At last, a serious use for AI: Brickit

https://brickit.app/

Brickit is what AI was made for. You take a picture of your pile of LEGO with your phone or tablet, then the app figures out what pieces you have, and suggests models you could build with it, including assembly plans. The coolest detail, perhaps, is that, having done so, it highlights the bricks you will need in the photo you took of your pile, so you can find them more easily. I’ve not downloaded it yet, so I’m not sure how well it works, but I love the concept.

The fan-made app is iOS only for now, but an Android version is coming in the fall. It’s free, but I’m guessing it may make money in future from in-app purchases giving access to more designs, options to purchase missing bricks, or something along those lines.

It would be cooler if it connected Lego enthusiasts so that they could share their MOCs (my own constructions) with others. I’m guessing it might use the LXFML format, which LEGO® itself uses to export designs from its (unsupported, discontinued, but still available) LEGO DIgital Designer app, so this ought to be easy enough. It would be even cooler if it supported a swap and share feature, so users could connect via the app to get hold of or share missing bricks. The fact that it should in principle be able to catalogue all your pieces would make this fairly straightforward to do. There are lots of existing sites and databases that share MOCs, such as https://moc.bricklink.com/pages/moc/index.page, or the commercial marketplace https://rebrickable.com/mocs/#hottest; there are brick databases like https://rebrickable.com/downloads/ that allow you to identify and order the bricks you need;  there are even swap sites like http://swapfig.com/ (minifigures only); and, of course, there are many apps for designing MOCs or downloading others. However, this app seems to be the…er…missing piece that could make them much more useful. 

Reviews suggest that it doesn’t always succeed in finding a model and might not always identify all the pieces. Also, I don’t think there’s a phone camera in the world with fine enough resolution to capture my son’s remarkably large LEGO collection. Even spreading the bricks out to take pictures would require more floor-space than any of us have in our homes. But what a great idea!

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/9558928/at-last-a-serious-use-for-ai-brickit

Why do we work from home but learn remotely?

I am slowly getting used to the ugly abbreviation WFH that has emerged during the pandemic, though I don’t much like it because it’s not always accurate. Even in pandemic times I often work from my boat (WFB). In non-pandemic times I’ve worked from a tent (WFT), a library (WFL), a hotel room (WFHR), a park bench (WFPB), a conference (WFC), a plane (WFP), a bus (WF… OK, you get the picture), and much, much more. I have even worked at Athabasca University’s own buildings (Working from Work?) on rare occasions. But why do most of us in the trade so rarely use terms like learning from home when working from home (WFH) is so ubiquitous?

Terms like e-learning, online learning, distance learning, remote learning, and so on, are weird. Learning is never remote, electronic, online, or at a distance.  There is more sense to terms like distance education, online education, remote teaching, and so on, because education and teaching describe relationships between people, and there are different ways that those relationships can be mediated, that do (or should) deeply affect the process. There is also a whole slew of intentional and implicit structures, systems, methods, and toolsets that are assumed when we prefix education with terms like distance or online. But why online or distance learning?

As teachers we are (rightly) taught that it’s not about the teaching, it’s about the learning. For at least the last 30 years or more we have, for instance, therefore been strongly encouraged to use the term ‘learning & teaching’ instead of ‘teaching & learning’ because learning must come first. I’ve corrected people myself for getting the order wrong, many times. Charitably, therefore, it might be that we are trying to draw attention to the fact that it’s about learning. But, if so, why distance or online?

Ricardo Liberato, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons I think something nasty has happened to the term ‘learning’ when it is used this way, because I think that what we actually mean by it is ‘teaching’.  Some British English dialects take that dubious elision fully on board. When something nasty happens to someone as a consequence of something they have done that is perceived to be wrong, or even when some punishment is inflicted on them by someone else, it is common in some circles to say ‘that’ll learn yer’ (the ‘yer’ is important – don’t imagine the Queen saying in received pronunciation ‘that will learn you’ because it would be wrong). When I hear the phrase I imagine it being said with a snarl. It’s a cruel thing to say, though it can be used kind-of humorously, at least if, as many of my compatriots do, you appreciate a particularly crude form of Benny-Hillish shadenfreude (‘Ha ha, you fell flat on your face and hurt yourself. That’ll learn yer’).

Outside a subset of British and perhaps some other minor English vernaculars, learning is never something that we do to people. It’s something done by people, with what and with whom is around them (and that might include a teaching website, textbook, or course pack). So let’s stop calling people distance or online learners because it devalues and obscures what they are actually doing. They are not being learned at. They are being taught at a distance, and learning from home (or wherever they happen to be).

A few thoughts on learning management systems, and on integrated learning environments and their implementation

Why do we build digital learning systems to mimic classrooms?

It is understandable that, when we teach in person, we have to occupy and make different uses of the same or similar environments like classrooms, labs, workshops, lecture theatres, and offices. There are huge financial, physical, and organizational constraints on making the environment fit the task, so it would be madness to build a whole new classroom every time we wished to run a different class.

Online, we could build anything we like

But why do we do the same when we teach online? There are countless tools available and, if none are suitable, it is not too hard to build them or modify them to suit our needs. Once they are built, moving between them just takes a tap of a screen or the click of a mouse. Heck, you can even occupy several of them at once if you have a decent monitor or more than one device.

So why don’t we do this?

Here are a few of the more obvious reasons that using the perfect app for the context of study rarely happens:

  • Teachers’ lack of knowledge of the options (it takes time and effort to discover what’s available).
  • Teachers’ lack of skill in using them (most interesting tools have a learning curve, and that gets steeper in inverse proportion to the softness and diversity of the toolset, so most teachers don’t even know how to make the most of what they already have).
  • Lack of time and/or money for development (a real-life application is what it contains, not just the shell that contains it, and it is not always as easy to take existing stuff and put it in a new tool as it might be in a physical space).
  • Costs and difficulties in management (each tool adds costs in managing faults, configuration, accounting for use, performance, and security).
  • Cognitive load involved for learners in adapting to the metaphors, signposts, and methods needed to use the tool itself.

All of these are a direct consequence of the very diversity that would make us want to use different apps in the first place. This is a classic Faustian bargain in which the technology does what we want, and in the process creates new problems to solve.  Every virtual system invents at least some of the dynamics of how people and things interact with it and within it. In effect, every app has its own physics. That makes them harder to find out about, harder to learn, harder to develop, costlier to manage, and more difficult to navigate than the static, fixed facilities found in particular physical locations. They are all different, there are few if any universals, and any universal today may become a conditional tomorrow. Gravity doesn’t necessarily work the same way in virtual systems.

image of a pile of containersAnd so we get learning management systems

The learning management system (LMS) kind of deals with all of these problems: poorly, harmfully, boringly, and painfully, but it does deal with them. Currently, most of the teaching at Athabasca University is through the open source Moodle LMS, lightly modified by us because our needs are not quite like others (self-pacing and all that). But Moodle is not special: in terms of what it does and how it does it, it is not significantly different from any other mainstream LMS – Blackboard, Brightspace, Canvas, Sakai, whatever.

Almost every LMS essentially automates the functions, though not exactly the form, of traditional classrooms. In other parts of the world people prefer to use the term ‘managed learning environment’ (MLE) for such things, and it is the most dominant representative of a larger category of systems usually described as virtual learning environments (VLEs) that also includes things like MOOs (multi-user dungeons, object oriented), immersive learning environments, and simpler web-based teaching systems that replicate aspects of classrooms such as Google Classroom or Microsoft’s gnarly bundle of hastily repurposed rubbish for teaching that I’m not sure even has a name yet. Notice the spatial metaphors in many of these names.

Little boxes made of ticky tacky

The people who originally designed LMSs back in the 90s (I did so myself) based their designs on the functions and entities found in a traditional university because that was their context, and that was where they had to fit. Metaphorically, an LMS or MLE is a big university building with rather uniform classrooms, with perhaps a yard where you can camp out with a few other systems (plugins, LTI hooks, etc) that conform to its requirements and that are allowed in to classrooms when invited, and a few doors and gateways (mainly hyperlinks) linking it circuitously or in jury-rigged fashion to other similarly weakly connected buildings (e.g. places to register, places to seek support, places to talk to an advisor, places to complain, places to find books, and so on). It doesn’t have metaphorical corridors, halls, common rooms, canteens, yards, libraries or any of the other things that normally make up a physical university. You rarely get to even be aware of other classrooms beyond those you are in. Some people (me in a past life) might give classrooms cute names like ‘the learning cafe’ but it’s still just another classroom. You teleport from one classroom to the next because what happens in corridors (really a big lot of incredibly important pedagogically useful stuff, as it happens) is not perceived by the designers as a useful classroom function to be automated or perhaps, more charitably, they just couldn’t figure out how to automate that.

Reified roles

It’s a very controlled environment where everyone has a programmatically enforced role (mostly reflecting traditional educational roles), that may vary according to the room, but that are far less fluid than those in physical spaces. There are strong hierarchies, and limited opportunities for moving between them. Some of those hierarchies are new: the system administrator, for instance, has way more power than anyone in a physical university to determine how learning happens, like an architect with the power to move walls, change the decor, add extensions, and so on, at will. The programmers of the system are almost god-like in their command of its physics. But the ways that they give teachers (or learning designers, or administrators) control, as designers, directors, and regulators of the classroom, are perhaps the most pernicious. In a classroom a teacher may lead (and, by default, usually does). In an LMS, a teacher (or someone playing that role) must lead. The teacher sees things that students cannot, and controls things that the students may not. A teacher configures the space, and determines with some precision how it will be used. With a lot of effort and risk, it can be made to behave differently, but it almost never is.

Functions are everything

An LMS is typically built along functional lines, and those functions are mostly based on loose, superficial observations of what teachers and students seem to do in physical classrooms. The metaphorical classrooms are weird, because they are structured by teaching (seldom learning) function rather than along pedagogical lines: for instance, if you want to talk with someone, you normally need to go to a separate enclosed area inside the classroom or leave a note on the teacher’s desk. Same if you want to take a test, or share your work with others. Another function, another space. Some have many little rooms for different things. Lectures are either literally that (video recordings) or (more usefully, from a learning perspective), text and images to be read on screen, based on the assumption that the only function of lectures is information transmission (it is so very, very much not – that’s its least useful and least effective role). There’s seldom a chance to put even put up your hand to question something. Notices can usually only be pinned on the wall by teachers. Classroom timetables are embodied in software because of course you need a rigid and unforgiving timetable in a medium that sells itself on enabling learning anywhere, any time. Some, including Moodle, will allow you to break up the content differently, but it’s still another timetable; just a timetable without dates. It’s still the teacher who sets the order, pacing and content.

Robot overlords

It’s a high-tech classroom. There are often robots there that are programmed to make you behave in ways determined by those higher in the hierarchy (sometimes teachers, sometimes administrators, sometimes the programmers of the software). For instance, they might act as gatekeepers that prevent you from moving on to the next section before completing the current one, or they might prevent you submitting work before or after a specified date. They might mark your work. There are surveillance cameras everywhere, recording your every move, often only accessible to those with more powerful roles (though sometimes a robot or two might give you a filtered view of it).

Beginnings and ends

You can’t usually go back and visit when your course is over because someone decided it would be a good idea to set opening and closing enrolment dates and assumed that, when they were done, the learning was done (which of course it never is – it keeps on evolving long after explicit teaching and testing occurred). Again, it’s because physical classes are scheduled and terms come to an end because they must be, not because it makes pedagogical sense. And, like almost everything, you can override this default, but hardly anyone ever does, because it brings back those Faustian bargains, especially in manageability.

Dull caricatures of physical spaces

Basically, the LMS is an automated set of metaphorical classrooms that hardens many of the undesirable by-products of educational systems in software in brain-dead ways that have little to do with how best to teach, and that stretch the spatial metaphors that inform it beyond breaking point. Each bit of automation and each navigational decision hardens pedagogical choices. For all the cozy metaphors, programmers invent rather than replicate physics, in the process warping reality in ways that do no good and much harm. Classrooms solved problems of physics for in-person teaching and form part of a much larger structure that has evolved to teach reasonably well (including corridors, common rooms, canteens, and libraries, as it happens). Their more visible functions are only a part of that and, arguably, not the main part. There is much pedagogy embedded in the ways that physical universities, whether by accident or design, have evolved over centuries to support learning in every quadrangle and nook of a coffee shop. LMSs just focus on a limited subset of teaching roles, and empower the teacher in ways that caricature their already excessive dominance in the classroom (which only occurred because it had to, thanks to physics and the constraints it imposed).

LMSs are crap, but they contain recognizable semblances of their physical counterparts and just enough configurability and flexibility to more or less work as teaching tools, a bit, for everyone, almost no matter what their level of digital proficiency might be. They more or less solve the Faustian bargains listed earlier, but they do so by stifling what we wanted and should have been able to do in the first place with online tools, in the process creating new and quite horrific problems, as well as demolishing most of what makes physical universities work in the first place. It never has been true that virtual learning environments are learning environments – they are only ever parts of them – and there are places to escape from them, such as the Landing, other virtual systems, or even just plain old email, but then all those Faustian bargains come back to haunt us again. There has to be a better way.

Beyond the LMS

Cognisant of the issues, Athabasca University is now some way down the path to developing its own distinctive solutions to these problems, in a multi-year multi-million-dollar initiative known as (following the spatial metaphor) the Integrated Learning Environment (ILE). The ILE is not an application. It is an umbrella term for a lot of different, usually independent systems working together as one. Though some of the most interesting opportunities are still only loosely imagined, perhaps because they cause problems that are fiendishly hard to solve (e.g. how can we integrate systems that we build ourselves without creating risks for the rest of the ILE, and what happens when they need to be maintained?) a lot of progress is being made on the non-teaching foundations on which the rest depends (student admin systems, support tools, procedures, etc), as well as on the most visible and perhaps the biggest of its parts, BrightSpace, a proprietary commercial LMS that is meant to replace Moodle, for no obvious pedagogical or technical reasons (it’s no better). It might make economic sense. I don’t know, but I do know that open source software typically costs a fair bit to own, albeit because of the things that make it a much better idea (freedom, flexibility, ownership, etc). There is probably a fair bit of time and money being spent with Desire2Learn (makers of Brightspace) on the things that we spent a fair bit of time and money on many years ago to make Moodle a bit less classroom-like. The choice no doubt has something to do with how reliably and easily it can be made to work with some of the other proprietary commercial systems that someone has decided will make up the ILE. It bothers me greatly that we are not trying hard to choose open source solutions, for reasons that will become clearer in the rest of this post. However, (pedagogically speaking) all the mainstream LMSs are much of a muchness, making the same mistakes as one another in very similar ways, so it probably won’t wreck too much of what we already do within Moodle. But, on its own, it won’t move us much further forward and we could do it better. That’s what the ILE is supposed to do – to make the LMS just a part of a much larger teaching environment, intimately connected with the rest of what the university does for or with students, and extensible with new and better ways of learning, teaching, and assessing learning.

picture of lego bricksLego bricks make poor metaphors

When we were first imagining the ILE, though the approach was admirably participative, engaging much of the university community, I was very worried by the things we were encouraged to focus on. It was all about the functionality, the usability, the design, the tools, the pedagogies, the business systems that supported them. Those things matter, for sure, and should be not be ignored, but they should and will change and grow all the time: in fact, part of the point of building this thing is to do just that. Using the city metaphor, pretty much all that we (collectively) considered were the spaces (the rooms, mainly), and the stuff that goes on inside them, much like LMS designers thought of universities as just collections of classrooms in which teaching functions were performed. Space and stuff are, not uncoincidentally, exactly what Stewart Brand identified long ago as inevitably being the fastest-changing, most volatile parts of any town or city (after site, structure, skin, and services). I’ve written a fair bit on the universality of this principle across all systems. It’s a solid structural principle that applies as much to ecosystems and educational systems as to cities. As Brand observes himself, drawing from O’Neill et al (1986), the larger, slower-changing elements of any system affect the smaller, faster-changing more than vice versa. This is for much the same reasons that path dependencies set in. It’s about the prior providing the context for what follows. Flexible things have to fit into the gaps left by less flexible, older, pre-existing things. In physical spaces, of course these tend to be bigger and/or slower, but the same is true in virtual spaces, where size seldom matters that much, but hardness (inflexibility, brittleness) really does. Though lip service was paid to the word ‘integrated’ in our discussions,  I had the strong feeling that the kind of integration we had in mind was that of a Lego set. In fact, I think we were aiming to find a ‘Lego Athabasca University’ set, with assembly instructions and a picture on the box. The vendors who came to talk with us made much of how effectively they could do that, rather than how effectively they could make it possible for others to do that.

Metaphors matter. Lego bricks have to fit together tightly, in pre-specified ways, especially if you are following a plan. If you want to move them around, you have to dismantle a bit of the structure to fit them in. It’s difficult to integrate things that are not bricks, or that are made by different toy companies to work in different ways. At best you get what Brand calls ‘magazine architecture’, or ‘no road’ architecture, beautiful, fit for purpose, intricate and solid, but slow to learn. Lego is not a terrible way to build, compared with buying everything pre-assembled, but it could be improved.

Signals and boundaries

Drawing inspiration from John Holland’s brilliant last work, Signals & Boundaries, I tried to make the case that, instead, we should be focusing on the boundaries (the interfaces between the buildings and the rest of the city), and the signals that pass between them (the people, the messages, etc, the forms they take and how they move around). In Brand’s terms, I wanted us to be thinking about skin and services, and perhaps even structure, though site – Athabasca University – was a given. Though a few people nodded in agreement, I think it mainly fell on deaf ears. We wanted oven-ready solutions, not the infrastructure to enable those solutions. Though the city metaphor works well, because we are talking about human constructions, others would result in similar ways of thinking: cells in bodies, organisms in ecosystems, brains, termite mounds, and so on. All are organized by boundaries (at many levels of hierarchy) and the signals that pass between them.

The Lego set metaphor – whether deliberately or not – seems to have prevailed for now. A lot of old buildings are being slated for demolition and a lot of new virtual buildings are now being erected as part of this development, many of them chosen not because of problems with existing buildings but so that they can more easily connect together and live in the same cloud. This will very likely work, for now, but it is not cheap and it is not flexible, especially given the fact that most of it is not open so, like a rental property, we are not allowed to fix things, add utilities, change the walls, etc, and we are wholly dependent on the landlords being nice to us and each other (knowing that some – ahem, Microsoft – have a long history of abusing their tenants). Those buildings will age. We will find them cramped. Some will age faster than others, and will have to be modified to keep up, perhaps at high cost. Companies renting them might go out of business or change their terms so we might have to demolish the buildings and rent/make new ones. We will be annoyed at how they do things, usually without asking us. We will hate the landlords who dictate what we can do and how we can do it, and who will keep upping the rent while not doing what we ask. We will want more, and the only way to get it will be to build extensions, buy new brick sets, if it is not enough to pay someone to remodel the interiors (and it won’t be). Of course, because most of the big structural elements will not be open source, we will not be able to do that ourselves.

What the ILE really should be

The ILE is, I think, poorly named, because it should not be an environment at all. Following the building metaphor, the ILE is (or should be) more like the system that connects a lot of buildings, bringing them together into a coherent, safe, livable community. It’s infrastructure and services; it is the roads, the traffic signals, the doors, the sidewalks, the water pipes, the waste pipes, the electricity, the network cables; it is the services – fire, police, schools, traffic control, etc; it is all the many rules, standards, norms and regulations that make them work together to help make an environment in which people can live, work, play, and grow. It’s part of the environment – the part that makes it work – but it is not the environment itself. The environment itself is Athabasca University, not just the tools, processes, and systems that support its functions. That includes, most importantly, the people who are part of the university, or who are visitors to it, who are not just users of the environment or dwellers in its walls, but who are or should be the most significant and visible parts of it, just as trees are part of the environment of forests, not users of the forest. Those people live in physical as well as other virtual environments (social media, Word documents, websites, etc) that the ILE can connect together too, to make them a part of it, so the spatial metaphor gets weird at this point. The ILE makes environmental boundaries fuzzy, permeable, and shifting. It’s not an ILE, it’s an ILI – an integrated learning infrastructure.

If we focused on the connections and interfaces, and on how information and processes need to pass across them, and if we thought hard about the nature of those signals, then we could build a system that is resilient, that adapts, that lasts, that grows, that evolves, with parts that we can seamless replace or improve because the interfaces – the building facades, the mains pipes, the junction boxes, etc – will mostly stay the same, evolving slowly as they should. This is about strategy, not planning,  a way of thinking about systems rather than a sequence of things to do.

Some of the key people involved in the process realize this. They are talking about standards, protocols, and projects to build interfaces between systems, and imagining future needs, though they are inevitably distracted by the process of renting Lego bricks, so I am not sure how much they will be able to stay focused on that. I hope they prevail over those who think they are building a set of classrooms and tightly connected admin offices out of self-contained interlocking bricks because our future depends on getting it right. We are aiming to grow. It just takes one critical piece in the Lego building to fail to support that, and the rest falls apart like a… well, like a pile of bricks.

References

Brand, S. (1997). How buildings learn. Phoenix Illustrated. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/320919/how-buildings-learn-by-stewart-brand/9780140139969

Holland, J. H. (2012). Signals and Boundaries: Building Blocks for Complex Adaptive Systems. MIT Press.  https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/signals-and-boundaries

O’Neill, R.V., DeAngelis, D.L, Waide, J. B., & Allen, T. F. H. (1986). A Hierarchical Concept of Ecosystems. Princeton University Press. http://www.gbv.de/dms/bs/toc/025157787.pdf

Postman, N. (1998). Five things we need to know about technological change. Denver, Colorado, 28.  https://student.cs.uwaterloo.ca/~cs492/papers/neil-postman–five-things.html

The physics of social spaces are not like the physics of physical spaces

Image: please respect my privacyOver the last week I peripherally participated in an interesting exchange of views on Twitter between Jesse Stommel and Stephen Downes that raises some fascinating issues about the nature of online social spaces. It started with a plea from Jesse:

“Dear [insert company name], searching every mention of your company and jumping into conversations where you haven’t been tagged or invited is invasive. Stop doing that.”

Stephen took exception to this, pointing out that:

“If I use a company name in a public forum, I expect they will take interest and maybe even reply. It’s a *public* forum. That’s how they work.”

What followed explored some fascinating territory, but the essence of the main arguments are (I skim the nuances), on Jesse’s side, that we have a reasonable expectation of being left alone during a private conversation in any public space and, on Stephen’s side, that there should be no expectation of privacy in a public digital space like Twitter, and that any claims to it tread on extremely dangerous ground.  The central question is thus whether there are such things as private conversations on Twitter.

Stephen’s big concern is that, taken to its logical conclusion, laying claim to privacy on Twitter opens the door for outrages like the Proctorio vs Linkletter case, in which Proctorio claimed that “Mr. Linkletter infringed its copyright, circumvented technological protection measures, and breached confidence” by sharing one of its fully public (though not publicized) YouTube videos with students. YouTube quite closely resembles Twitter in its social structure (though little else), so it is a good analogy. Stephen is, I think rightly, concerned at ‘calling out’ individuals or organizations for invading ‘private’ conversations in public spaces because it implies the unilateral imposition of norms, rules of behaviour, and expectations by one individual or group on another, in a space that neither owns.

Jesse’s counter-arguments are interesting, and subtle. He strongly rejects Stephen’s analogy with the Proctorio case because all he is doing is asserting his right to privacy, not abusing his market position or trying to cause harm. It’s just a request to be let alone, calling on what he sees as norms of politeness, not a demand that this should be enshrined in rules or legislation. He observes that, though Twitter is a public space, it has variegation that emerges because of (often tacit, seldom explicit) ways that many (not all) people use it, which in turn is supported by the ways that Twitter’s algorithms push some kinds of tweet more than others. For this particular case in point, he notes that the algorithm tends to broadcast initial tweets more than it does replies, so what follows in a set of replies could be assumed by its participants to be a less public conversation. In fact, as I understand his argument, Jesse thinks of it as a private conversation in a public space, analogous to having a private conversation in a public park where one might be inadvertently overheard, but it would be rude to deliberately listen in or contribute unless invited. If this were a true analogy then I might support it. But, if it is true, then so are quite a few other things, and that’s where it starts to get interesting.

I’ve been a Twitter user for approaching 15 years now and it has never occurred to me till now that any of my conversations might in any way be construed as private. They are sometimes personal, for sure, but definitely not private. Conversations are soft technologies that are flexible, mutable, and situated, and (without further clues like people quietly conversing in a corner) you need to read them in order to know whether you would be intruding on them, which means that they are simply not private. Without further reasons to assume privacy, it is just a conversation in public between two people to which other people are not invited.

So the crux of Jesse’s argument seems to be the notion that a happenstance of Twitter’s current implementation that makes some tweets less likely to be seen than others, combined with a set of norms relating to that, that may or may not be shared by others, allows one to claim that a conversation is not just personal but private.

The physics of online social spaces

Twitter is, as Stephen says and Jesse agrees, for the most part a completely public space (not counting direct messaging or constraints on tweets to only those you follow/are following) but, as the example of the relative prominence given to initial tweets compared with replies to them amply demonstrates, it does have a structure. It is just one that does not obey anything like the same physics as a physical space. You can achieve a measure of privacy in a public physical space because there has to be proximity in space and time in order to communicate at all, and there are limits to human voice projection, ability to hear, and ability to attend to multiple conversations at once. There are also visual clues that people are talking privately. Though there is variegation in structure, none of those limits apply in Twitter or, for that matter, most online social spaces.

Early in the conversation I chipped in to observe that one of the many differences between private conversations in physical space and Twitter exchanges is that tweets are persistent. They are a little like graffiti left in public spaces that continues to communicate long after the initial intent has passed, and may be happened upon at any time in the future in quite different contexts than those imagined by the graffiti artist. Jesse’s response to that was that there’s a difference between graffiti on a public building in five foot high letters and graffiti on a shady tree or in a tunnel. Again, his point is that there are parts of Twitter where there might be a reasonable expectation of relative privacy, where it would be rude to join the conversation. Though I agree that it is often possible to tell from reading a conversation whether you might be welcome or not (and yes, social norms apply to that), my big problem with Jesse’s argument is that proximity in Twitter-space is not just defined by relative position in a dialogue or likelihood of appearance in a Twitter feed, as he seems to imply.

Beyond its support for conversations between individuals, Twitter embodies two distinct but overlapping social forms: the network and the set. @mentions in Twitter combined with its ‘following’ functionality are the main drivers for the network form. If you follow someone or they mention you then your message becomes proximal to them. That’s a big part of Twitter’s physics, and it has no analogue in physical space. Thus, your conversation is very likely to be overheard by others because you are (metaphorically) standing right next to them and chipping your words in five foot letters in stone where they can and will be found, now and in the future. If you wanted to have a private conversation in a park then you wouldn’t stand less than a metre away from someone that you didn’t want to listen in and shout in their face. But that’s not all.

Hashtags and search terms are the main drivers for the set social form, which at least closely competes with if not exceeds the value of social networks in Twitter. When you use a hashtag or even a distinctive word (say, the name of a company or person) then your message becomes proximal to those who follow that hashtag or who have saved a search for that keyword. So you are not just standing right next to everyone in your social network, but to the potentially much larger social set of people who are interested in keywords that you use in your conversation. Again, you might not intend it, you might not even be able to see them, but you are shouting in their faces.

Maybe you do have a right to privacy in any public space, but that right does not overrule simple physics. You have to know  the physics of that space in order to know what ‘private’ means within it. And the simple physics of Twitter means that ‘next to’ and ‘within hearing distance’ extends to anyone with an interest in you or what you are saying in the sentences you write. If you want different social physics that support privacy, then you need to take your conversation to a different space, because Twitter doesn’t work that way. You can ask for non-interference in a personal conversation, but not for privacy.

Designing better social physics

Retrato cubista del escritor español Ramón Gómez De la Sena por el pintor mexicano Diego RiveraAs it happens, we grappled a lot with issues of context and privacy exactly like this when we designed the social physics of the Landing.  Its social physics are deliberately designed to make precisely those nooks and niches that Jesse wants to find in Twitter.  The Landing starts with discretionary access control for every post and every profile field (we chose to build it using the Elgg framework because of its support for this). Like the much missed (and never hit) Google+ it also allows you to create circles, that are not just useful for following but, more significantly, for limiting access to particular individuals. Again, that came for free with Elgg, though we added some enhancements to forefront it, and to make it usable.

It’s not just about the content, though; it’s about presentation of self (we were influenced in this by Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis). We also therefore built a range of context-switching tools – notably tabbed profiles and pinboards (known internally as ‘sets’) – that allow you to present a completely different facade to different circles, groups, and sets of people. This is not just concerned with showing or hiding different fields and content, but with looking completely different and showing completely different stuff to different people. The public facade of my profile is not the same as the one displayed to my friends and, if I wished, I could present different facades to all the different circles or groups of people I follow or belong to. We’ve still not solved the temporal issue – like most social sites, the fundamental unit of communication is still persistent graffiti. In fact, to a large extent we wanted it that way, because it’s a site for collective learning, and so it has to have a collective memory though, like memories in brains, it would be useful to have short-term memories too. However, simply letting posts expire is not the solution, in part due to the many ways that digital content can be copied and archived but, more importantly, because forgetting is and must be an active process that cannot and should not be automated. My earlier CoFIND system did have a way to deal with that (memories had to be actively maintained by active interest and use by members or, though they would never be fully lost, they would be far less likely to be recalled) but we didn’t make much use of that idea on the Landing, save in isolated pockets, because it would have really irritated the many people or groups that engage intermittently (e.g. in iterations of paced courses).

Unfortunately, most of the Landing’s context-switching features are not even slightly intuitive (especially to those already familiar with the cruder social physics of popular social media) so most are very rarely used. Google+, with its massively simplified version of the same idea, probably failed at least in part for this reason. Such complexity can work, with the right membership. Slashdot, for instance, has an extraordinarily rich and ever-evolving social physics, and it has thrived for about 25 years, but the reasons for its success probably lie at least in part in its tagline ‘News for Nerds’. Its members are not phased by complex interfaces, and it is well-enough designed to work reasonably well if you don’t engage with all the features.

Perhaps a bigger issue, though, is that the richer social physics of both Slashdot and the Landing only work if you happen to be a member. For public posts, like this one, the physics are very much like those of Twitter or Facebook.

For now, the best bet is to use different social spaces for different aspects of your life but, thanks largely to Facebook’s single-minded and highly effective undermining of OpenSocial, there’s not a lot of ways to seamlessly move between them right now while retaining a rich and faceted identity. At least there’s still RSS, which is how come you might be reading this on the Landing (where it is originally posted) or at https://jondron.ca/ (which will automagically then push it to Twitter), but it’s not ideal.

It’s very challenging to design a digital space that is both richly supportive of human social needs and easy to use. The Landing is definitely not the solution, but the underlying idea – that people are richly faceted social beings who interact and present themselves differently to different people at different times –  still makes sense to me. As the conversation between Jesse and Stephen shows, there is a need for support for that more than ever.

Mediaeval Teaching in the Digital Age (slides from my keynote at Oxford Brookes University, May 26, 2021)

 front slide, mediaeval teaching

These are the slides from my keynote today at the Oxford Brookes “Theorizing the Virtual” School of Education Research Conference. As theorizing the virtual is pretty much my thing, I was keen to be a part of this! It was an ungodly hour of the day for me (2am kickoff) but it was worth staying up for. It was a great bunch of attendees who really got into the spirit of the thing and kept me wide awake. I wish I could hang around for the rest of it but, on the bright side, at least I’m up at the right time to see the Super Flower Blood Moon (though it’s looking cloudy, darn it).  In this talk I dwelt on a few of the notable differences between online and in-person teaching. This is the abstract…

Pedagogical methods (ways of teaching) are solutions to problems of helping people to learn, in a context filled with economic, physical, temporal, legal, moral, social, political, technological, and organizational constraints. In mediaeval times books were rare and unaffordable, and experts’ time was precious and limited, so lectures were a pragmatic solution, but they in turn created more problems. Counter-technologies such as classes, classrooms, behavioural rules and norms, courses, terms, curricula, timetables and assignment deadlines were were devised to solve those problems, then methods of teaching (pedagogies) were in turn invented to solve problems these counter-technologies caused, notably including:
· people who might not want (or be able) to be there at that time,
· people who were bored and
· people who were confused.
Better pedagogies supported learner needs for autonomy and competence, or helped learners find relevance to their own goals, values, and interests. They exploited physical closeness for support, role-modelling, inspiration, belongingness and so on. However, increasingly many relied on extrinsic motivators, like classroom discipline, grades and credentials to coerce students to learn. Extrinsic motivation achieves compliance, but it makes the reward or avoidance of the punishment the goal, persistently and often permanently crowding out intrinsic motivation. Intelligent students respond with instrumental approaches, satisficing, or cheating. Learning seldom persists; love of the subject is subdued; learners learn to learn in ineffective ways. More layers of counter-technologies are needed to limit the damage, and so it goes on.
Online, the constraints are very different, and its native forms are the motivational inverse of in-person learning. An online teacher cannot control every moment of a learner’s time, and learners can use the freedoms they gain to take the time they need, when they need it, to learn and to reflect, without the constraints of scheduled classroom hours and deadlines. However, more effort is usually needed to support their needs for relatedness. Unfortunately, many online teachers try (or are required) to re-establish the control they had in the classroom through grading or the promise of credentials, recreating the mediaeval problems that would otherwise not exist, using tools like learning management systems that were designed (poorly) to replicate in-person teaching functions. These are solutions to the problems caused by counter-technologies, not to problems of learning.
There are better ways, and that’s what this session is about.

front slide, mediaeval teaching

Words will never be a substitute for grunts

https://www.aare.edu.au/blog/?p=8996

Andrew Norton claims that online learning will never be a substitute for face-to-face learning.

Indeed.

Here are some other equally useful and true claims:

  • electric vehicles will never be a substitute for gasoline-fueled vehicles;
  • cellphones will never be a substitute for desktop computers;
  • MP3s will never be a substitute for vinyl records;
  • email will never be a substitute for letters;
  • word processing will never be a substitute for handwriting;
  • TV will never be a substitute for radio;
  • aircraft will never be a substitute for ships;
  • cars will never be a substitute for horses;
  • photography will never be a substitute for painting;
  • pianos will never be a substitute for harps;
  • folios will never be a substitute for scrolls;
  • cities will never be a substitute for villages;
  • writing will never be a substitute for speaking;
  • agriculture will never be a substitute for foraging;
  • cooked food will never be a substitute for raw food;
  • words will never be a substitute for grunts;
  • walking on two legs will never be a substitute for walking on four.

Do you see any patterns here? Indeed.

Perhaps it would be better to think about what is enabled and what is enhanced, rather than mainly focusing on what is lost. Perhaps it is a chance to think about what is the same, and maybe to think about how those similarities suggest weaknesses and missed opportunities in what we used to do, and thus to improve both the older and the newer. Perhaps we could try to see the whole assembly rather than a few of its obvious parts. Perhaps we could wonder about how to fill the gaps we perceive, or look for ways that they might already be filled even though we didn’t design it that way. Perhaps we could appreciate all the opportunities and the failings of everything that is available to us. Perhaps we could notice that everything new brings new problems to solve, as well as new opportunities to discover. Perhaps we could remember that we invented new things because they did stuff the old things could not do, or because they do some things better. Perhaps we should observe that new technologies hardly ever fully replace their ancestors, because there are almost always reasons to prefer the old even when the new seem (for some or most purposes, some or most of the time) better.

As it happens, I recently wrote a paper about that kind of thing.

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/8775146/words-will-never-be-a-substitute-for-grunts

What really impacts the use of active learning in undergraduate STEM education? Results from a national survey of chemistry, mathematics, and physics instructors

This is a report on an interesting study by Naneh Apkarian et al, that asked a large-ish number (3796) of in-person American STEM profs (college and university levels) about the effects of various known factors on their use of active learning approaches. To a large extent it seems that ‘active learning’ is mainly taken to mean ‘not lectures’ (which is both unfair to a minority of lectures and over-kind to a majority of alternative teaching methods). Photo of a lecture (credit to Sam Balye) It’s a good paper but the study itself has some gaping flaws (there are many chicken-and-egg issues here, lots of confounding factors, massive fuzziness, loads of systemic biases, and great complexity hidden in the details), which are, in fairness, very well recognized by the authors. Wisely, they largely avoid making causal connections and, when they do, they use other evidence beyond that of their findings to support them. Flaws aside, it’s a good contribution to our collective story, and a thoroughly interesting read. This is what they found:

1) Though active and inactive(TM) learning approaches are used across the board, lectures are far more likely to be used when class sizes are large (notably so at 60+ class sizes, predominantly so at 100+ class sizes). Depressing, but not surprising: big class sizes massively exaggerate the dominant role of the teacher, and controlling teachers faced with the scary prospect consequently tend focus on what they want to indoctrinate rather than what students need to do. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it’s how lecturing began in the first place, so it has a bit of a history.

2) If you schedule classes in lecture theatres, most people use them for lecturing. This could  be seen as useful supporting evidence for my own coparticipation model, which predicts this on theoretical grounds (large and slow technologies influence smaller and faster ones more than vice versa, defaults harden). However, it actually shows no causal relationship at all. In fact, the reasons are likely much more mundane. From my dim recollections of in-person teaching, if the course design involves lectures then you get classes scheduled into lecture theatres. If you are stuck with a lecture theatre because of dimwitted/thoughtless timetablers but want to do something different then you have a (fun and challenging) problem, but that’s not what the results here tell us.

3) There’s a small correlation between how teachers are evaluated/the perceived importance of teaching in those evaluations, and how they teach. Those who perceive teaching to be less valued tend to lecture more. This doesn’t seem very useful information to me, without a lot more information about the culture and norms of the institutions, relative weightings for research or service, and so on. Even then, it would be hard to find any causal relationships. It might show that teachers who don’t like or have time for teaching tend to lecture because it is the easiest thing for them to do, but I’d need more evidence to prove that. It might show that extrinsic motivation drives compliance (a little), but, again, it’s not even close to proven. Much more context needed.

4) Perceived job security has no obvious effects on teaching practice. This might be seen as a little surprising as there is a fairly widespread perception that people give up on doing good things when they get tenure, but it doesn’t surprise me, given the multiple factors that affect it. Whether active or not, you can always teach badly or well. The implied assumption that active approaches are riskier and more experimental is not actually true much of the time, and there’s nothing in the survey that draws out whether people are taking risks or not anyway. Most teachers continue to teach in ways that seemed to work before, and tenure makes little or no difference to that.

5a) Very active researchers tend to lecture quite a bit more than quite inactive researchers. Indeed. See 3 – if you are a researcher but not engaged in the scholarship of learning and teaching then you probably have less interest and/or time to spend on teaching well, not to mention the fact that many universities compete to get the best researchers and couldn’t care less whether they can teach or not. There is a happier corollary…

5b) those who engage in educational research of any form lecture a lot less. This speaks to common sense, to what educational research has consistently shown for about 100 years, and to the dominant educational doctrine that lectures are bad. Personally, I kind-of agree with that doctrine, but I think the problem is much subtler than simply that lectures are bad per se – lectures can play a useful role as long as you don’t ever try to use them to impart information, as long as you always remember the rest of the learning assembly into which they fit (and in which most of the learning happens), and as long as you never, ever, ever, whether implicitly or explicitly, mandate attendance. The fact that most institutional lectures fail on all three counts, and virtually all falter on at least the most important two, does indeed make them very bad, but it’s not inherent in the technology. Tain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.

6) People who have experienced active learning as learners are far more likely to use such approaches. Well, yes. It would be quite a surprise if, having discovered there are better ways to learn that are more satisfying and effective for all concerned, people did not then use them.

None of this is novel, all of it reconfirms (but doesn’t prove) what we already know, especially in the hard disciplinary areas of STEM. However, it will still be a useful paper to lend support to other research, or when thinking about what needs to change if institutions are trying an intervention.  I expect that I will cite it some time.

I’m more interested, though, in what lessons might be drawn for online teaching, especially in an institution like Athabasca University, where teaching is explicitly distributed, where roles in that distributed assembly are well defined and, too often, mutually exclusive, and where lecturing is almost unheard of. 

Inactive online learning

For AU courses, I think the nearest equivalent to a lecture is a heavily content-oriented course (typically greatly reliant on a textbook) with over-controlling, easily-marked assignments, and a proctored exam at the end. That’s the ‘don’t think about it’ too common default. It’s not quite that simple, because the involvement of experienced and well-educated learning designers, editors, and media experts tends to make the content quite well written and at least somewhat informed by theory. Also, compassionate tutors can fill in a lot of gaps: good tutoring is often the saving grace of an otherwise yawn-inducing pedagogical model. It’s efficient and well-honed, like the lecture, and it works most of the time because our students are wonderful and do much of the teaching themselves (despite  attempts to control them), but it’s not a great way to teach anyone. Better than lecturing, for sure, but it has to be because there’s not so much of the other stuff that teaches in in-person institutions. We do of course have a great many courses that do not follow this pattern, that involve far more active learning: it’s far from ubiquitous, even in STEM teaching.

I think that part of the reason for a preponderance of inactive approaches at AU can be found in the paper’s second finding. In our case, an LMS is the functional equivalent of a lecture theatre (with a similar emphasis on teacher control, structure, and content), especially as our self-paced model limits the options for using its already impoverished social features. There’s also a lot of rigidity in our course development processes, with a laser-sharp focus on measurable outcomes or, worse, clearly defined objectives, that tends to make things more content-driven. Perhaps a bigger part of the reason, though, relates more closely to finding 6. It’s not that our teachers aren’t engaged and interested in producing good stuff: they really are. It’s more that they don’t have a great many role models and examples to call on. This is compounded by:

  • again, the stupidity of LMS design (courses are enclosed and hidden, for the most part),
  • a lack of sharing of tacit knowledge between teachers (we tend to only meet and communicate with a defined purpose, leaving little time for incidental and passing exchanges), and
  • our contact with students tends to be similarly instrumental and formal so we don’t usually learn as much about how they feel about other courses as in-person teachers.

All in all, though it does happen, and we are constantly getting better at it, good ideas still do not spread easily enough. In fairness, that’s also true of many in-person institutions, but at least they have serendipity, greater visibility of teaching, and simpler ways to connect socially for free, because physics. We have to actively design our own social physics, and the results of doing are seldom particularly great. As we move towards become a near-virtual institution (or even nearer-virtual) we are really going to have to work much harder on that.

On the bright side, we are fortunate to have a vast number of faculty (around 40%) who fall into the 5b category. If only we could do a better job of sharing their learning. That, of course, is a lot of the reason I am writing this, and it was a big impetus behind why we created Athabasca Landing in the first place.

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/8727582/what-really-impacts-the-use-of-active-learning-in-undergraduate-stem-education-results-from-a-national-survey-of-chemistry-mathematics-and-physics-instructors

Educational technology: what it is and how it works

https://rdcu.be/ch1tl

This is a link to my latest paper in the journal AI & Society. You can read it in a web browser from there, but it is not directly downloadable. A preprint of the submitted version (some small differences and uncorrected errors here and there, notably in citations) can be downloaded from https://auspace.athabascau.ca/handle/2149/3653. The published version should be downloadable for free by Researchgate members.

This is a long paper (about 10,000 words), that summarizes some of the central elements of the theoretical model of learning, teaching and technology developed in my recently submitted book (still awaiting review) and that gives a few examples of its application. For instance, it explains:

  • why, on average researchers find no significant difference between learning with and without tech.
  • why learning styles theories are a) inherently unprovable, b) not important even if they were, and c) a really bad idea in any case.
  • why bad teaching sometimes works (and, conversely, why good teaching sometimes fails)
  • why replication studies cannot be done for most educational interventions (and, for the small subset that are susceptible to reductive study, all you can prove is that your technology works as intended, not whether it does anything useful).

Abstract

This theoretical paper elucidates the nature of educational technology and, in the process, sheds light on a number of phenomena in educational systems, from the no-significant-difference phenomenon to the singular lack of replication in studies of educational technologies.  Its central thesis is that we are not just users of technologies but coparticipants in them. Our participant roles may range from pressing power switches to designing digital learning systems to performing calculations in our heads. Some technologies may demand our participation only in order to enact fixed, predesigned orchestrations correctly. Other technologies leave gaps that we can or must fill with novel orchestrations, that we may perform more or less well. Most are a mix of the two, and the mix varies according to context, participant, and use. This participative orchestration is highly distributed: in educational systems, coparticipants include the learner, the teacher, and many others, from textbook authors to LMS programmers, as well as the tools and methods they use and create.  From this perspective,  all learners and teachers are educational technologists. The technologies of education are seen to be deeply, fundamentally, and irreducibly human, complex, situated and social in their constitution, their form, and their purpose, and as ungeneralizable in their effects as the choice of paintbrush is to the production of great art.

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/8692242/my-latest-paper-educational-technology-what-it-is-and-how-it-works

Are experienced online teachers best-placed to help in-person teachers cope with suddenly having to teach online? Maybe not.

lecturingI recently downloaded What Teacher Educators Should Have Learned From 2020. This is an open edited book, freely downloadable from the AACE site, for teachers of teachers whose lives were disrupted by the sudden move to emergency remote teaching over the past year or so.  I’ve only skimmed the contents and read a couple of the chapters, but my first impressions are positive. Edited by Richard Ferdig and Kristine Pytash, It springs from the very active and engaged AACE SITE community, which is a good indicator of expertise and experience. It seems well organized into three main sections:

  1.         Social and Emotional Learning for Teacher Education.
  2.         Online Teaching and Learning for Teacher Education.
  3.         eXtended Reality (XR) for Teacher Education

I like the up-front emphasis on social and emotional aspects, addressing things like belongingness, compassion, and community, mainly from theoretical/model-oriented perspectives, and the other sections seem wisely chosen to meet practitioner needs. The chapters adopt a standardized structure:

  • Introduction. 
  • What We Know. 
  • Lessons Learned for Research. 
  • Lessons Learned for Practice. 
  • What You Should Read. 
  • References

Again, this seems pretty sensible, maintaining a good focus on actionable knowledge and practical steps to be taken. It’s not quite a textbook, but it’s a useful teach-yourself resource with good coverage. I look forward to dipping into it a bit more deeply. I expect to find some good ideas, good practices, and good theoretical models to support my teaching and my understanding of the issues. And I’m really pleased that it is being released as an open publication: well done, AACE, for making this openly available.

But I do wonder a little about who else will read this.

Comfort zones and uncomfortable zones

The other day I was chatting with a neighbour who teaches a traditional hard science subject at one of the local universities, who was venting about the problems of teaching via Zoom. He knew that I had a bit of interest and experience in this area, so he asked whether I had any advice. I started to suggest some ways of rethinking it as a pedagogical opportunity, but he was not impressed. Even something as low-threshold and straightforward as flipping the classroom or focusing on what students do rather than what he has to tell them was a step too far. He patiently explained that he has classes with hundreds of students and fixed topics that they need to learn, and he really didn’t see it as desirable or even possible to depart from his well-tried lecture format. At least it would be too much work and he didn’t have the time for it. I did try to push back on that a bit and I may have mentioned the overwhelming body of research that suggests this might not be a wise move, but he was pretty clear and firm about this.  What he actually wanted was for someone to make (or tell him how to make) the digital technology as easy and as comfortably familiar as the lecture theatre, and that would somehow make the students as engaged as he perceived them to normally be in his lectures, without notably changing how he taught. The problem was the darn technology, not the teaching. I bit my tongue at this point. I eventually came up with a platitude or two about trying to find different ways to make learning visible, about explicitly showing that he cares, about taking time to listen, about modelling the behaviour he wanted to see, about using the chat to good advantage, and about how motivation differs online and off, but I don’t think it helped. I suspect that the only things that really resonated with him were suggestions about how to get the most out of a webcam and a recommendation to get a better microphone.

Within the context in which he usually teaches, he is probably a very good teacher. He’s a likeable person who clearly cares a lot about his students, he knows a lot about his subject, and he knows how to make it appealing within the situation that he normally works. His courses, as he described them, are very conventional, relying a lot on the structure given to them by the industry-driven curriculum and the university’s processes, norms, and structures, and he fills his role in all that admirably. I think he is pretty typical of the vast majority of teachers. They’re good at what they do, comfortable with how they do it, and they just want the technology to accommodate them continuing to do so without unnecessary obstacles.

Unfortunately, technology doesn’t work that way.

The main reason it doesn’t work is very simple: technologies (including pedagogies) affect one another in complex and recursive ways, so (with some trivial exceptions) you can’t change one element (especially a large element) and expect the rest to work as they did before.  It’s simple, intuitive, and obvious but unless you are already well immersed in both systems theories and educational theory, really taking it to heart and understanding how it must affect your practice demands a pretty big shift in weltanschauung, which is not the kind of thing I was keen to start while on my way to the store in the midst of a busy day.

To make matters worse, even if teachers do acknowledge the need to change, their assumption that things will eventually (maybe soon) return to normal means that they are – reasonably enough –  not willing and probably not able to invest a lot of time into it. A big part of the reason for this is that, thanks to the aforementioned interdependencies, they are probably running round like blue-arsed flies just trying to keep things together, and filling their time with fixing the things that inevitably break in the process. Systems thrive on this kind of self-healing feedback loop. I guess teachers figure that, if they can work out how to tread water until the pandemic has run its course, it will be OK in the end.

If only.

Why in-person education works

The hallmark technologies (mandatory lectures, assignments, grades, exams, etc, etc) of in-person teaching are worse than awful but, just as a talented musician can make beautiful noises with limited technical knowledge and sub-standard instruments, so there are countless teachers who use atrocious methods in dreadful contexts but who successfully lead their students to learn. As long as the technologies are soft and flexible enough to allow them to paper over the cracks of bad tools and methods with good technique, talent, and passion, it works well enough for enough people enough of the time and can (with enough talent and passion) even be inspiring.

It would not work at all, though, without the massive machinery that surrounds it.

An institution (including its systems, structures, and tools) is itself designed to teach, no matter how bad the teachers are within it. The opportunities for students to learn from and with others around them, including other students, professors, support staff, administrators, and so on; the supporting technologies, including rules, physical spaces, structures, furnishings, and tools; the common rooms, the hallways, the smokers’ areas (best classrooms ever), the lecture theatres, the bars and the coffee shops; the timetables that make students physically travel to a location together (and thus massively increase salience); the notices on the walls; the clubs and societies; the librarians, the libraries, the students reading and writing within those libraries, echoing and amplifying the culture of learning that pervades them; the student dorms and shared kitchens where even more learning happens; the parties; even the awful extrinsic motivation of grades, teacher power, and norms and rules of behaviour that emerged in the first place due to the profound motivational shortcomings of in-person teaching. All of this and more conspires to support a basic level of at least mediocre (but good enough) learning, whether or not teachers teach well. It’s a massively distributed technology enacted by many coparticipants, of which designated teachers are just a part, and in which students are the lead actors among a cast of thousands. Online, those thousands are often largely invisible. At best, their presence tends to be highly filtered, channeled, or muted.

Why in-person methods don’t transfer well online

When most of that massive complex machinery is suddenly removed, leaving nothing but a generic interface better suited to remote business meetings than learning or, much worse, some awful approximation of all the evil, hard, disempowering technologies of traditional teaching wrapped around Zoom, or nightmarishly inhuman online proctoring systems, much of the teaching (in the broadest sense) disappears with it. Teaching in an institution is not just what teachers do. It’s the work of a community; of all the structures the community creates and uses; of the written and unwritten rules; of the tacit knowledge imparted by engagement in a space made for learning; of the massive preparation of schooling and the intricate loops that connect it with the rest of society; of attitudes and cultures that are shaped and reinforced by all the rest.  It’s no wonder that teachers attempting to transfer small (but the most visible) parts of that technology online struggle with it. They need to fill the ever-widening gaps left when most of the comfortable support structures of in-person institutions that made it possible in the first place are either gone or mutated into something lean and hungry. It can be done, but it is really hard work.

More abstractly, a big part of the problem with this transfer-what-used-to-work-in-person approach is that it is a technology-first approach to the problem that focuses on one technology rather than the whole. The technology of choice in this case happens to be a set of pedagogical methods, but it is no different in principle than picking a digital tool and letting that decide how you will teach. Neither makes much sense. All the technologies in the assembly – including pedagogies, digital tools, regulations, designs, and structures – have to work together. No single technology has precedence, beyond the one that results from assembling the rest. To make matters worse, what-used-to-work-in-person pedagogies were situated solutions to the problems of teaching in physical classrooms, not universally applicable methods of teaching. Though there are some similarities here and there, the problems of teaching online are not at all the same as those of in-person teaching so of course the solutions are different. Simply transferring in-person pedagogies to an online context is much like using the paddles from a kayak to power a bicycle. You might move, but you won’t move far, you won’t move fast, you won’t move where you want to go, and it is quite likely to end in injury to yourself or others.

Such problems have, to a large extent, been adequately solved by teachers and institutions that work primarily online. Online institutions and organizations have infrastructure, processes, rules, tools, cultures, and norms that have evolved to work together, starting with the baseline assumption that little or none of the physical stuff will ever be available. Anything that didn’t work never made it to first base, or has not survived. Those that have been around a while might not be perfect, but they have ironed out most of the kinks and filled in most of the gaps. Most of my work, and that of my smarter peers, begins in this different context. In fact, in my case, it mainly involves savagely critiquing that context and figuring out ways to improve it, so it is yet another step removed from where in-person teachers are now.

OK, maybe I could offer a little advice or, at least, a metaphor

Roughly 20 years ago I did share a similar context. Working in an in-person university, I had to lead a team of novice online teachers from geographically dispersed colleges to create and teach a blended program with 28 new online courses. We built the whole thing in 6 months from start to finish, including the formal evaluations and approvals process. I could share some generic lessons from what I discovered then, the main one being to put most of the effort into learning to teach online, not into designing course materials. Put dialogue and community first, not structure. For instance, make the first thing students see in the LMS the discussion, not your notes or slides, and use the discussion to share content and guide the process. However, I’d mostly feel like the driver of a Model T Ford trying to teach someone to drive a Tesla. Technologies have changed, I have changed, my memory is unreliable.

bicycleIn fact, I haven’t driven a car of any description in years. What I normally do now is, metaphorically, much closer to riding a bicycle, which I happen to do and enjoy a lot in real life too. A bike is a really smart, well-adapted, appropriate, versatile, maintainable, sustainable soft technology for getting around. The journey tends to be much more healthy and enjoyable, traffic jams don’t bother you, you can go all sorts of places cars cannot reach, and you can much more easily stop wherever you like along the way to explore what interests you. You can pretty much guarantee that you will arrive when and where you planned to arrive, give or take a few minutes. In the city, it’s often the fastest way to get around, once you factor in parking etc. It’s very liberating. It is true that more effort is needed to get from A to B, bad weather can be a pain, and it would not be the fastest or most comfortable way to reach the other side of the continent: sometimes, alternative forms of transport are definitely worth taking and I’m not against them when it’s appropriate to use them. And the bike I normally ride does have a little electric motor in one of the wheels that helps push me up hills (not much, but enough) but it doesn’t interfere with the joy (or most of the effort) of riding.  I have learned that low-threshold, adaptable, resilient systems are often much smarter in many ways than high-tech platforms because they are part-human. They can take on your own smartness and creativity in ways no amount of automation can match. This is true of online learning tools as much as it is true of bicycles. Blogs, wikis, email, discussion forums, and so on often beat the pants off learning management systems, commercial teaching platforms, learning analytics tools or AI chatbots for many advanced pedagogical methods because they can become what you want them to be, rather than what the designer thought you wanted, and they can go anywhere, without constraint. Of course, the flip side is that they take more effort, sometimes take more time, and (without enormous care) can make it harder for all concerned to do things that are automated and streamlined in more highly engineered tools, so they might not always be the best option in all circumstances, any more than a bike is the best way to get up a snowy mountain or to cross an ocean.

Why you shouldn’t listen to my advice

It’s sad but true that most of what I would really like to say on the subject of online learning won’t help teachers on the ground right now, and it is actually worse than the help their peers could give them because what I really want to tell them is to change everything and to see the world completely differently. That’s pretty threatening, especially in these already vulnerable times, and not much use if you have a class to teach tomorrow morning.

The AACE book is more grounded in where in-person teachers are now. The chapter “We Need to Help Teachers Withstand Public Criticism as They Learn to Teach Online”, for example, delves into the issues well, in accessible ways that derive from a clear understanding of the context.  However, the book cannot help but be an implicit (and, often, explicit) critique of how teachers currently teach: that’s implied in the title, and in the chapter structures.  If you’re already interested enough in the subject and willing enough to change how you teach that you are reading this book in the first place, then this is great. You are 90% of the way there already, and you are ready to learn those lessons. One of the positive sides of emergency remote teaching has been that it has encouraged some teachers to reflect on their teaching practices and purposes, in ways that will probably continue to be beneficial if and when they return to in-person teaching. They will enjoy this book, and they may be the intended audience. But they are not the ones that really need it.

I would quite like to see (though maybe not to read) a different kind of book containing advice from beginners. Maybe it would have a title something like ‘What I learned in 2020’ or ‘How I survived Zoom.’ Emergency remote teachers might be more inclined to listen to the people who didn’t know the ‘right’ ways of doing things when the crisis began, who really didn’t want to change, who maybe resented the imposition, but who found ways to work through it from where they were then, rather than where the experts think (or know) they should be aiming now. It would no doubt annoy me and other distance learning researchers because, from the perspective of recognized good practice, much of it would probably be terrible but, unlike what we have to offer, it would actually be useful. A few chapters in the AACE book are grounded in concrete experience of this nature, but even they wind up saying what should have happened, framing the solutions in the existing discourse of the distance learning discipline. Most chapters consist of advice from experts who already knew the answers before the pandemic started. It is telling that the word ‘should’ occurs a lot more frequently than it should. This is not a criticism of the authors or editors of the book: the book is clear from the start that it is going to be a critique of current practice and a practical guidebook to the territory, and most of the advice I’ve seen in it so far makes a lot of sense. It’s just not likely to affect many of the ones who have no wish to change not just their practices but their fundamental attitudes to teaching. Sadly, that’s also true of this post which, I think, is therefore more of an explanation of why I’ve been staring into the headlights for most of the pandemic, rather than a serious attempt to help those in need. I hope there’s some value in that because it feels weird to be a (slight, minor, still-learning) expert in the field with very strong opinions about how online learning should work, but to have nothing useful to say on the subject at the one time it ought to have the most impact.

Read the book:

Ferdig, R.E. & Pytash, K.E. (2021). What Teacher Educators Should Have Learned From 2020. Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE). Retrieved March 22, 2021 from https://www.learntechlib.org/primary/p/219088/.

Incarceration in Real Numbers

This is stunning, both in terms of content and in terms of its presentation.

The content is depressingly familiar – the fact that the US incarcerates (in real numbers and as a percentage of population) vastly more people than any other country in the world, the fact that it really likes to do so to visible minorities in particular, and the fact that the system is shockingly corrupt at every level – but the detail is deeply disturbing. I was particularly amazed to learn that around 2% of those vast numbers of incarcerated Americans have actually had a trial. It provides lots of effective comparisons (with other countries, with different demographics, between different demographics, etc) that provide a good sense of the scale of the problem.

What makes this so powerful, though, is the brilliant, JavaScript-powered, interactive presentation. This is one extraordinarily long web page that shows individual images (in symbol form) of all 2.3 million incarcerated Americans, including a count of where you are now to put this into context. To read it, you have to keep scrolling. Keep scrolling, even if you get tired: it’s worth it. It’s particularly effective on a tablet, and less likely to lead to RSI. Some ingenious (but not at all complicated) coding brings phrases, infographics, statistics, and the occasional interactive element into view along the way, hovering for a while whilst you scroll, or becoming part of what you see as you scroll. You control this – you can slow down, go back, pause, and interact with much of the content as it appears. Watch out for some brilliant ways of representing proportions of population, showing graphs at their true scale, and emphasizing agency by showing the likely effects of different interventions.

The experience is deeply visceral – it’s an engagement with the body, not just the eye and brain.  The physical act of scrolling repeatedly hammers home what the numbers actually mean, and the fact that you play such an active role in revealing the content makes it much more impactful than it would be were it simply presented as text and figures, or hyperlinks. I’ve not seen this narrative form used in such a polished, well-integrated way before. This is a true digitally native artwork. The general principle is not dissimilar to that of most conventional e-learning content of the simplest, most mundane next-previous-slide variety. In fact it’s simpler, in many ways. The experience, though, is startlingly different.

It’s quite inspiring. I want to explore this kind of approach in my own teaching, though I don’t know how often I could use it before the effect gets stale, there may be some accessibility issues, and, if it were used in a course context as a means of sharing knowledge, it could easily become as over-controlling as a lecture. That said, it’s a brilliant way to make a point, far more powerfully than a PowerPoint, and  more engagingly than text, images, or video alone. It could be very useful. At the very least, it might provide a little inspiration for my students seeking ideas for using JavaScript on their sites.

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/8477597/incarceration-in-real-numbers