Facebook has a Big Tobacco Problem

A perceptive article listing some of Facebook’s evils and suggesting an analogy between the tactics used by Big Tobacco and those used by the company. I think there are a few significant differences. Big Tobacco is not one company bent on profit no matter what the cost. Big tobacco largely stopped claiming it was doing good quite a long time ago. And Big Tobacco only kills and maims people’s bodies. Facebook is aiming for the soul. The rest is just collateral damage.

Address of the bookmark: https://mondaynote.com/facebook-has-a-big-tobacco-problem-f801085109a

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/3046034/facebook-has-a-big-tobacco-problem

Facebook’s days may be numbered as UK youth abandon the platform

The end of Facebook couldn’t come soon enough, but we’ve been reading headlines not unlike this for around a decade, yet still its malignant tumour in the lungs of the Web grows, sucking the air out of all good things.

Despite losses in the youth market (not only in the UK), as the article notes, Facebook has deep pockets and is metastasizing at a frightening rate. Instagram and WhatsApp are only the most prominent recent growths, and no doubt far from the last. Also, the main tumour itself is still evolving, backed by development funding that staggers belief. It would take a lot to cure us of this awful thing. On the optimistic side, however, Metcalfe’s Law works just as well in reverse as going forward. Networks can grow exponentially, but they can shrink just as fast. Perhaps these small losses will be the start of a cascade. Let’s hope so.

 

 

Address of the bookmark: http://www.alphr.com/facebook/1008480/facebook-youth-numbers-drop-over-55-rise

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/3037494/facebook%E2%80%99s-days-may-be-numbered-as-uk-youth-abandon-the-platform

Turns out the STEM ‘gender gap’ isn’t a gap at all

Grace Hopper and Univac, image from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grace_HopperAt least in Ontario, it seems that there are about as many women as men taking STEM programs at undergraduate level. This represents a smaller percentage of women taking STEM subjects overall because there are way more women entering university in the first place. A more interesting reading of this, therefore, is not that we have a problem attracting women to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, but that we have a problem attracting men to the humanities, social sciences, and the liberal arts. As the article puts it:

“it’s not that women aren’t interested in STEM; it’s that men aren’t interested in poetry—or languages or philosophy or art or all the other non-STEM subjects.”

That’s a serious problem.

As someone with qualifications in both (incredibly broad) areas, and interests in many sub-areas of each,  I find the arbitrary separation between them to be ludicrous, leading to no end of idiocy at both extremes, and little opportunity for cross-fertilization in the middle. It bothers me greatly that technology subjects like computing or architecture should be bundled with sciences like biology or physics, but not with social sciences or arts, which are way more relevant and appropriate to the activities of most computer professionals. In fact, it bothers me that we feel the need to separate out large fields like this at all. Everyone plays lip service to cross-disciplinary work but, when we try to take that seriously and cross the big boundaries, there is so much polarization between the science and arts communities that they usually don’t even understand one another, let alone work in harmony. We don’t just need more men in the liberal arts – we need more scientists, engineers, and technologists to cross those boundaries, whatever their gender. And, vice versa, we need more liberal artists (that sounds odd, but I have no better term) and social scientists in the sciences and, especially, in technology.

But it’s also a problem of category errors in the other direction. This clumping together of the whole of STEM conceals the fact that in some subjects – computing, say – there actually is a massive gender imbalance (including in Ontario), no matter how you mess with the statistics. This is what happens when you try to use averages to talk about specifics: it conceals far more than it reveals.

I wish I knew how to change that imbalance in my own designated field of computing, an area that I deliberately chose precisely because it cuts across almost every other field and did not limit me to doing one kind of thing. I do arts, science, social science, humanities, and more, thanks to working with machines that cross virtually every boundary.

I suspect that fixing the problem has little to do with marketing our programs better, nor with any such surface efforts that focus on the symptoms rather than the cause. A better solution is to accept and to celebrate the fact that the field of computing is much broader and vastly more interesting than the tiny subset of it that can be described as computer science, and to build up from there. It’s especially annoying that the problem exists at Athabasca where a wise decision was made long ago not to offer a computer science program. We have computing and information systems programs, but not any programs in computer science. Unfortunately, thanks to a combination of lazy media and computing profs (suffering from science envy) that promulgate the nonsense, even good friends of mine that should know better sometimes describe me as a computer scientist (I am emphatically not), and even some of our own staff think of what we do as computer science. To change that perception means not just a change in nomenclature, but a change in how and what we, at least in Athabasca, teach. For example, we might mindfully adopt an approach that contextualizes computing around projects and applications, rather than its theory and mechanics. We might design a program that doesn’t just lump together a bunch of disconnected courses and call it a minor but that, in each course (if courses are even needed), actively crosses boundaries – to see how code relates to poetry, how art can inform and be informed by software, how understanding how people behave can be used in designing better systems, how learning is changed by the tools we create, and so on.

We don’t need disciplines any more, especially not in a technology field. We need connections. We don’t need to change our image. We need to change our reality. I’m finding that to be quite a difficult challenge right now.

 

Address of the bookmark: http://windsorstar.com/opinion/william-watson-turns-out-the-stem-gender-gap-isnt-a-gap-at-all/wcm/ee4217ec-be76-4b72-b056-38a7981348f2

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/2929581/turns-out-the-stem-%E2%80%98gender-gap%E2%80%99-isn%E2%80%99t-a-gap-at-all

terra0 – a forest that will one day buy itself

I love this art project – a forest that owns itself and that makes money on its own behalf, eventually with no human control or ownership. From the blurb…

“The Project emerged from research in the fields of crypto governance, smart contracts, economics and questions regarding representations of natural systems in the techno-sphere. It creates a framework whereby a forest is able to sell licences to log its own trees through automated processes, smart contracts and blockchain technology. “

But it gets better…

“The terra0 project creates a scenario whereby the forest, augmented through automated processes, utilitizes itself and thereby accumulates capital. A shift from valorisation through third parties to a self-utilization makes it possible for the forest to procure its real counter-value and eventually buy itself. The augmented forest is not only owner of itself, but is thus in the position to buy more ground and therefore to expand.”

Wonderful, immensely thought-provoking, deeply subversive.

Address of the bookmark: http://paulkolling.de/projects/terra0

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/2906218/terra0-a-forest-that-will-one-day-buy-itself

Black holes are simpler than forests and science has its limits

Mandelbrot set (Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandelbrot_set)Martin Rees (UK Astronomer Royal) takes on complexity and emergence. This is essentially a primer on why complex systems – as he says, accounting for 99% of what’s interesting about the world – are not susceptible to reductionist science despite being, at some level, reducible to physics. As he rightly puts it, “reductionism is true in a sense. But it’s seldom true in a useful sense.” Rees’s explanations are a bit clumsy in places – for instance, he confuses ‘complicated’ with ‘complex’ once or twice, which is a rooky mistake, and his example of the Mandelbrot Set as ‘incomprehensible’ is not convincing and rather misses the point about why emergent systems cannot be usefully explained by reductionism (it’s about different kinds of causality, not about complicated patterns) – but he generally provides a good introduction to the issues.

These are well-trodden themes that most complexity theorists have addressed in far more depth and detail, and that usually appear in the first chapter of any introductory book in the field, but it is good to see someone who, from his job title, might seem to be an archetypal reductive scientist (he’s an astrophysicist) challenging some of the basic tenets of his discipline.

Perhaps my favourite works on the subject are John Holland’s Signals and Boundaries, which is a brilliant, if incomplete, attempt to develop a rigorous theory to explain and describe complex adaptive systems, and Stuart Kauffman’s flawed but stunning Reinventing the Sacred, which (with very patchy success) attempts to bridge science and religious belief but that, in the process, brilliantly and repeatedly proves, from many different angles, the impossibility of reductive science explaining or predicting more than an infinitesimal fraction of what actually matters in the universe. Both books are very heavy reading, but very rewarding.

Address of the bookmark: https://aeon.co/ideas/black-holes-are-simpler-than-forests-and-science-has-its-limits

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/2874665/black-holes-are-simpler-than-forests-and-science-has-its-limits

A Universe Explodes: A Blockchain Book, from Editions At Play

A Universe Explodes A really nice project from the Editions at Play team at Google, in which blockchain is used both to limit supply to a digital book (only 100 copies made) and, as the book is passed on, to make it ‘age,’ in the sense that each reader must remove two words from each page and add one of their own before passing it on (that they are obliged to do). Eventually, it decays to the point of being useless, though I think the transitional phases might be very interesting in their own right.

I was thinking something very vaguely along these lines would be an interesting idea and had started making notes about how it would work, but it seemed so blindingly obvious that somebody must have already done it. Blockchain technologies for publishing are certainly being considered by many people, and some are being implemented.   The Alliance of Independent Authors seems to have the most practical plans for using Blockchain for that purpose. Another similar idea comes with the means to partially compensate publishers for such things (as though they needed even more undeserved profits). Another interesting idea is to use Blockchain Counterparty tokens to replace ISBN numbers. However, A Universe Explodes is the only example I have so far found of building in intentional decay. It’s one of a range of wonderfully inventive and inspiring books that could only possibly exist in digital media at the brilliant Editions at Play site.

Though use of Blockchain for publishing is a no-brainer, it’s the decay part that I like most, and that I was thinking about before finding this. Removing and adding words is not an accurate representation of the typical decay of a physical book, and it is not super-practical at a large scale, delightful though it is. My first thoughts were, in a pedestrian way, to build in a more authentic kind of decay. It might, for instance, be possible to simply overlay a few more pixels with each reading, or to incrementally grey-out or otherwise visually degrade the text (which might have some cognitive benefits too, as it happens). That relies, however, on a closed application system, or a representation that would be a bit inflexible (e.g. a vector format like SVG to represent the text, or even a bitmap) otherwise it would be too easy to remove such additions simply by using a different application. And, of course, it would be bad for people with a range of disabilities, although I guess you could perform similar mutilations of other representations of the text just as easily. That said, it could be made to work. There’s no way it is even close to being as good as making something free of DRM, of course, but it’s a refinement that might be acceptable to greedy publishers that would at least allow us to lend, give, or sell books that we have purchased to others.

My next thought was that you could, perhaps more easily and certainly more interestingly, make marginalia (graphics and text) a permanent feature of the text once ownership was transferred, which would be both annoying and enlightening, as it is in physical books. One advantage would be that it reifies the concept of ownership – the intentional marks made on the book are a truer indication of the chain of owners than anything more abstract or computer-generated. It could also be a really interesting and useful way to tread a slightly more open path than most ugly DRM implementations, inasmuch as it could allow the creation of deliberately annotated editions (with practical or artistic intent) without the need for publisher permission. That would be good for textbooks, and might open up big untapped markets: for instance, I’d quite often rather buy an ebook annotated by one of my favourite authors or artists than the original, even if it cost more. It could be interestingly subversive, too. I might even purchase one of Trump’s books if it were annotated (and re-sold) by journalists from the Washington Post or Michael Moore, for example. And it could make a nice gift to someone to provide a personally embellished version of a text. Combined with the more prosaic visual decay approach, this could become a conversation between annotators and, eventually, become a digital palimpsest in which the original text all but disappears under generations of annotation. I expect someone has already thought of that but, if not, maybe this post can be used to stop someone profiting from it with a patent claim.

In passing, while searching, I also came across http://www.eruditiondigital.co.uk/what-we-do/custos-for-ebooks.php which is both cunning and evil: it lets publishers embed Bitcoin bounties in ebooks that ‘pirates’ can claim and, in the process, alert the publisher to the identity of the person responsible. Ugly, but very ingenious. As the creators claim, it turns pirates on other pirates by offering incentives, yet keeping the whole process completely anonymous. Eeugh.

Address of the bookmark: https://medium.com/@teau/a-universe-explodes-a-blockchain-book-ab75be83f28

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/2874113/a-universe-explodes-a-blockchain-book-from-editions-at-play

Evidence mounts that laptops are terrible for students at lectures. So what?

The Verge reports on a variety of studies that show taking notes with laptops during lectures results in decreased learning when compared with notes taken using pen and paper. This tells me three things, none of which is what the article is aiming to tell me:

  1. That the institutions are teaching very badly. Countless decades of far better evidence than that provided in these studies shows that giving lectures with the intent of imparting information like this is close to being the worst way to teach. Don’t blame the students for poor note taking, blame the institutions for poor teaching. Students should not be put in such an awful situation (nor should teachers, for that matter). If students have to take notes in your lectures then you are doing it wrong.
  2. That the students are not skillful laptop notetakers. These studies do not imply that laptops are bad for notetaking, any more than giving students violins that they cannot play implies that violins are bad for making music. It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. If their classes depend on effective notetaking then teachers should be teaching students how to do it. But, of course, most of them probably never learned to do it well themselves (at least using laptops). It becomes a vicious circle.
  3. That laptop and, especially, software designers have a long way to go before their machines disappear into the background like a pencil and paper. This may be inherent in the medium, inasmuch as a) they are vastly more complex toolsets with much more to learn about, and b) interfaces and apps constantly evolve so, as soon as people have figured out one of them, everything changes under their feet. It becomes a vicious cycle.

The extra cognitive load involved in manipulating a laptop app (and stopping the distractions that manufacturers seem intent on providing even if you have the self-discipline to avoid proactively seeking them yourself) can be a hindrance unless you are proficient to the point that it becomes an unconscious behaviour. Few of us are. Tablets are a better bet, for now, though they too are becoming overburdened with unsought complexity and unwanted distractions. I have for a couple of years now been taking most of my notes at conferences etc with an Apple Pencil and an iPad Pro, because I like the notetaking flexibility, the simplicity, the lack of distraction (albeit that I have to actively manage that), and the tactile sensation of drawing and doodling. All of that likely contributes to making it easier to remember stuff that I want to remember. The main downside is that, though I still gain laptop-like benefits of everything being in one place, of digital permanence, and of it being distributed to all my devices, I have, in the process, lost a bit in terms of searchability and reusability. I may regret it in future, too, because graphic formats tend to be less persistent over decades than text. On the bright side, using a tablet, I am not stuck in one app. If I want to remember a paper or URL (which is most of what I normally want to remember other than my own ideas and connections that are sparked by the speaker) I tend to look it up immediately and save it to Pocket so that I can return to it later, and I do still make use of a simple notepad for things I know I will need later. Horses for courses, and you get a lot more of both with a tablet than you do with a pencil and paper. And, of course, I can still use pen and paper if I want a throwaway single-use record – conference programs can be useful for that.

 

 

 

 

Address of the bookmark: https://www.theverge.com/2017/11/27/16703904/laptop-learning-lecture

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/2871283/evidence-mounts-that-laptops-are-terrible-for-students-at-lectures-so-what

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: https://qz.com/1134958/small-talks-positive-benefits-outweigh-your-fear-of-being-awkward/

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/2849927/small-talk-big-implications

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.

Amp-55-1-68-fig1a

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: http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/marketplace-phones-1.4384876

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/2816324/addicted-to-learning-or-addicted-to-grades