A blueprint for breakthroughs: Federally funded education research in 2016 and beyond | Christensen Institute

An interesting proposal from Horn & Fisher that fills in one of the most gaping holes in conventional quantitative research in education (specifically randomized controlled trials but also less rigorous efforts like A/B testing etc) by explicitly looking at the differences in those that do not fit in the average curve – the ones that do not benefit, or that benefit to an unusual degree, the outliers. As the authors say:

“… the ability to predict what works, for which students, in what circumstances, will be crucial for building effective, personalized-learning environments. The current education research paradigm, however, stops short of offering this predictive power and gets stuck measuring average student and sub-group outcomes and drawing conclusions based on correlations, with little insight into the discrete, particular contexts and causal factors that yield student success or failure. Those observations that do move toward a causal understanding often stop short of helping understand why a given intervention or methodology works in certain circumstances, but not in others.

I have mixed feelings about this. Yes, this process of iterative refinement is a much better idea than simply looking at improvements in averages (with no clear causal links) and they are entirely right to critique those that use such methods but:

a) I don’t think it will ever succeed in the way it hopes, because every context is significantly different and this is a complex design problem, where even miniscule differences can have huge effects. Learning never repeats twice. Though much improved on what it replaces, it is still trying to make sense through tools of reductive materialism whereas what we are dealing with, and what the authors’ critique implies, is a different kind of problem. Seeking this kind of answer is like seeking the formula for painting a masterpiece. It’s only ever partially (at best) about methodologies and techniques, and it is always possible to invent new ones that change everything.

b) It relies on the assumption that we know exactly what we are looking for: that what we seek to measure is the thing that matters. It might be exactly what is needed for personalized education (where you find better ways to make students behave the way you want them to behave) but exactly the opposite for personal education (where every case is different, where education is seen as changing the whole person in unfathomably rich and complex ways).

That said, I welcome any attempts to stop the absurdity of trying to intervene in ways that benefit the (virtually non-existent) average student and that instead attempt to focus on each student. This is a step in the right direction.

 

augmented research cycle

Address of the bookmark: http://www.christenseninstitute.org/publications/a-blueprint-for-breakthroughs/

Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News

The unsurprising fact that Facebook selectively suppresses and promotes different things has been getting a lot of press lately. I am not totally convinced yet that this particular claim of political bias itself is 100% credible: selectively chosen evidence that fits a clearly partisan narrative from aggrieved ex-employees should at least be viewed with caution, especially given the fact that it flies in the face of what we know about Facebook. Facebook is a deliberate maker of filter bubbles, echo chambers and narcissism amplifiers and it thrives on giving people what it thinks they want. It has little or no interest in the public good, however that may be perceived, unless that drives growth. It just wants to increase the number and persistence of eyes on its pages, period. Engagement is everything. Zuckerberg’s one question that drives the whole business is “Does it make us grow?” So, it makes little sense that it should selectively ostracize a fair segment of its used/users.

This claim reminds me of those that attack the BBC for both its right wing and its left wing bias. There are probably those that critique it for being too centrist too. Actually, in the news today, NewsThump, noting exactly that point, sums it up well. The parallels are interesting. The BBC is a deliberately created institution, backed by a government, with an aggressively neutral mission, so it is imperative that it does not show bias. Facebook has also become a de facto institution, likely with higher penetration than the BBC. In terms of direct users it is twenty times the size of the entire UK population, albeit that BBC programs likely reach a similar number of people. But it has very little in the way of ethical checks and balances beyond legislation and popular opinion, is autocratically run, and is beholden to no one but its shareholders. Any good that it does (and, to be fair, it has been used for some good) is entirely down to the whims of its founder or incidental affordances. For the most part, what is good for Facebook is not good for its used/users. This is a very dangerous way to run an institution.

Whether or not this particular bias is accurately portrayed, it does remain highly problematic that what has become a significant source of news, opinion and value setting for about a sixth of the world’s population is clearly susceptible to systematic bias, even if its political stance remains, at least in intent and for purely commercial reasons, somewhat neutral. For a site in such a position of power, though, almost every decision becomes a political decision. For instance, though I approve of its intent to ban gun sales on the site, it is hard not to see this as a politically relevant act, albeit one that is likely more driven by commercial/legal concerns than morality (it is quite happy to point you to a commercial gun seller instead). It is the same kind of thing as its reluctant concessions to support basic privacy control, or its banning of drug sales: though ignoring such issues might drive more engagement from some people, it would draw too much flak and ostracize too many people to make economic sense. It would thwart growth.

The fact that Facebook algorithmically removes 95% or more of potentially interesting content, and then uses humans to edit what else it shows, makes it far more of a publisher than a social networking system. People are farmed to provide stories, rather than paid to produce them, and everyone gets a different set of stories chosen to suit their perceived interests, but the effect is much the same. As it continues with its unrelenting and morally dubious efforts to suck in more people and keep them for more of the time, with ever more-refined and more ‘personalized’ (not personal) content, its editorial role will become ever greater. People will continue to use it because it is extremely good at doing what it is supposed to do: getting and keeping people engaged. The filtering is designed to get and keep more eyes on the page and the vast bulk of effort in the company is focused wholly and exclusively on better ways of doing that. If Facebook is the digital equivalent of a drug pusher (and, in many ways, it is) what it does to massage its feed is much the same as refining drugs to increase their effects and their addictive qualities. And, like actual drug pushing that follows the same principles, the human consequences matter far less than Facebook’s profits. This is bad.

There’s a simple solution: don’t use Facebook. If you must be a Facebook user, for whatever reason, don’t let it use you. Go in quickly and get out (log out, clear your cookies) right away, ideally using a different browser and even a different machine than the one you would normally use. Use it to tell people you care about where to find you, then leave. There are hundreds of millions of far better alternatives – small-scale vertical social media like the Landing, special purpose social networks like LinkedIn (which has its own issues but a less destructive agenda) or GitHub, less evil competitors like Google+, junctions and intermediaries like Pinterest or Twitter, or hundreds of millions of blogs or similar sites that retain loose connections and bottom-up organization. If people really matter to you, contact them directly, or connect through an intermediary that doesn’t have a vested interest in farming you.

Address of the bookmark: http://gizmodo.com/former-facebook-workers-we-routinely-suppressed-conser-1775461006

Universities can’t solve our skills gap problem, because they caused it | TechCrunch

Why this article is wrong

This article is based on a flawed initial premise: that universities are there to provide skills for the marketplace. From that perspective, as the writer, Jonathan Munk, suggests, there’s a gap between both what universities generally support and what employers generally need, and the perceptions of students and employers about the skills they actually possess. If we assume that the purpose of universities is to churn out market-ready workers, with employer-friendly skills, they are indeed singularly failing and will likely continue to do so.  As Munk rightly notes:

“… universities have no incentive to change; the reward system for professors incentivizes research over students’ career success, and the hundreds of years of institutional tradition will likely inhibit any chance of change. By expecting higher education to take on closing the skills gap, we’re asking an old, comfortable dog to do new tricks. It will not happen.”

Actually quite a lot of us, and even quite a few governments (USA notwithstanding) are pretty keen on the teaching side of things, but Munk’s analysis is substantially correct and, in principle, I’m quite comfortable with that. There are far better, cheaper and faster ways to get most marketable job skills than to follow a university program, and providing such skills is not why we exist. This is not to say that we should not do such things. For pedagogical and pragmatic reasons, I am keen to make it possible for students to gain useful workplace skills from my courses, but it has little to do with the job market. It’s mainly because it makes the job of teaching easier, leads to more motivated students, and keeps me on my toes having to stay in touch with the industry in my particular subject area. Without that, I would not have the enthusiasm needed to build or sustain a learning community, I would be seen as uninterested in the subject, and what I’d teach would be perceived as less relevant, and would thus be less motivating. That’s also why, in principle, combining teaching and research is a great idea, especially in strongly non-vocational subjects that don’t actually have a marketplace. But, if it made more sense to teach computing with a 50 year old language and machine that should be in a museum, I would do so at the drop of a hat. It matters far more to me that students develop the intellectual tools to be effective lifelong learners, develop values and patterns of thinking that are commensurate with both a healthy society and personal happiness, become part of a network of learners in the area, engage with the community/network of practice, and see bigger pictures beyond the current shiny things that attract attention like flames to a moth. This focus on being, rather than specific skills, is good for the student, I hope, but it is mainly good for everyone. Our customer is neither the student nor the employer: it’s our society. If we do our jobs right then we both stabilize and destablize societies, feeding them with people that are equipped to think, to create, to participate, reflectively, critically, and ethically: to make a difference. We also help to feed societies with ideas, theories, models and even the occasional artefact, that make life better and richer for all though, to be honest, I’m not sure we do so in the most cost-effective ways. However, we do provide an open space with freedom to explore things that have no obvious economic value, without the constraints or agendas of the commercial world, nor those of dangerously partisan or ill-informed philanthropists (Zuckerberg, Gates – I’m thinking of you). We are a social good. At least, that’s the plan – most of us don’t quite live up to our own high expectations. But we do try. The article acknowledges this role:

“Colleges and universities in the U.S. were established to provide rich experiences and knowledge to their students to help them contribute to society and improve their social standing.”

Politely ignoring the US-centricity of this claim and its mild inaccuracy, I’d go a bit further: in the olden days, it was also about weeding out the lower achievers and/or, in many countries (the US was again a notable offender), those too poor to get in. Universities were (and most, AU being a noble and rare exception, still are) a filter, that makes the job of recruiters easier by removing the chaff from the wheat before we even get to them, and then again when we give out the credits: that‘s the employment advantage. It’s very seldom (directly) because of our teaching. We’re just big expensive sieves, from that perspective. However, the article goes on to say:

“But in the 1930s, with millions out of work, the perceived role of the university shifted away from cultural perspective to developing specific trades. Over time, going to college began to represent improved career prospects. That perception persists today. A survey from 2015 found the top three reasons people chose to go to college were:

  • improved employment opportunities
  • make more money
  • get a good job”

I’m glad that Munk correctly uses the term ‘perception’, because this is not a good reason to go to a university. The good job is a side-effect, not the purpose, and it is becoming less important with each passing year. Partly this is due to market saturation and degree inflation, partly due to better alternatives becoming more widespread, especially thanks to the Internet. One of the ugliest narratives of modern times is that the student should pay for their education because they will earn more money as a result. Utter nonsense. They will earn more money because they would have earned more money anyway, even if universities had never existed. The whole point of that filtering is that it tends to favour those that are smarter and thus more likely to earn more. In fact, were it not for the use of university qualifications as a pre-filter that would exclude them from a (large but dwindling) number of jobs, they would have earned far more money by going straight into the workforce. I should observe in passing that open universities like AU are not entirely immune from this role. Though not much filtering for ability on entry, AU and other open universities do none-the-less act as filters inasmuch as those that are self-motivated enough to handle the rigours of a distance-taught university program while otherwise engaged, usually while working, are far better candidates for most jobs than those who simply went to a university because that was the natural next step. A very high proportion of our students that make it to the end do so with flying colours, because those that survive are incredibly good survivors. I’ve seen the quality of work that comes out of this place and been able to compare it with that from the best of traditional universities: our students win hands down, almost every time. The only time I have seen anything like as good was in Delhi, where 30 students were selected in a program each year from over 3,000 fully qualified applicants (i.e. those with top grades from their schools). This despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that computing students had to sit an entrance exam that, bizarrely and along with other irrelevances, required them to know about Brownian motion in gases. I have yet to come across a single computing role where such knowledge was needed. Interestingly, they were not required to know about poetry, art, or music, though I have certainly come across computing roles where appreciation of such things would have been of far greater value.

Why this article is right

If it were just about job-ready skills like, in computing, the latest frameworks, languages and systems, the lack of job-readiness would not bother me in the slightest. However, as the article goes on to say, it is not just the ‘technical’ (in the loosest sense) skills that are the problem. The article mentions, as key employer concerns, critical thinking, creativity, and oral and written communication skills. These are things that we should very much be supporting and helping students to develop, however we perceive our other roles. In fact, though the communication stuff is mainly a technical skillset, creativity and problem-solving are pretty much what it is all about so, if students lack these things, we are failing even by our own esoteric criteria.

I do see a tension here, and a systematic error in our teaching. A goodly part of it is down to a misplaced belief that we are teaching stuff, rather than teaching a way of being. A lot of courses focus on a set of teacher-specified outcomes, and on accreditation of those set outcomes, and treat the student as (at best) input for processing or (at worst) a customer for a certificate. When the process is turned into a mechanism for outputting people with certificates, with fixed outcomes and criteria, the process itself loses all value. ‘We become what we behold’ as McLuhan put it: if that’s how we see it, that’s how it will be. This is a vicious circle. Any mechanism that churns students out faster or more efficiently will do. In fact, a lot of discussion and design in our universities is around doing exactly that. For example, the latest trend in personalization (a field, incidentally, that has been around for decades) is largely based on that premise: there is stuff to learn, and personalization will help you to learn it faster, better and cheaper than before. As a useful by-product, it might keep you on target (our target, not yours).  But one thing it will mostly not do is support the development of critical thinking, nor will it support the diversity, freedom and interconnection needed for creative thinking. Furthermore, it is mostly anything but social, so it also reduces capacity to develop those valuable social communication skills. This is not true of all attempts at personalization, but it is true of a lot of them, especially those with most traction. The massive prevalence of cheating is directly attributable to the same incorrect perception: if cheating is the shortest path to the goal (especially if accompanied by a usually-unwarranted confidence in avoiding detection) then of course quite a few people will take it. The trouble is, it’s the wrong goal. Education is a game that is won through playing it well, not through scoring.

The ‘stuff’ has only ever been raw material, a medium and context for the really important ways of being, doing and thinking that universities are mostly about. When the stuff becomes the purpose, the purpose is lost. So, universities are trying and, inevitably, failing to be what employers want, and in the process failing to do what they are actually designed to do in the first place. It strikes me that everyone would be happier if we just tried to get back to doing what we do best. Teaching should be personal, not personalized. Skills should be a path to growth, not to employment. Remembered facts should be the material, not the product. Community should be a reason for teaching, not a means by which it occurs. Universities should be places we learn to be, not places we be to learn. They should be purveyors of value, not of credentials.

 

Address of the bookmark: http://techcrunch.com/2016/05/08/universities-cant-solve-our-skills-gap-problem-because-they-caused-it/

What’s So New about the New Atheists? – Virtual Canuck

This is a nicely crafted, deeply humanist, gentle and thought-provoking sermon, given by Terry Anderson to members of his Unitarian church on atheistic thinking and values.

I have a lot of sympathy with the Unitarians. A church that does not expect belief in any gods or higher powers; that welcomes members with almost any theistic, deistic, agnostic or atheistic persuasions; that mostly eschews hierarchies and power structures; that focuses on the value of community; that is open to exploring the mysteries of being, wherever they may be found; that is doing good things for and with others, and that is promoting tolerance and understanding of all people and all ideas is OK with me. It’s kind of a club for the soul (as in ‘soul music’, not as in ‘immaterial soul’). As Terry observes, though, it does have some oddness at its heart. It’s a bit like Christianity, without the Christ and without the mumbo jumbo, but it still retains some relics of its predominantly Christian ancestry. Terry focuses (amongst other things) on the word ‘faith’ as being a particularly problematic term in at least one of its meanings.

For all their manifest failings and evils they are used to justify or permit, religious teachings can often provide a range of useful perspectives on the universe, as long as we don’t take them any more seriously than fairy tales or poetry: which is to say, very seriously at some levels, not at all seriously in what they tell us of how to act, what to believe, or what they claim to have happened. And, while the whole ‘god’ idea is, at the very best, metaphorical, I think the metaphor has potential value. Whether or not you believe in, disbelieve in or dismiss deities as nonsense (to be clear, depending on the variant, I veer between disbelief and outright dismissal), it is extremely important to retain a notion of the sacred – a sense of wonder, humbleness, awe, majesty etc – and a strong reflective awareness of the deeply connected, meaning-filled lives of ourselves and others, and of our place in the universe. For similar reasons I am happy to use an equally fuzzy word like ‘soul’ for something lacking existential import, but meaningful as a placeholder for something that the word ‘mind’ fails to address. It can be helpful in reflection, discussion and meditation, as well as poetry. There are beautiful souls, tortured souls, and more: few other words will do.  I also think that there is great importance in rituals and shared, examined values, in things that give us common grounding to explore the mysteries and wonders of what is involved in being a human being, living with other human beings, on a fragile and beautiful planet, itself a speck in a staggeringly vast cosmos. This sermon, then, offers useful insights into a way of quasi-religious thinking that does not rely on a nonsensical belief system but that still retains much of the value of religions. I’m not tempted to join the Unitarians (like Groucho, I am suspicious of any club that would accept me as a member), but I respect their beliefs (and lack of beliefs), and respect even more their acknowledgement of their own uncertainties and their willingness to explore them.

Address of the bookmark: http://virtualcanuck.ca/2016/04/27/whats-so-new-about-the-new-atheists/

Google’s new media apocalypse: How the search giant wants to accelerate the end of the age of websites – Salon.com

A sad article, if ever there was one. This is about Google’s in-kind response to Facebook’s depressingly successful attempts to be a bigger and better AOL/Compuserve (amongst other things, through its ‘philanthropic’ internet.org arm, that people in developing countries afflicted with it sometimes think of as the Internet). The general idea is that Google will host content, rather than linking to it.

This is not the way the Internet should go, and this is not in line with Google’s avowed intent to not be evil. On the bright side, in real life, though poisonous and virulent, it is not the way the Internet really is going: the Internet is, ultimately, self healing, both in technical and in social terms. It might look like a fairly closed system to people that generally interact with it through Facebook or Google Search (or any of hundreds of thousands of other less successful attempts to lock people in) but it is heartening that WordPress dwarfs all of them put together in terms of sites and people that visit them (more than a quarter of all sites), and Worpress sites are, to a very large extent, controlled and owned by the people that run them. And that’s just the most popular content management system: the Web is many times bigger and more distributed than that, and the Internet is vastly bigger still. And, of course, Google is not the only search engine. You can find the rest of the Web in many other ways.

So, though the article claims doom and gloom all round, I remain optimistic that common sense and decency (or indecency if that happens to be your thing) will triumph in the end, and the game will never be over. A few successful parasitic corporations/applications – Facebook (including its subsidiaries like Instagram, Whatsapp, etc), Google, Apple, Amazon, Twitter, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Microsoft, Pinterest, etc – are doing their darnedest to wreck the open Internet, and are definitely shaping much of it, killing open standards, and sucking billions of people into their locked-in lairs, but those billions of people are just a click away (often, from within those systems themselves) to what the Internet is actually composed of, especially the Web side of it. Sure, these are parasites that suck the life out of openness and diversity but, like all parasites, they would be more than foolish to kill their host. And, hearteningly, the network effect (especially the rich get richer Matthew Effect) works just as effectively in reverse, as any former MySpace or Friendster afficionado will tell you. Or AOL, for that matter.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.salon.com/2016/05/01/googles_new_media_apocalypse_how_the_search_giant_wants_to_accelerate_the_end_of_the_age_of_websites/

Online Learning: Why Libraries Could Be the Key to MOOCs’ Success | MindShift

Thanks to Gerald Ardito for pointing this one out to me. It’s about the growing use of libraries for learning circles, where groups of learners get together locally to study, in this case around MOOCs provided via P2PU. Librarians – rarely subject-matter experts – organize these groups and provide support for the process, but most of the learning engagement is peer-to-peer. As the article notes, the process is quite similar to that of a book club.

 

Learning circle at a library

 

As the article suggests, such learning circles are popping up all over the place, not just in libraries. Indeed, the Landing has been used by our students to arrange quite similar study-buddy groups at AU, albeit with less formal organization and intent and not always working on the same courses together. Though there are benefits to be had from co-constructing knowledge together, people do not necessarily need to be working on the same thing. Simply being there to support , enthuse, or inspire one another is often enough to bring real benefits. There are two models, both of which work. The first, as in the case of these learning circles, is to use central coordination online, with local communities working on the same things at roughly the same times. The second is distributed the other way round, with the local communities providing the centre, but with individuals working online in different contexts.

This blurring between local and online is a growing and significant trend. It somewhat resembles the pattern of business and innovation centres that bring together people from many companies etc, working remotely from their own organizations in a shared local space. Doing different things in physical spaces shared with other people helps to overcome many of the issues of isolation experienced by online workers and learners, especially in terms of motivation, without the need to move everyone in an organization (be it a university, a class, or a company) into the same physical location. It adds economies of scale, too, allowing the use of shared resources (e.g. printers, 3D printers, heating, conferencing facilities, etc), and reduces environmentally and psychologically costly issues around commuting and relocating. Moreover, decoupling location and work while supporting physical community brings all the benefits of diversity that, in a traditional organization or classroom, tend to get lost. Working online does not and should not interfere with local connection with real human beings, and this is a great way to support our need to be with other people, and the value that we get from being with them. From the perspective of the environment, our local communities, our psychological well-being, our relationships, our creativity, and our bank balances, local communities and remote working, or remote communities and local working, both seem far more sensible, at least for many occupations and many kinds of learning.

The article reports completion rates of 45-55%, which is at least an order of magnitude greater than the norm for MOOCs, although it would be unwise to read too much into that because of the self-selection bias inherent in this: it might well be that those who were sufficiently interested to make the effort to visit the libraries would be those that would persist anyway. However, theory and experience both suggest that the benefits of getting together at one place and time should lead to far greater motivation to persist. Going somewhere with other people at a particular time to do something is, after all, pretty much the only significant value in most lectures. This is just a more cost-effective, learning-effective, human way of doing that.

 

Address of the bookmark: http://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2016/04/25/online-learning-why-libraries-could-be-the-key-to-moocs-success/

Interview with Maiga Chang

A nice interview in AUSU’s Voice Magazine – continued at https://www.voicemagazine.org/articles/featuredisplay.php?ART=11372 – with SCIS’s own Maiga Chang, describing his teaching and research. Maiga’s bubbly enthusiasm comes through strongly in this, and his responses are filled with great insights. I particularly like (in the second part of the interview) his thoughts on what makes Athabasca University so distinctive, and its value in the future of learning:

What are the benefits of teaching at AU compared to traditional universities?
There are differences. They are different from traditional university and AU because we are almost purely online as a university. We teach students with a lot of help from technology. So, in that case, I would say that teaching at AU that we are the
pioneers of teaching students with technology, artificial intelligence applications, learning analytics – everything. I would say that this kind of teaching and learning should be the future. As you know, some people start to work on full time jobs after K-12 and some of them go to university for another four years, which means they only learn in traditional classroom or in traditional setting for 12 to 16, maybe 18 years.

How long will you live? How long will you need to learn? You will need to learn for your whole life. When you graduate from high school and university, you cannot go back to university unless you want to quit a job when you want to learn once again. You will need another way of doing life-long learning.

AU gives us the opportunity to create a kind of smart learning environment. So if we can use our research results to make a smarter learning environment, then we can provide students with more personalized learning experiences, which can make them learn more efficient, and learn the things that they really need and want to see on their own way and own pace. That is another good thing for students, I would say, teaching at AU.

What do you think are the strengths of learning at AU?
This is the future. Like the students right now in high school and in primary school, you can ask them. They are trying to use mobile devices to learn. Also, as you know, they will post something on their Facebook or their blog. That is the future. As a parent, around 50% of students at AU have family, even children. When they learn at AU, they are adapting to the future of learning, and, in that case, when their child or children have a question. In my upbringing, I could not ask questions of my parents about using Facebook, but right now, you can, because people use Facebook. Now when you’re taking an AU course, you are sometimes asked to make a video, put it on YouTube, and then you can teach your children, your child.

One more thing is very important. It is self-regulated learning skill. It is very important for everyone because it helps you efficiently learn, or digest, or plan your goal. When you learn with AU, you will learn that kind of skills. You can teach your child and children, and other family members.”

Great stuff! I have one comment to add on a small part of this:  I am firmly with Alfie Kohn and, more recently and in similar vein, Stephen Downes on the side of ‘personal’ rather than ‘personalized’. Personalized learning does have a place in the rich tapestry of tools and methods to help with meeting a range of learning needs, but it is very important that personalization is not something done to learners. Too often, it is the antithesis of self-direction, too often it reinforces and automates teacher control, too often it is isolating and individually focused, too often it sacrifices caring, breadth and serendipity in the service of efficiency, and that efficiency is too often narrowly defined in terms of teacher goals. Knowing Maiga, and seeing what else he talks about in this interview, I’m pretty sure that’s not what he means here! Personal learning means focusing on what learners need, want, find exciting, interesting, challenging, problematic or mind-expanding. It is inherently and deeply a social activity supported by and engaged with others, and it is, at the same time, inherently a celebration of diversity and individuality. For some skills – mechanical foundations for example, or as controllable advisory input – personalization can contribute to that, but it should never usurp the personal.

Address of the bookmark: https://www.voicemagazine.org/archives/articledisplay.php?ART=11338&issue=2414

Recording of my TCC2016 keynote: The Distributed Teacher

This is the recording of my keynote at the TCC2016 online conference, on the nature of learning and teaching: the inherently social, distributed nature of it, why e-learning is fundamentally different from p-learning, and how we harmfully transfer pedagogies and processes from physical classrooms to online contexts in which they do not belong. If you want to watch it, skip the first 5 minutes because there was a problem with the sound and video (I hate you, Adobe Connect): the talk itself begins at a few seconds after the 5 minute mark.

Dowloadable slides and details of the themes are at https://landing.athabascau.ca/file/view/1598774/the-distributed-teacher-slides-from-my-tcc-2016-keynote.

Address of the bookmark: http://squirrel.adobeconnect.com/p1bvy7grca7/

Git for teachers — Medium

Git logoThis is a nice set of reflections on the potential value of GitHub to teachers. The title is broader, referring to the Git source code version control system, an open standard with hundreds of implementations, but most of the article is about GitHub, a closed commercial system that packages up Git with a deeply social workflow and friendly interface, making the bulk of its money from those that want support for closed projects and teams rather than open source goodness. Ben rightly points out that a source control system is great for text but less great for binary files and that, despite the quite friendly interface, there is quite a learning curve needed to use it effectively, especially if you are not used to the complexities of writing MarkDown code. Essentially, though it is a soft tool that can be repurposed and reassembled in many different ways, it is built for programmers, and structured in ways that support application development, not other things.

Ben’s suggestions are (typically) thought-provoking and good…

  1. An open source, freely-available content control tool designed for people working with non-code. It’s okay for it to not know about fancy file formats like Word, but it should be able to handle more than line-by-line changes. Perhaps call it scribe.
  2. A proprietary, beautiful city ecosystem built around it. A ScribeHub.

Nice idea and, as he observes, one that some people have already tried and failed to do, providing some good examples of tools that go part of the way. There’s a good discussion of some of the issues of doing so in the follow-up comments to a post by David Wiley a while back. That said, the big advantage of GitHub is that it does already exist (and is thriving) and does get used for much more than just coding. I really like some of the innovative uses of GitHub for things like journal production: https://github.com/ReScience/ for instance, uses it to make articles and research into living documents, updated as reviews and replications come in. But, as Ben says, it is not optimal for anything other than coding and text documentation and, though there are some great exemplars, it is not likely to hit the mainstream as an alternative means of production outside the coding and documentation community for some time, if ever. Also, much as I love GitHub for its innovative and smooth community integration, it is a commercial monolith. Such things should be distributed and open.

What makes GitHub so cool

Perhaps the biggest differentiating feature in GitHub that makes it stand out from other similar tools is the combination of (for the unpaid variant) required openness, and the ability for anyone at all to make a ‘pull request’. Anyone can make a copy (a ‘fork’) of an existing GitHub project and (and here is the good bit), if they make changes that would be useful in the upstream project, submit a pull request to the author(s) so that their changes can be reincorporated (merged) back into the main branch of the code. Github provides tools that, at least for text, make such merging relatively pain-free. Through this mechanism, the work of many loosely coupled people can cooperatively work on complex projects without the need for further mechanisms of collaboration, teams, collaboration, or complex project management. GitHub does, of course, have rich communication tools for discussing such changes and passing them back and forth, so it can be used very effectively for closed teams as well as in a more open, networked community, but its central social motif is the network, not the group.

An idea

I have been thinking for some time about building a programming course that uses GitHub or, perhaps better, an open variant such as GitLab, or a related coding support tool with similar intent like Phabricator. The basic idea would be that the course itself would evolve through pull requests – if students or others have ideas for improvements, they would simply implement them and submit a pull request which the course owner could choose to merge or reject. Others could, of course, build their own versions of the course at will. I don’t think this is particularly original in itself – many have built OERs this way – but it makes sense to me as both a way of actually hosting a course, and as a way of building in student participation in the development and evolution of a course. Amongst other things, it opens up the potential for students to customize courses for their particular needs: if the basic model contains stuff that is irrelevant or already known, they could adapt it to the way they want it and, of course, share that with others. This in turn opens up some interesting options for scalability and personalization (the good sort). Rather than providing a single, monolithic MOOC, courses could branch off into many related versions, each with its own communities and interests. Someone might, for example, adapt the structure for a different language, focus down on a particular element, restructure it for different pedagogical designs, or extend it for more or less advanced learners. As the ‘course’ itself would be hosted on GitHub (or whatever) there would be no need for additional tools, and the course communities/cohorts could relatively easily blend with one another, or overlap. There would be evolutionary competition between the various branches, perhaps, leading to ever better (or, more accurately, better adapted) versions of the courses.

At least a part of the assessment of the course would be based around taking an existing codebase (in some possible variants, perhaps the code used for the system employed to host the course?) and making improvements to it. Credit would be awarded to those whose pull requests were accepted. One particularly nice thing about that is that all work would, by its very nature, be original. There would be no value at all in simply copying what someone else had done, and success would be measured according to real-world metrics: it would have to be good enough to enter production. It might get a bit complicated as the course matured and there were fewer obvious things to be improved, but I have yet to come across any perfect software beyond very trivial and, with a plugin/service-based architecture the potential for improvements could be virtually limitless. There’s scope for most skill levels, apart from absolute beginners, here. And even relative newbies could contribute to things like documentation.

The idea appeals to me though, as others have found when trying to do something similar with OERs, the complexities mount up pretty quickly. One of the issues is that, unlike in the case of most programming code, one size does not fit all: it is not about producing one useful course or toolset. We are not talking about building an open textbook here, but a course that is suitable for many people in many different contexts. It is therefore more likely that forks would be more useful than merges for most people. In the coding community, this can be a problem – you wind up with many similar forks of code, each of which goes its own (increasingly incompatible) way, diluting the value and community around the original and making it difficult to choose between them (for instance, the many forks of MySQL or the two major branches of Open/LibreOffice). Big products can spawn so many forks and pull-requests that the original authors can be overwhelmed. For courses, forking would allow for the kind of repurposing – contextualization around individuals and communities – that makes OERs worthwhile in the first place. More than with open source applications, though, there would also be issues with diluting the learning community: this might be a benefit for something like a MOOC, where numbers are too large to be managed in the first place, but not so good for smaller courses.  There’s a balance to be sought. Having recently tried (and I am still trying) to incorporate changes from a main branch into a modified version of an OER course, I can verify that it can be fiendishly complex.  I want to maintain our own localizations but the updates are great and, in some cases, necessary. Merging is really difficult, because there is a great deal more involved than simple text, hierarchical directories and a few dependencies to deal with.

A system that would do as Ben suggests for complex media would be a great help in such things. Among those rich media I would love it if it could cope with, say, an exported Moodle course, where it is not just content but process and structure that needs to be tracked, and where changes to structure could greatly impact the meaning and value of the content. The complex, soft dependencies and need for narrative flow make such things structurally very different from the relatively proscribed ways that programs can change, so I don’t have a clear idea of how that could be done right now. It would certainly be possible to use an XML interchange format to track such things but those are made for machines, not people, to read. In fact, the only human-friendly way that I can think of for dealing with it would be to build it into the authoring environment itself – to have a Git-like thing at the backend of (say) Moodle. At Athabasca we do kind-of the same sort of thing using Alfresco to track changes, but the process is clunky, discontinuous, lacks the elegant cooperation of GitHub, is very document-centric (no fine-grained merging at all), and is very much a group, not a network environment, with teams and roles that are anything but open and that exist in very rigid organizational hierarchies, with roles that limit what they can do, and only a single, unforked course as the outcome.

Perhaps such a project – to build that friendlier front end – might be what course takers might use as raw material. Early, and more advanced, takers of the course would be building the infrastructure for later students. I rather like the idea.

Address of the bookmark: https://medium.com/@benwerd/git-for-teachers-e993d2ca423d#.nqby85xqs