Tale of Education by Blog

Mon 14 Feb 2011 21:43:49 2 comments

One of the stronger influences that lead me to return to study at university has been my experiences reading and commenting across the blogsphere. In many ways it’s provided the traditional broad ‘liberal’ education that my engineering and science degrees lacked through a self imposed technology focus. Blogs provided the opportunity to engage in a wide range of topics, in my own way, at my own pace. Where sites such as Wikipedia enable access to knowledge, quality blogs provide a continual educational content covering many topics of interest along with an environment that facilitate discussion and hence critical assessment of my current understandings of the topic in question; playing in part the role of the teacher and tutor.

The inspiration for reading blogs began about a year or so after I landed my first job after graduation. My university studies cover a broad range of electronic and computer topics ranging from digital circuitry, through software engineering to databases and web development. My first graduate job was in the power industry; ironic given that power engineering was the only section of the electrical engineering course I’d avoided almost completely. My role evolved into effectively a data analyst for the strategic consulting team, although at the time no one managed to really come up with a job title that effectively described what I did. It was a role that forced me to engage in a wide range of unfamiliar topics such as business strategy, economics, government regulation and politics. A freshly sparked curiosity and general feeling of educational deficiency (despite the fact I seemed to naturally adapt to such topics) inspired me to seek to improve my knowledge through the great (and more importantly free) information resource: the internet.

The first non-technology discussion site I started to visit regularly was On Line Opinion; a memory brought back by it’s recent troubles. It’s still a site I read somewhat regularly as it continues to provide a range of interesting and insightful articles from across the ideological and political spectrum. Again I was encountering a broad range of unfamiliar topics I was finding increasingly interesting, although without the stress and pressure of the workplace. The topic that gripped me the most was one that created rather virulent discussion amongst many commenters: feminism. This lead me to the mainstream feminist blogs, a experience that was rather unsatisfactory given the poor tolerance for dissenting opinion. It wasn’t until I stumbled across a site called Feminist Critics that I began to recognise the academic potential of blogs. In stark contrast to the dogmatic and ideologically intolerant discussion on the many feminist blogs I’d previously encountered, it’s a place that advocates an approach of mutual respect and academic like rigour to the discussions that take place (even it struggles to deliver sometimes).

Exploring things further, I discovered the Ozblogistan collection of blogs by diverse set of Australian writers covering a wide range of topics through quality posts and discussions. There are many more blogs I currently have in my list, and I’ll probably get around to linking them all through some form of blogroll eventually. Throughout the process I began to realise that the passion I’d had since childhood for learning all about computers had grown into a passion for learning in general and I began to seriously consider how to include more formal study in my future. So now I’m embarking on the journey of studying a bachelor of laws and possibly a change to a new and challenging career.

Looking forward, in a less personal and immediate manner, I can’t help but wonder about the future of blogs and the internet in general as a distributed form of accessible and free education for the masses. Seeing April from ethecofem add a collection of “Education Resources” in additional to the typical blogroll makes me wonder if there’s a future for a form of educational aggregators. In the way that news aggregators such as Google News collect news articles from across the internet, collating and indexing them to best facilitate up-to-date awareness, these educational aggregators would index the diverse nature of educational potential from across the internet and collate it in a way that best facilitates learning and understanding.

Of course, until I can actually get a recognised degree from the University of Blog, I’d best return to the textbooks prescribed by the “sandstone” University I’m paying good money to attend.

So that didn’t go as planned…

Sun 13 Feb 2011 12:56:50 1 comment

About the same time last year I had the idea of starting a blog. Then predictably wrote one more post and let everything slide. I’m hoping this year will be different. This year I’m going back to university to begin a bachelor of laws (along with a bachelor of economics just for fun). Hopefully the experience will be a plentiful supply of ideas to write about. Hopefully it won’t absorb all the time I have to write about such topics.

The first experience I’m going to write about is the first step I’ve taken in the whole process directly related to study: buying text books. The whole application and enrolment process took place late last year, and I requested the cut back in hours at work a few weeks ago; I might write about those a bit later but for now it’s about the books. While those steps progressively built a surreal anticipation of getting back into academic pursuits and of a significant change in lifestyle, it was the physical act of acquiring the textbooks that made it real. It changed the “…one day…“, the “I’m thinking about…“, “I plan to..” into the “I am.

The purchase wasn’t without some apprehension. During the years I was studying for my engineering degree I’d only ever bought the textbooks for the first semester of the first year and they sat largely unused. Given the electronic and computer focus of my degree I studied from the online notes provided for the courses, finding them generally satisfactory. Adding to this rather negative view of textbooks is the knowledge that for two of my subjects the textbooks are written by the course coordinators and appear to be regularly updated. My cynical mind wonders if the aim is to milk unsuspecting first years as much as they can. Since I decided the buy the textbooks anyway, I’ll be able to read them and judge whether they’re worth they money.

With that in mind, I’m going to spend some of the restless energy that’s been building up since I enrolled and acquaint myself with the expensive piles of dead tree I’ve just bought.

Categories: books, new things, university