So my site broke…

It turns out that none of my site backups have worked since late 2018. This is fairly remarkable for all sorts of reasons, not least of which being the fact that I have plenty of different backups on multiple systems and not a single one succeeded. There’s a lesson to be learned here, but it is one that I have learned very many times before over many decades and (quite clearly) have once again forgotten. Test your ability to restore your backups.

It’s now the early hours of the morning and I am very tired. Things are far from normal on the site. I have a lot of work ahead of me over the coming days.

Sigh.

Sigh.

Sigh.

ps.

And when I started to recover the site it decided to tweet everything I had just restored. Again.

Sorry, overburdened recipients of repeat tweets.

Sigh.

Letting go and staying close: presentation to GMR Institute of Technology, India, August 2020

Letting go and staying close

Here are my slides from a presentation I gave to GMR Institute of Technology, Rajam of Srikakulum District, Andhra Pradesh State, India, last week. I gave the presentation from a car, parked in a camp site in the midst of British Columbia, surrounded by mountains and lakes and forest, taking advantage of a surprisingly decent 4G connection via an iPad. It was sadly not interactive, but I hope that those present learned something useful (even if, as my presentation emphasized, they did not learn what I intended to teach).

The general gist of it is that, when teaching online, we need to let go because the in-person power we have in a classroom simply isn’t there. There are other consequences – the need to build community, to demonstrate caring, to accept and value the context of the learner, to accept and value the very many teachers that they will encounter apart from us.

Standard Ebooks: Free and liberated ebooks, carefully produced for the true book lover.

https://standardebooks.org/

This is a great site. It doesn’t have anything like the number of books to be found on sites like Project Gutenberg or Archive.org, but each one has been lovingly edited and restored to how it should be, and made available in most popular e-book formats. This is a wonderful service and, at a stroke, removes many of the barriers to reading classic (and some not-so-classic) public domain works. It’s all managed through Github. I feel that I should help with this worthy project though I’m not sure I have the time or patience. I’m very grateful to those that do, though.

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/6177077/standard-ebooks-free-and-liberated-ebooks-carefully-produced-for-the-true-book-lover

This New ‘Ion Drive’ Airplane Flew Straight out of Science Fiction

https://medium.com/popular-science/this-new-ion-drive-airplane-flew-straight-out-of-science-fiction-4ce0c494a95d

ion powered planeWell, this is cool and, indeed, right out of the pages of science fiction. It uses an array of highly charged electrodes on the wings, positively and negatively charged. The first in line ionizes nitrogen, which is therefore attracted to the second and, in the process, bumps oxygen molecules out of the way providing the driving force. The ‘engine’ is virtually silent, creates zero emissions in flight (the nitrogen ions regain their lost electron at the second electrode) and can be used to direct the plane, in principle, in any direction. The smart folk at MIT who built this flew a test plane indoors for only a couple of hundred metres and, right now, it is highly inefficient compared with the alternatives, but this has got to be the coolest air transport technology ever. It’s a frigging ion drive! Though these are early days and it will be some time before it is safe and efficient enough to be of general use, I love this idea. Lots of other uses, too, like hover-cars, boats that glide over water without touching it (or making noise), super-silent fans, hover-boards, and so on. Throw in some super-efficient solar power and we (or, for us oldies, our descendants) could be sailing on light before too long. I know next to nothing about the physics so maybe these are impossible or, in the case of fans, probably already exist (it’s an obvious technology), but the adjacent possible suddenly got much bigger.

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/6156561/this-new-%E2%80%98ion-drive%E2%80%99-airplane-flew-straight-out-of-science-fiction

Social physics (collection from Scientific Reports at nature.com)

https://www.nature.com/collections/hfafjbjbgd

This is an incredibly large (more than 50) and broad collection of recent articles from nature.com – all or almost all of which appear to be open access – that in some way apply methods from physics to social contexts. There’s a predictably large assortment of social networking studies but there’s a lot more to it than that, including quite a bit of pattern matching and discovery relating to many different kinds of set (interestingly enough, perhaps outnumbering the network-based studies), spatial issues, temporal issues, economics studies, collective behaviour analysis, game theory, and cognitive issues. It is going to take me a long time to work my way through these but I think I’m going to learn a lot.

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/6097771/social-physics-collection-from-scientific-reports-at-naturecom

A novel approach to protecting academic freedom of speech: allow it, but do not allow it to be heard

The faculty and professional staff union at Athabasca University, AUFA (the Athabasca University Faculty Association), has two mailing lists, one used for announcements from its exec committee, and one for discussions between its members. Given that most of us have barely any physical contact with one another at the best of times, and that there are no other technologies that are likely to reach even a fraction of all staff involved in teaching and research (the Landing AUFA group, for instance, has only about 40 out of a few hundred potential members) the latter is the primary vehicle through which we, as a community of practice, communicate, share ideas and news, and engage in discussions that help to establish our collective identity. It’s a classic online learning community using a very low threshold, simple, universally accessible technology.

There had been a debate on the discussion list for a few days over the past week on a contentious issue pitting academic freedom against the needs and rights of transgender people. As too often happens when the rights of disadvantaged minorities are involved, the conversation was getting toxic, culminating in a couple of faculty members directly and very unprofessionally abusing another, telling him to shut up and to stop displaying his ignorance. This is not behaviour worthy of anyone, let alone teachers (of all people), and something had to be done about it. At this point the obvious solution would have been for the managers of the list to discuss these abuses individually with those members, and/or for the individuals themselves to reflect on and apologize for their behaviour, and/or to open up the debate on the list about acceptable norms and approaches to de-escalating situations like this. Sadly, that’s not how the list managers responded. Very suddenly, and without any prior warning or discussion whatsoever, the union executive committee shut the entire discussion list down indefinitely, mercilessly nuking it with the following terse and uninformative message posted to the announcement list:

” Dear AUFA members,

Until further notice, AUFA is suspending the AUFA discussions list serv for review of harmful language and due to a high volume of complaints.”

Shocked by this baldly authoritarian response, I immediately sent a strong message of protest, that I tempered with recommendations about what would have been an appropriate approach to managing the problem, and suggestions about ways to move forward with alternative methods and tools in future. I received no reply. One long day later, however, the following message was posted to the announcement list:

” Dear AUFA members,

I want to update you on the situation with the AUFA discussions list serv.

AUFA is committed to protecting Academic Freedom. AUFA is equally committed to protecting Human Rights. AUFA did not make the decision to suspend the list serv lightly. As the entity legally responsible for the listserv, AUFA has an obligation to ensure the safety of its members.

The AUFA executive had a lengthy discussion about the purpose and usefulness of the AUFA listserv and is actively considering alternative methods and forums by which members might communicate with each other in the near future. “

That’s it. That’s the whole message. Clearly they did not discuss this with the people who were actually affected, or with those who had been abusive, and they certainly didn’t talk about it with the rest of us. The message itself is remarkably uninformative, raising far more questions than it answers. It reads to me as ‘you have been naughty children and we have decided to send you to your room to think about it’. But I think they must have been following a different discussion than the one I saw because, though there was certainly some unprofessional nastiness and some unsubtle arguments expressed (that were becoming far more refined as the discussion progressed – that’s how free and open debate is supposed to work), I did not spot any human rights abuses during the discussion, and the only abuse of academic freedom I could see was the decision to shut down the list itself. Removing the possibility of speech altogether is certainly a non-traditional approach to protecting freedom of speech.

Notice, too, that in both messages there is a synecdochal conflation of ‘AUFA’ and ‘the AUFA executive committee’. I’m pretty sure that, as a member of AUFA, I would know whether I had been part of such a decision. That’s a bit like a teacher shutting down an online course because someone was rude, then claiming that the class shut it down. It’s a subtle way of abnegating responsibility, suggesting that some technological entity did something when, in fact, it was done by very real and fully responsible people. AUFA did not do this, and AUFA did not make these decisions. A small group of actual, real human beings did it, all by themselves.

I sent a strongly worded (but respectful) response to that one too.

Who owns this?

I think it is clear that the mailing list is not owned by the union executive committee. They are custodians of it, stewards who run it on the behalf of everyone in the union. Shutting it down denies the members of the union their primary means of connection and debate, including debate about this very issue. The message is quite misleading about the AUFA exec’s responsibilities, too: though they do need to be attentive to illegal behaviours, they are not legally responsible for what other people say on the listserv. In fact, the explicit or implicit legal protections afforded to providers of such services are fundamental to allowing much of the Internet to work at all. This is why there is so much outrage and protest against Trump’s efforts to remove such protections in the US right now. And there are lots of ways of handling the problem, from direct personal communication to public debate to the establishment of rules or a social contract to calling in the police. Going nuclear on the service does not fulfill that responsibility at all; it simply evades it.

It is absolutely fair to claim that list managers do have a responsibility to the union members of helping to maintain a non-abusive, safe, supportive online community. However, shutting down the thing they have an obligation to preserve is not just neglect of that responsibility but the worst and most harmful thing they could possibly do to fulfill it. It is like protecting an endangered animal by shooting it.

Ironically, the final message posted on the now-dead discussion list ended with the line:

“One thing I vowed to myself… is that I would never let anyone stop me from saying what I have to say “

Well, that kept like milk.

I feel incensed, abused, and suddenly incredibly isolated from my university and my colleagues. My sense of loss is tangible and intense. It’s lucky that I do have other channels, like this one, to vent my frustration and to bring this to a broader audience. I hope this message gets to at least a few of those who, like me, are feeling cut off and disempowered and, if they have not done so already, that they loudly voice their concerns to those responsible.

Moving on

Unfortunately, though very low threshold and accessible to all, listservs are not great tools for hosting contentious debates. They are extremely soft technologies which means that, on the positive side, they are extremely flexible and very low threshold, but that therefore a great deal of additional process must be added manually by their participants in order to deal with them: distinguishing threads, choosing which to attend to, tracking conversations, managing archived messages, using appropriate subject lines, to name but a few.

Listservs are poor tools for achieving consensus and poor tools for argument. The push nature of the technology means it can be very intrusive but, equally, the fact that we control our mail filters means that it can be completely shut down and ignored, without other participants having any knowledge that their messages are falling on deaf ears. It’s a technology that allows everyone to shout at the same time so it’s unsurprising that it is fertile ground for misunderstandings, confusion, high emotions, and people who forget that they are talking to other people. The very simplicity that makes them so easy to engage with also makes it easier to forget the humans behind the messages. Unless individuals have taken pains to share things about themselves with their messages, there are not even pictures and profiles to serve as a reminder. Though web archives may be available, they are rarely if ever open for continued dialogue: though, in principle, one could reply to a message from months or years ago, that virtually never happens. This means that people tend rush to get their message across before the list moves on to some other topic, with all the risks that entails. It kind of has to be that way. Because of the push nature of the medium, if conversations were to persist then multiple parallel discussions would rapidly overwhelm everyone’s inbox and attention.

For all these reasons and more, as anyone who has ever tried to do so will be painfully aware, managing a mailing list used for open discussion, especially one (like this) that lacks a clear mandate, contract or terms of engagement, takes a lot of manual effort, a fair bit of ingenuity, and a lot of careful attention. When things get out of hand, those who run the list need to take active, timely, creative measures to defuse them. It’s hard but necessary work, that demands sensitivity, a forgiving nature, a willingness to accept abuse with very little chance of being thanked for your efforts and, often, willingness and availability to work far ouside a normal working day (this, as it happens, is also true of many approaches to online teaching). Unfortunately, no one in our union leadership seems willing or able to take on such management. If that’s the case, the solution is not to shut it down. The solution is to pass it on to someone else who can and will moderate it more caringly, perhaps to put some more resources into managing it and, perhaps, to participatively look into rules, norms, and other tools and procedures that might do the job better.

Moving further on

There are hundreds and maybe thousands of tools and methods that can better (or at least differently) support this kind of debate than a listserv. Even the humble threaded forum at least allows such discussions to be segmented and, for those upset by them, ignored. Some allow for threads or people to be (from an individual’s perspective) muted, and many allow forum owners to close discussions in a particular thread without killing the whole thing. Some go beyond crude threads, allowing richer cross-linking between messages and discussions. Some offer authoring help, like in-line searching of previous messages and direct linking to sources or, simple AI to warn when sentiments appear to run high. Many tools allow for simple tricks like karma points, thumbs up, and other low threshold ways of signalling agreement or disagreement, in a manner that shows collective sentiment without a high commitment or fear of reprisal, and that also signals whether a topic is interesting to the crowd without relying on a deluge of messages to show it. Some offer means to reach decisions, from simple votes to computer supported collaborative argumentation tools. Many allow for profiles and other signals of social presence that make the humans behind the messages more visible and salient. Some (blogs, say, like this one) allow for more focused subscribable discussions on specific themes that are managed and owned by the creator of the original post, and that are not as ephemeral as mailing lists. Some offer other tools like persistent shared bookmarks or filesharing that help to organize resources related to themes of debate. Some have recommender systems that show related posts and thus help to situate discussions, and to support connections back to previous discussions. Many have persistence so that learning is reified and searchable, not lost in a stream of thousands of other emails. Some allow for scheduling and time-limited discussions.

Equally, there are lots of process models for reaching consensus on social norms and acceptable behaviours, as well as ways of dealing with issues when they arise. Skills can be developed in stewardship and moderation so that problems are defused before they become severe, or not arise in the first place thanks to careful specification of ground rules or structuring of the process. There are plenty of books and papers on the subject (this is my favourite, especially now that it is free) that delve into great detail. There are ways of taking an holistic approach that takes into account the larger social ecosystem to (for instance) help to build social capital, use different tools for different functions, and so on.

All of these technologies, including process models, methods, and procedures, come with plentiful gotchas – Faustian bargains and monkeys’ paws that can easily cause more problems than they solve and that will never be ideal for all – so this is not a set of decisions that should be entered into lightly or without extensive consultation, participation, and analysis, and it should always be thought of as an ongoing process, never a finished solution. Clearly, it eventually needs to be done. In the meantime, if a listserv is all we have, then we should at least manage it properly. It is not acceptable to simply nuke the only tool we have, even if it is a weak one.

I do realize that union leadership is an extremely hard and often thankless job and, though I frequently feel very critical of things they do on my behalf,  especially when they adopt an archaic ‘us vs them’ vocabulary, I am thankful they do it. I very seldom voice my adverse opinions because I know they are trying to do their best for everyone, I am certainly not willing to take on the enormous commitments involved myself and, without their hard work and principled actions (regardless of occasions when they actively make things worse) we would, on average, be in a far worse place than we are today. However, the union leadership’s response to this has been outrageously authoritarian, disproportionate, insensitive, and deeply harmful, in direct opposition to everything a union should stand for. If this is a reflection of their values then they do not have either my trust or my support.

 

Postscript

Eventually, after nearly two days, I received a one-line personal reply to my original complaint telling me that the suspension of the list is temporary (this may be news to others in the union who have not been told this: you heard it here first, folks!) and that they will, at some unspecified point, be seeking input from members on communication preferences (not consultation, note, or participation, just input). No timelines were given. I am not satisfied with this.

Opinion: Let’s admit it – online education is a pale shadow of the real thing

Sigh.

This is an opinion piece from a UoT philosophy professor, Mark Kingwell, published in the Globe and Mail. Its arguments (such as they are) are an extremely poor advertisement for his discipline or for the effectiveness of learning philosophy. This is my best attempt to reconstruct the argument he is making:

P1: education cannot properly occur without a college culture (no supporting evidence given. The existence of Athabasca University proves this to be false)

P2: Socratic engagement cannot occur apart from in-person (no supporting evidence given. Thousands of online philosophy courses doing just that prove this to be false)

P3: being there is better than being online (no supporting evidence given. This is just an opinion. My own opinion is that it depends entirely on what you do and how you do it. Sometimes it is better to shop from Amazon, sometimes it isn’t. I’ve had awful in-person experiences and wonderful online experiences, and vice versa)

P4: online learning cannot replicate the in-person experience (no supporting evidence given apart from a misquote of McLuhan, though I agree that this, at least, is true)

Therefore: if it is provided online, education (or at least the teaching of philosophy) cannot work. At least this conclusion more or less follows from the flawed premises, give or take the odd missing premise, and notwithstanding the fact that ‘education’ is not well defined, apart from circularly.

This is palpable nonsense. The only argument that has any weight whatsoever is that online learning cannot replicate in-person learning, albeit not for the reasons he provides. This is absolutely correct. It doesn’t, and it shouldn’t. It’s a different (though overlapping) set of orchestrations of a different (though overlapping) set of phenomena. It should no more be the same as in-person learning than driving a car should be the same as riding a horse. It is fair to say that if you apply exactly the same techniques to driving a car as you would to riding a horse the best and most likely thing that can happen is nothing. If by some miraculous accident you managed to get in the car by trying to mount it, and if for some reason it started moving (maybe you kicked the handbrake?), the results would not be pretty.

There is a potentially interesting though undeveloped argument to be made about the importance of college culture. I could not agree more that the processes of teaching that a professor manages are only a tiny fraction of what leads to learning and that the vast majority of learning in colleges (or any other teaching institution, especially online) does occur outside the classroom and beyond the purview of any professor. In fact, much of the time, much of it occurs long after a course is over, sometimes years later. I agree that the way colleges create safe and vibrant communities that support students’ growth and development is very valuable, especially in the context of straight-out-of-school kids who need to unlearn the dependencies that have been imposed on them by years of coercive schooling. The scaffolding it provides is great. It is a somewhat damning indictment of a teacher’s teaching, though, that this is the university’s main source of value, don’t you think? And is it really the only way to do this? And, if it is, why not make it available to everyone, rather than the few that you deem worthy of it?

As much as anything this sounds to me like an anguished cry for help from someone who is out of his depth, lost, and unable to understand how to change. So, here’s some advice for Professor Kingwell and anyone else suffering the same existential angst. Let go of the idea that teaching is something that you do to students. Think of it instead as a process of helping students to learn. Question your assumptions. Don’t try to approximate real seminars and lectures. They were poor (in the case of lectures, exceedingly poor) technologies in the first place that were only necessary because of physics and the need for medieval monks to indoctrinate as many people as possible in the absence of affordable books. Imagine what the advantages for students might be of learning in situ, of being able to take time to think about the answers, of being able to make use of and connect with the vast sources of knowledge (especially including other people) that are available online, of integrating their learning in their own lives and communities. Don’t forget that they have their own interests, physical contexts and social circles. Remember that you are only a part of their environment, not the controller of it. If you don’t think the skills of debate can be developed online, visit some of the discussions at r/philosophy on Reddit. You will, of course, despair of the poor quality of most of the arguments and the shallowness of many of the replies but isn’t that a wonderful opportunity? How can you make it better? Do you see glimmers of intelligent argument there that could be developed, with your help? Online learning is not and should not be the same as in-person learning. But it can be richer, more meaningful, more relevant, and more respectful of learners’ individuality and autonomy precisely because it does not suffer the same constraints and path dependencies of the old ways.

Addendum

There is another argument in this opinion piece that I have ignored, which does have empirical support and coherence, and it goes like this:

Students who have chosen in-person learning rather than online learning prefer in-person learning to online learning. Those dreaming spires and quads that he mentions, not to mention football and bars, and above all the general ‘college experience’, including the potential to drop out of the rest of society for a few years, probably have a great deal to do with this. Many current students resent paying the same over-inflated fees for what they rightly perceive to be a less valuable experience.

Therefore colleges will suffer from loss of revenue and smaller, less successful ones may close

That’s a fair argument, despite the obvious sampling bias. There’s no doubt that the skills and toolsets needed for effective online learning are far beyond the capabilities of most professors in most universities and colleges, as this plea for help reveals. In fact, even dedicated online institutions like Athabasca struggle a great deal to manage, with funding models that completely fail to address the realities and very unevenly spread pedagogical skills.

The current crisis certainly will massively disrupt education as we know it, much as it will disrupt most industries and institutions. There’s a lot of beautiful real estate that is not going to be well used, though it is not well used as it is, with most buildings and classrooms unused most of the time in most institutions, so this is only a matter of degree, as it were. These are interesting times. But that’s no reason to say that it won’t be as good. If we choose to make it better, it can be better.

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/5800367/opinion-let%E2%80%99s-admit-it-%E2%80%93-online-education-is-a-pale-shadow-of-the-real-thing

Distributed Teaching

https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-981-13-1179-6_109-1

I forgot to share this when it first came out at the end of last year. This is my contribution to Springer’s Encyclopedia of Teacher Education, a brief (3000 word) article that gives a broad overview of the main ways in which the role of a teacher is (always) spread across many individuals, as well as a little general advice about ways that designated teachers might make use of this knowledge. Being an encyclopaedia article there’s nothing particularly earth shattering in it, but I think it captures the essence of most perspectives on how the act of teaching is shared among us, from deliberate collaborations through to socially distributed cognition and collectives, and the conclusion very gently hints at what are actually quite significant consequences of this perspective for how teachers should teach (tl;dr: embrace the crowd, don’t fight it).

Unfortunately it is paywalled (I was invited to submit this by a friend), but there’s a preprint available at https://auspace.athabascau.ca/handle/2149/3641 which is fairly close to the final version.

Original citation:

Dron J. (2020) Distributed Teaching. In: Peters M. (eds) Encyclopedia of Teacher Education. Springer, Singapore

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/5782405/distributed-teaching

The most comprehensive, accurate, and up-to-date source of information on COVID19 research

https://covid-trials.org/

screenshot of covid-trials.org This site tracks and sorts registered COVID-19 trials, harvested from multiple reliable global databases as well as other promising research not included in such sources, mined and pre-filtered using AI techniques. The studies are all manually reviewed by two humans for validity, reliability, methods, etc, and checked for duplication. They also regularize and standardize the language and data to make studies more easily and directly comparable. The result is then fed into an easily searchable online database. This provides what is essentially a super-fast and flexible way of conducting something akin to a systematic review (better, in some ways), and the results can be freely used by anyone interested in the current state of the research (good export facilities too). I rather like the idea that it is becoming a means for researchers themselves to connect with one another and coordinate research. For laypeople, it’s a brilliant way to check the true state of research without the sensationalism or cherry picking of politicians or regular/social media. You can easily set filter and sorting conditions, and there are links to all the original data and papers (many of which are not paywalled). As of today, the site tracks 590 trials, but the number is growing all the time. The site and its features are still evolving, too. It has been built by researchers who did not have a wealth of web design expertise before this started, but you’d hardly know it: they have done a great job of getting it up and running and making it really usable and responsive.

You can read more about it in The Lancet.  I highly recommend the associated interview. The sound quality of the podcast is not great, but the interview is terrific, and it explains much more of the process, implications, and uses than the article itself. Some great reflections on the relative value of different kinds of data and many of the seldom stated complexities of scientific trials in general, including political and social issues, not to mention the immense promise of analytics approaches to greatly increase what we can learn from existing trials. Fascinating stuff.

Full disclosure: I am the very proud father of the second author of the paper and interviewee in the podcast, who is working punishing hours day and night to make this happen. In the fight against the pandemic he is only one among many heroes, but this one happens to be mine.

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/5671588/the-most-comprehensive-accurate-and-up-to-date-source-of-information-on-covid19-research

Does technology lead to improved learning? (tl;dr: it's a meaningless question)

Students using computers, public domain, https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/19758917473/There have been (at least) tens of thousands of comparative studies on the effects of ‘technology’ on learning performed over the past hundred years or so. Though some have been slightly more specific (the effects of computers, online learning, whiteboards, eportfolios, etc) and some more sensible authors use the term ‘tech’ to distinguish things with flashing lights from technologies in general, nowadays it is pretty common to just use the term ‘technology’ as though we all know what the authors mean. We don’t. And neither do they.

It makes no more sense to ask whether (say) computers have a positive or negative effect on learning than to ask whether (say) pedagogies have a positive or negative effect on learning. Pedagogies (methods and principles of learning and teaching) are at least as much technologies as computers and their uses and forms are similarly diverse. Some work better than others, sometimes, in some contexts, for some people. All are soft technologies that demand we act as coparticipants in their orchestration, not just users of them. This means that we have to add stuff to them in order that they work. None do anything of interest by themselves – they must be orchestrated with (usually many) other tools, methods, structures, and so on in order to do anything at all. All can be orchestrated well (assuming we know what ‘well’ really means, and we seldom really do) or badly.

It is instructive to wonder why it is that, as far as I know, no one has yet tried to investigate the effects of transistors, or screws, or words, or cables on learning, even though they are an essential part of most technologies that we do see fit to research and are certainly prerequisite parts of many educational interventions. The answer is, I hope, obvious: we would be looking at the wrong level of detail. We would be examining a part of the assembly that is probably not materially significant to learning success, albeit that, without them, we would not have other technologies that interest us more. Transistors enable computers, but they do not entail them.

Likewise computers and pedagogies enable learning, but do not entail it (for more on enablement vs entailment, see Longo et al, 2012 or, for a fuller treatment, Kauffman, 2019). True, pedagogies and computers may orchestrate many more phenomena for us, and some of those orchestrations may have more consistent and partly causal effects on whether an intervention works than screws and cables but, without considering the entire specific assembly of which they are a part, those effects are no more generalizably relevant to whether learning is effective or not than the effects of words or transistors.

Technologies enable (or sometimes disable) a range of phenomena, but only rarely do they generalizably entail a fixed set of outcomes and, if they do, there are almost always ways that we can assemble them with other technologies that alter those outcomes. In the case of something as complex as education, which always involves thousands and usually millions of technological components assembled with one another by a vast number of people, not just the teacher, every part affects every other. It is irreducibly complex, not just complicated. There are butterfly’s wing effects to consider – a single injudicious expletive, say, or a even a smile can transform the effectiveness or otherwise of teaching. There’s emergence, too. A story is not just a collection of words, a lesson is not just a bunch of pedagogical methods, a learning community is not just a collection of people. And all of these things – parts and emergent or designed combinations of parts – interact with one another to lead to deterministic but unprestatable consequences (Kauffman, 2019).

Of course, any specific technology applied in a specific context can and will entail specific and (if hard enough) potentially repeatable outcomes. Hard technologies will do the same thing every time, as long as they work. I press the switch, the light comes on. But even for such a simple, hard technology, you cannot from that generalize that every time any switch is pressed a light will come on, even if you, without warrant, assume that the technology works as intended, because it can always be assembled with other phenomena, including those provided by other technologies, that alter its effects. I press many switches every day that do not turn on lights and, sometimes, even when I press a light switch the light does not come on (those that are assembled with smart switches, for instance). Soft technologies like computers, pedagogies, words, cables, and transistors are always assembled with other phenomena. They are incomplete, and do not do anything of interest at all without an indefinitely large number of things and processes that we add to them, or to which we add them, each subtly or less subtly different from the rest. Here’s an example using the soft technology of language:

  • There are countless ways I could say this.
  • There are infinitely many ways to make this point.
  • Wow, what a lot of ways to say the same thing!
  • I could say this in a vast number of ways.
  • There are indefinitely many ways to communicate the meaning of what I wish to express.
  • I could state this in a shitload of ways.
  • And so on, ad infinitum.

This is one tiny part of one tiny technology (this post). Imagine this variability multiplied by the very many people, tools, methods, techniques, content, and structures that go into even a typical lesson, let alone a course. And that is disregarding the countless other factors and technologies that affect learning, from institutional regulations to interesting news stories or conversations on a bus.

Reductive scientific methods like randomized controlled tests and null hypothesis significance testing can tell us things that might be useful to us as designers and enactors of teaching. We can, say, find out some fairly consistent things about how people learn (as natural phenomena), and we can find out useful things about how well different specific parts compare with one another in a particular kind of assembly when they are supposed to do the same job (nails vs screws, for instance). But these are just phenomena that we can use as part of an assembly, not prescriptions for successful learning. The question of whether any given type of technology affects learning is meaningless. Of course it does, in the specific, because we are using it to help enable learning. But it only does so in an orchestrated assembly with countless others, and that orchestration is and must always be substantially different from any other. So, please, let’s all stop pretending that educational technologies (including pedagogical methods) can be researched in the same reductive ways as natural phenomena, as generalizable laws of entailment. They cannot.

References

Arthur, W. B. (2009). The Nature of Technology: what it is and how it evolves (Kindle ed.). New York, USA: Free Press. (Arthur’s definition of technology as the orchestration of phenomena for some purpose, and his insights into how technologies evolve through assembly, underpins the above)

Kauffman, S. A. (2019). A World Beyond Physics: The Emergence and Evolution of Life. Oxford University Press.

Longo, G., Montévil, M., & Kauffman, S. (2012). No entailing laws, but enablement in the evolution of the biosphere. Proceedings from 14th annual conference companion on Genetic and evolutionary computation, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. Full text available at https://dl.acm.org/doi/pdf/10.1145/2330784.2330946