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

Humpback whale in English Bay

Damn it, I didn’t bring my big camera. The camera in my phone does not do this justice…

Humpback whale in English Bay

There is something genuinely awesome – in the original sense of the word – about being out on the water in a boat that is smaller than the creature swimming next to you. The humpback whale swam around us for about 40 minutes before moving on. Somewhere between 10 and 20 seals hung around nearby hoping for some left-overs, as did a small flock of seagulls. We tried to keep our distance (unlike a couple of boats) but the whale was quite happy to swim around us.

Whale

Prizes as Curriculum • How my school gets students to “behave”

A harrowing report on systematic child abuse in an American school. What’s particularly tragic about that is that the teachers who are inflicting such abuses are not bad people: they genuinely believe that they are doing good or, if not good, then at least they are doing their best to help.

Louisa was a warm and well-meaning person. After this incident, she wanted to reflect on what had happened—it had been an upsetting day for all. Louisa asked herself certain questions and didn’t ask others. In the end, she was able to justify her decision in a way that enabled her to see her decision as a moral one. “Eric has problems entertaining himself, and that’s something we need to support him with. Maybe something is going on at home,” she sighed.

Very sad. We must change this reward and punishment culture. It does not work.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.rethinkingschools.org/archive/30_03/30-3_lagerwerff.shtml

Learning and the Kardashians

As I am preparing for a talk next week on the future of online learning and writing a bit in a paper about the same kind of thing, I am pleased to see another timely publication in a long line of excellent Pew reports on American life, this time focusing on lifelong learning, which is hugely relevant to what I will be speaking and writing about about. As I need to think a bit more on this topic anyway, this seems like a good opportunity for reflection.

Findings of the report

Before moving on to my reflections, there are a few things that particularly stand out for me. For instance:

  • 74% of Americans have engaged in some deliberate personal learning (as measured by the researchers) over the past year, though only 16% have taken an online course.
  • 73% consider themselves to be lifelong learners.

This makes me worry greatly about over a quarter of Americans that have done no such thing and that do not consider themselves to be lifelong learners. It is hard to understand how one could be human and not consider oneself a learner but the study’s design likely shaped the kind of answers it received. I will have more to say on that. It is also interesting that courses play such a small role. More on that later too.

I am fascinated by the motivations of the subjects of the study:

  • 80% of personal learners say they pursued knowledge in an area of personal interest because they wanted to learn something that would help them make their life more interesting and full.
  • 64% say they wanted to learn something that would allow them to help others more effectively.
  • 60% say they had some extra time on their hands to pursue their interests.
  • 36% say they wanted to turn a hobby into something that generates income.
  • 33% say they wanted to learn things that would help them keep up with the schoolwork of their children, grandchildren or other kids in their lives.

This accords better with my understanding of human beings. People love to learn, and learning has huge social value in both process and product. It is notable that far fewer of the study’s subjects have extrinsic than intrinsic motivation, and it appears that, for the vast majority, the extrinsic driver is at most a catalyst for them to do something that is intrinsically fulfilling. This is reinforced in the following graphs, that are a terrific confirmation of the predictions of self-determination theory (SDT):

the value of educational experiences to learners in the US

As we already know from SDT, the value of learning is fundamentally about achieving competence as a good thing in itself, deeply social in purpose and value, and highly concerned with being in (or gaining) control: in brief, competence, relatedness and autonomy support. This is exactly what we see here. It is noteworthy that, though advancement in occupations matters to professional learners, there is no mention of money nor of qualifications in any of this. This accords with the fact that only 16% of those in the study took courses, given that courses tend to lead to formal or less formal credentials. It is very unfortunate that institutional learning has become so much concerned with courses and credentialing that all of these very good reasons for learning are incredibly crowded out. Much of the time, people in institutions learn in order to get the qualification, not for the pleasure that is so profoundly obvious in these findings. The luckiest ones get both. Most are not so lucky. More than a few get neither fulfillment nor credentials.

Matthew Effects: the rich get richer

The survey finds very strong links between existing education, prosperity and culture, and lifelong learning. Furthermore, the digital divide is, at least by some measures, widening:

As a rule, those adults with more education, household incomes and internet-connecting technologies are more likely to be participants in today’s educational ecosystem and to use information technology to navigate the world.

This is not too surprising – it’s pretty much there in the definition – but the Matthew Effect is in full swing here:

For personal learning, 87% of those with college degrees or more (throughout this report adults with college degrees or more refers to anyone who has at least a bachelor’s degree) have done such an activity in the past year, compared with 60% for among those with high school degrees or less. For professional learning, about three quarters (72%) of employed adults with at least college degrees have engaged in some sort of job-related training in the past year, while half (49%) of employed adults with high school degrees or less have done this.

Those that have learned to learn, and to see the value in it, learn more. They probably have more time and resources for it:

Among those with a smartphone and a home broadband connection (just over half the population), 82% have done some personal learning activity in the past year. For the remaining adults (those with just one of these connection devices or neither of them), 64% have done personal learning in the past year.

It is interesting that technology appears to have quite a large effect on learning. This is causal, not just a correlation. It’s not the tools, per se, but the adjacent possible that the tools bring. Basically, the tools can support learning or not but, if you don’t have the tools, the opportunity never arises. Those that claim technology has no effect on learning are simply wrong, but what is significant here is that it is not the teachers, but the learners, that make this so. There may be some very faint and equivocal glimmer of truth in the belief that technology does not normally do much to improve teaching, but it sure does a lot to improve learning.

Being America, a land of conspicuous inequality, the report shows that there are also strong divisions along ethnic lines, with African Americans and Hispanics considerably less likely to have engaged in personal learning, and somewhat less likely to have engaged in professional learning. The report is less clear whether this is a socio-economic issue or a more broadly cultural concern. I’m guessing a bit of both. When a social system separates particular groups, for whatever reason (and ethnicity is a deeply stupid reason), then patterns of behaviour are likely to cluster. As always, diversity (and the celebration of diversity) is much to be wished for here. We are wisest when we are exposed to and open to diverse views, values and opinions.

Finally, an opportunity for distance institutions like Athabasca University. Some of the notable preference for face to face learning (81% to 54%) is almost certainly down to lack of awareness of digital learning methods:

Noteworthy majorities of Americans say they are “not too” or “not at all” aware of these things:

  • Distance learning – 61% of adults have little or no awareness of this concept.
  • The Khan Academy, which provides video lessons for students on key concepts in things such as math, science, the humanities and languages – 79% of adults do not have much awareness of it
  • Massive open online courses (MOOCs) that are now being offered by universities and companies – 80% of adults do not have much awareness of these.
  • Digital badges that can certify if someone has mastered an idea or a skill – 83% of adults do not have much awareness of these.


It seems we have not been particularly smart about getting the message out! That’s a huge and untapped population of people who do not even know our methods of teaching exist, let alone of our own existence. At least some of those appear to be educated people with a thirst for knowledge.

Learning and the Kardashians

A lot of the inequalities demonstrated in the Pew report are deeply worrying and endemic. It seems to me that, as well as trying to address that imbalance directly, we in education should give a bit more thought to how we might embed productive learning more deeply into all our interactions, rather than just concentrating on making courses and tutorials in educational systems. While some of this embedding can be addressed with deliberate intent – popular channels, celebrity scientists and artists, accessible and appealing museums and galleries, subsidies for Internet access, libraries, etc – a lot of this is about system design. It’s about building tools and environments where critical and reflective engagement is part of the fabric of the system.

With that in mind, I think it is important to note a strong methodological bias in these findings. Significantly, they rely on self-reporting of deliberate learning activities that are largely defined by the researchers. There’s a strong bias towards things like courses, tutorials, guides, workshops, conferences and clubs that are explicitly designed to support learning. It is worth observing that most learning is not designed and not intentional (including in formal education). Almost every act of communication involves at least a hint of learning and, especially for interactive media such as Internet or Mobile technologies, the percentage of time spent learning in the process is normally significant. Almost all reading, watching and dialogue involves learning. We might not recognize it as such, but every time we learn of Bieber’s latest exploits, or Trump’s latest vileness, or our friend’s new puppy, we are deeply engaged in acts of learning. It is not just (and rarely most importantly) about the content of what is learned, but the ways of being that such learning engenders. Our values, beliefs and attitudes are deeply dependent on our interactions with others, mediated or not, and what we perceive of the world around us (especially the people and their creations within it). What we choose to observe or communicate changes us. Often, we engage critically with what we read or watch or talk about. Even simple learning from observation is not just about copying but about interpreting and constructing. Internet technologies, in particular, have massively increased the quantity and breadth of such observation and communication. Most of what we know is not learned deliberately but emerges through our interactions with other people and the world around us. Most of what even traditional teachers teach is not the content of what they teach but the ways of being and thinking that go along with it.

To suggest or imply, therefore, that lack of deliberate learning through conventional channels means that no learning is happening is deeply mistaken, and somewhat dangerous, because it ignores all but the visible tip of the iceberg. By far the biggest opportunities for education lie not in the stuff that we educators currently do for a job, but in embedding learning in the everyday; in designing pedagogies that are not pedagogies; in creating architectures where learning can thrive rather than in deliberately leading people in directions we think they should go. It is possibly sad but definitely true that the Kardashians are far better teachers with far greater reach than most professional teachers, apart from (maybe) celebrities like David Attenborough, Randall Munroe, David Suzuki or Neil Degrasse Tyson. What the Kardashians teach might seem to have little value and, arguably, might have negative value, but it should not be discounted as irrelevant learning. Nor, for that matter, should what we learn (directly and indirectly) from politicians, musicians and sports stars. The shapers of our emerging global society are many and varied, and I would be hesitant to suggest, snobbishly, that the reflective, critical, synthetic, analytic and creative skills that professional teachers try to support should have a monopoly over the emotional, social, value-forming ways of thinking that other contributors to society provide in greater measure.

Boundaries and education

Personally, I think the things we try to formally teach (not so much the content as the reflective, critical, synthetic, analytic and creative skills) matter a great deal. Taught well, they directly and demonstrably lead to better, healthier, richer, more creative, more caring, more productive societies, where people can look more critically on the likes of Trump and the Kardashians, with greater perspicacity, with greater creativity, and with more kindness to and understanding of those that think differently. But they also lead to a lot of things that are not so healthy, especially in their institutionalized control-freakery and cataleptic attitudes to change. Educational institutions have done and continue to do a lot of good but, if we really want to bring about a better, more educated world, there is a very good chance that they are no longer the ideal platform for it, and definitely far from the only one.

In my talk next week I will be exploring the ways that physical boundaries, notably of time and place, have deeply influenced how we go about the process of education. Almost all of our pedagogies are predicated on the assumption that a number of people need to gather in a particular place at a particular time, with associated structures, rules and processes to support that. Teachers are a scarce resource, classrooms are rival goods, and schedules matter. So we invented classes, courses, timetables, and methods of managing them. This in turn inevitably demands that people learn things they don’t need to learn, that they may be unable or unwilling to learn, at times that may not suit them, under conditions that greatly restrict their autonomy. All in all, despite good support for relatedness, this is terrible for motivation, and it crowds out almost all the great benefits that are reported on in the Pew study. One-to-one learning works much better because it largely avoids those constraints but is, for all but a few, economically unviable. Voluntary attendance to learning activities when needed (much of what is reported on in the study) is also good, but not well catered for in our educational systems that need to adopt tight schedules and lack much flexibility. Thus, much of our pedagogical practice and almost all of our educational system is designed to overcome or reduce the demotivating side-effects of simple physics. All too often, and all too often institutionalized, the solution is to fall back on primitive behaviourist models of motivation that do a great deal more harm than good. Such physics seldom if ever applies online, where boundaries are inherently fuzzy, metaphorical, fluid and malleable. However, most of us still adopt substantially the same pedagogies and we pointlessly (or worse) attempt to fit our teaching into systems that were designed for and with different boundaries. We even build tools like learning management systems that embody them, saving them from exinction and perhaps even magnifying them (it’s often easier to see what is going on in a live classroom than within the confines of an LMS). And, having done so, we cement the demotivational effects by controlling learners through grades and certificates, rewarding and punishing with Skinnerian efficiency. It’s no surprise that, when you take such things away, MOOC completion rates, though improving thanks mainly to better self-selection and increasing use of real reward and punishment through more recognized credentials (often becoming significantly less open in the process), average no more than 15%

Shifting boundaries and open spaces

Though online boundaries are different, there are lessons to be drawn from the built environment. I am incredibly lucky to live in Vancouver, where public art, information and hey-wow architecture and design is everywhere to be seen. It is hard to look anywhere without being informed, delighted or provoked in useful ways, from the shapes of leaves immortalized on the sidewalks to street art and poetry on the walls. Our cognition is fundamentally distributed, and the richness of the spaces around us, virtual or physical, contributes considerably to how and what we know, as well as our values and behaviours. Even simple separation of space can make a huge difference. It took a while after coming here to realize what was the main difference between schools here and in the UK: fences. In the UK, a school is normally enclosed by tall fences that both keep people out and keep children in. Around the school along the sea wall from me there are no such barriers, and children play at break-time in the parks and playgrounds outside. It’s still very safe – many eyes see to that, as well as a culture of trust – but it makes all the difference in the world to the meaning of the space, especially to the children but also to the community around them. Such little things make big differences. Part of the value of that is, again, diversity: being exposed to different stimuli and people is always a good thing, and another of Vancouver’s immense strengths. The area around the school is a wonderful mix of expensive luxury waterfront property and cheap but attractive and well cared-for community housing: unless you happen to know that red roofs signify community housing, you would be very unlikely to spot the difference. Messing with boundaries and celebrating diversity is, of course, a big part of the thinking behind the Landing. It’s a space where boundaries are deliberately softened, where learning can be visible and shared, but which is still safe and where everyone is accountable. Simply opening up the space is enough to bring about greater and different learning, and a different attitude towards it. 

Openness alone is not enough, though. Far too many public forums and comment areas (e.g. most newspaper sites) that are quite open are filled with vitriol, inanity and stupidity. Sure, a lot of learning happens, but mostly not in a productive or useful way, at least from my biased perspective and that of a lot of people that are turned off by it. I am guessing that this might well be what would happen if fences around UK schools were torn down without considering the surrounding community and environment. Community makes a huge difference: though I am sure they have to indulge in a bit of judicious pruning and moderation, when I read blogs by people like, say, Stephen Downes, George Siemens , Terry Anderson, or David Wiley, I see almost nothing but intelligent dialogue from those that comment, because those with an interest in the area have shared concerns and contested but concordant values. Well, perhaps the dialogue is not always intelligent, but at least it is always a learning dialogue. The downside of that is, of course, a relative lack of diversity in the communities that read their work.

So, environment matters too, and often helps to shape the community. For instance, I am still much smitten, after nearly two decades, by the model of SlashDot, which shapes learning dialogues through a combination of smart algorithms and, most importantly, the actions and interactions of people using the system. The best of these dialogues is more than a match for any textbook or classroom, and the worst are not too bad: anything else evolves away. The algorithms are complex and it takes skill to get the most out of them, so it is way too geeky to be of general use, but it shows the general methods and principles that might underlie a system that makes knowledge grow and learning happen simply by shaping the space of interaction, giving individuals the tools to filter and form the space, and providing a space to gather. Less sophisticated/effective but more generally usable tools of this nature include Reddit and StackExchange, which combine ratings and karma information to allow the community to shape what the community sees. While both are flawed and neither is infallible, the combination of human organization and machine filtering generally makes both quite useful for a wide range of topics.  I am also much encouraged by how Wikipedia has evolved: its more deliberate structuring and guidance of the flow means it involves higher maintenance than more obviously collectively guided tools but it is incredibly successful at supporting and spreading useful knowledge (including about the Kardashians). The approach of each of these systems to diversity is a little like that of the Vancouver City planners: to design for it. There are places where communities meet and interact but there is also parcellation, with signals of their boundaries but no significant barriers, that supports the growth of a supportive culture (at least in places – there are, of course, some areas that thrive on dischord), and that makes trust visible.

There are potential opportunities for analytics tools, collaborative filters, and similar forms of data-driven algorithmic approaches here too. Such methods come with enormous risks, mostly due to the insatiable desire of programmers to control what other people do: to erect new boundaries. Even when done with good intentions, they can have harmful effects. Almost the last thing we need in such spaces is filter bubbles and echo chambers, but such approaches can embed and reinforce patterns and attitudes simply by doing their job, building boundaries that are all the more dangerous because they are invisible and unmentioned. The absolute last thing we need is machines to make decisions for us based on what a programmer has decided is best for us or, just as bad, using criteria over which we have no say. There are huge risks of designing new boundaries that are just as controlling and just as demotivating as the ones they replace. I don’t resent Amazon’s recommendations of what I might like to read next at all, for example, especially when it tells me why it is making those recommendations, because it does nothing to enforce those recommendations and learns when I disagree. I do resent Netflix limiting what it shows me that I might want to watch, though: this reduces my autonomy. I greatly dislike learning analytics tools that tell me how well I am meeting someone else’s goals, but I approve of those that help me to define and reach my own. I am happy for Google Search to suggest relevant sites I might want to visit, as long as it continues to show me those it is less impressed with, but I am deeply unhappy that Facebook shows me a tiny percentage of posts I might like to see. I love that clicking a word or phrase in an e-book will give me a definition and a link to Wikipedia or Google Search. I hate that clicking a help link will tell me what someone else thinks I need to know (especially when the nugget I need is hidden in a lengthy video that gives me no clues about where to find it). What all of this boils down to is support for the fundamental drivers found in the Pew report: autonomy, relatedness and competence. Take away any one of those, and you take away the love of learning. But, with care, scrutability, and attention to supporting human needs, such systems can be expansive and liberating.

In conclusion

For now, most of the new systems we use to replace the formal process of teaching show promise but most have numerous weaknesses, most of which formal teaching overcomes: concerns about reliability, trust, safety, efficiency, and the effects of deliberate malice are well founded, and there are big issues of control and autonomy to overcome. But it seems to me that, as we start to dismantle the boundaries of traditional educational practice, the opportunities to extend and improve learning through reinvention of our learning spaces online are (virtually!) limitless, while we reached a state of near stasis in physically located learning many hundreds of years ago. Sure, there have been incremental improvements here and there but they have been uneven at best, and it is possible to see examples of great pedagogies being used thousands of years ago that are barely, if at all, improved today. It’s all down to physics. 

Footnote

I wouldn’t know a Kardashian if one kicked me in the face and, until just now, I had little idea about what they were apart from being a family that is known across the Internet for nothing more substantial than their own celebrity. For quite a long time I actually thought the headlines and post titles about them were about a fictitious race from Star Trek. What’s quite interesting about that is that I had learned what little I knew on the subject without, until just now, any intention of doing so. I found out a bit more just now by way of fact checking, through Wikipedia, but it seems that what I already knew was pretty much accurate. Education happens whether we seek it or not. It would be good if that education were more valuable more of the time.

Exams as the mothers of invention

I’m often delighted by the inventiveness and determination of exam cheats. It would be wonderful were such creativity and enthusiasm put into learning whatever it is that exams are supposed to be assessing but, tragically, the inherently demotivating nature of exams (it’s all about extrinsic motivation and various ways they diminish intrinsic motivation) means that this is a bit of an uphill struggle. I particularly like the ingenious but not very smart approaches mentioned in this article:

“One test taker apparently hid his or her mother under the desk, from where she fed the student answers, while in a second case, someone outside the test taker’s room communicated answers by coughing Morse code.”

Of course, the smart ones are not so easily discovered.

This is an endless and absurd arms war that no one can win. The inventiveness and determination of exam cheats is nearly but not quite matched by the inventiveness and determination of exam proctors. My favourite recent example is the Indian Army’s reported efforts to prevent exam cheating by making examinees remove all their clothes and sit in an open field, surrounded by uniformed guards. It is hard to believe this could happen but the source seems reliable enough and there are videos to prove it. I’m prepared to bet that they didn’t stop cheating altogether, though. 

I’ve found one and only one absolutely foolproof method of preventing cheating in proctored exams: don’t give them in the first place, and challenge yourself to think of smarter ways of judging competence instead. Everyone is better off that way. But, if you are determined to give them, despite the overwhelming evidence that they are demotivating, unfair, unreliable, unkind and costly, don’t make it possible for the answers to be given in morse code.

Address of the bookmark: https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2016/03/30/examity-shares-data-cheaters

Study: People Want Power Because They Want Autonomy

An article from The Atlantic describing a study that reveals autonomy is, almost entirely, the reason people like to have power. This accords very well with the predictions of self-determination theory.

Power (in the most meaningful sense of the word) is pretty much the same thing as autonomy, I think: it’s about feeling that you are in control of your life, regardless of whether that feeling is justified. This suggests that some forms of what we generally recognize as power (ie. positions of authority, with control over what others do) might not be so great, inasmuch as the accompanying responsibilities can considerably reduce autonomy. Those in middle management, myself incuded, are in a great many ways less autonomous than those over whom they have purported power, in part because of their responsibility to those they lead, and in part due to their accountability to those with greater power. I’m guessing that the same is true right up to leaders of institutions, who are accountable to governments and other funding bodies in much the same way as those lower in the pecking order are accountable to them.

For optimal happiness, organizational hierarchies (not those that occur in natural systems but that are designed by humans) are an inherently weak idea, most notably because they must always be antagonistic to autonomy. They survive as a reasonably effective compromise made to make  organizations and societies function like machines: indeed, they are one of our most fundamental enabling technologies. They are the main way that large groups of people can efficiently live in peace and prosperity together. Hierarchies are responsible for many good things, a foundational technology on which much of human society, culture and technology is based, without which we would likely still be in the trees. But it is important to remember that they are just technologies: they are inventions that can be improved upon and that could easily be superceded by better inventions. Democratic governance was likely the last major successful innovation in the technology, but it doesn’t solve many of the inherent weaknesses. For the most part, the inevitable inefficiencies, filtering of information and, above all, diminution of intrinsic motivation make organizational hierarchies a deeply flawed solution to the problems of large scale human coordination that they are designed to solve.

With modern technologies, especially those involved in and emerging from ubiquitous communication and availability of knowledge, we can and should do better than hierarchies. I am increasingly intrigued by and drawn to the model of The Morning Star Company, that thrives without hierarchies, where everyone, from temporary tomato pickers to the CEO, is a manager, and where power is not given but taken as a natural right. What’s remarkable about it is not so much the pattern (which is not unlike that of traditional academia and many other organizations and social forms) but the fact that the pattern works really well.

 

Address of the bookmark: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/03/people-want-power-because-they-want-autonomy/474669/?single_page=true