Keep laptops out of lecture halls, professor says

Another in a long line of ‘keep digital technologies out of the classroom’ nonsense. Sometimes I despair.

Lecture with skeletonThe sad thing is that this idea (banning the taking of notes in lectures using keyboards) is actually quite valid, in the context of an oppressive, coercive and ineffective pedagogy, given the very limited goals of this kind of transmissive model of learning. If you want your passive students to be able to parrot your wise thoughts back at you, and this is what you value in the assessment, and if you have so little imagination that you can’t figure out a better way to deliver that information than through a lecture, then this is roughly what it takes to make a lecture at least partially work in the manner intended.

To use lectures this way is unbelievably wasteful and stupid. Students will get much more of what you want them to get from just reading a book, or maybe reviewing your own lecture notes or, if you must, watching a recording of your last lecture. Of course, there are normally far better ways to learn than reading or watching, but there is usually a need for simply passing on information in a digestible manner in even the most active approaches to learning.

And yet…

It took me a few years of railing against lectures to realize that lectures are not the problem. I actually don’t mind even the most traditional stand-up-and-preach variety of lectures per se at all. As long as you are not labouring under the illusion that they are at all efficient as a means of helping people to fill their heads with information, and as long as you don’t force people to attend them (including by assessing them on the informational content afterwards), they can play a useful role as catalysts, way-points, and connectors. 

It’s no big deal to give up an hour or so of your time to attend a lecture. You will probably get some inspiration (even if not quite what the lecturer intends), the simple fact that you are devoting time exclusively to it will focus you on the topic of the lecture and give you uninterrupted time to reflect, and it’s a great way to meet people and talk about the topic with them afterwards. As long as you choose whether or not you attend, this can be very motivating. This is even true of rather dull lectures. As long as you don’t set out with the intent of retaining information from them (for which they are very ill suited) they are powerful tools in the pedagogical toolset. 

I do nearly always take notes, typically on a tablet or cellphone, when I attend lectures at conferences etc. A few of those notes may contain reminders about the content, links shared, references, etc: perhaps those might stick better if I made them as hand-written notes (and, sometimes, I’ll scribble them in the margins of the conference program for that reason). But, mostly, my notes contain my reflections and my responses, which are often quite tangential to the intent of the speaker or the content. I might be provoked by something mistaken or dumb, I might pick up a throwaway bit of wording that sparks a divergent train of thought, or I might see connections with something I have been doing, or maybe discover a different way of seeing the same thing or maybe, occasionally, discover something quite new. Handwritten notes are worse for that kind of thing. They’re much more likely to be lost, cannot so easily be re-used, cannot incorporate images of slides or other reminders, cannot contain active hyperlinks and are not so easily indexed.

If you are treating lectures as a source of information then hand-written notes, especially with pictures and visual models of connections, are a good way to make the best of a very bad job. If instead you see lectures as catalysts for thought and creativity, as sparks to light flames, as spaces to reflect, or as conversation starters, then handwritten notes really aren’t that great at all.


Address of the bookmark:

Personalization in Lumen’s “Next Gen” OER Courseware Pilot

I always enjoy reading posts by David Wiley. This is a good one on the progress of Lumen Learning but the main reason I am bookmarking it is for one of the clearest explanations I have seen of the central problem with far-too-common naive approaches to personalized learning. David uses the example of Google’s seldom-used ‘I’m feeling lucky’ button to explain why having a machine (or, as he puts it ‘a passionless algorithm’) make learning choices for you, even if they are pretty likely to be good ones from a short-sighted objectives-based perspective, is normally a bad idea.

I’d go a bit further. Having a human make those choices for you can be equally bad for learning. While human judgement might lead to better choices than a dispassionate algorithm, the problem in learning is not so much one of making the best choices to reach an objective, but of learning how to make those choices yourself. There is a risk that careless use of analytics by teachers to lead students in a particular direction might simply substitute a human for a machine. Beyond the most trivial of skills (not to trivialize trivial skills) effective teaching – the stuff that persists and transforms – is not about making choices on the behalf of a learner. It is much more about provoking and responding (and a host of other things like caring, nurturing, challenging, soothing, inspiring, etc, none of which can be done well by machines).

Having teachers make choices is not what David is talking about, though. He rightly emphasizes the importance of engaging in ‘good old-fashioned conversations’, which are the very opposite of teacher control, and of simply using models from the machine to help inform those conversations. This is great. The more you know about someone, the richer the conversations can be and, as an expert with a good understanding of the model, a teacher should be able to interpret it wisely – an aid to decision-making, not a decision-maker in itself.

I’m not so sure about feeding the model back to the learner directly though. In all but the most trivial of models there are some big risks of misapprehensions, misdirection, missing parts, and misattributions. Any model is just that – a simplification and abstraction of a much more complex whole.  As long as it is understood that way by the learner then you would think all should be fine, but it is not so simple. For example, I was given one of those dreadful fitness tracker devices that uses just such a simple model. It miscounts steps, fails to understand the concept of cycling, sailing, swimming, playing a guitar or even of a standing desk, but none-the-less continues to present believable-looking statistics about my health to me and even tells me in pure Skinner fashion to get up and jog, without having the slightest idea about the state of my knees or ankles, let alone my distaste for jogging. I completely understand the crude and ugly behaviourist reward/punishment pedagogy it attempts to inflict on me and am fully aware of the fact that it is often hundreds of percent wrong about my activity and I completely get the limitations of the model. But it still draws me in. No matter how much I can intellectually explain that there is nothing inherently meaningful about it counting 500 or 15,000 steps in a day, those reassuring graphs affect me, and not in a good way. Sometimes I have found myself walking places in order to reach the machine’s target when I would otherwise have cycled (a much healthier alternative) and congratulate myself on a nice looking graph when I know that all I have been doing is playing the guitar (which the machine identifies as walking – maybe it’s my foot tapping). It’s a sure sign of extrinsic motivation when, even though I am the only one that knows or cares, I cheat. Being aware of limitations is not enough.

Address of the bookmark:

Wiping out species may boost evolution – study — RT News

Brief report on some interesting research that demonstrates that mass extinctions speed up the evolution of those species that are left. What is particularly nice about it is its support for the principle that evolvability is itself selected by evolution. As Kevin Kelly once memorably put it, ‘change changes itself’. In other words, the rules of change are themselves as much subject to evolution as anything else, and this is one of the central ratchets that leads to divergence and complexity. A crucial if fiendishly hard to implement principle for those of us seeking to seed practical self-organizing systems such as, say, the Landing, or who are looking for a better and more resilient way to run courses and universities.

Address of the bookmark:

ToyRep 3D Printer – Costs Under $85 to Build Using Super Cheap 28BYJ-48 Motors

This is interesting – a fully functional 3D printer for (potentially) under $85. Of course, there are caveats. Though the printer itself seems very capable, even compared with those that cost at least ten or fifteen times as much, a fair amount of skill is needed to build it. Also, it does rely on a fair number of 3D printed parts, so you need to have access to a 3D printer to make one. That said, even if you had to rely on a company to produce those 3D parts for you, and even if you invested in a better printing head than the cheap one described here, it would still be possible to build one of these for a very few hundred dollars. This might not be the perfect solution for schools etc, where reliability and safety are paramount, but it looks like a great alternative for hobbyists wanting to explore Santa Claus machines.

Any moment now, 3D printing looks set to hit the mainstream. I’m still not quite sure what such machines can really do, given their current reliance on PLA or ABS filaments, their slow print speeds, and unreliable operation. I have spent a while browsing Thingiverse looking for projects and have been amused by printable guitars and violins (some glueing and extra components required).  I’ve had a few thoughts about designing bits and pieces like cord organizers, replacement parts for broken devices and instruments, home gadgets, etc, but I have yet to come up with any really compelling use cases that are not more trouble, nor significantly cheaper, than simply buying the things ready made. Most of the objects available on Thingiverse look a lot like uses of Sugru – great fun, ingenious, but embarrassingly amateurish, garish and crude.  And 3D printers are not compact things – you need to put them and their raw materials somewhere. For low-utilization scenarios it’s still more sensible, and not much more expensive, to simply send a design to a 3D printing service.

I feel almost certain that there are educational uses for such things. This is most obviously valuable for kids and those in physical design disciplines (architecture, engineering, interior design, sculpture, etc), and I can think of a few ways of using artefacts to help make concepts more concrete in a physical classroom (physical routers, logic gates, etc, for instance), but I have yet to work out a way to incorporate them into the things I teach online, all of which are conceptual and/or virtual.  I’m hoping that, when I get one, the possible will become more adjacent.

Address of the bookmark:

Grit: A Skeptical Look at the Latest Educational Fad (##) – Alfie Kohn

One of two related articles by the ever-wonderful Alfie Kohn. The other, on ‘growth mindsets’ is at

Both are cutting attacks on a couple of terrible education fads that appear to be gaining sway with politicians and that are both, as Kohn explains very well, not about supporting creative, interested, engaged learners but instead about ensuring conformity and control. As it often the case in Kohn’s articles, both swing round to Kohn’s central agenda of promoting self-determination theory, both are well informed by substantial research. Kohn is kinder to Carol Dweck’s growth mindset research than to the appallingly unsupported and unsupportable ‘grit’ nonsense promoted by appropriately named Paul Tough, but the results are much the same: the focus on making individuals fit the structure rather than changing the poisonous structure of educational systems themselves.

Read one, read both.

Address of the bookmark:

Teaching with the Internet; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Google In My Classroom ~ Stephen's Web

Lecture with skeleton Stephen Downes questions Adeline Koh’s questioning of the lecture form for keynotes. He’s right to question.

In a classroom, the lecture is imposed, regularly scheduled, controlled, and it epitomizes all that is wrong in regulated institutional learning. A classroom lecture is about making people learn what you want to make them learn. At least, that’s the norm. And a lecture is incredibly bad at playing that role – much worse than a book or a decent website. That’s why, for the most part, most good teachers don’t habitually do lectures or, if they do, they keep them very short and situate them in other activities, as Koh suggests they should, and/or use them as ignition points for the real learning that goes on outside the classroom.

A keynote at a conference is not like that at all. With very few exceptions, every attendee makes a deliberate choice to attend and to devote a small chunk of time to being inspired and/or challenged. At least, we hope that’s what will happen. That is at least why we try to get keynotes with interesting things to say. It’s not a means of drumming facts into people. It’s a voluntarily chosen opportunity to see the world a bit differently, not unlike choosing to see a movie that you suspect will affect you. Personally, I do like to provide a bit of variety and audience engagement in my keynotes, especially if I can encourage attendees to engage face-to-face or onine, but that’s really just to keep the interest rolling and to find ways of helping people take ownership of the things that matter to them in whatever it is that I am rabbiting on about. I do so because it’s pretty hard to spend an hour being consistently inspiring and it seems a pity to waste the opportunity to engage with a bunch of smart, interested, like-minded people if they have taken the trouble to attend.

A bad keynote is tedious. I have been bored to sleep by those, who were otherwise some of the greatest thinkers with really interesting things to say, that just stood up and read at me or, worse, read at their notes while barely looking up. Why bother doing that? I’d much rather watch a movie. Even a bad keynote, though, is not entirely a waste of time. The real value of such a thing is not the boringly delivered lecture itself, but that you are sitting there with a load of other bored people with whom you can talk about it afterwards. It’s a shared focal point. This can help spark some interesting conversations, especially if some people managed to overcome their boredom and found inspiration in the words.

If lectures at schools and universities were run like keynotes, with voluntary attendance and carefully chosen inspirational speakers, it might not be a bad thing at all, though the rest of the accreditation framework would have to change too. There were some optional lectures in my first degree but I attended only one in the whole time I was there. I still remember that lecture quite vividly – it did change how I think and it really was inspiring – but there were dozens of others that I missed because they wouldn’t be on the exam (nor was the one I attended – it was just really interesting and someone I respected had suggested I might like it). I attended dozens of such lectures in my second degree because I was a far more mature learner and I was there to learn, not to pass the test: I attended because I was interested, not because I had to do so, and I got a huge amount out of them and the surrounding conversations. This is what we need – people that learn because they want to, not because we tell them they must, and not because we will punish them if they do not. Disaggregation of teaching and assessment is the crucial next step we absolutely have to take if we are to make institutional education as useful as it should, and easily could, be.

Address of the bookmark:

Measuring transactional distance in web-based learning environments: an initial instrument development

From the ironically named Taylor & Francis journal ‘Open Learning’ (which is closed), an interesting attempt to come up with a means to measure transactional distance. Regular readers will know that I am a fan of Moore’s theory of transactional distance, a systems theory that explains some of the central the dynamics of educational systems and that can be extremely valuable in both designing and predicting the effects of distance learning, but that is susceptible to multiple interpretations and that is fuzzy around the edges. Coming up with a reliable instrument to measure it would therefore be quite useful.


“This study was an initial attempt to operationalise Moore’s transactional distance theory by developing and validating an instrument measuring the related constructs: dialogue, structure, learner autonomy and transactional distance. Data were collected from 227 online students and analysed through an exploratory factor analysis. Results suggest that the instrument, in general, shows promise as a valid and reliable measure of the constructs related to transactional distance theory. Potential refinement of the instrument and future research directions are included at the end of the article.”

There’s lots of good discussion of previous work in this paper and some fair attempts to dismantle the mechanisms and meanings of transactional distance, as well as a good research process capable of revealing some interesting insights. However, I am unconvinced by some of the very basic assumptions, so the instrument remains a bit blunt. I am a bit disappointed that one of my papers is cited for its minor criticism of the fuzziness of the theory, but the authors do not consider the major point of the paper (and a solution to much of that fuzziness) that the fundamental dynamic of transactional distance is concerned with control. I have a very strong suspicion that they might have found far more useful things in this study if they had explicitly taken that on board and tried to examine the exchange of control in the system.  Instead, they got caught in the well-known trap of seeing autonomy as a personal and unsituated characteristic, and made rough assumptions about structure/dialogue that take no account of the scale (or, as the late John Holland would have more accurately put it the boundaries) of the systems being looked at. These are not separate or separable categories – the dynamics shift according to where and when you place the boundaries. They would also have benefitted greatly from considering the various presences in the community of inquiry model, which would have made it easier to lose that very arbitrary one-to-one correspondence of teacher, student and content roles that constrains the model in quite artificial ways. Teachers are also other students, writers of content, and the creators of the surrounding physical and organizational environment. Again, the boundaries are not fixed, nor are they mutually exclusive. The most disappointing thing, though, is that that their initial hypotheses about the nature of transactional distance (which is, after all, what it was supposed to be about and that might have been a really valuable contribution, if validated) got completely lost in the process. The one thing that they really needed to show is the one thing that they did not. This is not a bad thing at all, and it is a discovery that is worthy of discussion. However, that is not quite how they see it:

“Transactional distance included learner–instructor transactional distance and learner–learner transactional distance. The original closeness, shared understanding and perceived learning did not merge; yet, the related items merged into the learner–instructor transactional distance and learner–learner transactional distance, respectively.”

This rather begs the question – if their initial model was not correct, what is that transactional distance that they are talking about and that they are attempting to measure? Their initial model, though fuzzy, was interesting and based on some thoughtful analysis but, in the final model, all they have done is to say that there are two different kinds of transactional distance depending on whether you are a learner or a teacher, without saying what they are, coming up with a sweeping sub-categorization that is just an artefact of the initial assumptions.  I think another closely related part of the problem is that they assumed at the start that transactional distance is in some way additional and separate to structure, dialogue and autonomy, rather than strictly following Moore’s meaning that it is a function of them. Their worthwhile attempt to analyze it further, by unpicking aspects of that, turned out to be fruitless because the aspects they picked were not the right ones.

This is not to suggest that the results are valueless. Far from it. This is a nicely conducted study that models a little of the complexity of learning transactions in a useful, if fuzzy, way, that explores the various meanings of transactional distance expressed in the literature pretty well, and, as well, helps to show some relatively unfruitful lines of enquiry. It’s just that it doesn’t meet the objectives set out in its own title, and it does not really do much to reduce the fuzziness of the construct that is the main problem that it set out to solve.

Address of the bookmark:

Punishing a Child Is Effective If Done Correctly

The title of this post is the title of the paper, and very much not a statement of my opinion. The paper explains how. The questions that immediately spring to mind are ‘effective for what?’ and ‘compared with what?’ The answers from the paper are that it is effective (ish) for making children behave the way you want them to behave, if done in the recommended manner for a limited subset of contexts and people, compared with explaining to kids why their behaviour is unacceptable. Sigh.

Behaviourist approaches do often work as a way of producing the desired behaviour – that is their appeal and that is their point. They do not work at all well when compared with alternatives (explaining is only one of thousands of alternatives, the choice of which depends entirely on context), and they almost always have extremely undesirable side-effects. There are many subsidiary lessons that punishment teaches, including that you should obey those with more power, that you are less worthy than those with more power, that forcible manipulation is an acceptable thing to do to other people, etc. The same applies to rewards.

When I was young, untutored, and overwhelmed with the hassles of parenthood I did sometimes use punishment for my kids in much the same way that this research recommends as well as, occasionally, in anger. I am not proud of that. I think it is entirely understandable but it is a thing to be ashamed of, not to be celebrated. It is a lazy, short-termist short cut that has far more unpleasant side-effects than the benefits it brings. There is always an alternative and, though it may take longer, may be uncomfortable and it may take more patience, that alternative is almost always better in the long run. If we treat children like dogs (and behaviourist methods aren’t even that great for dogs) they will likely grow up obedient – unless they react against it, which is a strong possibility – and, like dogs, if we let the leash slip or they spot a way to avoid punishment while doing something bad, they are likely to take it. Even if they don’t, if the only reason they don’t do the bad thing is habitual fear, the world will be a much sadder place.

Address of the bookmark:

Welcome to The Internet of Compromised Things

Jeff Atwood clearly and coherently explains why connecting to the Internet is scary. It’s especially scary when all of our devices – cars, lights, heating, gas pumps, locks, surveillance cameras, TVs, etc – are connected. Most of us have learned to be at least a bit careful with our computers but we tend to be more careless and trusting of those simple plugin devices. Unfortunately, among the weakest links are our routers and, once owned, it is really hard to escape the malware that controls them. Worse, like many of our devices, their updates and configuration tend to be ignored or forgotten. As more and more devices embed powerful and dangerous net-connected computers, this problem is going to get a lot worse over the coming years. Some good advice in this article on protecting yourself as best you can.

Address of the bookmark:

We're heading Straight for AOL 2.0 · Jacques Mattheij

Interesting commentary on the hijacking and usurpation of open protocols by web companies intent on making a profit by closing their ecosystems via non-standard apps layered over HTTP. As Mattheij notes, this is very similar to the way AOL, CompuServe and other commercial providers used to lock in their users. Now, instead of running proprietary systems over layer 2-4 protocols (as AOL et al used to do), vendors are running them over layer 5 (or, for OSI purists, layer 7) protocols, with proprietary APIs designed to hook others into their closed systems (think Facebook or Google logins). The end result is the same, and it’s a very bad result.

Mattheij writes

Please open up your protocols, commit to keeping them open and publish a specification. And please never do what twitter did (start open, then close as soon as you gain traction).

I completely concur.

Address of the bookmark: