Education software company Blackboard is looking to sell for $3 billion

Blackboard logoUnwanted gift: a few careless owners, many botched repair jobs, not firing on all cylinders, tarnished reputation, some wheels missing, but only slightly used.

A bargain for anyone with a 19th Century attitude to education, seeking thousands of locked-in, resentful customers who will continue to complainingly pay through the nose for any old rubbish because it is too difficult and expensive to move to a different platform. Get it before they all go!

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After Backlash, Facebook Opens Portal To Court More Operators

Techcrunch article by Jon Russell on how Facebook is pretending (very badly, like one unpracticed in the art) to be nice by opening up its branch to a few more developers.

In case you are not familiar with this bit of exploitation of the poor, the claimed ‘public service’ aspect of is that it gets people online who would otherwise be unable to afford it, specifically in the third world, by making access to (some) online services free of data charges. I’d have to agree, that sounds nice enough, and that’s certainly the spin Zuckerberg puts on it. The evil side of it is that it is essentially a portal to Facebook and a few hand-filtered other sites, not the Internet as we know it, it is immensely destructive to net neutrality, and is nothing more than a bare-faced attempt to make money out of people that have too little of it, and to hook them into Facebook’s all-consuming centralized people farm. Zuckerberg is allegedly proud of the fact that around half of the millions that have signed up thus far have moved on to paid plans that actually do allow access to the Internet – likely the reason for the (otherwise odd) inclusion of Google Search in the original small lineup of options, inasmuch as non-approved sites come with a warning that users need to buy the real thing now. Of course, by that time, they are already Facebook sign-ups too, which is what this is really about. This is much the same tactic used by drug dealers seeking new customers by giving out samples and it similarly immoral. It is absurd to suggest, as Zuckerberg apparently does, that allowing a few more people to develop for the platform and suggesting that they in turn allow access to further sites (as long as they conform to Facebook’s conditions)  makes it in any way more open. It is coercing companies into using the app using much the same techniques it applies to building people’s social networks. A filtered internet via a Facebook-controlled app is not the free (as in speech) and open Internet and, ultimately, the most notable beneficiary is Facebook, though it is certainly doing the partner operators no harm either. The choice of domain name is cynical in the extreme – I’d admire the chutzpah if it were not so ugly. My respect goes to the many Indian companies that are pulling out in protest at its shameless destruction of net neutrality and greedy marketing under the false banner of philanthropy.

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Interview with Kinshuk (part II) in AUSU's Voice Magazine

The second part of AUSU’s Voice Magazine’s interview with Kinshuk (first part here) in which he talks about some of his rich ideas around smart learning, the interplay between digital technologies and pedagogies, fine-grained accreditation, and the value of social interaction in learning. Excellent insights into the thinking of one of AU’s finest profs, who also happens to be one of the smartest (and most prolific) edtech researchers on the planet. His bubbly personality and deeply humanistic, caring perspective on such things comes across very well in this interview.

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Expertise and the Illusion of Knowledge

A post about the Dunning-Kruger effect, which basically claims (and, in a series of studies) demonstrates that ignorance is often typified not the absence of knowledge but by the illusion of it. People think they know more than they do and, at least in many cases, the less they know, the more they think they know. People as in us.

For teachers, this is one of the trickiest things to overcome when we want to give learners control: how do learners distinguish between ignorance and knowledge? If you do not know that you need to know more, you do not have the power nor motivation to take the steps to change that. The role of a teacher (whether an appointed individual or not) to challenge misconceptions and highlight ignorance is a crucial one.  But it should not be about proving or, worse still, telling someone less able than yourself that they are wrong: that’s just a power trip. Ideally, learners should develop ways to uncover their own ignorance – to be surprised or confounded, to see their own mistakes – rather than have someone do it for them.  I think that this means that teachers, amongst other things, should create conditions for surprise to occur, opportunities to safely fail (without judgement), opportunities to reflect, and support for those seeking to uncover the cause of their new-found ignorance.

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History of the LMS | LearnDash

Justin Ferriman provides commentary on a Synotive infographic on the history of the LMS, noting a couple of omissions. I think there are dozens if not hundreds of omissions, though nice to see a couple of shout-outs to Athabasca University and our own Rory McGreal. Did Rory really design a DOS-based LMS? You learn something new every day, even about old friends! Not to mention about operating systems: I know that it was possible to network DOS computers – I did it quite a lot – but I’m not sure it would be fair to describe anything built on the back of that as an LMS.

For me, the big missing chunks are mostly in the 1990s, which was an extremely prolific time for things like VLEs, MLEs and LMSs, with most of the major commercial players like Blackboard, WebCT, Lotus LearningSpace, Desire2Learn creating products back then, not to mention a huge range of concurrent and prior things like (say) FirstClass, Bodington, WOLF, CECIL, Web-Course-in-a-Box, and many many more. Even I helped to write an LMS in the 90s – everyone was doing it back then. Then there are all those interesting open source projects like ILIAS and DOKEOS, and somehow the infographic manages to include Sakai but not OKI (that Sakai’s component LMSs all used and that made it easy to bring them together). And where did all those MOOs go? Hard to miss what was then a big movement. And of course the wealth of standards that go unmentioned (where is IMS in this?), things like PLEs, beyond-LMS systems like Elgg, etc. etc. And there’s a chunk between 2007 and 2013 that includes the odd ‘minor’ event like Instructure Canvas or EdX. I could go on. Looks to me like they have no idea about the real history of it at all. Infographics are seductive things, making poorly researched weakly linked randomly chosen events culled from Wikipedia look like a believable story.

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Book Review: Teaching Crowds – AACE

A brief and kindly review of Teaching Crowds from the good folk of AACE. The review focuses on the teaching of crowds aspect of the book, which is indeed part of what it is about, though it is at least as much about how crowds themselves (can) teach.

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Protocols Instead Of Platforms: Rethinking Reddit, Twitter, Moderation And Free Speech | Techdirt

Reddit logoInteresting article on the rights of companies to moderate posts, following the recent Reddit furore that, in microcosm, raises a bunch of questions about the future of the social net itself. The distinction between freedom of speech and the rights of hosts to do whatever they goddam please – legal constraints permitting – is a fair and obvious one to make.

The author’s suggestion is to decentralize social media systems (specifically Twitter and Reddit though, by extension, others are implicated) by providing standards/protocols that could be implemented by multiple platforms, allowing the development of an ecosystem where different sites operate different moderation policies but, from an end-user perspective, being no more difficult to use than email.

The general idea behind this is older than the Internet. Of course, there already exist many systems that post via proprietary APIs to multiple places, from Wordpress plugins to Known, not to mention those ubiquitous ‘share’ buttons found everywhere, such as at the bottom of this page. But, more saliently, email (SMTP), Internet Relay Chat (IRC), Jabber (XMPP), Usenet news (NNTP) are prototypical and hugely successful examples of exactly this kind of thing. In fact, NNTP is so close to Reddit’s pattern in form and intent that I don’t see why it could not be re-used, perhaps augmented to allow smarter ratings (not difficult within the existing standard). Famously, Twitter’s choice of character limit is entirely down to fitting a whole Tweet, including metadata, into a single SMS message, so that is already essentially done. However standards are not often in the interests of companies seeking lock-in and a competitive edge. Most notably, though they very much want to encourage posting in as many ways as possible, they very much want control of the viewing environment, as the gradual removal of RSS from prominent commercial sites like Twitter and Facebook shows in spades. I think that’s where a standard like this would run into difficulties getting off the ground. That and Metcalfe’s Law: people go where people go, and network value grows proportionally to the square of the number of users of a system (or far more than that, if Reed’s Law holds). Only a truly distributed system ubiquitously used system could avoid that problem. Such a thing has been suggested for Reddit and may yet arrive.

As long as we are in thrall to a few large centralized commercial companies and their platforms – the Stacks, as Bruce Sterling calls them – it ain’t going to work. Though an incomplete, buggy and over-complex implementation played a role, proprietary interest is essentially what has virtually killed OpenSocial, despite being a brilliant idea that was much along these lines but more open, and despite having virtually every large Internet company on board, bar one. Sadly, that one was the single most avaricious, amoral, parasitic company on the Web. Almost single-handedly, Facebook managed to virtually destroy the best thing that might have happened to the social web, that could have made it a genuine web rather than a bunch of centralized islands. It’s still out there, under the auspices of the W3C, but it doesn’t seem to be showing much sign of growth or deployment.

Facebook front pageFacebook has even bigger and worser ambitions. It is now, cynically and under the false pretense of opening access to third world countries, after the Internet itself. I hope the company soon crashes and burns as fast as it rose to prominence – this is theoretically possible, because the same cascades that created it can almost as rapidly destroy it, as the once-huge MySpace and Digg discovered to their cost. Sadly, it is run by very smart people that totally get networks and how to exploit them, and that has no ethical qualms to limit its growth (though it does have some ethical principles about some things, such as open source development – its business model is evil, but not all of its practices). It has so far staunchly resisted attack, notwithstanding its drop in popularity in established markets and a long history of truly stunning breaches of trust.

Do boycott Facebook if you can. If you need a reason, other than that you are contributing to the destruction of the open web by using it, remember that it tracks you hundreds of times in a single browsing session and, flaunting all semblance of ethical behaviour, it attempts to track you even if you opt out from allowing that. You are its product. Sadly, with its acquisition of companies like Instagram and Whatsapp, even if we can kill the primary platform, the infection is deep. But, as Reed’s Law shows, though each new user increases its value, every user that leaves Facebook or even that simply ignores it reduces its value by an identically exponential amount. Your vote counts!

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Cheerful to a Fault: “Positive” Practices with Negative Implications – Alfie Kohn

One in a long series of excellent posts from Alfie Kohn, this time examining the problem of praise. The problem with praise and related things mostly only arises when you praise the person, not what they do. All too often it is a rather unpleasant means of asserting authority, and thus it causes a focus on meeting extrinsic goals, to the detriment of the intrinsic pleasure of doing something. We all need feedback, and it is great to know how we are doing through someone else’s eyes, but it’s much too easy for helpful reactions to turn into extremely unhelpful judgement, much too simple for that to reinforce or establish unhealthy power relationships, and absurdly easy for that to become the reason for doing something.

The post covers other issues too, notably the risks of too much focus on happiness and cheerfulness (neither of which are always appropriate responses to circumstances). I particularly like his translation of “Only Positive Attitudes Allowed Beyond This Point.”  as meaning “My Mental Health Is So Precarious That I Need All of You to Pretend You’re Happy.”

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Learning Theorists

Donald Clark’s collected critical introductions to a wide range of theorists that have some connection with learning. They are not all learning theorists as such, despite the title, though all relate to things that matter in learning and/or teaching and/or education. It’s an eclectic mix that covers far more than those we normally consider to be learning theorists: the likes of Jesus and Marx are not normally grouped with the likes of Dewey and Gagne, for example.

Donald positively relishes the demolition of holy cows and many of his critiques – e.g. of social constructivistm or learning styles or Sugata Mitra  – challenge orthodoxy and commonly-held-but-mistaken beliefs in a very refreshing way. He’s not always right, but he is always well-informed, thought-provoking and interesting. And, if you do disagree with anything he says, he’s normally willing to engage in a reasoned debate about it on his blog – this is a million miles away from a static textbook.

For anyone wanting to get a quick, informative introduction to learning/teaching/education theories and some incisive commentary on them, as well as some excellent references to further reading, this is a brilliant learning resource.

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From Representation to Emergence: Complexity's challenge to the epistemology of schooling – Osberg – 2008 – Educational Philosophy and Theory – Wiley Online Library

This is my second post for today on the subject of boundaries and complex systems (yes, I am writing a paper!), this time pointing to a paper by Osberg, Biesta and Cilliers from 2008 that applies the concepts to knowledge and education. It’s a fascinating paper, drawing a theory of knowledge out of complex systems that the authors rather deftly fit with Dewey’s transactional realism and (far less compellingly) a bit of deconstructionism.

I think this sits very firmly within the connectivist family of theories (Stephen Downes may disagree!) albeit from a slightly different perspective. The context is the realm of complex (mostly complex adaptive) systems but the notion of knowledge as an emergent and shifting phenomenon born of engagement – a process, not a product – and the significance of the connected whole in both enabling and embodying it all is firmly in the connectivist tradition. It’s a slightly different perspective but one that is well-grounded in theory and comes to quite a similar conclusion, aptly put:

education (becoming educated) is no longer about understanding a finished  universe, or even about participating in a finished and stable universe. It is the result, rather, of participating in the creation of an unfinished universe.

The authors begin by defining what they describe as a ‘representational’ or ‘spatial’ epistemology that underpins most education. This is not quite as simplistic as it sounds – they include models and theories in this, at least. Their point is that education takes people out of ‘real life’ and therefore must rely on a means to represent ‘real life’ to do its job properly. I think this is pushing it a bit: yes, that is true of a fair amount of intentional teaching but there is a lot that goes on in education systems that is unintentional, or emerges as a by-product of interaction, or that happens in playgrounds, cafes, or common rooms, that is very different and is not just an incidental to the process but quite critical to it. To pretend that educational systems are nothing but the explicit things we intentionally do to people is, I think deliberately, creating a bit of a straw man. They make much the same point: I guess it is done to distinguish this from their solution, which is an ’emergentist’ epistemology.

The really interesting stuff for me comes from Cillier’s contribution (I’m guessing) on boundaries, which makes the simple and obvious point that complex systems (as opposed to complicated ones) are inherently incompressible, so any model we make of them is inaccurate: in leaving out the tiniest thing we make it impossible to make deterministic predictions, save in that we can create boundaries to focus on particular aspects we might care about and come up with probabalistic inferences (e.g. predicting the weather). Those boundaries are thus, of necessity, created (or, more accurately, negotiated), not discovered. They are value-laden. Thus:

“…models and theories that reduce the world to a system of rules or laws cannot be understood as pure representations of a universe that exists independently, but should rather be understood as valuable but provisional and temporary tools by means of which we constantly re-negotiate our understanding of and being in the world

They go on…

We need boundaries around our regularities before we can model or theorise them, before we can find their rules of operation, because rules make sense only in terms of boundaries. The point is that the setting of the boundary creates the condition of possibility for a rule or a law to exist. When a boundary is not naturally given, as is the case with natural complex systems, the rules that we ‘discover’ also cannot be understood as naturally given. Rules and ‘laws’ are not ‘real’ features of the systems we theorise about. Theories that attempt to reduce complexity to a system of rules or laws, like our models which do precisely this, therefore cannot be understood as pictures of reality.

So, the rules that we find are pragmatic ones – they are tools, rather than pictures of reality, that help us to renegotiate our world and the meaning we make in and of it:

From this perspective, knowledge is not about ‘the world’ as such, it is not about truth; rather, it is about what we can do in the world, how we can change it.One could say ‘acquiring’ knowledge does not ‘solve’ problems for us: it creates problems for us to solve.”

At this point they come round to Dewey, whose transactional model is not about finding out about the world but leads to a constantly emerging and ever renegotiated state of being.

“…in acting, we create knowledge, and in creating knowledge, we learn to act in different ways and in acting in different ways we bring about new knowledge which changes our world, which causes us to act differently, and so on, unendingly. There is no final truth of the matter, only increasingly diverse ways of interacting in a world that is becoming increasingly complex.

One of the more significant aspects of this, that is not dwelt on anything like enough in this paper but that forms a consistent subtext, is that this is a fundamentally social pursuit. This is a complex system not just of individuals negotiating an active relationship with the world, but of people doing it together, as part of a complex system that drives its own adaptation, at every scale and within every (overlapping, interpenetrating) boundary.

They continue with an, I think, unsuccessful attempt to align this perspective with postmodernist/poststructuralist/deconstructionist theory, claiming that Dillon’s differentiation between the radical relationality of complexity and poststructuralist theorists is illusory, because a complex system is always in a state of becoming without being, so it is much the same kind of thing. Whether or not this is true, I don’t think it adds anything significant to the arguments.

The paper rushes to a rather unsatisfactory conclusion – at last hitting the promised topic of the title – about the role of this emergentist epistemology in schooling:

Acquisition is no longer the name of the game …. This means questions about what to present in the curriculum and whether these things should be directly presented or should be represented (such that children may acquire knowledge of these things most efficiently or effectively) are no longer relevant as curricular questions. While content is important, the curriculum is less concerned with what content is presented and how, and more with the idea that content is engaged with and responded to …. Here the content that is engaged is not pre-given, but emerges from the educative situation itself. With this conception of knowledge and the world, the curriculum becomes a tool for the emergence of new worlds rather than a tool for stabilisation and replication

This follows quite naturally and makes sense, but it diminishes the significance of a pretty obvious elephant in the room, which is that the educational institution itself is one of those boundaried systems that plays a huge role in and of itself, not to mention with other boundaried systems, regardless of the processes enacted within its boundaries. I think this is symptomatic of a big gap that the paper very much implies but barely attempts to address, which is that all of these complex systems involved processes, structures, rules, tools, objects, content (whatever that is!), media, and a host of other things are part of those complex systems. Knowledge is indeed a dynamic process, a state of becoming or of being, but it incorporates really a lot of things, only a limited number of which are in the minds of individuals. It’s not about people learning – it’s about that whole, massive, complex adaptive system itself.

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