Small talk, big implications

fingerprint (public domain) An article from Quartz with some good links to studies showing the very many benefits of interacting with others, even at a very superficial level. I particularly like the report of a study showing the (quite strong) cognitive benefits of small talk.

It’s all solid stuff that supports much of what I and many others have written about the value of belongingness and social interaction in learning but, like much research in fields such as psychology, education, sociology, and so on, it makes some seemingly innocuous but fundamentally wrong assertions of fact. For instance:

“Those who were instructed to strike up a conversation with someone new on public transport or with their cab driver reported a more positive commute experience than those instructed to sit in silence.”

What, all of them? That seems either unbelievably improbable, or the result of a flawed methodology, or a sign of way too small a sample size. The paper itself is inaccessibly paywalled so I don’t know for sure, but I suspect this is actually just a sloppy description of the findings. It is not the result of bad reporting in the Quartz article, though: it is precisely what the abstract of the paper itself actually claims. The researchers make several similar claims like “Those who were instructed to strike up a hypothetical conversation with a stranger said they expected a negative experience as opposed to just sitting alone.” Again – all of them? If that were true, no one would ever talk to strangers (which anyone that has ever stood in a line-up in Canada knows to be not just false but Trumpishly false), so this is either a very atypical group or a very misleading statement about group members’ behaviours. The findings are likely, on average, correct for the groups studied, but that’s not the way it is written.

The article is filled with similarly dubious quotes from distinguished researchers and, worse, pronouncements about what we should do as a result. Often the error is subtly couched in (accurate but misleadingly ambiguous) phrasing like “The group that engaged in friendly small talk performed better in the tests.” I don’t think it is odd to carelessly read that as ‘all of the individuals in the group performed better than all of those in the other groups’, rather than that, ‘on average, the collective group entity performed better than another collective group entity’, which is what was actually meant (and that is far less interesting). From there it is an easy – but dangerously wrong – step to claim that ‘if you engage in small talk then you will experience cognitive gains.’ It’s natural to want to extrapolate a general law from averaged behaviours, and in some domains (where experimental anomalies can be compellingly explained) it makes sense, but it’s wrong in most cases, especially when applied to complex systems like, say, anything involving the behaviour of people.

It’s a problem because, like most in my profession, I regularly use such findings to guide my own teaching. On average, results are likely (but far from certain) to be better than if I did not use them, but definitely not for everyone, and certainly not every time.  Students do tend to benefit from engagement with other students, sure. It’s a fair heuristic, but there are exceptions, at least sometimes. And the exceptions aren’t just a statistical anomaly. These are real people we are talking about, not average people. When I do teaching well – nothing like enough of the time –  I try to make it possible for those that aren’t average to do their own thing without penalty. I try to be aware of differences and cater for them. I try to enable those that wish it to personalize their own learning. I do this because I’ve never in my entire life knowingly met an average person.

Unfortunately, our educational systems really don’t help me in my mission because they are pretty much geared to cater for someone that probably doesn’t exist. That said, the good news is that there is a general trend towards personalized learning that figures largely in most institutional plans. The bad news is that (as Alfie Kohn brilliantly observes) what is normally meant by ‘personalized’ in such plans is not its traditional definition at all, but instead ‘learning that is customized (normally by machines) for students in order that they should more effectively meet our requirements.’  In case we might have forgotten, personalization is something done by people, not to people. 

Further reading: Todd Rose’s ‘End of Average‘ is a great primer on how to avoid the average-to-the-particular trap and many other errors, including why learning styles, personality types, and a lot of other things many people believe to be true are utterly ungrounded, along with some really interesting discussion of how to improve our educational systems (amongst other things). I was gripped from start to finish and keep referring back to it a year or two on.

Address of the bookmark:

Originally posted at:

Addicted to learning or addicted to grades?

Skinner teaching machine 08

Figure 1: Skinner’s teaching machine

It is not much of a surprise that many apps are designed to be addictive, nor that there is a whole discipline behind making them so, but I was particularly interested in the delightfully named Dopamine Labs‘ use of behaviourist techniques (operant conditioning with variable ratio scheduling, I think), and the reasoning behind it. As the article puts it:

One of the most popular techniques … is called variable reinforcement or variable rewards. 
It involves three steps: a trigger, an action and a reward.
A push notification, such as a message that someone has commented on your Facebook photo, is a trigger; opening the app is the action; and the reward could be a “like” or a “share” of a message you posted.
These rewards trigger the release of dopamine in the brain, making the user feel happy, possibly even euphoric, Brown says.
“Just by controlling when and how you give people that little burst of dopamine, you can get them to go from using [the app] a couple times a week to using it dozens of times a week.”

For well-designed social media and games, the reward is intrinsic to the activity, and perfectly aligned with its function. If the intent is to create addicts – which, in both kinds of system, it probably is – the trick is to design an environment that builds rewards into the algorithms (the rules) of the system, and to keep them coming, ideally making it possible for the rewards to increase in intensity as the user gains greater expertise or experience, but varying ratios or intervals between rewards to keep things interesting. Though this particular example falls out from behaviourist theory, it is also well supported by cognitivist and brain-based understandings of how we think. Drug dealers know this too, as it happens. If you want to keep people using your product, this is how to make your product particularly addictive.

Learning addicts

Lovers of learning experience addiction too. The more we learn, the more there is to learn, the greater the depth and pleasure there is to be found in doing so, and the sporadic ups and downs, especially when faced with challenges we eventually solve, are part of the joy of it. Increasing mastery of anything is a reward in itself that seems quite intrinsic to our make-up, and to that of many other animals. Doing it in a social context is even better, as we share in the learning of others and gain value (social capital, different perspectives, help overcoming problems, etc) in the process. We gain greater control, greater autonomy, greater capability to live our lives as we want to live them, which is very motivating. As long as the reward comes from the activity itself, and the activity is not harmful, this is good news. It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. We are innately motivated to learn, because learning is an extremely valuable survival characteristic. Learning generally makes dopamine positively drip from our eyeballs.

So what’s the problem with applying the principle in education?

None at all, until you hit something that you do not wish to learn, that is too difficult to master right now, that is too boring, that has no obvious rewards in and of itself. The correct response to this problem is, ideally, to find what there is to love in it. Good teachers can help with that a lot, inspiring, revealing, supporting, demonstrating, and discussing. Other learners can make a huge difference too, supporting, modelling behaviours, filling gaps, and so on. We very often learn things for other people, with other people, or because of other people. Educational systems offer a good substrate for that.

If intrinsic motivation fails to move us, then at least the motivation should be self-determined. Figure 2 shows a very successful and well-validated model of motivation (from Ryan and Deci) that, amongst other things, usefully describes differing degrees of extrinsic motivation (external, introjected, identified, and integrated) that, as they approach the right of the diagram, increasingly approach intrinsic motivation in value, though ‘external regulation’ is rather different, of which more soon. When intrinsic motivation fails, what we need is some kind of internal regulation to push us onwards. It is not a bad idea to find some internally regulated reason that aligns with your beliefs about yourself and your goals, or that at least fits with some purpose or goal that you find valuable. It’s sometimes useful to develop a bit of ‘grit‘ – to be able to do something that you don’t love doing in order to be able to do things that you do love doing, to find reasons for learning stuff that are meaningful and fit with your personal values, even if the immediately presenting activity is not fun in itself. Again, teachers and other people can help a lot with that, by showing ways that they are doing so themselves, by providing support, by engaging, or by being the reason that we do something in the first place. It’s all very social, at its heart.


Figure 2: Forms of motivation

That social element is important, and not clearly represented in the diagram, despite being a critical aspect of intrinsic motivation and mattering a lot for the ‘higher’ identified forms of extrinsic motivation. From an evolutionary perspective, I suspect this ability to learn because of the presence of others accounts for our species’ apparent dominance in our ecosystems. We are not particularly clever as independent individuals but, collectively, we are mighty smart. This could not be the case without having an innate inclination to value, and to gain value from, other people, and for this to have the consequence that others very materially contribute towards our motivation to do something. I guess I should mention that ‘innate’ does not mean ‘pre-programmed’ – this is almost certainly an emergent phenomenon. But it is a big part of who we are.

Grade addicts

So far so good. Educational systems are, at least in principle, very effective ways of bringing people together. It all goes horribly wrong, however, when the educators’ response to amotivation (or worse, to motivation to avoid) is to change the rules by throwing in extrinsic rewards and punishments, like grades, say, or applying other controls to the process like forced attendance. Externally regulated extrinsic motivation is extremely dangerous.

Extrinsic rewards and punishments do work, in the sense that they coerce people and other animals into behaving as the giver of the rewards or punishments wishes them to behave. And yes, dopamine is implicated. This immediate effectiveness is what makes them so alluring. But it’s like giving an athlete performance-enhancing but ultimately harmful drugs. Rewards and punishments are also highly addictive and, like other addictions, you need more and more to sustain your addiction because you become inured to the effects, and withdrawal gets more painful the longer you are addicted. This works two ways. Those that get the rewards (the good grades, gold stars, praise, whatever) go on to want more of them, and will do what they need to get them, whether or not there are any further benefits (like, say, learning). Cheating is one popular way to do this. Tactical study, where the student tries to do what will get good grades rather than learn for the love of it, is another. But grading, though extrinsically motivating for the most part, is not always effective: bad grades can achieve the opposite effect, like drugs spiked with something horrible. Those that get grades as punishments often try to avoid them by whatever means they can: dropping out and cheating (a way to bypass the system to get hold of the good stuff) are popular solutions.

The biggest problems, however, come when you take the rewards/punishments away. As a vast body of research has shown and continues to show, this diminishes intrinsic motivation and often eliminates it altogether. If people are not very inclined to do something then you can temporarily boost interest by adding extrinsic rewards or punishments but, when you take them away, people are considerably less inclined to do the thing than they were before your started even when they originally liked to do it. At a high level this can be explained by the fact that, in giving a reward or punishment, you are drawing attention away from (crowding out) the thing itself and, at the same time, sending a strong signal that the activity itself is not rewarding enough in itself to be worth doing. But I am not sure that this fully explains the very strong negative effects on motivation that we actually see when rewards or punishments are withdrawn. I idly speculate that part of the reason for this effect might be the dopamine crash. We come to associate an activity with a dopamine boost and, when that boost is no longer forthcoming, it can be very disappointing, like smoking a nicotine-free cigarette (trust me – that’s awful). Cold turkey is not the best state to be in, especially when you associate it with an activity like learning something. It could really put you off a subject. This is just a thought: I know of no evidence that it is true, but it seems a plausible hypothesis that would be worth testing.

Whatever the cause, the effects are terrible. By extrinsically driving our students, we kill the love of the activity itself for those that might have loved it, and permanently prevent those that might have later found it valuable from ever wanting to do it again. Remarkably few survive unscathed, and a disproportionate number of those that do go on to become teachers, and so the cycle continues. I don’t think this is how education should be, and I don’t think it is what most of us in the system intend from it.

Getting out of the loop

The only really effective way to ensure lifelong interest and ongoing love of learning is to find the reward in the activity itself, not in an extrinsic reward. The games and social applications described in this article do that very well but it is important to remember that the intent of the designers of the applications is to increase addiction to them in order to sell or promote the product, and that there is perfect alignment between the reward and the activity itself. This is built into the rule system. In an education system that is driven by marks, we are making grades (not learning) the product, and making those the source of the addiction. This is very different. It has nothing to do with the activity of learning itself: it is extrinsic to the process. It might be even more effective give our students addictive drugs (higher concentrations equate to higher grades) to increase the incentive. I’m surprised no one has tried this.

But, seriously, what we really need to be doing is to make learning the addiction.

We can reduce the harm to an extent by removing grades from the teaching process and focusing on useful feedback and encouragement instead. If forced to judge, we can use pass/fail grades that are still harmful but not quite as controlling. If we are inexplicably drawn to grading, then we can build systems similar to those of ‘likes’ and badges of social media where, instead of rewards we give awards – in other words, we remove the expectation of a grade but, where merit is found, sometimes show our approval – and we can make that a social process, so that it is not dominated by a teacher and therefore does not involve exercise of arbitrary power. We can use pedagogies that give teachers and students the chance to model and demonstrate their passion and interest. We can encourage students to reflect on why they are doing it, ideally shared so they can gain inspiration from others. We can help students to integrate work with other things that matter to them. We can help them personalize their own learning so that it is appropriately challenging, not too dull, not to hard, and so that it matches the goals they set for themselves. We can help them to set those goals, and help them to figure out how to attain them. We can make them participants in the grading process, picking outcomes and assessments that match their interests and needs. We can build communities that support and nourish learning through sharing and mutual support. This is just a small sample of ways – there are really quite a few things that we can do, even within a broken system, to make learning addictive, to find ways to make it rewarding in and of itself, even when there is little initial interest to build upon. But we are still stuck in a system that treats grades as rewards, so we are still faced with a furious current pushing against all of our efforts.

Really, we need to change the system, but just  a bit: our current educational systems have evolved for pragmatic reasons, mainly because alternatives are too expensive or inconvenient for teachers to manage, not because they are any good for learners. One of the consequences of that is that it is almost impossible to run an institutional course or program without at least some form of grading, even if only at pass/fail level, even if only at the end.

An obvious big part of the solution is to decouple learning and grading. Some more advanced competency-based approaches already do that, as do things like challenge assessments and assessment of prior experience and learning, to some extent project/essay/thesis paths, outcomes-based programs, and even some kinds of professional exams (the latter not in a good way, for the most part, because they tend to drive the process). However, there are risks that universities might turn into an up-market version of driving schools, teaching how to pass the tests and doing just as they are doing now, rather than enabling more expansive learning as they should. To avoid that, it is critical that learners are involved in helping to determine their own personalized outcomes, and very much not to have those learning outcomes ‘personalized’ for them – personal, not personalized, as Alfie Kohn puts it and as Stephen Downes agrees. Grades that learners control, for activities that they choose to undertake, are many times better than grades that someone else imposes. It would also be a good idea either to split teaching activities into assemblable chunks, or into open narratives, without alignment with specific awards or qualifications. Students might build competences from smaller pieces – often from different sources – in order to seek a specific award, or might gain more than one award from a single learning narrative (or perhaps from a couple that overlap). It would be a very good idea to provide ways to mentor and help learners to seek appropriate paths, perhaps through personal tuition, and/or through automated help, and/or through membership of supportive communities (I am a fan of action learning sets for this kind of thing). Such mechanisms might also assist in the preparation of portfolios of evidence that would be an obvious way to manage the formal assessment process. I’m not in any way suggesting that we educators (especially for adult learners) should get rid of our accreditation role, merely that we should stop using it to drive our teaching and to enforce compliance in our students.

I think that such relatively small tweaks to how we teach and assess could have massive benefits further upstream. In one fell swoop it would change the focus of educational systems from grades to learning, and change the reward structure from extrinsic to intrinsic. Instead of building fixed-length courses with measurable outcomes that we the teachers control, we could create ecosystems for learning, where cooperation and collaboration would have greater value than competition, where learners are really part of a club, not a cohort, where teachers are perceived as enablers of learning, not as causes, and certainly not as judges. The words ‘learner-centred’ have been much over-used, often being a shorthand for ‘a friendlier way of making students comply with our demands’ or ‘helping students to get better grades’, but I think they fairly accurately denote what this sort of system would entail when taken seriously. Some of my friends and colleagues prefer ‘learning-centred’ and that works for me too. But really this is about being more human and more humane. It’s about breaking the machines that determine what we do and how we do it, and focusing instead on what we – collectively and individually – want to be. We can do this by thinking carefully about what motivates people, as opposed to attempting to motivate them. As soon as our attitude is one of ‘how can we make our students to this?’ rather than ‘how can we help our students to do this?’ we have failed. It’s easy to create addicts of extrinsic motivation. It is hard to make addicts of learning. But, sometimes, the hard way is the right way.


Address of the bookmark:

Originally posted at:

Signal : now with proper desktop apps

Signal is arguably the most open, and certainly the most secure, privacy-preserving instant messaging/video or voice-calling system available today. It is open source, ad-free, standards-based, simple, and very well designed. Though not filled with bells and whistles, for most purposes it is a far better alternative to Facebook-owned WhatsApp or other near-competitors like Viber, FaceTime, Skype, etc, especially if you have any concerns about your privacy. Like all such things, Metcalfe’s Law means its value increases with every new user added to the network. It’s still at the low end of the uptake curve, but you can help to change that – get it now and tell your friends!

Like most others of its ilk it hooks into your cellphone number rather than a user name but, once you have installed it on your smartphone, you can associate that number (via a simple 2D barcode) with a desktop client. Until recently it only supported desktop machines via a Chrome browser (or equivalent – I used Vivaldi) but the new desktop clients are standalone, so you don’t have to grind your system to a halt or share data with Google to install it. It is still a bit limited when it comes to audio (simple messaging only) and there still appears to be no video support (which is available on smartphone clients) but this is good progress.

Address of the bookmark:

Originally posted at:

The Downfall of Doppler Labs: Inside the Last Days of a Hardware Startup | WIRED

Oh drat. So Doppler Labs is no more. This is very sad.

I love my Here One bluetooth earbuds, have recommended them to many people, and would do so again. For simple noise cancelling they run countless rings around every other headphones and earbuds I have ever tried, including top of the line Bose devices costing a lot more (not that these were cheap). The moment that you turn the external sound down and enter a state of blissful silence is miraculous. But they are so much more than that: having entered that world of silence you can bring up sounds that you want to hear, notably the voices of people around you or (more specifically thanks to 6 built-in microphones) in front of you (or, for secret agents, behind you). It is quite eerie to sit on a bus and hear, with fair clarity, the conversations of people around you but to barely hear the rumble and clatter of the bus itself. It’s not always perfect, but it is still pretty remarkable. I’ve even been able to talk with people on a float plane, with massively reduced rumble and noticeably enhanced speech, almost normally. And it is marvellous to be cycling while listening to music while being able to hear approaching traffic and other significant things around me well enough to be safe. Or to wander through a park in the heart of a noisy city and hear nothing but birdsong. I particularly love being able to sit in a crowded bar or restaurant and to hear the conversation of people on the other side of the table but not those of the rest of the room (though it still has difficulty dealing with over-loud music). As a former professional musician with consequent hearing loss, this is transformative: I don’t need a hearing aid (yet) most of the time but, for those odd occasions when my hearing fails me, Here One provides a great solution. To cap it off, the sound quality for music etc is top notch – vastly superior to any other earbuds I have ever owned (mind you, they cost more than twice as much as any I have hitherto owned, so I would hope so). I suspect that at least some of the reason for this is that they store a hearing profile for me that knows which frequencies cause me difficulty and that therefore shape the sound to suit me better. They are basically computers for the ears.

There are weaknesses, some of which have till now been improving through software upgrades since I got the things. It’s a big pain having to control the buds from a cellphone for even pretty simple stuff like volume control. Though there are a few things that can be done by tapping them/double-tapping them (like switching off the noise cancelling or answering a phone) the process is unreliable and there’s a limited range of things you can do that way. The battery life, though improved since the first release and now quicker to recharge, is not that great, notwithstanding the fact that you can charge them two or three times from the case itself. I would prefer to be able to plug in a cable and/or battery booster to use on long flights without interruption. Despite multiple options for earpieces, they don’t always feel firmly set in my ears and, because the seal is pretty solid when they are inserted right, it can get uncomfortable on take-off and landing in planes, especially if you have a cold. And they don’t have a flight mode so, technically, I shouldn’t be doing that anyway. It is really annoying when bluetooth fails as, inevitably, it sometimes does (even though it may not be the fault of the earphones). It is hard to pair them with multiple devices, and the set-up for non-supported devices (anything that is not an iPhone or Android phone, basically) is gruelling and unreliable. It would be nice if they were waterproof. They stick out a bit, albeit not as much as most bluetooth buds. Sometimes they fail to turn off and cause feedback when returned to the case. But these are things I can live with, in return for wearing a completely new category of smart device that enhances the quality of my life.

I was really looking forward to some of the promised new features, especially real-time language translations, but I guess that will have to wait until it is a standard cellphone/smartwatch feature because it is no longer going to come from Doppler Labs. I am much more worried about the loss of support, and the fact that what I have now is what I will have for as long as the buds themselves last: it was one of the appealing things about them that they got better with each software/firmware update. If security flaws are discovered, they won’t get fixed. More worryingly, next time I change my phone (a common event) I may not be able to install the software that is essential to making them work at all. Even if I can, my experience with older iOS devices is that upgrades to phone operating systems often render older software unusable, so they could become a very expensive bit of junk very quickly. It would be nice to think that Doppler Labs might open source their software so that this is not a problem but, from the article, it sounds like they will be selling off the patents to the highest bidder and the chances of opening things up are therefore pretty slim. I fear there are not enough of the things out there in the wild to spark a community-based alternative. On the bright side, no doubt the brilliant innovations will be snapped up by a bigger, more sustainable firm and will find their way into more mainstream devices (Apple would be foolish to miss this one), but I will miss this company and I will miss this product.

This is the second high profile and apparently highly successful Kickstarter device that I have owned to suffer this fate, and I fear the outcomes will be similar. My Pebble watch continues to do basic service but I don’t know for how much longer. There has been nothing new arriving for it since the company folded earlier this year, and the apps it used to run are diminishing every week, as services that they rely upon fold. In olden days, we used to be able to continue to use our devices no matter what happened to their manufacturers. Nowadays, not so much.

I doubt that I will learn my lessons well from this as I am a great optimist when faced with a revolutionary new technology, but it’s something we all have to remember: software embedded in our hardware is an ongoing commitment, and we are surrounded by the stuff at work and at home, from TVs to cars to watches to lightbulbs to routers to phones, and so on. Increasingly, we’re no longer buying a product, we are buying into a service, so the quality and potential longevity of the company is even more important than the quality of the machinery. The only truly effective way to keep it safe, reliable, and sustainable would be for it to be open source and/or to use open standards, and for it not to rely on a single cloud-based service to operate. Sadly, far too little of the Internet of Things comes close to that. And far too much of it is hidden behind DRM, closed APIs, and other sinful mechanisms.

Address of the bookmark:

Originally posted at:

Ominous clouds

Clouds over the West Pier, Brighton Though Microsoft has been unusually prone to the kind of chicanery described in this article for most of its existence, the problem of price hiking combined with shifting, decaying, or dying cloud services is inherent in the cloud model they are using itself.

Good clouds

Cloud services can make good sense when they are directly replaceable with competitive alternatives: there are compelling reasons to, say, run your virtual servers in the cloud (whether in virtual machines or containers), or to handle network services like DDoS protection, DNS management, or spam filtering, or even (under some circumstances) to run relatively high level application layer services like databases, SMTP mail, or web servers. As long as you can treat a service exactly like a utility – including, crucially, the ability to simply, cheaply, and fairly painlessly switch service providers (including back in-house) whenever you want or need to do so – then it can provide resilience, scalability, predictable costs, and agility. Sometimes, it can even save money. There are still lots of potential pitfalls: complex management concerns like privacy, security, performance, faults, configuration, and accounting need to be treated with utmost caution, service contract negotiation is a complex and trap-strewn art, training and integration can be fiendishly difficult to manage when you no longer control the service and it changes under your feet, and there are potential unpredictable problems ahead when companies go bust, change hands, or become subject to dangerous legislative changes. But, on the whole, a true utility service can often be a sensible use of limited funds.

The soon-to-be-defunct Premium looks deceptively like a utility service on the surface, ostensibly offering what look a lot like simple, straightforward, SMTP/IMAP/POP email services, with a cutesy (ie. from Hell) web front end, with the (optional) capacity to choose a domain that could be migrated elsewhere. To a savvy user, it could be treated as little more than a utility service. However, there’s a lot of integrated frippery, from tricks to embed large images, to proprietary metadata, to out-of-office settings, to integrations with other Microsoft tools, that makes it less portable the more you use it, especially for the less technically adept target audience it is aimed at, especially if you are using Microsoft Outlook or the Web interface to manage it. Along with some subtle bending of protocols that make even the simplest of migrations fraught with difficulty and subject to lost metadata at best, by far the most likely exit strategy for most users will be to shift to the (more expensive) O365 which, though not identical, has features that are close enough and easily-migrated enough to suit the average Joe. And that’s what Microsoft wants.

Bad clouds

O365 is not a utility service at all, despite using the lure of almost generic email and calendaring (potentially replaceable services) to hook you in. It’s a cloud-based application suite filled to the brim with proprietary applications, systems and protocols, almost all of which are purpose-built to lock your data, processes, and skill set into a non-transferable cloud that is owned and controlled by an entity that does not have your interests as its main concern. In fact, exactly the opposite: its main concern is to get as much money from you as possible over as long a period as it can. If it were a utility like, say, electricity to your home, it would be one that required you to only plug in its own devices, using sockets that could not be duplicated, running at voltages and frequencies no one else uses. Its employees would walk into your house and replace your appliances and devices with different ones whenever they wanted (often replacing your stove while you were cooking on it), dropping and adding features as they felt like it. The utility company would be selling information about what devices you use, and when, to which channels you tuned your TV, what you were eating, and so on, to anyone willing to pay. You would have to have a microwave and toaster whether you wanted one or not, and you couldn’t switch any of them off. It would install cameras and microphones in your home that it or its government could use to watch everything you do. Every now and then it would increase its prices to just a bit less than it would cost to rip everything out and replace it with standards-based equipment you could use anywhere. Though it would offer a lot of different devices, all with different and unintuitive switches and remote controls (because it had bought most of them from other companies), none of them would work properly and, as they were slowly replaced with technologies made by the company itself, they would get steadily worse over a period of years, and steadily harder to replace with anything else. You would have to accept what you were given, no matter how poorly it fitted your needs, and you would be unable to make any changes to any of them, no matter how great the need or how useless they were to you. Perish the thought that you or your home might have any unique requirements, or that you might want to be a bit creative yourself. Welcome to Microsoft’s business model! And welcome to the world of (non-utility) cloud services.

Bad clouds closer to home

Given the tone of this article it is perhaps mildly ironic that Engadget, the source of it, reporting on the product less than a year ago, gave advice that “the Premium service might strike a good balance between that urge for customization and the safety net you get through tech giants like Microsoft.” You’d think a tech-focused site like Engadget would know better. I suspect that many of their reporters have not been alive as long as some of us have been in the business, and so they are still learning how this works.

It’s a short-sighted stupidity that infects way too many purchasing decisions even by seasoned IT professionals, whether it be for groupware like O365, or LMSs like Moodle, or HR hiring systems, or leave reporting systems, or e-book renting, or online exam systems, or timesheet applications, or CRM systems, or whatever. My own university has fallen prey to the greedy, malfunctioning, locked-in clutches of all but one of the aforementioned cloud services, and more, and the one it thankfully avoided was a mighty close call. All are baseline systems with limited customizations, that require people to play the role of machines, or that replace roles that should be done by humans with rigid rules and automation. Usually they do both. It is unsurprising that they are weak because they are not built for how we work: they are built for average organizations with average needs. If such a mythical beast actually exists I have never seen it, but we are a very long way from average in almost every way. Quite apart from the inherent business model flaws in outsourced cloud-hosted applications they cannot hope to match the functionality of systems we host and control ourselves or that rely on utility cloud services. They inevitably leave some things soft that should be hard (for example, I spend too much time dealing with mistakes entering leave requests because the system we rent allows people to include – without any signal that it is a bad idea – weekends and public holidays in their leave requests) and some things hard that should be soft (for example, I cannot modify a leave request once it has been made). A utility cloud service or self-hosted system could be modified and assembled with other utility services or self-hosted systems at will, allowing it to be exactly as soft or hard as needed. Things that are hard to do in-house can be outsourced, but many things do not need to be. Managing your own IT systems does cost a lot of money, but nothing like as much as the overall cost to an organization of cloud-based alternatives. Between them, our bad cloud systems cost equivalent of the time of (at least) scores of FTEs, including that of highly paid professors and directors, when compared with custom-built self-hosted systems they replace. You could get a lot of IT staff and equipment for that kind of money. Worse, all are deeply demoralizing, all are inefficient, and all stymie creativity, greatly reducing, and reducing the value of, the knowledge within the organization itself.

It’s a huge amount harder getting out of bad cloud services that it is getting into them (that’s the business model that makes them so bad) but, if we are to survive, we have to escape from such foolishness. The longer we leave it, the harder it gets.

Address of the bookmark:

Originally posted at:

Study links student cheating to whether a course is popular or disliked

examWe already know that extrinsically motivated students (mainly those driven by grades and testing) are far more likely to cheat than those who are more intrinsically motivated. I bookmarked yet another example of this effect just the other day but there are hundreds if not thousands of research papers that confirm this in many different ways. And, as this article reaffirms, we already know that mastery learning approaches (that focus on supporting control, appropriate levels of challenge, and, ideally, social engagement) tend to make cheating far less likely, because they tend to better support intrinsic motivation. Hardly anyone cheats if they are doing stuff they love to do, unless some strong extrinsic force overrides it (like grades, rewards, punishments, hard-to-meet deadlines, etc). 

This research reveals another interesting facet of the problem that exactly accords with what self-determination theory would predict: that, whether or not the pedagogy is sensible (supportive of intrinsic motivation) or dumb (extrinsically driven), a student’s dislike of a course appears to predict an increased likelihood of cheating. This is pretty obvious when you think about it. If someone does not like a course then, by definition, they are not intrinsically motivated and, if they are still taking it despite that, the only motivation they can possibly have left is extrinsic.

The increased chances of cheating on disliked courses, whether or not mastery learning techniques are used, is completely unsurprising because it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. If mastery learning techniques are not working then it probably means that we are simply not using them very well. Most likely there is not enough support, or not enough learner control, or insufficient social engagement, or not enough/too much challenge, or there’s too much pressure, or something along those lines. It is actually much more difficult and usually far more time consuming to teach well using techniques that respect learner autonomy and individual needs than it is to follow the objectivist instructivist path, at least in an institutional environment that deeply embeds extrinsic motivation at its very core, so it is not surprising that it quite often fails.  It is also very possible that the problem is almost entirely due to the surrounding educational ecosystem. For instance if it is one that forces students down institutionally-determined paths whether or not they are ready, whether or not it matters to them, or if not enough time is allowed for it, or if the stakes for failure are high, then even well-designed courses with enthusiastic, supportive, skilled, well-informed, compassionate, unpressured teachers are not likely to help that much.

Some people will take a pragmatic lesson from this to look more carefully for cheating on courses that they know to be disliked. That’s not the solution. Others will look at those courses and try to find ways to make them more likeable. That’s much better. But really, once we have done that, we need to be wondering about why anyone would be taking a course that they dislike in the first place. And that points to a central problem with our educational systems and the tightly coupled teaching and accreditation that they embed deep in their bones. Given enough time, support, and skilled tuition, almost anyone can learn almost anything, and love doing so. We live in a time of plenty, where there are usually countless resources, people, and methods to learn almost anything, in almost any practical way, so it makes no sense that people should still be forced to learn in ways that they dislike, at inappropriate times, and at an inappropriate pace. If they do, it is because (one way or another) we make them do so, and that’s the root of the problem. We – the educators and, above all, the educational system – are the cause of cheating, as much as we are the victims of it. And we are the ones that should fix it.

The original paywalled paper can be found here.

Address of the bookmark:

Originally posted at:

This was actually accepted for an IEEE conference and then published

I invite you to draw your own conclusions about this paywalled paper and the amount of quality control and editorial input that goes into IEEE publications nowadays. Here’s the abstract, which is one of the more coherent passages in the paper:

Abstract—The momentum contemplate evaluates the relationship among online social recreations and the e-learning utilization by look at the impact of social, subjective and teaching nearness on e-learning use between female understudies by method for playing on the web social diversions. This study utilizes an exploratory research plan, comfort test procedure. The outcomes propose that all scales are basically related with E- learning use. It is found that E-learning uses is emphatically tremendous and has a direct related with social nearness. The relationship between E-learning use and psychological nearness has a decidedly strong enormous connection; in like manner, the relationship between E-learning use and teaching nearness has an emphatically strong colossal connection. The disclosures inferred that the characteristic of online social amusements; both intellectual and teaching nearness impact E-learning utilization.

There’s not enough research about female understudies. I’m glad that someone is filling that gap. It’s well worth what otherwise appear to be the subscription fees IEEE is charging (US$33 in case you were wondering) . 

Address of the bookmark:

Originally posted at:

The NGDLE: We Are the Architects | EDUCAUSE

A nice overview of where the NGDLE concept was earlier this year. We really need to be thinking about this at AU because the LMS alone will not take us where we need to be. One of the nice things about this article is that it talks quite clearly about the current and future roles of existing LMSs, placing them quite neatly within the general ecosystem implied by the NGDLE.

The article calls me out on my prediction that the acronym would not catch on though, in my defence, I think it would have been way more popular with a better acronym! The diagram is particularly useful as a means to understand the general concept at, if not a glance, then at least pretty quickly…

ngdle overview

Address of the bookmark:

Originally posted at:

The return of the weblog – Ethical Tech

Blogs have evolved a bit over the past 20 years or so, and diversified. The always terrific Ben Werdmuller here makes the distinction between thinkpieces (what I tend to think of as vaguely equivalent to keynote presentations at a conference, less than a journal article, but carefully composed and intended as a ‘publication’) and weblogging (kind of what I am doing here when I bookmark interesting things I have been reading, or simply a diary of thoughts and observations). Among the surprisingly large number of good points that he makes in such a short post is that a weblog is best seen as a single evolving entity, not as a bunch of individual posts:

Blogging is distinct from journalism or formal writing: you jot down your thoughts and hit “publish”. And then you move on. There isn’t an editorial process, and mistakes are an accepted part of the game. It’s raw.

A consequence of this frequent, short posting is that the product isn’t a single post: it’s the weblog itself. Your website becomes a single stream of consciousness, where one post can build on another. The body of knowledge that develops is a reflection of your identity; a database of thoughts that you’ve put out into the world.

This is in contrast to a series of thinkpieces, which are individual articles that live by themselves. With a thinkpiece, you’re writing an editorial; with a blog, you’re writing the book of you, and how you think.

This is a good distinction. I also think that, especially in the posts of popular bloggers like Ben, the blog is also comprised of the comments, trackbacks, and pings that develop around it, as well as tweets, pins, curations, and connections made in other social media. Ideas evolve in the web of commentary and become part of the thing itself. The post is a catalyst and attractor, but it is only part of the whole, at least when it is popular enough to attract commentary.

This distributed and cooperative literary style can also be seen in other forms of interactive publication and dialogue – a Slashdot or Reddit thread, for instance, can sometimes be an incredibly rich source of knowledge, as can dialogue around a thinkpiece, or (less commonly) the comments section of online newspaper articles. What makes the latter less commonly edifying is that their social form tends to be that of the untarnished set, perhaps with a little human editorial work to weed out the more evil or stupid comments: basically, what matters is the topic, not the person. Untarnished sets are a magnet for trolls, and their impersonal nature that obscures the individual can lead to flaming, stupidity, and extremes of ill-informed opinion that crowd out the good stuff. Sites like Slashdot, StackExchange, and Reddit are also mostly set-based, but they use the crowd and an algorithm (a collective) to modulate the results, usually far more effectively than human editors, as well as to provide shape and structure to dialogues, so that dialogues become useful and informative. At least, they do when they work: none are close to perfect (though Slashdot, when used well, is closer than the rest because its algorithms and processes are far more evolved and far more complex, and individuals have far more control over the modulation) but the results can often be amazingly rich.

Blogs, though, tend to develop the social form of a network, with the blogger(s) at the centre. It’s a more intimate dialogue, more personal, yet also more public as they are almost always out in the open web, demanding no rituals of joining in order to participate, no membership, no commitment other than to the person writing the blog. Unlike dedicated social networks there is no exclusion, no pressure to engage, no ulterior motives of platforms trying to drive engagement, less trite phatic dialogue, more purpose, far greater ownership and control. There are plenty of exceptions that prove the rule and plenty of ways this egalitarian structure can be subverted (I have to clean out a lot of spam from my own blogs, for instance) but, as a tendency, it makes blogs still very relevant and valuable, and may go some way to explaining why around a quarter of all websites now run on WordPress, the archetypal blogging platform.

Address of the bookmark:

Originally posted at:

Instagram uses 'I will rape you' post as Facebook ad in latest algorithm mishap

Another in a long line of algorithm fails from the Facebook stable, this time from Instagram…

"I will rape you" post from Instagram used for advertising the service

This is a postcard from our future when AI and robots rule the planet. Intelligence without wisdom is a very dangerous thing. See my recent post on Amazon’s unnerving bomb-construction recommendations for some thoughts on this kind of problem, and how it relates to attempts by some researchers and developers to use learning analytics beyond its proper boundaries.


Address of the bookmark:

Original page