Nobody has ever learned anything at a distance, and no one ever goes to a distance institution

Nobody learns anything online or at a distance. Nothing at all. You are always learning it where you are now. All learning is in-person learning, and it all takes place within a physical environment, part of which (only a part) may include whatever technologies you might be using to talk with people, read, watch, listen, and so on.

But there’s a distance component to all in-person education, too. People who learn with teachers in a physical space are almost always also interacting with other participants in the teaching role at a distance, usually in time and space – authors, classroom designers, editors, illustrators, timetablers, curriculum designers, and so on. And, for ‘in-person’ institutional learners, most of the learning itself also usually occurs at a distance, outside the classroom. This is most tangible in the form of assignments and homework but, if teaching works, sense-making connections always occur after the lesson is over, and continue to do so long after (sometimes decades after) the teaching event, almost never in the same place that the lesson originally occurred. So all learning is distance learning, in the sense of occurring somewhere and somewhen other than where and/or when teaching occurred.

It is not surprising, therefore, that no significance difference is normally found between online and in-person learning outcomes because they are essentially the same thing.

That doesn’t mean that there are no consistent differences between the experiences of what we describe as online and in-person learners: very far from it. Some of those differences are inherent in the medium, whether online or in-person. But the big differences that actually make a difference are not in learning: they are in teaching.

There are (or should be) huge differences between distance/online teaching and in-person teaching. The most important differences are not technological, as such, nor do they lie in the physical distance between learners and teachers. Michael Moore very usefully talks of distance in terms of structure and dialogue to describe the transactional distance that matters more but, as I observed in my first book, from a system dynamics perspective, transactional distance is mainly a measure of the locus of control, not structure or dialogue as such. There are other differences that matter, but control is the big one.

Control in in-person teaching

Pedagogies are solutions to problems, and the physical context is rife with problems, most notably that it makes it far more likely that teachers will control much of the process. There are a great many reasons for this, most of which have nothing at all to do with pedagogical intent: it’s mainly physics, economics, and biology, and the consequences that follow. Though many teachers try to avoid it, doing so is a seriously upstream struggle. It causes immense problems, primarily because of the great harm it does to intrinsic motivation. Learners lack autonomy and are often over-challenged or under-challenged (thus undermining the two central foundations of intrinsic motivation) because, by default, everyone is forced to follow the same pace and method, determined by the teacher.  Good in-person pedagogies compensate for these inherent weaknesses, by allowing (emphasis on allowing) learners to personalize their own learning, by engaging in dialogue, by building communities, by helping learners to find their own motivation, and so on.

Control in online teaching

Without significant coercion, the learner is always far more autonomous in almost any online or distance teaching context. Students don’t need to follow the teacher’s plan because they are not bound to a scheduled classroom, with all the problems of being heard, being present, and working in lock-step together that arise from it.  Unfortunately, far too many online teachers assume that they have the same level of control as their in-person counterparts and, usually, it becomes a partly self-fulfilling assumption through coercive methods like frequent grading, draconian scheduling, and tests. They consequently often make use of very similar pedagogies to those of their in-person counterparts, struggling to find simulacra or workarounds for the affordances of physical spaces that are no longer available, and vainly believing that the learner is going to follow the path that they have determined for them. An unfortunate unintentional consequence of in-person teaching is thus too readily accepted as teaching’s central motif.

To make matters more difficult, educational institutions impose other stupid ideas that are side-effects of teaching in physical classrooms like fixed-length (or multiples of fixed lengths) courses, deadlines, and failure (what the heck?). I think this picture helps to illustrate my feelings about this:

horse pulling a car

Dealing with this kind of problem may require some big changes at an institutional level because teachers too rarely have much choice as to how long their courses might be, or whether students should receive grades for them, or how they are scheduled, and so on.

Outside of arbitrary institutional constraints, online courses do not have to be a particular length, because more complex scheduling is possible (and easily automated) and, if they are self-paced, there’s no good reason for them to have any schedule at all, nor for them to end on a particular date, as long as they can be funded. Credentialing and learning are two completely different processes that (thanks to the motivational impacts) are in many ways mutually exclusive. They must therefore be decoupled, as much as possible. It makes no sense to talk definitively about failure when you are learning: learning is either accomplished or not accomplished yet, and failure is an integral part of the process of accomplishment (ask any gamer). And, though they might not always get a credential on the first try, students never need to irrevocably fail to get them: they can just keep going until they succeed, or until they lose interest, much as we do for driving tests.

Distributed in-person teaching

Such issues highlight the fact that it is not just the designated teacher who teaches. Obviously, the main teacher in any learning transaction is the learner, sometimes followed by the designated teacher or writer of a textbook, but the rules, structures, processes and methods that define the educational context also teach. So do other students, especially in an in-person context thanks to the fact that they are all forced to be in one place at one time. In an in-person context, from the simple fact of having to turn up at a particular place and time to the structures of courses, assessments, classroom spaces, cafes, and schedules, the institutional context controls the learning process in profound ways.

Again, for teachers, good pedagogies have to compensate for the problems that such things cause, as well as to take advantage of the positive affordances the physical context provides. There are many of those. A great deal of learning can be assumed to occur in journeys to and from classrooms, in canteens, in common rooms, in libraries, and in other shared spaces, for example. Combined with the fact that a great deal of the organization is done by others, and that institutional credentials motivate (not in a good way), institutions (not just teachers) themselves teach through their physical, temporal, and organizational form. Combined with the many other teachers involved in the process (the learners themselves, textbook authors, illustrators, designers, etc) this means that in-person teachers don’t actually have to teach very well in order for their students to succeed. The systems mean that students are drowning in a sea of teachers.

Distributed online teaching

The online teaching context is, in principle though not so much in practice, more malleable, diffuse, and affording of learner control, but it almost always lacks much in the way of controllable infrastructure that learners can safely be assumed to inhabit, so teaching generally needs to be pretty good because, without care, that might be all there is. However, there are ways to help provide a bit more of the structure that also teaches. Some people try to create simulations of the in-person infrastructure, such as learning cafes, less formal social spaces (such as Athabasca Landing), etc but, though they can help a bit, they seldom work very well. Partly, this is because of the too common focus on explicit outcomes and grading found in most institutional teaching together with failure by students and teachers to recognize the critical role of in-between spaces in learning. Mainly, though, it’s because it’s not just there: students aren’t going to pass it on their way to somewhere else or be there for other reasons (like a need for rest or refreshment). They have to intentionally visit, typically with a purpose in mind but, as the main value of it is its purposelessness, that’s not often going to happen. It would be better to embed such spaces in the intentional teaching space, to allow informal interaction everywhere, but too few teaching systems (notably none of the mainstream LMSs) support that.

It can help a little to make the need for such engagement more explicit in the teaching process: to tell students it is a good idea to engage beyond the course. It doesn’t have to be virtual, or planned, or catered for by the institution or teacher. We could just suggest that learners talk about what they’ve learned with someone they know, or that they should visit a place where people do talk about such things, or share via social media. But we can and should provide social spaces where they can interact with one another beyond the course, too.

Another way is to acknowledge the physical and virtual context of the learner, and to design flexible learning experiences that allow them to apply what they are learning to where they are, or to make use of what is around them (virtually and physically) to support the learning process. This is a pedagogical solution that, for some subjects, fits very well. For instance, I can rely on nearly all of my students working or studying in a context that can be used for analyzing and building information systems. It’s harder in the case of subjects that are much more abstract, or where engaging directly with the subject might be dangerous or prohibitively expensive (e.g. nuclear physics or medicine).

Really, though, the big problem is one of perspective. It’s that we see our virtual institutions as analogues of our physical institutions, not as something really very different. Even quite enlightened edtech folk talk of students bringing their own devices, or bringing their own networks to the learning space. That’s laudable, in a way, but it’s completely the wrong way round. Instead, online and distance students bring their own institutions (plural), or bring their own courses into their own spaces. The need to go to an institution is a side-effect of the physics that co-determines how traditional teaching occurs. Students shouldn’t need to go to an online institution; institutions should come to them. That is, in fact, the reality of learning through online means, but almost everything we do works on the assumption that it is the other way round: that they visit us.

Conclusion

We (the teachers) are not, cannot be, and should not try to be the sole arbiters of how our distance/online students learn. Unless they want it, we should not even be managers or leaders of it. Instead, we should think of ourselves as parts of their support networks, available to provide help and direction as and when it is needed. If they want to delegate some of the control of the process to us then that’s great, because it keeps us employed and we’re often pretty good at it because it’s our job, but we should not take it unbidden.

We really need to let go of the notion that learning only takes place when and where our teaching happens,  and that we are the sole directors of it. We need to acknowledge everything that learners bring with them, in prior learning, in digital and physical systems, in networks, and in pedagogical tools. But it’s not about bringing stuff to us: it’s about bringing it to their own learning. Above all, we need to recognize that online students do not come to institutional environments, but that they bring those institutions into their own environments. From that simple shift in perspective, myriad improvements follow.

Challenges of the Physical: slides from my keynote at XII Conferência Internacional de Tecnologias de Informação e Comunicação na Educação, September 2021

Here are the slides from my opening keynote today for the XII Conferência Internacional de Tecnologias de Informação e Comunicação na Educação in Portugal. first slide of the presentation

The conference theme was ‘challenges of the digital’ so I thought it might be fun to reverse the problem, and to think instead about the challenges of in-person education. In this presentation I imagined a world in which in-person teaching had never been invented, and presented a case for doing so. In fairness, it was not a very good case! But I did have fun using some of the more exotic voice changing features of my Voicelive Play vocal processor (which I normally use for performing music), presenting some of the arguments against my suggestions in different voices using a much better mic than my usual (pretty good) Blue Yeti. I might not use the special effects again that often, but I was quite impressed with the difference the better microphone made.

My central points (mostly implicit until the end) were:

  • That the biggest challenge of the digital is all the baggage that we have inherited from in-person teaching, and our continuing need to interoperate with in-person institutions.
  • That pedagogies are neither universal nor neutral. They are solutions to problems of learning in a particular context, in assembly with countless constraints and possibilities provided by that context: people, tools, structures, methods, systems, and so on.
  • That solutions to learning in a physical context – at least in the one-to-many model of traditional education systems – inevitably lead to a very strong power imbalance between teacher and learner, where the teacher is in control of every moment that the teaching event occurs. This has many repercussions, not least of which being that needs for autonomy and competence support are very poorly addressed (though relatedness comes for free), so it is really bad for intrinsic motivation.
  • Thus, the pedagogies of physical spaces have to compensate for the loss of control and achievable challenge that they naturally entail.
  • That the most common approach – and, again, an almost inevitable (i.e. the shortest path) follow-on from teaching a lot of people at once – involves rewards and punishments, that massively impair or destroy intrinsic motivation to learn and, in most cases, actively militate against effective learning.
  • That the affordances of teaching everyone the same thing at once lead fairly naturally to credentials for having learned it, often achieved in ‘efficient’ ways like proctored exams that are incredibly bad for learning, and that greatly reinforce the extrinsic motivation that is already highly problematic in the in-person modality. The credentials, not the learning, become the primary focus.
  • That support for autonomy and competence are naturally high in online learning, though support for relatedness is a mix of good and bad. There is no need for teachers being in control and, lacking most of the means of control available to in-person teachers, the only reliable way to regain it is through rewards and punishments which, as previously mentioned, are fatal to intrinsic motivation.
  • That the almost ubiquitous ways that distance educators inherit and use the pedagogies, methods, and structures of in-person learning – especially in the use of coercion through rewards and punishments (grades, credentials, etc) but also in schedules, fixed-length courses, inflexible learning outcomes, etc – are almost exactly the opposite of what its technologies can best support.

Towards the end, acknowledging that it is difficult to change such complex and deeply entangled systems (much though it is to be desired) I presented some ways of reducing the challenges of the physical in online teaching, and regaining that lost intrinsic motivation, that I summarized thus:

  • Let go (you cannot and should not control learning unless asked to do so), but stay close;
  • Make learning (not just its products) visible (and, in the process, better understand your teaching);
  • Make learning shared (cooperation and, where possible, collaboration built in from the ground up);
  • Don’t ever coerce (especially not through grades);
  • Care (for learners, for learning, for the subject).

It’s a theme that I have spoken and written of many, many times, but (apart from the last few slides) the way I presented it this time was new for me. I had fun pretending to be different people, and the audience seemed to like it, in a challenging kind of a way. There were some great questions at the end, not all of which I had time to answer, though I’m happy to continue the conversation here, or via Twitter.

A modest proposal for improving exam invigilation

There has been a lot of negative reaction of late to virtual proctors of online exams. Perhaps students miss the cheery camaraderie of traditional proctored exams, sitting silently in a sweaty room with pen and paper, doing one of the highest stakes, highest stress tasks of their lives, with someone scrutinizing their every nervous tic whose adverse judgment may destroy their hopes and careers, for the benefit of an invisible examiner whose motives and wishes are unclear but whose approval they dearly seek. Lovely. Traditional. Reassuring. A ritual for us all to cherish. It’s enough to bring a tear to the eye.

But exams cost a huge amount of money to host and to invigilate. It is even worse when one of the outcomes might, for the student or the invigilator, be death or disability due to an inconvenient virus.

I have a better solution.

photo of a toy robotInstead of costly invigilators and invigilation centres, all we need to do is to send out small (returnable, postage-paid) robots to students’ homes. A little robot sitting on the student’s desk or kitchen table as they sit their written exam (on paper, of course – tradition matters), recording every blink, watching their fingers writing on the paper, with 360 degree panoramic camera and the ability to zoom in on anything suspicious or interesting. Perhaps it could include microphones, infrared and microwave sensors, and maybe sensors to monitor skin resistance, pulse, etc, in order to look for nefarious activities or to call the ambulance if the student seems to be having a heart attack or stroke due to the stress. It could be made to talk, too. Perhaps it could offer spoken advice on the process, and alerts about the time left at carefully selected intervals. Students could choose the voice. It would also allow students to sit exams wherever and whenever they please: we are all in favour of student choice. With a bit of ingenuity it could scan what the students have written or drawn, and send it back to an examiner. Or, with a bit more ingenuity and careful use of AI, it could mark the paper on the spot, saving yet more money. Everyone wins.

It would be important to be student-centric in its design. It could, for instance, be made to look like a cute little furry animal with googly eyes to put students more at ease. Maybe it could make soothing cooing noises like a tribble, or like a cat purring. Conversely, it could be made to scuttle ominously around the desk and to appear like a spider with venomous-looking fangs, making gentle hissing noises, to remind students of the much lamented presence of in-person invigilators. Indeed, maybe it could be made to look like a caricature of a professor. More advanced models could emit bad smells to replicate invigilator farts or secret smoking habits. It could be made small and mobile, so that students could take it with them if they needed a bathroom break, during which it might play soothing muzak to put the student at ease, while recording everything they do. It would have to be tough, waterproof, and sterilizable, in order to cope with the odd frustrated student throwing or dunking it.

Perhaps it could offer stern spoken warnings if anomalies or abuses are found, and maybe connect itself to a human invigilator (I hear that they are cheaper in developing nations) who could control it and watch more closely. Perhaps it could be equipped with non-lethal weaponry to punish inappropriate behaviour if the warnings fail, and/or register students on an offenders database.  It could be built to self-destruct if tampered with.

Though this is clearly something every university, school, and college would want, and the long-term savings would be immense, such technologies don’t come cheap. Quite apart from the hardware and software development costs, there would be a need for oodles of bandwidth and storage of the masses of data the robot would generate.

I have a solution to that, too: commercial sponsorship.

We could partner with, say, Amazon, who would be keen to mine useful information about the students’ surroundings and needs identified using the robot’s many sensors. A worn curtain? Stubborn stains? A shirt revealing personal interests? Send them to Amazon! Maybe Alexa could provide the voice for interactions and offer shopping advice when students stop to sharpen their pencils (need a better pencil? We have that in stock and can deliver it today!). And, of course, AWS would provide much of the infrastructure needed to support it, at fair educational prices. I expect early adopters would be described as ‘partners’ and offered slightly better (though still profitable) deals.

And there might be other things that could be done with the content. Perhaps the written answers could be analyzed to identify potential Amazon staffers. Maybe students expressing extremist views could be reported to the appropriate government agency, or at least added to a watch-list for the institution’s own use.

Naysayers might worry about hackers breaking into it or subverting its transmissions, or the data being sent to a country with laughable privacy laws, or the robot breaking down at a critical moment, or errors in handwriting recognition, but I’m sure that could be dealt with, the same as we deal with every other privacy, security, and reliability issue in IT in education. No problem. No sir. We have lawyers.

The details still need to be ironed out here and there, but the opportunities are endless. What could possibly go wrong? I think we should take this seriously. Seriously.

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.

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/.

Asus Flip C234 Chromebook review

I’ve been thinking for some time that I need to investigate Chromebooks – at least, ever since Chrome OS added the means to run Android and Linux apps alongside Chrome web apps. I decided to get one recently because I was going on a camping trip during which I’d be required to do some work, and the (ridiculously many) machines I already had were all some combination of too limited, too unreliable, too fragile, too heavy, too power-hungry, too buggy, or too expensive to risk in a muddy campsite. A Chromebook seemed like a good compromise. I wanted one that was fairly cheap, had a good battery life, was tough, could be used as a tablet, and that was not too storage-limited, but otherwise I wasn’t too fussy. One of the nice things about Chromebooks is that, notwithstanding differences in hardware, they are all pretty much the same. 

After a bit of investigation, I noticed that an Asus C234 Flip with an 11.6″ screen was available at BestBuy for about $400, which seemed reasonable enough, based on the advertised specs, and even more reasonable when they lopped $60 off the price for Labour Day. Very unusually, though, the specs on the site were literally all that I had to go on. Though there are lots of Flip models, the C234 is completely unknown, apparently even to Asus (at least on its websites), let alone to reviewers on the web, which is why I am writing this! There’s no manual with it, not even on the machine itself, just a generic leaflet. Following the QR code on the base of the machine leads to a generic not-found page on the Asus site. Because it looked identical to the better-known Flip C214 I thought BestBuy must have made a labelling mistake but the model number is clearly printed in two places on the base. Despite the label it is, in fact, as I had guessed and eventually confirmed by circuitous means, identified by Asus themselves as a Flip C214MA, albeit with 64GB of storage rather than the more common 32GB and a very slightly upgrade Intel Celeron N4020 CPU instead of an N4000. This model lacks the option of a stylus that is available for many C214 models (pity – that seemed very nice). It was not quite the cheapest Chromebook to fit the bill, but I trust Asus a lot and have never regretted buying one of their machines over about 20 years or more of doing so quite frequently. They really know how to design and build a great computer, and they don’t make stupid compromises even on their cheapest machines, be they PCs, tablets, phones, or netbooks. Great company in a sea of dross.

Hardware overview

The C234 comes with only 4GB RAM, which means it can get decidedly sluggish when running more than a handful of small apps, especially when some of them are running under Linux, but it is adequate for simple requirements like word processing, light photo editing, audio recording, web browsing, email, webinars, etc: just the use cases I had in mind, in fact. The 64GB of storage is far less than I’d prefer but, I calculated, should be fine for storing apps. I assumed (wrongly) that any data I’d need locally could be kept on the 256GB SDXC card that I bought to go with it so I was – foolishly – not too concerned. It turns out that Android apps running under ChromeOS that can save data to the SD card are few and far between, and ChromeOS itself is barely aware of the possibility although, of course, most apps can read files from just about anywhere so it is not useless. Unfortunately, the apps that do not support it include most video streaming services and Scribd (which is my main source of ebooks, magazines, and audiobooks) – in other words, the ones that actually eat up most space. The physical SD slot is neat – very easy to insert and difficult (but not too difficult) to remove, so it is not going to pop out unexpectedly.

The computer has two full-spec USB-C ports that can be used for charging the device (45W PD, and not a drop less), as well as for video, external storage, and all the usual USB goodness. It has one USB-A 3.0 socket, and a 1/8″ combo mic/headphone socket that can take cellphone headsets or dedicated speakers/microphones. The wifi and bluetooth are both pretty modernish mainstream, adequate for all I currently have but maybe not everything I might buy next year. There is a plastic tab where a stylus is normally stored but, buyer beware, if the detailed model number doesn’t end in ‘S’ then it does not and cannot support a stylus: no upgrade path is available, as far as I can tell. Wifi reception is very good (better than my Macbook Pro), but there is no WiFi6. There’s no cellular modem, which is a pity, but I have a separate device to handle that. It does have a Kensington lock slot, which I guess reflects how it might be used in some schools where students have to share machines. Going back to the days when I used to manage university computer labs, I would have really liked these machines: they are very manageable. A Kensington lock isn’t going to stop a skilled thief for more than a couple of seconds but, as part of a security management strategy, they fit well.

The battery life is very good. It can easily manage 11-12 hours between charges from its 50WH battery, and could almost certainly do at least a couple more hours if you were not stretching its capabilities or using the screen on full brightness (I’m lazy and my eyesight is getting worse, so I tend to do both). It charges pretty quickly – I seldom run it down completely so the longest I’ve needed to plug it in it dropped below 20%, has been a couple of hours. It uncomplainingly charges from any sufficiently powerful USB-C charger.

As a laptop the Flip feels light in the hand (it weighs in at a little over a kilogram) but, as a tablet, it is pretty heavy and unwieldy and the keyboard cannot be detached. This is a fair compromise. Most of the time I use it as a laptop so I’d rather have a decent keyboard and a battery that lasts, but it is not something you’d want to hold for too long in the kind of orientations you might with an iPad or e-reader. Its 360 degree screen can fold to any intermediate angle so it doesn’t need a separate stand if you want to perch it on something, which is handy in a tent: while camping, I used it in both (appropriately) tented orientation and wrapped over a big tent pocket so that it was held in place by its own keyboard.

Video and audio

The touch screen is OK. At 1366×768 resolution and with a meagre 162 pixels per inch it is not even HD, let alone a retina display. It is perfectly adequate for my poor eyesight, though: fairly bright, acceptable but not great viewing angles, very sharp, and not glossy (I hate glossy screens). I’d much rather have longer battery life than a stunning display so this is fine for me. Viewing straight-on, I can still read what’s on the screen in bright sunshine and, though it lacks a sensor to auto-adjust the brightness, it does have an automatic night-time mode (that reddens and dims the display) that can be configured to kick in at sunset, and there are keyboard keys to adjust brightness. The generic Intel integrated GPU chip works, but that’s all I can say of it. I’d certainly not recommend it for playing graphics intensive games or using photoshop, and don’t even think about VR or compiling big programs because it ain’t going to happen.

The speakers, though, are ridiculously quiet: even when pumped up to full volume a little rain on the tent made it inaudible, and they are quite tinny. I’m guessing that this may have a bit to do with its target audience of schoolkids – a lack of volume might be a good thing in a classroom. The speakers are down-facing so it does benefit from sitting on a table or desk, but not a lot. The headphone volume is fine and it plays nicely with bluetooth speakers. It has a surprisingly large array of 5 microphones scattered quite widely that do a pretty good job of echo cancellation and noise reduction, providing surprisingly good sound quality (though not exactly a Blue Yeti).

It has two cameras, one 5K device conventionally placed above the screen when used in laptop mode, the other on the same surface as the keyboard, in the bottom right corner when typing, which is weird until you remember it can be used in tablet mode, when it becomes a rear-facing camera. Both cameras are very poor and the rear facing one is appalling (not even 1K resolution). They do the job for video conferencing, but not much else. That’s fine by me: I seldom need to take photos with my notebook/tablet and, if I want better quality, it handles a Logitech webcam very happily.

Input devices

The keyboard is a touch smaller than average, so it takes a bit of getting used to if you have been mostly using a full-sized keyboard, but it is quite usable, with plenty of travel and the keys and, though each keypress is quite tactile so you know you have pressed it, it is not clicky. It is even resistant to spilt drinks or a spot or two of rain. Having killed a couple of machines this way over the past thirty years or so (once by sneezing), I wish all keyboards had this feature. The only things I dislike about it are that it is not backlit (I really miss that) and that the Return key is far too small, bunched up with a load of symbol keys and easily missed. Apart from that, it is easy to touch type and I’d say it is marginally better than the keyboard on my Macbook Pro (2019 model). The keys are marked for ChromeOS, so they are a bit fussy and it can be hard to identify which of the many quote marks are the ones you want, because they are slightly differently mapped in ChromeOS, Android, and Linux. On the other hand I’m not at all fond of Chrome OS’s slightly unusual keyboard shortcuts so it’s nice that the keys tell you what they can do, even though it can be misleading at times.

The multi-touch screen works well with fingers, though could be far more responsive when using a capacitive stylus: the slow speed of the machine really shows here. Unless you draw or write really slowly, you are going to get broken lines, whether using native Chrome apps, Android, or Linux. I find it virtually unusable when used this way.

The touchpad is buttonless and fine – it just works as you would expect, and its conservative size makes it far less likely to be accidentally pressed than the gigantic glass monstrosity on my Macbook Pro. I really don’t get the point of large touchpads positioned exactly where you are going to touch them with your hand when typing.

There is no fingerprint reader or face recognition, though it mostly does unlock seamlessly when it recognizes my phone. It feels quite archaic to have to enter a password nowadays. You can get dongles that add fingerprint recognition and that work with Chromebooks, but that is not really very convenient.

Build

The machine is made to be used by schoolkids, so it is built to suffer. The shell of the Flip is mostly made of very sturdy plastic. And I do mean sturdy. The edges are rubberised, which feels nice and offers quite a bit of protection. Asus claim it can be dropped onto a hard floor from desk height, and that the pleasingly textured covering hides and prevents scratches and dents. It certainly feels very sturdy, and the texture feels reassuring in the hand, with a good grip so that you are not so likely to drop it. It doesn’t pick up fingerprints as badly as my metal-bodied or conventional plastic machines. Asus say that the 360 degree hinges should survive 50,000 openings and closings, and that the ports can suffer insertion of plugs at least 5,000 times. I believe them: everything about it feels well made and substantial. You can stack 30kg on top of it without it flinching. For the most part it doesn’t need its own case. I felt no serious worries throwing this into a rucksack, albeit that it is neither dust nor water resistant (except under the keyboard). Asus build it to the American military’s MIL-STD 810G spec, which sounds impressive though it should be noted that this is not a particular measure of toughness so much as a quality control standard to ensure that it will survive the normal uses it is designed for. It’s not made for battlefields, boating, or mountaineering, but it is made to survive 11-year-olds, and that’s not bad.

It’s not unattractive but nor is it going to be a design classic. It is just a typical old fashioned fairly non-descript and innocuous small laptop, that is unlikely to attract thieves to the same extent as, say, a Microsoft Surface or Macbook Pro. It has good old fashioned wide bezels. I realize this is seldom considered a feature nowadays, but it is really good for holding it in tablet mode and helps to distinguish the screen from the background. It feels comfortable and familiar. In appearance, it is in fact highly reminiscent of my ancient Asus M5N laptop from 2004, that still runs Linux just fine, albeit without a working battery, with only 768KB of RAM and with, since only recently, a slightly unreliable DVD drive – Asus really does make machines that last.

The machine is fanless so it is quite silent: I love that. Anything that moves inside a computer will break, eventually, and fans can be incredibly annoying even when they do work, especially after a while when dust builds up and operating system updates put more stress on the processor. If things do break, then the device has a removable panel on the base, which you can detach using a single standard Philips screwdriver, and Asus even thoughtfully provide a little thumbnail slot to prise it up. Through this you can access important stuff like storage and RAM, and the whole machine has a modular design that makes every major component easily replaceable – so refreshing after the nightmares of trying to do any maintenance on an Apple device. Inside, it has a dual core Celeron of some kind that can be pushed up to 2800 MHz – an old and well-tried CPU design that is not going to win any performance prizes but that does the job pretty well. From my tech support days I would be a bit bothered leaving this with young and inquisitive kids – they really like to see how things work by doing things that would make them not work. I lost a couple of lab machines to a class of kids who discovered the 240/110v switch on the back of old PCs.

It does feel very sluggish at the best of times after using a Macbook Pro – apps can take ages to load, and there can be quite a long pause before it even registers a touch or a keypress when it is running an app or two already – but it is less than a tenth of the price, so I can’t complain too much about that. It happily runs a full-blown DBMS and web server, which addresses most of my development needs, though I’d not be keen on running a full VM on the device, or compiling a big program.

Included software

There are no Asus apps, docs, or customizations included. It is pure, bare-bones, unadulterated Chrome OS, without even a default Asus page to encourage registration. This is really surprising. Eventually I found the MyAsus (phone) app for Android on Google’s Play store, which is awful but at last – when I entered the serial number to register the machine – it told me what it actually was, so I could go and find a manual for it. The manual contains no surprises and little information I couldn’t figure out for myself, but it is reassuring to have one, and very peculiar that it was not included with the machine. This makes me suspect that BestBuy might have bought up a batch of machines that were originally intended for a (large) organization that had laid down requirements for a bare-bones machine. This might explain why it is not listed on the Asus site.

ChromeOS

I may write more about ChromeOS at some later date – the main reason I got this device was to find out more about it – but I’ll give a very brief overview of my first impressions now. ChromeOS is very clever, though typical of Google’s software in being a little clunky and making the computer itself a little bit too visible: Android suffered such issues in a big way until quite recently, and Android phones still feel more like old fashioned desktop computers than iPhones or even Tizen devices.

Given that it is primarily built to run Chrome apps, It is surprisingly good at running Android apps – even VPNs – though integration is not 100% perfect: you can occasionally run into trouble passing parameters from a Chrome app to Android, for instance, some Android apps are unhappy about running on a laptop screen, and not all understand the SD card very well. Chrome apps run happily without a network, so you are not tied to the network as much as with other thin-client alternatives like WebOS.

It also does a really good job of running and integrating Linux apps. They all run in a Debian Linux container, so a few aspects of the underlying machine are unavailable and it can be a little complex when you want to use files from other apps or peripherals, but it is otherwise fully featured and utilizes much of the underlying Debian system that runs ChromeOS itself, so it is close to native Linux in performance. The icons for Linux apps appear in the standard launcher like any other app and, though there is a little delay when launching the first Linux app when it starts the container, once you have launched one then the rest load quickly. You do need a bit of Linux skill to use it well – command line use of apt is non-negotiable, at least, to install any apps, and integrating both Android and ChromeOS file systems can be a little clunky. Linux is still a geek option, but it makes the machine many times more useful than it would otherwise be. There’s virtually nothing I’d want to do with the machine that is constrained by software, though the hardware creates a few brick walls.

Integration between the three operating systems is remarkably good altogether but the seams show now and then, such as in requiring at least two apps for basic settings (ChromeOS and Android), with a handful of settings only being available via the Chrome browser, or in not passing clipboard contents to the Linux terminal command line (though you can install an x-terminal that works fine). I’ve hit quite a few small problems with the occasional app, and a few Android apps don’t run properly at all (most likely due to screen size issues rather than integration issues) but overall it works really well. In fact, almost too well – I have a few of the same apps in both ChromeOS and Android versions so sometimes I fail to notice that I am using the glitchier one until it is too late.

Despite the underlying Debian foundations, it is not super-stable and crashes in odd ways when you stretch it a little, especially when reconnecting on a different network, but it is stable enough for most standard uses that most people would run into, and it reboots really quickly. Even in the few weeks I’ve had it, it seems more stable, so this is a moving target.

Updates come thick and fast, but it is a little worrying that Google’s long term commitment to ChromeOS seems (like most of their offerings) shaky: the Web app store is due to close at some point soon and there are some doubts about whether it will continue to offer long term support for web apps in general, though Android and Linux support makes that a lot less worrying than it might be. Worst case would be to wipe most traces of ChromeOS and simply partition the machine for Linux, which would not be a bad end-of-life option at all. 

The biggest caveat, though, is that you really need to sell your soul (or at least more of your data than is healthy) to Google to use this. Without a Google account I don’t think it would work at all, but at the very least it would be crippled. I trust Google more than I trust most other big conglomerates – not because they are nice but because their business model doesn’t depend on directly selling my data to others –  but I do not love their fondness for knowing everything about me, nor that they insist on keeping my data in a banana republic run by a reality TV show host. As much as possible the apps I use are Google-free, but it is virtually impossible to avoid using the Chrome browser that runs many apps, even when you have a friendlier alternative like Vivaldi that would work just as well, if Google allowed it. In fairness, it is less privacy-abusive than Windows, and more open about it. MacOS is not great either, but Apple are fiercely aggressive in protecting your data and don’t use it for anything more than selling you more Apple goodies. Linux or BSD are really the only viable options if you really want to control your data or genuinely own your software nowadays.

Conclusions

This was a great little machine for camping. Though water and dust were a concern, especially given the low price I wasn’t too worried about treating it roughly. It was small and light, and it performed well enough on every task that I threw at it. It’s neither a great laptop nor a great tablet, but the fact that it performs both tasks sufficiently well without the ugliness and hassles of Windows or the limitations of single OS machines is very impressive.

Since returning from camping I have found myself using the machine a lot more than I thought I might. My Macbook Pro is pretty portable and its battery life is not too bad, but it is normally plugged in to a big monitor and a whole bunch of disk drives, so I can’t just pick it up to move around the house or down to the boat without a lot of unplugging and, above all, disk ejection (which, thanks to Apple’s increasingly awful implementation of background indexing that has got significantly worse with every recent release of OSX, can often be an exercise in deep frustration), so I rarely do so unless I know I will be away from the desk for a while. I love that I can just pick the Flip up and use it almost instantly, and I only need to charge it once every couple of days, even when I use it a lot. I still far prefer to use my Macbook Pro for anything serious or demanding, my iPad or phone for reading news, messaging, drawing, etc, and a dedicated ebook reader for reading books, but the fact that this can perform all of those tasks reasonably well is useful enough that it is fast becoming my default mobile device for anything a cellphone doesn’t handle well, such as writing anything of any length, like this (which is all written using the Flip).

In summary, the whole thing is a bit of a weird hybrid that shows its seams a bit too often but that can do most things any tablet or PC can do, and then some. It does a much better job than Windows of combining a ‘real’ PC with a tablet-style device, mainly because (thanks to Android) it does the tablet far better than any Windows PC and, thanks to Linux, it is almost as flexible as a PC (though, bearing in mind that Windows now does Linux reasonably well, it is not quite in the same league). The low spec of the machine does create a few brick walls: I am not going to be running any VMs on it, nor running any graphics-intensive, memory-intensive, or CPU-intensive tasks but, for well over 90% of my day to day computing needs, it works just fine.

I’m now left wondering whether it might be worthwhile to invest in one of the top-of-the-line Google Chromebooks to cater for my more advanced requirements. They are beautiful devices that address nearly all the hardware limitations of the C234 very well, and that are at least a match for mid-to-high end Windows and Mac machines in performance and flexibility, and they come at a price to match: really not cheap. But I don’t think either I or ChromeOS are quite ready for that yet.  MacOS beats it hands down in terms of usability, speed, reliability, consistency, and flexibility, despite Apple’s deeply tedious efforts to lock MacOS down in recent years (trying to triple boot to MacOS, Windows, and Linux is an exercise in frustration nowadays) and despite not offering a touch screen option. If Apple goes further down the path of assuming all users are idiots then I might change my mind but, for now, its own operating system is still the best available, and a Mac  runs Windows and Linux better than almost any equivalently priced generic PC. I would very seriously consider a high-end Chromebook, though, as an alternative to a Windows PC. It is inherently more secure, far less hassle to maintain, and lets you get to doing what you want to do much faster than any Windows machine. Unless you really need a bit of hardware of software that only runs under Windows – and there are very few of those nowadays – then I can think of few reasons to prefer it.  

Where to buy (current advertised price $CAD409): https://www.bestbuy.ca/en-ca/product/asus-flip-c234-11-6-touchscreen-2-in-1-chromebook-intel-celeron-n4020-64gb-emmc-4gb-ram-chrome-os/14690262

Evaluating assessment

Exam A group of us at AU have begun discussions about how we might transform our assessment practices, in the light of the far-reaching AU Imagine plan and principles. This is a rare and exciting opportunity to bring about radical and positive change in how learning happens at the institution. Hard technologies influence soft more than vice versa, and assessments (particularly when tied to credentials) tend to be among the hardest of all technologies in any pedagogical intervention. They are therefore a powerful lever for change. Equally, and for the same reasons, they are too often the large, slow, structural elements that infest systems to stunt progress and innovation.

Almost all learning must involve assessment, whether it be of one’s own learning, or provided by other people or machines. Even babies constantly assess their own learning. Reflection is assessment. It is completely natural and it only gets weird when we treat it as a summative judgment, especially when we add grades or credentials to the process, thus normally changing the purpose of learning from achieving competence to achieving a reward. At best it distorts learning, making it seem like a chore rather than a delight, at worst it destroys it, even (and perhaps especially) when learners successfully comply with the demands of assessors and get a good grade. Unfortunately, that’s how most educational systems are structured, so the big challenge to all teachers must be to eliminate or at least to massively reduce this deeply pernicious effect. A large number of the pedagogies that we most value are designed to solve problems that are directly caused by credentials. These pedagogies include assessment practices themselves.

With that in mind, before the group’s first meeting I compiled a list of some of the main principles that I adhere to when designing assessments, most of which are designed to reduce or eliminate the structural failings of educational systems. The meeting caused me to reflect a bit more. This is the result:

Principles applying to all assessments

  • The primary purpose of assessment is to help the learner to improve their learning. All assessment should be formative.
  • Assessment without feedback (teacher, peer, machine, self) is judgement, not assessment, pointless.
  • Ideally, feedback should be direct and immediate or, at least, as prompt as possible.
  • Feedback should only ever relate to what has been done, never the doer.
  • No criticism should ever be made without also at least outlining steps that might be taken to improve on it.
  • Grades (with some very rare minor exceptions where the grade is intrinsic to the activity, such as some gaming scenarios or, arguably, objective single-answer quizzes with T/F answers) are not feedback.
  • Assessment should never ever be used to reward or punish particular prior learning behaviours (e.g. use of exams to encourage revision, grades as goals, marks for participation, etc) .
  • Students should be able to choose how, when and on what they are assessed.
  • Where possible, students should participate in the assessment of themselves and others.
  • Assessment should help the teacher to understand the needs, interests, skills, and gaps in knowledge of their students, and should be used to help to improve teaching.
  • Assessment is a way to show learners that we care about their learning.

Specific principles for summative assessments

A secondary (and always secondary) purpose of assessment is to provide evidence for credentials. This is normally described as summative assessment, implying that it assesses a state of accomplishment when learning has ended. That is a completely ridiculous idea. Learning doesn’t end. Human learning is not in any meaningful way like programming a computer or storing stuff in a database. Knowledge and skills are active, ever-transforming, forever actively renewed, reframed, modified, and extended. They are things we do, not things we have.

With that in mind, here are my principles for assessment for credentials (none of which supersede or override any of the above core principles for assessment, which always apply):

  • There should be no assessment task that is not in itself a positive learning activity. Anything else is at best inefficient, at worst punitive/extrinsically rewarding.
  • Assessment for credentials must be fairly applied to all students.
  • Credentials should never be based on comparisons between students (norm-referenced assessment is always, unequivocally, and unredeemably wrong).
  • The criteria for achieving a credential should be clear to the learner and other interested parties (such as employers or other institutions), ideally before it happens, though this should not forestall the achievement and consideration of other valuable outcomes.
  • There is no such thing as failure, only unfinished learning. Credentials should only celebrate success, not punish current inability to succeed.
  • Students should be able to choose when they are ready to be assessed, and should be able to keep trying until they succeed.
  • Credentials should be based on evidence of competence and nothing else.
  • It should be impossible to compromise an assessment by revealing either the assessment or solutions to it.
  • There should be at least two ways to demonstrate competence, ideally more. Students should only have to prove it once (though may do so in many ways and many times, if they wish).
  • More than one person should be involved in judging competence (at least as an option, and/or on a regularly taken sample).
  • Students should have at least some say in how, when, and where they are assessed.
  • Where possible (accepting potential issues with professional accreditation, credit transfer, etc) they should have some say over the competencies that are assessed, in weighting and/or outcome.
  • Grades and marks should be avoided except where mandated elsewhere. Even then, all passes should be treated as an ‘A’ because students should be able to keep trying until they excel.
  • Great success may sometimes be worthy of an award – e.g. a distinction – but such an award should never be treated as a reward.
  • Assessment for credentials should demonstrate the ability to apply learning in an authentic context. There may be many such contexts.
  • Ideally, assessment for credentials should be decoupled from the main teaching process, because of risks of bias, the potential issues of teaching to the test (regardless of individual needs, interests and capabilities) and the dangers to motivation of the assessment crowding out the learning. However, these risks are much lower if all the above principles are taken on board.

I have most likely missed a few important issues, and there is a bit of redundancy in all this, but this is a work in progress. I think it covers the main points.

Further random reflections

There are some overriding principles and implied specifics in all of this. For instance, respect for diversity, accessibility, respect for individuals, and recognition of student control all fall out of or underpin these principles. It implies that we should recognize success, even when it is not the success we expected, so outcome harvesting makes far more sense than measurement of planned outcomes. It implies that failure should only ever be seen as unfinished learning, not as a summative judgment of terminal competence, so appreciative inquiry is far better than negative critique. It implies flexibility in all aspects of the activity. It implies, above and beyond any other purpose, that the focus should always be on learning. If assessment for credentials adversely affects learning then it should be changed at once.

In terms of implementation, while objective quizzes and their cousins can play a useful formative role in helping students to self-assess and to build confidence, machines (whether implemented by computers or rule-following humans) should normally be kept out of credentialling. There’s a place for AI but only when it augments and informs human intelligence, never when it behaves autonomously. Written exams and their ilk should be avoided, unless they conform to or do not conflict with all the above principles: I have found very few examples like this in the real world, though some practical demonstrations of competence in an authentic setting (e.g. lab work and reporting) and some reflective exercises on prior work can be effective.

A portfolio of evidence, including a reflective commentary, is usually going to be the backbone of any fair, humane, effective assessment: something that lets students highlight successes (whether planned or not), that helps them to consolidate what they have learned, and that is flexible enough to demonstrate competence shown in any number of ways. Outputs or observations of authentic activities are going to be important contributors to that. My personal preference in summative assessments is to only use the intended (including student-generated) and/or harvested outcomes for judging success, not for mandated assignments. This gives flexibility, it works for every subject, and it provides unquivocal and precise evidence of success. It’s also often good to talk with students, perhaps formally (e.g. a presentation or oral exam), in order to tease out what they really know and to give instant feedback. It is worth noting that, unlike written exams and their ilk, such methods are actually fun for all concerned, albeit that the pleasure comes from solving problems and overcoming challenges, so it is seldom easy.

Interestingly, there are occasions in traditional academia where these principles are, for the most part, already widely applied. A typical doctoral thesis/dissertation, for example, is often quite close to it (especially in more modern professional forms that put more emphasis on recording the process), as are some student projects. We know that such things are a really good idea, and lead to far richer, more persistent, more fulfilling learning for everyone. We do not do them ubiquitously for reasons of cost and time. It does take a long time to assess something like this well, and it can take more time during the rest of the teaching process thanks to the personalization (real personalization, not the teacher-imposed form popularized by learning analytics aficionados) and extra care that it implies. It is an efficient use of our time, though, because of its active contribution to learning, unlike a great many traditional assessment methods like teacher-set assignments (minimal contribution) and exams (negative contribution).  A lot of the reason for our reticence, though, is the typical university’s schedule and class timetabling, which makes everything pile on at once in an intolerable avalanche of submissions. If we really take autonomy and flexibility on board, it doesn’t have to be that way. If students submit work when it is ready to be submitted, if they are not all working in lock-step, and if it is a work of love rather than compliance, then assessment is often a positively pleasurable task and is naturally staggered. Yes, it probably costs a bit more time in the end (though there are plenty of ways to mitigate that, from peer groups to pedagogical design) but every part of it is dedicated to learning, and the results are much better for everyone.

Some useful further reading

This is a fairly random selection of sources that relate to the principles above in one way or another. I have definitely missed a lot. Sorry for any missing URLs or paywalled articles: you may be able to find downloadable online versions somewhere.

Boud, D., & Falchikov, N. (2006). Aligning assessment with long-term learning. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 31(4), 399-413. Retrieved from https://www.jhsph.edu/departments/population-family-and-reproductive-health/_docs/teaching-resources/cla-01-aligning-assessment-with-long-term-learning.pdf

Boud, D. (2007). Reframing assessment as if learning were important. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/305060897_Reframing_assessment_as_if_learning_were_important

Cooperrider, D. L., & Srivastva, S. (1987). Appreciative inquiry in organizational life. Research in organizational change and development, 1, 129-169.

Deci, E. L., Vallerand, R. J., Pelletier, L. G., & Ryan, R. M. (1991). Motivation and education: The self-determination perspective. Educational Psychologist, 26(3/4), 325-346.

Hussey, T., & Smith, P. (2002). The trouble with learning outcomes. Active Learning in Higher Education, 3(3), 220-233.

Kohn, A. (1999). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes (Kindle ed.). Mariner Books. (this one is worth forking out money for).

Kohn, A. (2011). The case against grades. Educational Leadership, 69(3), 28-33.

Kohn, A. (2015). Four Reasons to Worry About “Personalized Learning”. Retrieved from http://www.alfiekohn.org/blogs/personalized/ (check out Alfie Kohn’s whole site for plentiful other papers and articles – consistently excellent).

Reeve, J. (2002). Self-determination theory applied to educational settings. In E. L. Deci & R. M. Ryan (Eds.), Handbook of Self-Determination research (pp. 183-203). Rochester, NY: The University of Rochester Press.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Publications. (may be worth paying for if such things interest you).

Wilson-Grau, R., & Britt, H. (2012). Outcome harvesting. Cairo: Ford Foundation. http://www.managingforimpact.org/sites/default/files/resource/outome_harvesting_brief_final_2012-05-2-1.pdf.

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

Letting go and staying close

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

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

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

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

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

” Dear AUFA members,

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

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

” Dear AUFA members,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who owns this?

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

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

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

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

Well, that kept like milk.

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

Moving on

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

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

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

Moving further on

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

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

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

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

 

Postscript

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