Today I sent this letter from staff at Athabasca University to the Albertan Advanced Education Minister and Board of Governors of the University, cc’d to various government & opposition politicians in Alberta, and a few selected journalists:
I strongly support the university’s continuing presence in the town of Athabasca, but not the forced relocation of any staff to the area. As an online community, I believe it to be in the interests of all staff and students of the university, including residents of the town of Athabasca, that all university staff who can and who wish to work from home, whatever their role, should be allowed to make that home wherever they choose.
The 149 signatories to the letter included academic staff (46%), managers (12%), administration staff (12%), professional staff (33%), RAs (1%) and tutors/academic experts (7%). 48% live in the region of Edmonton, 19% in the region of Calgary, 15% in rural Alberta outside Athabasca region, 8% in the region of Athabasca, 5% in Ontario, 3% in BC, 1% in Nova Scotia, and 1% in Saskatchewan. A further 3 staff signed the letter anonymously, and a number of others expressed general agreement with the main points made but, for various reasons, chose not to sign. One more signed today, after I had sent the letter.
How this came about
For context, the Government of Alberta has made a number of demands, under threat of withdrawal of funding, that would require 500 additional staff to move to Athabasca (notably including all the executive staff), that would force us to end our near-virtual strategy, and that would require us to change our focus from teaching anyone and everyone to teaching Albertans, with an initial deadline of 2024/25. This is our president’s explanation and response. Perhaps as a result of public outrage, the minister responsible has since claimed the deadlines are negotiable, and suggested that a little flexibility might be allowed (given that the demands are literally impossible to meet), but he has not stepped back on the basic requirements, and has repeatedly emphasized that he will force all of the executive team to work on the Athabasca campus, despite also claiming he will not force anyone to work there, among other contradictions.
I sent an email to an assortment of staff that I know a week ago today, asking them to sign the statement above and pass it along to other staff members. I did not want to use any official channels to send it for fear that it would be seen as being driven by those with partisan positions to defend (none-the-less, I did receive one anonymous comment from someone who did not sign it because they had received it via their boss and assumed it was driven from the top – it was not!). Because of the viral approach to dissemination, I am fairly certain that it failed to reach all AU staff, and the signatories are almost certainly skewed to people I know, and those who know people I know. I suspect that some groups (especially tutors and administrators) are under-represented. I therefore have no way of telling what percentage of recipients actually signed the letter, but those who signed make up around an eighth of the workforce in total. The Board of Governors is required to give a response to the Government of Alberta’s demands tomorrow, August 31st, so I had to pull all of this together hastily, otherwise I am confident that the letter would have gained more signatures.
A brief summary of the comments
As well as signing the letter, I also asked the staff to (optionally) provide comments. I am not going to include the 20 or so pages of these from scores of staff members that I received in full here, though they are full of fantastic ideas, expressions of concern, (sometimes heart-rending) stories, as well as expressions of caring for one another, for their communities, for the university, and for the students they work for. Once they are fully anonymized, I may share them later. However, I will attempt a summary now.
Many – including those living in the Athabasca region – speak of how much they value being able to work from home, and that they would reluctantly seek new employment if that option were not available. For example, one employee writes: I am a resident of Athabasca and I choose to live here; I have proven (since March 2020) that my job can be successfully executed virtually from my home office. My work-life balance has improved significantly because I can work from home.
Even faculty – who would not be required to move – speak of resigning were this to occur.
Some mention the importance of understanding the needs of our students, or express concern about the effects that the disruption caused by this initiative would cause.
Many mention difficulties they would face working at Athabasca. Often, this is due to the needs of their families, especially with regard to job opportunities and health. This is a particularly poignant comment that expresses several of the concerns shared by many: I initially applied for a position with AU because it was in a small community that I wanted to raise my family in. However, my spouse was not able to find work after he was laid off with the decline in oil and gas and my son needed specialized services that the town did not have. Therefore, I applied for an Edmonton position so my spouse could find work to help support the family and my son could access the services he required.
Another, living in Athabasca, writes: If I were place based at the AU Campus, I would have to use my vacation to care for [my sick child] which would significantly decrease the amount of vacation available to me if not completely exhaust my allowable annual vacation.
Another writes: I am struggling with this forced relocation as I will not be forced to relocate away from my children. My husband would be out of a job. We would make a loss on our home if we were forced to sell to relocate. I have been going through cancer treatment and my oncologist and medical Team are located in Edmonton and I would jeopardize my health moving away from my health care team.
Some express the concern that AU would suffer from a hugely diminished job pool. For example: Allowing work from home and not forcing employees to relocate to another province means retaining staff, retaining expertise, widening the applicant pool so as to entice top talent across Canada, and positions AU as a leading employer. AU students can take courses anywhere in the world — AU staff should be able to work from anywhere in Canada.
Others observe the need for big improvements to infrastructure, services, and transport links for the town to accommodate greater numbers, though a couple suggest they might accept incentives to move there. Quite a few think that it would do active harm to the town were substantial numbers to relocate. As one staff member puts it: Placing all your eggs in one basket (or relying on one or two industries) will not provide the economic security and stability required for long-term success.
Several explicitly draw attention to the point made in the letter that the executive team should not have to live there.
Some ask that the government should stop interfering with the operations of the university. Many would like to be more involved in conversations being held privately between the Board of Governors and the Government of Alberta, asking for their voices to be heard by all parties in the dispute.
Some challenge the notion that AU should be required to bear the burden of supporting the town. For example, one writes: AU is one of Alberta’s four CARUs and as such, its mandate should be about education and research, not about economic development of a region. No other company or university has such mandate or responsibility.
Some provide suggestions for ways we can expand on what we are already doing to provide services to the region, and to take more advantage of our unique location for research: there are many good suggestions and reports of existing initiatives among the comments, such as this: FST is home to Science Outreach Athabasca which is an organization supported by faculty and members of the town of Athabasca that has been engaging the community of Athabasca for 20 years and hosted over 120 public talks, science camps, nature hikes, butterfly counts, and other activities. We also host lab sessions for junior high and high school students in Athabasca schools which our faculty volunteer to do. Our research activity in FST has been growing in environmental science and computational biology with three research chairs and recruitments of new faculty to increase our capacity in remediation, long-term monitoring, aquatic systems, rural sustainability, and regenerative design, to name a few.
A few express concern with intimidation they have faced when attempting to voice opinions not held by those with louder voices and political positions to defend. Though mostly not included in the comments, personal messages to me expressed relief and gratitude at being allowed to express opinions they were afraid to share with colleagues and town residents, because of fears of reprisal or ostracization. One, that is included, put it well: I’m tired of my voice not being heard which is why I decided to compose this letter. I’m tired of being told, I’m tired of the lobbyist/activists, Municipal and Provincial Governments not respecting the voices on the “other side”
This is the comment I received after sending the letter today, that is quite representative of several others:
Athabasca University is an online university and has been operating efficiently with the work from home environment and I believe will continue to do so with the a near virtual environment. I support the near virtual initiative.
The full range of comments is far richer, far more nuanced, and far more varied than what I have been able to summarize here and I apologize to the many dozens of people who provided them for not doing them as much justice as they deserve.
I hope that the recipients read and act on the letter. At the very least, they will have a far better idea of the needs, concerns, and feelings of a significant portion of AU staff than they had before, and I hope that will colour their judgment.
Thank you, everyone who signed, and thank you to all who will read it. I will be circulating the full letter and addendum to as many of those who signed it as possible over the next day or two.
I’ve said this before but it needs more emphasis. In the past week or so it has become increasingly clear that the real agenda of the Albertan government is not (directly) to forcibly move 500 unwilling AU staff to the town of Athabasca. That’s just smoke and mirrors intended to distract us from the real agenda, which is to oust the current (brilliant, visionary, capable) executive team – most of whom will resign rather than relocate to Athabasca – and then to replace them with lackeys who will (quietly, out of the public eye) do the government’s dirty work for them. This has been made very explicit by the minister for post secondary education over several months, saying, for instance:
“When it comes to the non-instructional staff, particularly the senior administrative and executive management positions, those should indeed be based in the town” (Town & Country Today, May 2022)
The government has already installed a chair of the board of governors (ironically, a Calgary-based lawyer) who is explicitly on their side, as well as board members from the town of Athabasca. All they need to do now is to replace our leaders with people they can control, and the job is done.
This is the real threat. This is the real plan. This is what will destroy us.
Firstly, the chances of getting a great executive team will be very slim if they have to live in Athabasca. On average, our past hires in the town have been mediocre at best though, admittedly, this is skewed by some who have been outstandingly awful. On average, acknowledging the odd high spot here and there, the remainder have been pretty average. The executive team is, more than everyone else, the group of employees that has the biggest effect on the university, its vision, its teaching, and its success. More than anyone else, they must be the best. Everyone accepts this when it comes to faculty and tutors, so why not for the exec team that matters more?
Secondly, whether they are lackeys or simply those who are less capable of resistance than our current team, they will push through the agenda that has been causing so much bad press of late. It will take a bit longer to move 500 people than the two years required in the minister’s recent letter to the board, and maybe it will ‘only’ wind up being a few hundred people, but it will happen, without the adverse press headlines and multiple channels of resistance.
Thirdly – and ultimately perhaps the most damagingly – the executives who live in the town will inevitably pay more attention to those physically surrounding them. These will never include faculty and tutors (everyone agrees on that, even the minister) so we will slide back into the admin-driven mire that messed up many things over the last few decades, and from which we have only been emerging for the last 5 years.
As a result, we will fade into obscurity, if we survive at all.
Our nascent but emerging online, inclusive community that has struggled to grow over the past 5 years, despite resistance from those who love their comfortably complacent old ways, will once again shrivel to an irrelevance, crowded out by the in-person short-circuits. Faculty and tutors will again be isolated from administrators and professional staff, whose stronger influence will determine most of our policies. Faculty – the ones doing the teaching and research – will again be the ones ‘calling in’ to in-person meetings, inevitably less significant and with a smaller voice than those attending meetings in person. Online communication will revert to being instrumental, focused, and bland. Tacit knowledge will fail to spread, except among those working in person.
The systems, approaches and vision that have driven us for the last 5 years, most notably the near-virtual policy, that could and should lead us to expand in all good ways (pedagogically, geographically, demographically, digitally, in community, in quality, in belongingness, in numbers, and more) will be wiped off the map.
Ironically, the brighter future of the town of Athabasca itself – that, right now, involves us in repurposing and redeveloping our physical headquarters to be so much more than an admin centre, that is focused on developing the region, doing research, engaging with local partners, and upping the skills, knowledge, and significance of the community – will fade, as our campus once again slips back into being little more than a bunch of offices for administrators. Without diversity or investment in its infrastructure or transit options to it, there will not be jobs for the families of those required to work there. It will continue its long slide into decay. The university itself will diminish in numbers and relevance, so those who have moved there will lose jobs, with nowhere else to go.
All of this will occur thanks, ultimately, to the scheming and machinations of one minority faction of workers in Athabasca that instigated the political lobbying in the first place, that cares more about the short-term future of a small town of less than 3000 people than for our 40,000 students and the future of education in this country. Those who have led the attack have never even acknowledged this conflict of interest.
It is a far harder sell to start a movement to resist the relocation of less than 10 executive staff – whose popularity is far from universal, thanks to the huge disruptive changes they have spearheaded, the least popular of which have been (you guessed it) driven by the Albertan government – than to resist the uprooting of everyone else apart from faculty and tutors, but this is the real battleground. This is the fight that we must not lose.
Keep Athabasca University’s leaders out of the town of Athabasca!
Wherever you live, please make your views known by contacting the Minister, Demetrios Nicolaides, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or comment on social media, by tagging @demetriosnAB on Twitter, #abpse, #abpoli. Blog about it, write to the press about it, lobby outside the gates of the Albertan legislature, tell your friends, whatever: make a fuss.
My heart briefly leapt to my throat when I saw Thursday’s Globe & Mail headline that the Albertan government had (allegedly) dropped its insane plan to force Athabasca University to move 65% of its workforce to the town of Athabasca. It seemed that way, given that the minister for post secondary education was referring to his demands and accompanying threat as only a ‘suggestion’ (broadly along the lines of Putin’s ‘suggestion’ that Ukraine should be part of Russia, perhaps). However, other reports, have said that he has denied any change in his requirements, albeit that he now claims it is open to negotiation. A ham-fisted negotiation tactic or just plain confused? I hope so, but I doubt it. I think that this is just a ploy to push the real agenda through with little resistance, and largely unnoticed. In the Globe & Mail article, the minister goes on to say “I would indeed like to see, at a bare minimum, senior executives and administrative staff be based in the town, as they have been for the past several decades.” A majority of what might be described as administrative staff do probably live in Athabasca anyway, and there is no reason for any of them to leave, so that’s just gaining a few easy election points from town voters. If the government actually wanted to help the town it would invest in the infrastructure and support needed to allow it to thrive, which it has signally failed to do for several decades, at least. No, his main target is clearly the senior executives: basically, he and the UCP want to put a team of executive lackeys in charge so that they can push their agenda through unopposed by anyone they care about. They have already sacked the incumbent and installed a chair of the board of governors who will do their bidding, and they have increased representation on the board from the town of Athabasca so this is the obvious next step. The execs won’t have to be fired. If they are required to move to Athabasca, most of what is probably the best executive team ever assembled in this or any other Albertan university will resign. Whoever replaces them will do the UCP’s dirty work, largely free from media oversight. Job done, bad press averted.
The UCP will, I am very sad to say, appear to have support from our own professional and faculty union (AUFA), even though most of us will, whether weakly or strongly, oppose it. This is because AUFA has a small but disproportionately powerful caucus in Athabasca, members of which have been deeply involved with an activist group called KAAU (Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University), who actually paid an insider lobbyist to start this fracas in the first place. Seriously. A casual observer might perceive at least a portion of the union’s leadership as putting the interests of the town ahead of the interests of the university. At best, their loyalties appear to be divided. The evidence for this is all too apparent in press statements and blog posts on the subject. Though most of us (including me) support the continuing presence of AU in Athabasca, these posts do not represent the views of most of those in the union, only those in charge of it. Only around 20% or thereabouts of AUFA members actually live in Athabasca, a percentage that has steadily fallen over the course of the last two decades, and almost all of those are professional members, not academics. Most members who had the chance to leave over the past 20 years did so. This is a point worth dwelling on.
We shape our buildings…
Athabasca is a tiny, inclement (-40 in Winter, bugs in summer) Northern town over 180km away from the nearest International airport. There is one (private) bus from Edmonton leaving late at night that arrives in town at 2:46am after a 3+ hour journey on a small, treacherous road. When it got too big for its Edmonton home, the university was (disastrously) moved there by a conservative government in 1984, ostensively to fill a gap left by the closure of the town’s main employer, but more likely due to the property interests held there by those behind the plan. About half the faculty resigned rather than work there. Ironically, the first president of AU deliberately named the university after a geographical feature of Alberta (the Athabasca River) precisely to avoid associating it with any city or region, so that local politics wouldn’t interfere with its mission. We might have been named after a mountain were it not that the University of Alberta happened to be demolishing Athabasca Hall (a students’ residence) at the time, so the name was free for us to use. It had nothing whatsoever to do with the town. It is possible that the president who named it was even unaware of the town’s existence or, at least, considered it to be too insignificant to be an issue.
Whatever charms the town may have (and it has a few), Athabasca has been a hobble for AU from the very start. I wrote about this at some length 5 years ago, just as we were on the cusp of making the massive changes we have been implementing ever since, but I would like to focus on two particularly relevant aspects in this post: the effects on the hiring pool, and the short-circuiting of communication with the rest of the university.
Firstly, it is really difficult to attract good employees to the town. Some residents of Athabasca will say that they feel insulted by this, believing that it implies that they are not the best and brightest. This is either disingenuous or a confirmation that they are, in fact, not the best and brightest, because all it means is that we have fewer good people to choose from. There are, of course, some incredibly smart, talented, creative people who live in Athabasca. But, equally, some are not: we have too often had to pick the best of a not-too-great bunch. The more people we expect to live in Athabasca, the bigger the problem of those who are not the best and brightest becomes. The undesirability of the place is confirmed by the KAAU itself, whose biggest complaint – the one that (at least on the face of it) drove their lobbying and union discontent in the first place – is that people have been leaving the town in droves since they were no longer required to stay, which pretty much says all that needs to be said. It is also notable that faculty and tutors are not and have never successfully been required to work in the town in all the university’s history, because it would be impossible to recruit sufficient numbers of sufficient quality, a fact that all parties involved in this (including the minister) acknowledge. We should get the best possible staff for almost every role – we all play some role in our distributed teaching model – but it is true in spades, plus some, for our executive team who, more than anyone else, have to be the most excellent that we can get. Right now, we have the best executive team that has ever been assembled at AU, bar none, and that is only possible because – for the first time ever – none of them have had to live in Athabasca.
…and our buildings shape us
Athabasca has, overwhelmingly, been home for staff that support but that do not directly implement its mission. Historically, these staff (predominantly administrators) have had extremely privileged access to the the leaders of the university compared with the rest of us. Even if they didn’t bump into them socially or in the canteens and halls, they would talk to people that did. And they would be the ones attending meetings in person while the rest of us phoned in or, in latter years, struggled with webmeeting systems that never really worked properly for in-person attendees, despite absurdly expensive equipment designed to support it. Fixing this was never a particularly high priority because those with the power to do so were the ones attending in-person, and it was just fine for them. Inevitably, Athabasca residents had a much better idea of what was going on and who was doing what than anyone else. More problematically, they had far greater influence over it: they didn’t ask for this, but they certainly got it. It is no wonder that they are now peeved, because most of their power, influence, and control over everything has been massively diminished since most of the execs left town. Their perception – voiced on many occasions by the Athabasca-dominated union – that too much has recently been happening without consultation and that there is not enough communication from our leaders is, objectively speaking, completely false: in fact, it is far better than it has ever been, for those of us (the majority of staff) living remotely. They just no longer have a direct line themselves. I think this is the root of most of the union troubles of the last few years, whether consciously or not, and of the current troubles with the Albertan government.
In-person communities short-circuit online communities. I’ve seen it in teaching contexts a thousand times over: it just takes one group to branch off in person to severely damage or destroy a previously successful online community. Without fail, online communication becomes instrumental and intermittent. Tacit knowledge, in particular, disappears (apart from for the in-person group). Researchers like me (and many others at AU, including our president, in some of his former roles) have spent a great deal of time trying to make native online tools, systems, and working/teaching approaches that reduce these effects, but with only limited success. Combining fully online and in-person communities invariably wrecks the online community. Only when it is fully online, or when the online community is just an extension of the in-person community, can it thrive. Without the best of research-driven online tools and processes (most of which are not implemented at AU), hybrids are a disaster, and they are not much improved with even the best we have to offer.
In the past, the problem was partially offset by the fact that we had a few smaller learning centres elsewhere, in St Albert, Edmonton and Calgary (and, formerly, Fort McMurray), that were visited by the execs with varying frequency. However, this created what were, in many ways, bigger problems. It was incredibly inefficient, environmentally damaging, and expensive, wasting a lot of time and energy for all concerned. More significantly, although it helped to keep the exec team to be a little more in touch with others around the university and it helped to fill gaps in online communication for those living near them, it actually exacerbated the problem for our online community, because it created yet more in-person enclaves and cliques that developed independently of one another, sharing very little with the rest. Our business school, for instance, lived an almost entirely separate life from the rest of the university, in its own campus in St Albert (a satellite city attached to Edmonton), running its own largely independent communications and IT infrastructure but frequently meeting in person. As a result, we never developed the kind of unified online culture needed to sustain us.
Even more importantly, few of those with the power to change it ever learned what remote working was like for our students, so we didn’t create that online culture or community for them, either. Because of the inequalities that ensued, those of us who did know what it was like were not able to adequately influence the rest (especially the executive team) to get something done about it, because we were crowded out by the clamour of local communities. It’s not that the problem was unrecognized: it’s just that immediate operational concerns of in-person employees always came first. This was – and remains – a huge mistake. Too few of our students feel they belong, too few barely if ever interact with another student, too few see anything of the university beyond the materials provided for the courses they take. We have some excellent teaching processes, but processes (even the best) are only a part of what makes for a rewarding education. Yes, we do have plentiful support of all kinds, teaching approaches that should (for some but not all faculties) provide opportunities to develop relationships with human tutors, and the occasional opportunity to engage more broadly (mainly through the Landing), but many students completely bypass all of that. The need for it is beyond obvious, as evidenced by large number of Discords, Facebook Groups, Subreddits, and so on that they set up themselves to support one another. However, these are just more isolated enclaves, more subcultures, more virtual islands, without a single unifying culture to knit them together.
Online communication at AU has, as a direct result of its physical campuses, always tended to be extremely instrumental and terse, if it happened at all. When I arrived 15 years ago, most of my colleagues hardly ever communicated online with colleagues outside of a formal, intentional context. Those of us who did were yet another little clique. Emails (which were and remain the most commonly used tech) were only sent if there were a purpose, and most of the tacit knowledge, that more than anything else makes a traditional institution work despite its typically dire organization, was absent. In its place the university developed a very rigid, unforgiving, impersonal set of procedures for pretty much everything, including our teaching. If there was no procedure then it didn’t happen. There were gigantic gaps. The teaching staff – especially tutors but also most of the faculty – were largely unable to share in a culture and the admin-focused tacit knowledge that resided largely in one remote location. This was the largest part of what drove Terry Anderson and I to create the Landing: it was precisely to support the tacit, the informal, the in-between, the ad-hoc, the cultural, the connective aspects of a university that were missing. We touted it as a space between the formal spaces, actively trying to cultivate and nurture a diverse set of reasons to be there, to make others visible. Treating it as a space was, though, a mistake. Though it did (and does) help a little, the Landing was just another place to visit: it therefore has not (or has not yet) fulfilled our vision for it to seep into the cracks and to make humans visible in all of our systems. And we were not able to support the vital soft, human processes that had to accompany the software because we were just academics and researchers, not bosses: technologies are the tools, structures, and systems and what we do with them, but what we do with them is what matters most. We need much more, and much better, and we need to embed it everywhere, in order to get rid of the short circuits of in-person cliques and online islands. A further death-knell to our online community was instigated by the (Athabasca-dominated) union that one day chose – without consultation – to kill off the only significant way for AUFA members to communicate more informally, its mailing list, only reluctantly bringing it back (after about 2 years of complaints), in a diluted, moderated, half-assed format that did not challenge their power. From an informal means of binding us, it became another instrumental tool.
Despite the problems, it would be a senseless waste to pull out of Athabasca. We need a place for the library, for archives, for outreach into communities in the region, for labs, for astronomy, and to support research based in the region, of which there is already a growing amount. Virtually no one at the university thinks for a moment that we should leave the town. We are just doubling down on things to which it is best suited, rather than making it a centre of all our operations. If people want to live there, they can. We can make a difference to an under-served region in our research, our outreach, and our facilities, and we are constantly doing more to make that happen, as a critical part of our reinvention of the university. It has symbolic value, too, as the only physical space that represents the university, albeit that few people ever see it.
Athabasca should never become the seat of power, whether due to numbers of collocated workers or because it is where the exec team are forced to live. I am not singling the town out for special treatment in this: nowhere should play this role. We are and must be an online community, first and foremost. This is especially the case for our exec team. In fact, the more distributed they are the better. They will not walk the talk and fix what is broken unless they live with the consequences, and they are the last people who should be clustered together, especially with a particular employee demographic. This brings benefits to the university and to the communities to which we belong, including to Athabasca.
By far the greatest threat from the Albertan government’s intrusions and our own union’s efforts to restore their personal power is to the identity and culture – the very soul – of the institution itself. Slowly (too slowly) and a bit intermittently we have, in recent years, been staggering towards creating a unified, online-native culture that embraces the whole institution. It has not been easy, especially thanks to the Athabascan resistance. But, regardless of their interference, we have made other mistakes. Our near-virtual implementation was the result of a large group representing the whole university, but one that lacked well-defined leadership or a clear mandate, that rushed development due to the pandemic, and that ignored most of what it found in its investigations of needs in its report to the university, leading to a hasty and incomplete implementation that has caused some unrest, most notably among those at Athabasca who are used to the comforts and conveniences of in-person working. For the majority of us who were already working online before the pandemic, things have got better, for the most part, but the benefits are very uneven. Too often we have poorly replicated in-person processes and methods to accommodate the newcomers, leading to (for instance) endless ineffectual meetings and yet more procedures. The near-virtual strategy remains a work in progress, and things will improve, but it got off to a stumbling, over-hasty start.
With limited funds, and contributing to the multiple failings of the near-virtual plan, we have signally failed to put enough effort into developing the technical infrastructure needed to support our nascent online community (one of the main needs identified by the near-virtual committee but not appearing in any meaningful way in the plan). I think we really should have focused on creating workable technologies to support our own community before working on teaching and administrative systems (or at least at the same time) but, after a decade of neglect while we were on the verge of bankruptcy, I guess we did need to fix those pretty urgently because they are what our students depend on. It’s just a bit tricky to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps if you are still using off-the-shelf tools designed to support in-person organizations (and commercial ones at that) rather than those designed for a virtual institution, especially when the more important human and organizational aspects are still rooted firmly in place-based thinking. I wrote about one aspect of that the other day. This won’t be a problem for long, I hope. The fruits of the reinvention of our student-facing systems – that is taking up the bulk of our development resources right now – should start to appear around the end of this year, if the Albertan government or our own union doesn’t destroy it first. I hope that we can then get round to fixing our own house because, if we don’t, we will be easy prey for the next politician seeking easy votes and/or a sly buck from their investments.
Shaping our lives
The title of this post is a quote from Churchill. In fact, he liked it so much that he used variants on the phrase (sometimes preferring ‘dwellings’ to ‘buildings’) a number of times over a course of decades. I could equally have used Culkin’s (usually misattributed to Mcluhan) ‘we shape our tools and then our tools shape us’ because, as the first president of the university recognized many decades ago, we exist as a university within our communications network, not in a physical nor even a virtual space.
The recursive dynamic implied by Churchill’s and Culkin’s aphorisms applies to any complex adaptive system. In most systems – natural ecosystems, money markets, ant-trails, cities, and so on – this leads to metastability and adaptation, as agents adapt to their environments and, in the process, change those environments, in an endless emergent cycle of evolution. However, the large and slow moving elements of any complex system influence the small and fast moving far more than vice versa and humans are the only creatures that we know of who can deliberately mess with this dynamic by making radical and rapid changes to the large and slow moving parts of the spaces in which they dwell. In the past it has happened to Athabasca University due to the machinations of a small number of self-serving politicians and geographically located cliques, not due to educators. If we can prevent government interference and diminish the significance of those cliques then we can change that, and we have been doing so, rebuilding our systems to serve the needs of staff and students, not of a few land developers or groups of local residents. This is not the time to stop. We are on the verge of creating a viable community and infrastructure for learning that could scale more or less indefinitely, where everyone – especially the students – can feel a part of something wonderful. Not cogs in machines, not products, but parts of an organic, evolving whole to which we all belong, and to which we all contribute. This matters: to our staff, to our students, to the people of Alberta, to the people of Canada, to the world. We should not be condemned to merely serve a small part of the economic needs of a small community, nor even of a province or country. If we follow that path then we will whimperingly shrink into a minor anachronistic irrelevance that appears as no more than a footnote in the annals of history, out-competed by countless others. Athabasca University matters most because it (not quite alone, but as part of a small, select pack of open and distance institutions) is beating a path that others can follow; an open, expansive, human-centred path towards a better future for us all. Let’s not let this die.
Essentially, because this was what I was invited to do, the paper shrinks down over 10,000-words from my article Educational technology: what it is and how it works (itself a very condensed summary of my forthcoming book, due out Spring 2023) to under 4,000 words that, I hope, more succinctly capture most of the main points of the earlier paper. I’ve learned quite a bit from the many responses to the earlier paper I received, and from the many conversations that ensued – thank you, all who generously shared their thoughts – so it is not quite the same as the original. I hope this one is better. In particular, I think/hope that this paper is much clearer about the nature and importance of technique than the older paper, and about the distinction between soft and hard technologies, both of which seemed to be the most misunderstood aspects of the original. There is, of course, less detail in the arguments and a few aspects of the theory (notably relating to distributed cognition) are more focused on pragmatic examples, but most are still there, or implied. It is also a fully open paper, not just available for online reading, so please freely download it, and share it as you will.
Here’s the abstract:
To be human is to be a user, a creator, a participant, and a co-participant in a richly entangled tapestry of technologies – from computers to pedagogical methods – that make us who we are as much as our genes. The uses we make of technologies are themselves, nearly always, also technologies, techniques we add to the entangled mix to create new assemblies. The technology of greatest interest is thus not any of the technologies that form that assembly, but the assembly itself. Designated teachers are never alone in creating the assembly that teaches. The technology of learning almost always involves the co-participation of countless others, notably learners themselves but also the creators of systems, artifacts, tools, and environments with and in which it occurs. Using these foundations, this paper presents a framework for understanding the technological nature of learning and teaching, through which it is possible to explain and predict a wide range of phenomena, from the value of one-to-one tutorials, to the inadequacy of learning style theories as a basis for teaching, and to see education not as a machine made of methods, tools, and systems but as a complex, creative, emergent collective unfolding that both makes us, and is made of us.
Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/14622408/my-latest-paper-learning-technology-and-technique-now-online-in-the-canadian-journal-of-learning-and-technology
This is very kind! I am sorry for all the very, very, very bad thoughts I have been thinking about you and your party. So, all we had to do was ask, eh?
We currently (in ball park terms) have about 300 staff in Athabasca out of a total of roughly 1200 staff overall. You want 65% of us to live there. So, what we need is:
ongoing funding to pay the salaries of 1500 new staff;
good, diverse, well-paid jobs for their families (yes, we have families);
support for building new homes to house the new staff;
computers, software, cloud services, high speed reliable internet to the town (not the rubbish we have now) for those new staff;
extra buildings to house them on the campus, including canteens, leisure facilities, etc;
regular, frequent transit links to the town of Athabasca.
We’ll let you off paying for 8 of those staff if you let our execs live wherever the hell they want. Maybe you could re-use the absurdly overblown presidential accommodation to house a family or six.
This is just a guess, but I think that, in total, such assistance might just about raise the government funding per student that you currently so generously provide us to around 70-80% of what you currently give to other Albertan universities.
It’s still a damn fool place to put a university so you’d better be prepared to offer some much better incentives for those you are forcing to live there. Higher pay, of course, maybe a free vehicle (electric, of course – you wouldn’t want to increase the outrageously high environmental impact of this proposal even more, would you?). If you expect us to do proper research, attracting international and national partners and research students, we will need at least a good rail link to the nearest international airport (you could have one built at Athabasca, perhaps? Imagine the additional benefits to Northern communities! Who wouldn’t want to fly to Athabasca rather than, say, Edmonton or Calgary?). You should probably improve and better maintain the road into town so that it stops killing and injuring our colleagues. We really don’t like that aspect of the job. It puts people off working there.
So, at the end of it, with all these additional expenses, you might have to put us nearly on par for per-student funding with the rest of Alberta’s comprehensive research universities. On the bright side, you’ll not have to pay for all the lawsuits and payouts for constructive dismissal, nor the humiliation of having destroyed one of the world’s finest universities, and I bet it would win you a ton of votes.
Thank you for the offer. Over to you.
P.S. And please, please, please would you just stop it with the micromanaging? It would save us all much unnecessary work and pain. More savings there.
P.P.S. And please stop talking about “not reinventing the school’s mandate but simply trying to reverse the trend away from it” by the way. You’re just lending fuel to the popular misconception that there are liars, damned liars, and politicians. I suppose you mean the mandate forced on us against our will 40 years ago that made the president and half the faculty resign? The one that was rescinded decades ago because it was completely unworkable for a university hoping to hire top quality researchers, teachers, tutors, professional staff, and administrators? That one?
P.P.P.S. ‘An ultimatum (/ˌʌltɪˈmeɪtəm/; Latin for ‘the last one’) is a demand whose fulfillment is requested in a specified period of time and which is backed up by a threat to be followed through in case of noncompliance’. Sound familiar?
For anyone else reading this…
Wherever you live, please make your views known by contacting the Minister, Demetrios Nicolaides, at email@example.com, or comment on social media, by tagging @demetriosnAB on Twitter, #abpse, #abpoli. Blog about it, write to the press about it, lobby outside the gates of the Albertan legislature, tell your friends, whatever: make a fuss.
This video from Peter Scott, president of Athabasca University, is a clear, eloquent, and passionate plea to save our university and the education of its students from imminent destruction at the hands of a brutal, self-serving, short-sighted government. Please watch it. Please act on it, in any way you can, if only to share it on your preferred social media. If we don’t stop this, Athabasca University as we know it will be no more.
If you don’t have time to watch the 12 minute video, in brief, this is the gist of it…
The Albertan government has unilaterally, without consultation with any stakeholders, demanded that:
we move about 500 of our staff (nearly half of the workforce), including the entire executive team, to the town of Athabasca by 2024-2025, to work there in-person;
we focus our efforts solely on Albertan students*;
we drop the near-virtual working policy on which we have worked and invested for many years and on which our future depends.
They have demanded that we agree to this, and to have a plan in place, by the end of next month, otherwise they will withdraw our funding. This would bankrupt us.
Right now, we are a world leader in online and distance education. The majority of our students live outside Alberta, so we are the nearest thing to a national university that Canada has. As the only fully open and distance university in Canada, we provide opportunities for many across the country who would otherwise be unable to get a decent education – people in rural or remote areas, those serving abroad, indigenous people, prisoners, and many more who would find it difficult or impossible to enrol in a conventional university, are welcome here. Over a third of our graduates are the first in their families to have achieved a degree. We have a remarkably high percentage of the finest distance and online researchers in the world, that is only possible because they are allowed to live and work where they choose. And we are half-way through the process of reinventing ourselves, with a visionary plan, and a sustainable business model that will allow us to serve better, and to serve many more, which relies entirely on being near-virtual. Over half of our staff – including virtually all faculty and tutors – have lived and worked at a distance for about 20 years. Most of the rest now happily do so. Less than 10% currently work in-person. We walk the talk. We know the struggles that our students face working online, intimately, first-hand.
I love this university and what it stands for. I love its open mission, its kick-ass research that punches far above its weight, its wonderful staff, its radical, caring vision, and its amazing, awesome students. We are something unique and precious, at least in Canada and perhaps in the world. If we let this happen, all of that will go. If we accept the directive, then at least half the faculty and most of our exceptional executive team will resign, the quality of whatever staff remain will fall through the floor, the few students that are left will suffer, and the costs of moving will send us deep into the red. Our open mission itself – the thing that most defines us – is under threat. If we reject it, we will lose a quarter of our budget and go bust. Either way, if the Albertan government persists with this insane, brutish plan, we are doomed. If anything survived at the end of it – which would only be half possible if the hostile government provided very large amounts of funding that I am fairly sure it is unwilling to provide – it would be a shrunken, irrelevant, sub-standard shadow of what it is now. The first order of business should therefore be to do all that we can to stop the government from forcing this absurd, devastating harmful mandate upon us.
Whoever you are, wherever you are, please help Athabasca University fight this threat to its survival. If you live in Alberta, please vote this atrocious, oil-addled, self-serving government out of office. Wherever you live, please make your views known by contacting the Minister, Demetrios Nicolaides, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or comment on social media, by tagging @demetriosnAB on Twitter, #abpse, #abpoli. Blog about it, write to the press about it, lobby outside the gates of the Albertan legislature, make a fuss.
And, if you happen to be politician with sway in your province or in federal government, or maybe someone who runs another university that is seeking to expand significantly further into online learning, we have a beautiful, already near-virtual, thriving, forward-looking university with a highly talented workforce (no re-housing needed, limited need for physical space, business processes and digital infrastructure already established) that would love to find some better custodians for its crucial mission.
Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/14559190/we-need-help-athabasca-university-is-facing-an-existential-threat-from-the-government-of-alberta
*Addendum and point of clarification as this has been misunderstood by a couple of readers: this is required by the Albertan government as a change to our central mission. To the best of my knowledge it does not explicitly mandate that we cannot accept students from elsewhere into our programs, though it is a major change in emphasis that would have many adverse impacts, big and small, on what, how and to whom we teach.
Athabasca University’s Digital Governance Committee recently got into a heated debate about whether and why we should support Zoom. It was a classic IT manageability vs user freedom debate and, as is often the way in such things, the suggested resolution was to strike up a working group/sub-committee of stakeholders to identify business requirements that the IT department could use to find an acceptable solution. This approach is eminently sensible, politically expedient, tried-and-tested, and profoundly inadequate.
As Henry Ford (probably never) said, “if I’d asked people what they wanted they would have said ‘a better horse'”.
A design approach that starts by gathering business requirements situates the problem in terms of the current solution, which is comprised of layers of solutions to problems caused by other solutions. For simple ‘hygiene’ tech that serves a hard, well-defined business function – leave reporting, accounting, etc – as long as you do properly capture the requirements and don’t gloss over things that matter, that’s normally fine, because you’re just building cogs to make the existing machine work more smoothly. However, for very soft social technologies like meetings, with potentially infinite ways of using them (by which I mean purposes, techniques, ways of assembling them with other technologies, and so on), no list of requirements could even begin to scratch at the surface. The thing about soft technologies – meetings, writing, pencils, pedagogies, programmable computers, chisels, wheels, technologies of fire, groups, poetry, etc – is that they don’t so much solve problems as they create opportunities. They create adjacent possible empty niches. In other words, they are defined by the gaps they leave, much more than the gaps they fill. What happens as a result of them is fundamentally non-deducible.
Solving different problems, creating different possibles
Meetings are assemblies of vast ranges of technologies and other phenomena, and they serve a vast number of purposes. Meetings are not just one technology but a container for an indefinitely large number of them. They are, though, by and large, solutions to in-person problems, many of which are constrained by physics, physiology, psychology, and other factors that do not apply or that apply differently online. Most webmeeting systems are attempts to replicate the same solutions or (more often) to replicate other webmeeting systems that have already done so, but they are doomed to be pale shadows of the original because there are countless things they cannot replicate, or can only replicate poorly. Among the phenomena that are the default in in-person meetings are, for example:
the immense salience brought about by travelling to a location, especially when it involves significant effort (lost in webmeetings);
the fact that it forces attention for a sustained period (most webmeeting software and ways of using it makes inattention much easier);
the social bonding that we have evolved to feel in the presence of others (not well catered for in webmeeting software);
the focus and meaning that comes from the ‘eventness’ of the occasion (diluted in webmeetings);
the ability to directly work together on an issue or artefact (limited in some ways in webmeetings, though potential exists for collaborative construction of digital artefacts);
the inability to invisibly escape (easy in most webmeetings);
the microexpressions, postures, movements, smells, etc that support communication (largely lost in webmeetings);
the social bonding value of sharing food and drink (lost in webmeetings);
the blurred boundaries of entering and leaving, the potential to leave together (usually lost in webmeetings);
the bonding that occurs in having a shared physical experience, including adversities such as a room that is too hot, roadworks outside, wasps in the room, etc, as well as good things like the smell of good coffee or luxurious chairs (not remotely possible in webmeetings, apart from when the tech fails – but then the meeting fails too);
the support for nuances of verbal interaction – knowing when it’s OK to interrupt, being able to sigh, talk at once, etc, not to mention having immediate awareness of who is speaking (webmeetings mostly suck at this);
the ability to cluster with others – to sit next to people you know (or don’t know), for instance (rarely an option in most webmeetings, and nothing like as salient or rich in potential as its in-person counterpart even when allowed);
the salience of being in a space, with all the values, history, power relationships, and so on that it embodies, from who sits where to which room is chosen (hardly a shadow of this in most webmeetings);
the ability to stand up and walk around together (a motion-sickness-inducing experience in webmeetings);
the problems and benefits of both over-crowding and excessive sparsity (very different in webmeetings);
the means to seamlessly integrate and employ other technologies, including every digital technology as well as paper, dance, desks, chairs, whiteboards, pins, clothing, coffee, doors, etc, etc, etc. (webmeetings offer a tiny fraction of this);
and so on.
A few of these might be replicated in current or future webmeeting software, though usually only in caricature. Most simply cannot be replicated at all, even if we could meet as virtual personas in Star Trek’s holodecks. Of course there are also many things that we should be grateful are not replicated in online meetings: conspicuous body odour, badly designed meeting rooms, schedule conflicts, and so on, as well as the unwanted consequences of most of the phenomena above. These, too, are phenomena that the technologies of meetings are designed around. In-person meetings are incredibly highly-evolved technologies, making use of technological and non-technological phenomena in immensely subtle ways, as well as having layers of counter-technology a kilometre deep, from social mores and manners to Roberts’ rules, from meeting tables to pens and note-taking strategies. Much of the time we don’t even notice that there are any technologies involved at all (as Danny Hillis quipped, ‘technology’ is anything invented after you were born).
Webmeetings, though, also have distinctive phenomena that can be exploited, such as:
the ease of entering and leaving (so breaks are easier to take, they don’t need to last a long time, people can dip in and out, etc);
the automation of scheduling and note-taking;
the means to record all that occurs;
the means to directly share digital tools;
the fact that people occupy different spaces (often with tools at their disposal that would be unavailable in a shared meeting space);
the captions for the hard of hearing;
the integrated backchannels of text chat.
These are different kinds of problem space with different adjacent possibles as well as different constraints. It therefore makes no sense to blindly attempt to replicate in-person meetings when the problems and opportunities are so different. We don’t (or shouldn’t) teach online in the same way we teach in the classroom, so why should we try to use meetings in the same way? For that matter, why have meetings at all?
Dealing with the hard stuff
Some constraints are quite easy to specify. If a matter under discussion needs to be kept private, say, that limits the range of options, albeit that, for such a soft technology as a meeting, privacy needs may vary considerably, and what works for one context may fail abysmally for another. Similarly for security, accessibility, learnability, compatibility, interoperability, cost, reliability, maintainability, longevity, and other basic hygiene concerns. There are normally hard constraints defining a baseline, but it is a fuzzy baseline that can be moved in different contexts for different people and different uses. No one wants unreliable, insecure, expensive, incompatible, unusable, buggy, privacy abusing software but most of us nonetheless use Microsoft products.
It is also not completely unreasonable to look for specific known business requirements that need to be met. However, there are enormous risks of duplicating solutions to non-existent problems. It is essential, therefore, to try to find ways of understanding the problems themselves, as much as possible in isolation from existing solutions. It would be a bad requirement to simply specify that people should be able to see and hear one another in real-time, for example: that is a technological solution based on the phenomena that in-person meetings use, not a requirement. It is certainly a very useful phenomenon that might be exploited in any number of ways (we know that because our ancestors have done it since before humans walked the planet) but it tells us little about why the phenomenon matters, or what it is about it that matters.
It would be better, perhaps, to ask people what is wrong with in-person meetings. It still situates the requirements in the current problem space, but it looks more closely at the source rather than the copy. It makes it easier to ask what purposes being able to see and hear one another during in-person meetings serve, what phenomena it provides, on what phenomena (including those provided by other technologies) it depends, and what depends on it. From that we may uncover the business requirements that seeing and hearing other people actually meet. However, it is incredibly tricky to ask such questions in the abstract: the problem space is vast, complex, diverse, and deeply bound up in what we are familiar with, not what is possible.
It might help to make the familiar unfamiliar, for instance, by holding in-person meetings wearing blindfolds, or silently, or to attempt to conduct a meeting using only sticky notes (approaches I have used in my own teaching about communication technologies, as it happens). This kind of exercise forcibly creates a new problem space so that people can wonder about what is lost, what is gained, reasons for doing things, and so on. If you do enough of that, you might start to uncover what matters, and (perhaps) some of the reasons we have meetings in the first place.
Exploring the adjacent possible
Perhaps most importantly, though, soft technologies are not just solutions to problems. Soft technologies are, first and foremost, creators of opportunities, the vast majority of which we will never begin to imagine. Soft technology design is therefore, and must be, a partnership between the person and the technology: it’s not just about creating a tool for a task but about having a conversation with that tool, asking what it can do for us and wondering where it might lead us. What’s interesting about the ubiquitous backchannel feature of webmeetings, for instance, is that it did not find its way into the software as a result of a needs assessment or analysis of business requirements. It was, instead, an early (and deeply imperfect) attempt at replicating what could be replicated of synchronous meetings before multimedia communication became possible. When designing early web conferencing systems, no one said ‘we need a way of typing so that others can see it’. They looked at what could be done and said ‘hey, we can use that’. The functionality persisted and has become nearly ubiquitous because it’s easy to implement and obviously useful. It’s an exaptation, though, not the product of a pre-planned intentional design process. It’s a side-effect of something else we did – a poor solution to an existing problem – that created new phenomena we could co-opt for other purposes. New adjacent possible empty niches emerged from it.
One way to explore such niches would be to give people the chance to play with a wide range of existing ways of addressing the same problem space. A lot of people have turned their attention to these issues, so it makes sense to mine the creativity of the crowd. There are systems like Discord or MatterMost, that represent a different category of hybrid asynchronous/synchronous tool, for instance, blurring the temporal boundaries. There are spatial metaphor systems with isometric interfaces like Spatial, or Ovice, which can allow more intuitive clustering, perhaps contributing to a greater sense of the presence of others, while enabling novel approaches to (say) voting, and so on. There are immersive systems that more literally replicate spaces, like Mozilla Hubs or OpenSim. I hold out little hope for those, but they do have some non-literal features – especially in ways they allow impossible spaces to be created – that are quite interesting. There are instant messengers like Telegram or Signal, that offer ambient awareness as well as conventional meeting support (MS Teams, reflecting its Skype origins, has that too). There are games and game-like environments like Gather or Minecraft, that create new kinds of world as well as providing real-time conferencing features. And there are much smarter webmeeting systems like Around (that largely solves almost all audio problems, that – crucially – can make the meeting a part of a user’s environment rather than a separate space for gathering, that rethinks text chat as a transient, person-focused act rather than a separate text-stream, that makes working together on a digital artefact a richly engaging process, that automatically sends a record to participants, and more). And there’s a wealth of research-based systems that we have built over the past few decades, including many of my own, that do things differently, or that use different metaphors. Computer-supported collaborative argumentation tools, for instance, or systems that leverage social navigation (I particularly love Viégas’s and Donath’s ChatCircles from the late 1990s, for instance), and so on. They all make new problems, and all have flaws of one kind or another, but thinking about how and why they are different helps to focus on what we are trying to do in the first place.
Perhaps the best of all ways to explore those adjacent possible empty niches is to make them: not to engineer it according to a specification, but to tinker and play. I’ve written about this before (e.g. here and, paywalled, here, summarized by Stefanie Panke here). Tinkering as a research methodology is a process of exploration not of what exists but of what does not. It’s a journey into the adjacent possible, with each new creation or modification creating new adjacent possibles, a step by step means of reaching into and mapping the unknown. We don’t all have the capacity (in skills, time, or patience) to create software from scratch, but we can assemble what we already have. We can, for instance, try to add plugins to existing systems: it is seldom necessary to write your own WordPress plugin, for example, because tens of thousands of people have already done so. Or we can make use of frameworks to construct new systems: the Elgg system underpinning the Landing, for example, does require some expertise to build new components, but a lot can be achieved by assembling and/or modifying what others have built. Or, if standards are followed, we can assemble services as needed: there are standards like xcon, XMPP, Jabber, IRC, and so on that make this possible. And we don’t need to create software or hardware at all in order to dream. Hand-drawn mockups can create new possibilities to explore. Small steps into the unknown are better than no steps at all.
Stop looking for solutions
Webmeetings that attempt to replicate their in-person inspirations are unlikely to ever afford the flexibility of in-person meetings, because they have fewer phenomena to orchestrate and we are never going to be as adept at using them. The gaps they leave for us to fill are smaller, and our capacity to fill those gaps is less well-developed. However, digital systems can provide a great many new and different phenomena that, with creativity and inspiration, may meet our needs much better. Without the constraints of physical spaces we can invent a new physics of the digital. As long as we treat the problem as one of replicating meetings then it makes little difference what we choose: Zoom, Teams, Webex, Connect, BBB, Jitsi, whatever – the feature set may vary, there may be differences in reliability, security, cost, etc but any of them will do the job. The problem is that it is the wrong job. We already pay for and use at least three major systems for synchronous meetings at AU, as well as a bunch of minor ones, and that is nothing like enough. Those that begin to depart from the replication model – Around being my current favourite – are a step in the right direction, while those that double down on it (notably most immersive environments) are probably a step in the wrong direction. It is not about going forward or backward, though: it is about going sideways.
It is not too tricky to experiment in this particular field. For most digital systems we create our decisions normally haunt us for years or decades, because we become locked in to them with our data. Synchronous technologies can, with provisos, be swapped around and changed at will. Sure, there can be issues with recording and transcripts, there can be a training burden, contracts can be expensive and hard to escape, and tech support may be a little more costly but, for the most part, if we don’t like something then we can drop it and try something else.
I don’t have a solution to choosing or making the right piece of software for AU’s needs, because there isn’t one. There are countless possible solutions, none of which will suit everyone, many of which will provide parts that might be useful to most people, and all of which will have parts or aspects that won’t. But I do know that the way to approach the problem is not to have meetings to determine business requirements. The solution is to find ways of discovering the adjacent possible, to seek inspiration, to look sideways and forwards instead of backwards. We don’t need simple problem-solving for this kind of situation (or rather, it is quite inadequate on its own): we need to find ways to dream, ways to wonder, ways to engage in the act of creation, ways to play.
Brilliant. The short answer is, of course, yes, and it doesn’t do a bad job of it. This is conceptual art of the highest order.
This is the preprint of a paper written by GPT-3 (as first author) about itself, submitted to “a well-known peer-reviewed journal in machine intelligence”. The second and third authors provided guidance about themes, datasets, weightings, etc, but that’s as far as it goes. They do provide commentary as the paper progresses, but they tried to keep that as minimal as needed, so that the paper could stand or fall on its own merits. The paper is not too bad. A bit repetitive, a bit shallow, but it’s just a 500 word paper- hardly even an extended abstract – so that’s about par for the course. The arguments and supporting references are no worse than many I have reviewed, and considerably better than some. The use of English is much better than that of the majority of papers I review.
In an article about it in Scientific American the co-authors describe some of the complexities in the submission process. They actually asked GPT-3 about its consent to publication (it said yes), but this just touches the surface of some of the huge ethical, legal, and social issues that emerge. Boy there are a lot of those! The second and third authors deserve a prize for this. But what about the first author? Well, clearly it does not, because its orchestration of phenomena is not for its own use, and it is not even aware that it is doing the orchestration. It has no purpose other than that of the people training it. In fact, despite having written a paper about itself, it doesn’t even know what ‘itself’ is in any meaningful way. But it raises a lot of really interesting questions.
It would be quite interesting to train GPT-3 with (good) student assignments to see what happens. I think it would potentially do rather well. If I were an ethically imperfect, extrinsically-driven student with access to this, I might even get it to write my assignments for me. The assignments might need a bit of tidying here and there, but the quality of prose and the general quality of the work would probably result in a good B and most likely an A, with very little extra tweaking. With a bit more training it could almost certainly mimic a particular student’s style, including all the quirks that would make it seem more human. Plagiarism detectors wouldn’t stand a chance, and I doubt that many (if any) humans would be able to say with any assurance that it was not the student’s own work.
If it’s not already happening, this is coming soon, so I’m wondering what to do about it. I think my own courses are slightly immune thanks to the personal and creative nature of the work and big emphasis on reflection in all of them (though those with essays would be vulnerable), but it would not take too much ingenuity to get GPT-3 to deal with that problem, too: at least, it could greatly reduce the effort needed. I guess we could train our own AIs to recognize the work of other AIs, but that’s an arms war we’d never be able to definitively win. I can see the exam-loving crowd loving this, but they are in another arms war that they stopped winning long ago – there’s a whole industry devoted to making cheating in exams pay, and it’s leaps ahead of the examiners, including those with both online and in-person proctors. Oral exams, perhaps? That would make it significantly more difficult (though far from impossible) to cheat. I rather like the notion that the only summative assessment model that stands a fair chance of working is the one with which academia began.
It seems to me that the only way educators can sensibly deal with the problem is to completely divorce credentialling from learning and teaching, so there is no incentive to cheat during the learning process. This would have the useful side-effect that our teaching would have to be pretty good and pretty relevant, because students would only come to learn, not to get credentials, so we would have to focus solely on supporting them, rather than controlling them with threats and rewards. That would not be such a bad thing, I reckon, and it is long overdue. Perhaps this will be the catalyst that makes it happen.
As for credentials, that’s someone else’s problem. I don’t say that because I want to wash my hands of it (though I do) but because credentialling has never had anything whatsoever to do with education apart from in its appalling inhibition of effective learning. It only happens at the moment because of historical happenstance, not because it ever made any pedagogical sense. I don’t see why educators should have anything to do with it. Assessment (by which I solely mean feedback from self or others that helps learners to learn – not grades!) is an essential part of the learning and teaching process, but credentials are positively antagonistic to it.
Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/14216255/can-gpt-3-write-an-academic-paper-on-itself-with-minimal-human-input
Anne-Marie Scott joins a long line of weary edtech illuminati who have recently expressed sadness and disillusion about life, the universe, and, in particular, the edtech industry (she has plans to do something about that – good plans – but her weariness is palpable). One of the finest antidotes to it all, Audrey Watters, has pretty much given up on trying to do anything about it. Even the usually-optimistic Tony Bates has lost his cool over it (specifically the exploitation of data harvested about students, including children, by cloud-based tools, which I predicted would be a growing issue a while back).
Personally, I burned out long ago, and the remaining embers are barely glowing. My desire to change the world is undiminished, and I still have some ideas that I don’t think anyone else has tried before, but the means, the time, the energy, and (too often) the will left me years ago. I lost most of my passion for most of edtech research long, long ago: so much rehashing of things that we’ve done again and again, so little change apart from for the worse, so many mistakes being made over and over on ever larger scales, so little that’s good getting the exposure it needs, too much that’s awful being over-exposed. The emergency responses to the pandemic just depressed me further, and my own university is devoting pretty much all of its energy and resources into reinventing its infrastructure, leaving little space for my quirky brand of toy making (though the Landing is very slowly, in fits and starts, beginning to get the attention it deserved 10 years ago). But I will not go gentle into that good night. Not yet.
Online learning (e-learning, edtech, technology-enhanced learning, etc), by its nature, has a strong propensity to do ‘human’ badly, which is a pity because education is about very little else than being human with other humans. Edtech (and almost everyone who creates it) wants to control, to measure, to collect, to impose order on disorder. Even its most organic, volatile, social spaces are filled with instrumentality, on the part of both people and machines. Much of the time, human actions are input for the algorithms that seek to control them. Machines try to make automata inside us in their own distorted image. We become what we behold, and what we behold becomes what it has made us, a spiralling loop toward mediocre grey, mirrors reflecting mirrors till all the light has gone. And the machines, in turn, are cogs in machines, that are cogs in machines, each one turning the next, grinding their gears, oblivious to our humanity, black-boxing what we once did ourselves in uniform, impenetrable digital containers, where efficiency is a measure of what can be measured, and of little or nothing that actually matters.
Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, those of us working in the still-fresh online learning field hoped we’d change the educational establishment but, instead, the educational establishment changed us. It took our monkey-paw rainbows of wishes, chewed them up, and spat them back at us in trademarked beige. It threw away what it didn’t need to reinforce its mediaeval mission, and made what was left into a cyborg prosthesis, an automated monk, each part like the next: efficient, sterile, bland, each human interaction with it a data point, each person a vessel for implementing its measured objectives, ignoring what it couldn’t measure as though it wasn’t there. In the process of putting mediaeval pedagogies online, we lost most of what made them (nearly) work, and amplified the things that make them fail, creating machines (pedagogical and digital) that attempted to control learners more than ever before.
Personalized learning depersonalizes the person. The tools provide a more efficient means of making people who are more the same, as near as possible cookie cutter images replicating the machine’s pre-programmed domain model in learners’ brains. Increasingly, too, we are learning to be human from machines that learned to be like us from the caricatured curated facades we presented to others in the simplifying mirror of cyberspace. More and more of those facades that are mined by the machines are now, themselves, created by machines. They will be what the next generation learns from, and we in turn will learn from them. Like photocopies of photocopies, the subtle gradations and details will merge and disappear and, with them, our humanity. It’s already happening. Meanwhile, outside the educational machine, we are herded like sheep into further centralized machines that use the psychology of drug pushers to feed us ever more concentrated, meme-worthy, disposable content, that do the thinking for us so that we don’t have to, that automate values that serve no one but their shareholders, that blend truth, lies, beauty, and degradation into an undifferentiated slurry of cognitive pink slime we swallow like addicts, numbing our minds to what makes them distinct. Edtech is learning from that model, replicating it, amplifying it. ‘Content’ made of bite-size video lectures and pop quizzes, reinforced by adaptive models, vie for pole position in charts of online learning products. These are not the products of a diseased imagination. They are the products of one that has atrophied.
This is not what we intended. This is not what we imagined. This is not what we wanted. Sucked into a bigger machine, scaled up, our inventions turned against us. Willingly, half-wittedly, we became what we are not. We became parts in someone else’s machine.
How can we, again, become who we are? How can we become more than we are? How can the edtech community find its soul again? Perhaps, for example:
By revering the idiosyncratic, the messy, the unformed, the newly forming;
By being part of the process, not makers of the product;
By supporting each personal technique, not replicating impersonal methods;
By embracing the complex, weird, fuzzy mystery, not analyzing, not averaging, not simplifying;
By appreciating, not measuring;
By playing for the joy of the game, not playing to win;
By tinkering, not engineering;
By opening, not closing;
By daydreaming about what could be, not solving problems;
By embracing, not rejecting;
By making machines for humans, not adapting humans to be parts of machines;
By connecting people, not collecting data about them;
By owning the machine, not renting someone else’s machine;
By sharing, not containing;
By enabling, not controlling;
By following the learners, not leading them;
By looking through the screen, not at it;
By doing with, not doing at one another;
By drinking from the living stream, unfiltered and unflavoured;
By finding softness, not imposing hardness;
By asking why, who, and where, not what, how and when;
By making learning, not just what is learned, visible;
By making learners visible (if they want);
By loving the small, the personal, the trivial, the bright seams of gold;
By being – and staying – beginners;
By grasping the end of the long tail;
By living on the boundaries, and tearing down the barriers;
By rejecting the central and the centralizing;
By engaging with the local, the specific, the situated, the social;
By knowing we learn in a place, caring we are in it, and cherishing who we share it with;
By searching for the cracks and filling them with light;
By doing the dangerous things;
By breaking things;
By feeling wonder.
We must make playgrounds, not production lines. We must embrace the logic of the poem, not the logic of the program. We must see one another in all our multifaceted strangeness, not just in our self-curated surfaces. We must celebrate and nurture the diversity, the eccentricities, the desires, the fears, the things that make us who we are, that make us more than we were, together and as individuals. The things we do not and, often, cannot measure.
These are the very accountants who are supposed to catch cheats. I guess at least they’ll understand their clientele pretty well.
But how did this happen? There are clues in the article:
“Many of the employees interviewed during the federal investigation said they knew cheating was a violation of the company’s code of conduct but did it anyway because of work commitments or the fact that they couldn’t pass training exams after multiple tries.” (my emphasis).
I think there might have been a clue about their understanding of ethical behaviour in that fact alone, don’t you? But I don’t think it’s really their fault: at least, it’s completely predictable to anyone with even the slightest knowledge of how motivation works.
If passing the exam is, by design, much more important than actually being able to do what is being examined, then of course people will cheat. For those with too much else to do or too little interest to succeed, when the pressure is high and the stakes are higher, it’s a perfectly logical course of action. But, even for all the rest who don’t cheat, the main focus for them will be on passing the exam, not on gaining any genuine competence or interest in the subject. It’s not their fault: that’s how it is designed. In fact, the strong extrinsic motivation it embodies is pretty much guaranteed to (at best) persistently numb their intrinsic interest in ethics, if it doesn’t extinguish it altogether. Most will do enough to pass and no more, taking shortcuts wherever possible, and there’s a good chance they will forget most of it as soon as they have done so.
Just to put the cherry on the pie, and not unexpectedly, EY refer to the process by which their accountants are expected to learn about ethics as ‘training’ and it is mandatory. So you have a bunch of unwilling people who are already working like demons to meet company demands, to whom you are doing something normally reserved for dogs or AI models, and then you are forcing them to take high-stakes exams about it, on which their futures depend. It’s a perfect shit storm. I’d not trust a single one of their graduates, exam cheats or not, and the tragedy is that the people who were trying to force them to behave ethically were the ones directly responsible for their unethical behaviour.
There may be a lesson or two to be learned from this for academics, who tend to be the biggest exam fetishists around, and who seem to love to control what their students do.
Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/14163409/ernst-young-fined-100-million-after-employees-cheated-in-exams