Cultivating political foxes in the shift to online learning

The move online allows students the opportunity to broaden their knowledge and learn from a variety of sources, says Tom Collinson

January 26, 2021
Urban fox
Source: iStock

In his 2005 book Expert Political Judgement, Philip E. Tetlock explains why the famed political pundits, who appear before us in the news and work at our countries’ top public institutions, are no better at making political judgements than the non-experts we come across in our daily lives.

Drawing on Isaiah Berlin’s essay distinguishing the nature of a fox and the nature of a hedgehog, Tetlock exposits successful powers of prediction to be in the hands of those not with specialised knowledge, closed off from most people, but rather held by those who are multifaceted autodidacts. It is the fox, with its ability to “know many small things” and “stitch together diverse sources of information” that is a good predictor of political events and can make good policy judgements, rather than the hedgehog that knows only “one big thing”.

As learning moves increasingly online, we have before us a unique opportunity to apply this distinction in rethinking the possibilities of a politics degree and reorientating our priorities in higher education.

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Across every area of life, government restrictions have disrupted old habits and created new ones. As the Financial Times reports, those companies that have benefited most from this change are those that rely on the internet.

Any business that has not had a strong internet presence and cannot continue face-to-face services is suffering. This is hardly surprising and easy to bemoan. But while this acceleration of long-developing trends presents a number of problems for the old ways of the public realm and those positive externalities, which emerge from what Jane Jacobs called “eyes on the street”, there are reasons to be optimistic about these changes when it comes to university life.

One of these changes is the possibility for students to broaden their knowledge. In traditional university settings, students have neither the time nor the practical ability to acquire knowledge beyond their area of specialisation.

While it may be possible, if one is motivated enough to find where a lecture or seminar outside his or her timetabled lessons is taking place, it is unlikely this student will have the confidence to sit in on it, or whether time and space will allow for them. This is particularly true for non-campus-based universities, where departments are sprawled across cityscapes.

The switch to online learning mitigates most of these problems. Travel time is eradicated, along with limited physical space for new members, while confidence to ask questions and become involved increases. Lectures in all areas of thought become available for students, along with the readings and seminars that go along with them – as long as administrators do not place a guard rail around these resources.

This access to quality information reaches beyond the university and its various departments as all aspects of work move online. Students have the opportunity to learn from different areas of work, which can inform and challenge their academic interests. This worldwide collective shift to online discussions also presents students with a chance to learn from workshops, conferences and book launches that have historically been closed, in a fixed location, inaccessible to most.

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Last year, for example, I had the chance to hear from Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens on his recent work Incitement and sit in on events held by the Urban Design Group as well as the Zionist Federation, all of which would be typically held in distant London.

The current moment also presents an opportunity to go beyond the classroom, whiteboard and small group discussion model. Not only does it offer a chance to deepen knowledge, but to also be active in a world previously only discussed. Websites such as KnowledgeHub, or initiatives by government departments such as the UK Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s Local Digital Collaboration Unit provide online forums for government practitioners to discuss areas of interest and importance.

Our efforts as educators in political science should be to explore the ways in which students can work within these fora to gain first-hand experience; an approach that has been dubbed “applied politics”.

Reflecting on the most studied names in political theory, most of these were the aforementioned foxes. Their interests and experiences stretched beyond the confines of their own department: metaphysics and the idea of atoms in motion laid the groundwork for Thomas Hobbes’ theory of state; John Maynard Keynes’ economic works born of an “innovative philosophical cocktail” of analytic philosophy and the arts; and Hannah Arendt’s political theory deeply rooted in the very real-world understandings of political schism and heresy.

All these thinkers − revered, cited and studied by students, with ever closer attention to precision and scholasticism − were all, in their own way, foxes. While online learning indeed poses problems, such as a lack of moments of spontaneity on campus, it also presents an opportunity to become more inquisitive and open to diversity in who can teach us. The best political scientists have long found this vital, and for this reason I hope this new agora will be here to stay.

Tom Collinson is a digital learning developer working for the University of Exeter’s department of politics as the project lead on digital enhancement.

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