Athabasca’s bright future

Tony BatesThe always excellent Tony Bates provides a very clear summary of Ken Coates’s Independent Third-Party Review of Athabasca University released a week or two ago and, as usual, provides a great critical commentary as well as some useful advice on next steps.

Tony rightly points out that our problems are more internal than external, and that the solutions have to come from us, not from outside. To a large extent he hits the nail right on the head when he notes:

Major changes in course design, educational technology, student support and administration, marketing and PR are urgently needed to bring AU into advanced 21st century practice in online and distance learning. I fear that while there are visionary faculty and staff at AU who understand this, there is still too much resistance from traditionalists and those who see change as undermining academic excellence or threatening their comfort zone.

It is hard to disagree. But, though there are too many ostriches among our staff and we do have some major cultural impediments to overcome, it is far less people that impede our progress than it is our design itself, and the technologies – especially the management technologies – of which it consists. That must change, as a corequisite to changing the culture that goes along with it. With some very important exceptions (more on that below) our culture is almost entirely mediated through our organizational and digital technologies, most notably in the form of very rigid processes, procedures and rules, but also through our IT. Our IT should, but increasingly does not, embody those processes. The processes still exist, of course – it’s just that people have to perform them instead of machines. Increasingly often, to make matters worse, we shape our processes to our ill-fitting IT rather than vice versa, because the ‘technological debt’ of adapting them to our needs and therefore having to maintain them ourselves is considered too great (a rookie systems error caused by splitting IT into a semi-autonomous unit that has to slash its own costs without considering the far greater price paid by the university at large). Communication, when it occurs, is almost all explicit and instrumental. We do not yet have enough of the tacit flows of knowledge and easy communication that patch over or fix the (almost always far greater) flaws that exist in such processes in traditional bricks and mortar institutions. The continual partial attention and focused channels of communication resulting from working online mean that we struggle with tacit knowledge and the flexibility of embedded dialogue in ways old fashioned universities never have to even think about. One of the big problems with being so process-driven is that, especially in the absence of richer tacit communication, it is really hard to change those processes, especially because they have evolved to be deeply entangled with one another – changing one process almost always means changing many, often in structurally separate parts of the institutional machine, and involves processes of its own that are often entangled with those we set out to change. As a result for much of its operation, our university does what it does despite us, not because of us. Unlike traditional universities, we have nothing else to fall back on when it fails, or when things fall between cracks. And, though we likely have far fewer than most traditional universities, there are still very many cracks to fall through.

This, not coincidentally, is exactly true of our teaching too. We are pretty darn good at doing what we explicitly intend to do: our students achieve learning outcomes very well, according to the measures we use. AU is a machine that teaches, which is fine until we want the machine to do more than what it is built to do or when other, faster, lighter, cheaper machines begin to compete with it.  As well as making it really hard to make even small changes to teaching, what gets lost – and what matters about as much as what we intentionally teach – is the stuff we do not intend to teach, the stuff that makes up the bulk of the learning experience in traditional universities, the stuff where students learn to be, not just to do. It’s whole-person learning. In distance and online learning, we tend to just concentrate on parts we can measure and we are seldom even aware of the rest. There is a hard and rigid boundary between the directed, instrumental processes and the soft, invisible patterns of culture and belonging, beyond which we rarely cross. This absence is largely what gives distance learning a bad reputation, though it can be a strength if focused teaching of something well-defined is exactly what is needed, or if students are able to make the bigger connections in other ways (true of many of our successful students), when the control that the teaching method provides is worth all the losses and where a more immersive experience might actually get in the way. But it’s a boundary that alienates a majority of current and prospective students. A large percentage of even those we manage to enrol and keep with us would like to feel more connected, more a part of a community, more engaged, more belonging. A great many more don’t even join us in the first place because of that perceived lack, and a very large number drop out before submitting a single piece of work as a direct result.

This is precisely the boundary that the Landing is intended to be a step towards breaking down.

https://landing.athabascau.ca/file/view/410777/video-decreasing-the-distance

If we cannot figure out how to recover that tacit dimension, there is little chance that we can figure out how to teach at a distance in a way that differentiates us from the crowd and that draws people to us for the experience, rather than for the qualification. Not quite fair. Some of us will. If you get the right (deeply engaged) tutor, or join the right (social and/or open) course, or join the Landing, or participate in local meet-ups, or join other social media groups, you may get a fair bit of the tacit, serendipitous, incidental learning and knowledge construction that typifies a traditional education. Plenty of students do have wonderful experiences learning with others at AU, be it with their tutors or with other students. We often see those ones at convocation – ones for whom the experience has been deep, meaningful, and connected. But, for many of our students and especially the ones that don’t make it to graduation (or even to the first assignment), the chances of feeling that you belong to something bigger, to learn from others around you, to be part of a richer university experience, are fairly low. Every one of our students needs to be very self-directed, compared with those in traditional institutions – that’s a sina qua non of working online – but too many get insufficient support and too little inspiration from those around them to rise beyond that or to get through the difficult parts. This is not too surprising, given that we cannot do it for ourselves either. When faced with complicated things demanding close engagement, too many of our staff fall back on the comfortable, easy solution of meeting face to face in one of our various centres rather than taking the hard way, and so the system remains broken. This can and will change.

Moving on

I am much heartened by the Coates report which, amongst other things but most prominently and as our central value proposition, puts our leadership in online and distance education at the centre of everything. This is what I have unceasingly believed we should do since the moment I arrived. The call to action of Coates’s report is fundamentally to change our rigid dynamic, to be bold, to innovate without barriers, to evolve, to make use of the astonishingly good resources – primarily our people – to (again) lead the online learning world. As a virtual institution this should be easier than it would be for others but, perversely, it is exactly the opposite. This is for aforesaid reasons, and also because the boundaries of our IT systems create the boundaries of our thinking, and embed processes more deeply and more inflexibly than almost any bricks and mortar establishment could hope to do. We need soft systems, fuzzy systems, adaptable systems, agile systems for our teaching, research, and learning community development, and we need hard systems, automated systems, custom tailored, rock solid systems for our business processes, including the administrational and assessment recording outputs of the teaching process. This is precisely the antithesis of what we have now. As Coates puts it:

“AU should rebrand itself as the leading Canadian centre for online learning and twenty- first century educational technology. AU has a distinct and potentially insurmountable advantage. The university has the education technology professionals needed to provide leadership, the global reputation needed to attract and hold attention, and the faculty and staff ready to experiment with and test new ideas in an area of emerging national priority. There is a critical challenge, however. AU currently lacks the ICT model and facilities to rise to this opportunity.”

We live in our IT…

We have long been challenged with our IT systems, but things were not always so bad. Our ICT model has made a 180 degree turnaround in the past few years in the exact opposite direction to one that will support continuing evolution and innovation, driven by people that know little about our core mission and that have failed to understand what makes us special as a university. The best defence offered for these poor decisions is usually that ‘most other universities are doing it,’ but we are not most other universities.  ICTs are not just support tools or performance enhancers for us. We are our IT. It is our one and only face to our students and the world. Without IT, we are literally nothing. We have massively underinvested in developing our IT, and what we have done in recent years has destroyed our lead, our agility, and our morale. Increasingly, we have rented generic, closed, off-the-shelf cloud-based applications that would be pretty awful in a factory, that force us into behaviours that make no sense, that sap our time and will, and that are so deeply inappropriate for our very unique distributed community that they stifle all progress, and cut off almost all avenues of innovation in the one area that we are best placed to innovate and lead. We have automated things that should not be automated and let fall into disrepair the things that actually give us an edge. For instance, we rent an absurdly poor CRM system to manage student interactions, building a call centre for customers when we should be building relationships with students, embedding our least savoury practices of content delivery still further, making tweaks to a method of teaching that should have died when we stopped using the postal service for course packs. Yes, when it works, it incrementally improves a broken system, so it looks OK (not great) on reports, but the system it enhances is still irrevocably broken and, by further tying it into a hard embodiment in an ill-fitting application, the chances of fixing it properly diminish further. And, of course, it doesn’t work, because we have rented an ill-fitting system designed for other things with little or no consideration of whether it meets more than coarse functional needs. This can and must change.

Meanwhile, we have methodically starved the environments that are designed for us and through which we have innovated in the past, and that could allow us to evolve. Astonishingly, we have had no (as in zero) central IT support for research for years now, getting by on a wing and a prayer, grabbing for bits of overtime where we can, or using scarce, poorly integrated departmental resources. Even very well-funded and well-staffed projects are stifled by it because almost all of our learning technology innovations are completely reliant on access, not only to central services (class lists, user logins, LMS integration, etc), but also to the staff that are able to perform integrations, manage servers, install software, configure firewalls, etc, etc.  We have had a 95% complete upgrade for the Landing sitting in the wings for nearly 2 years, unable to progress due to lack of central IT personnel to implement it, even though we have sufficient funds to pay for them and then some, and the Landing is actively used by thousands of people. Even our mainstream teaching tools have been woefully underfunded and undermined: we run a version of Moodle that is past even its security update period, for instance, and that creaks along only thanks to a very small but excellent team supporting it. Tools supporting more innovative teaching with more tenuous uptake, such as Mahara and OpenSIM servers, are virtual orphans, riskily trundling along with considerably less support than even the Landing.

This can and will change.

… but we are based in Athabasca

There are other things in Coates’s report that are given a very large emphasis, notably advice to increase our open access, particularly through forming more partnerships with Northern Albertan colleges serving indigenous populations (good – and we will need smarter, more human, more flexible, more inclusive systems for that, too), but mainly a lot of detailed recommendations about staying in Athabasca itself. This latter recommendation seems to have been forced upon Coates, and it comes with many provisos. Coates is very cognizant of the fact that being based in the remote, run-down town of Athabasca is, has been, and will remain a huge and expensive hobble. He mostly skims over sensitive issues like the difficulty of recruiting good people to the town (a major problem that is only slightly offset by the fact that, once we have got them there, they are quite unlikely to leave), but makes it clear that it costs us very dearly in myriad other ways.

… the university significantly underestimates the total cost of maintaining the Athabasca location. References to the costs of the distributed operation, including commitments in the Town of Athabasca, typically focus on direct transportation and facility costs and do not incorporate staff and faculty time. The university does not have a full accounting of the costs associated with their chosen administrative and structural arrangements.”

His suggestions, though making much of the value of staying in Athabasca and heavily emphasizing the importance of its continuing role in the institution, involve moving a lot of people and infrastructure out of it and doing a lot of stuff through web conferencing. He walks a tricky political tightrope, trying to avoid the hot potato of moving away while suggesting ways that we should leave. He is right on both counts.

Short circuits in our communications infrastructure

Though cost, lack of decent ICT infrastructure, and difficulties recruiting good people are factors in making Athabasca a hobble for us, the biggest problem is, again, structural. Unlike those working online, among those living and working in the town of Athabasca itself, all the traditional knowledge flows occur without impediment, almost always to the detriment of more inclusive ways of online communication. Face to face dialogue inevitably short-circuits online engagement – always has, always will. People in Athabasca, as any humans would and should, tend to talk among themselves, and tend to only communicate with others online, as the rest of us do, in directed, intentional ways. This might not be so bad were it not for the fact that Athabasca is very unrepresentative of the university population as a whole, containing the bulk of our administrators, managers, and technical staff, with less than 10 actual faculty in the region. This is a separate subculture, it is not the university, but it has enormous sway over how we evolve. It is not too surprising that our most critical learning systems account for only about 5% of our IT budget because that side of things is barely heard of among decision-makers and implementors that live there and they only indirectly have to face the consequences of its failings (a matter made much worse by the way we disempower the tutors that have to deal with them most of all, and filter their channels of communication through just a handful of obligated committee members). It is no surprise that channels of communication are weak because those that design and maintain them can easily bypass the problems they cause. In fact, if there were more faculty there, it would be even worse, because then we would never face any of the problems encountered by our students. Further concentrations of staff in Edmonton (where most faculty reside), St Albert (mainly our business faculty) and Calgary do not help one bit, simply building further enclaves, which again lead to short circuits in communication and isolated self-reinforcing clusters that distort our perspectives and reduce online communication. Ideas, innovations, and concerns do not spread because of hierarchies that isolate them, filter them as they move up through the hierarchy, and dissipate them in Athabasca. Such clustering could be a good part of the engine that drives adaptation: natural ecosystems diversify thanks to parcellation. However, that’s not how it works here, thanks to the aforementioned excess in structure and process and the fact that those clusters are far from independently evolving. They are subject to the same rules and the same selection pressures as one another, unable to independently evolve because they are rigidly, structurally, and technologically bound to the centre. This is not evolution – it is barely even design, though every part of it has been designed and top-down structures overlay the whole thing. It’s a side effect of many small decisions that, taken as a whole, result in a very flawed system.

This can and must change.

The town of Athabasca and what it means to us

Athabasca high street

Though I have made quite a few day trips to Athabasca over the years, I had never stayed overnight until around convocation time this year. Though it was a busy few days so I only had a little chance to explore, I found it to be a fascinating place that parallels AU in many ways. The impression it gives is of a raw, rather broken-down and depressed little frontier town of around 4,000 souls (a village by some reckonings) and almost as many churches. It was once a thriving staging post on the way to the Klondike gold rush, when it was filled with the rollicking clamour of around 20,000 prospectors dreaming of fortunes. Many just passed through, but quite a few stayed, helping to define some of its current character but, when the gold rush died down, there was little left to sustain a population. Much of the town still feels a bit temporary, still a bit of a campground waiting to turn into a real town. Like much of Northern Alberta, its fortunes in more recent years have been significantly bound to the oil business, feeding an industry that has no viable future and the morals of an errant crow, tied to its roller coaster fortunes. There are signs that money has been around, from time to time: a few nice buildings, a bit of landscaping here and there, a memorial podium at Athabasca Landing.  But there are bigger signs that it has left.

Athabasca Landing

Today, Athabasca’s bleak main street is filled with condemned buildings, closed businesses, discount stores, and shops with ‘sale’ signs in their windows. There are two somewhat empty town centre pubs, where a karaoke night in one will denude the other of almost all its customers.

There are virtually no transit links to the outside world: one Greyhound bus from Edmonton (2 hours away) comes through it, in the dead of night, and passenger trains stopped running decades ago. The roads leading in and out are dangerous: people die way too often getting there, including one of our most valued colleagues in my own school. It is never too far from being reclaimed by the forces of nature that surround it. Moose, bear, deer, and coyotes wander fairly freely. Minus forty temperatures don’t help, nor does a river that is pushed too hard by meltwaters from the rapidly receding Athabasca Glacier and that is increasingly polluted by the side-effects of oil production.

Athabasca

So far so bleak. But there are some notable upsides too. The town is full of delightfully kind, helpful, down-to-earth people infused with that wonderful Canadian spirit of caring for their neighbours, grittily facing the elements with good cheer, getting up early, eating dinner in the late afternoon, gathering for potlucks in one another’s houses, and organizing community get-togethers. The bulk of housing is well cared-for, set in well-tended gardens, in quiet, neat little streets. I bet most people there know their neighbours and their kids play together. Though tainted by its ties with the oil industry, the town comes across as, fundamentally, a wholesome centre for homesteaders in the region, self-reliant and obstinately surviving against great odds by helping one another and helping themselves. The businesses that thrive are those selling tools, materials, and services to build and maintain your farm and house, along with stores for loading your provisions into your truck to get you through the grim winters. It certainly helps that a large number of residents are employees of the university, providing greater diversity than is typically found in such settlements, but they are frontier folk like the rest. They have to be.

It would be unthinkable to pull the university out at this point – it would utterly destroy an already threatened town and, I think, it would cause great damage to the university. This was clearly at the forefront of Coates’s mind, too. The solution is not to withdraw from this strange place, but to dilute and divert the damage it causes and perhaps, even, to find ways to use its strengths. Greater engagement with Northern communities might be one way to save it – we have some big largely empty buildings up there that will be getting emptier, and that might not be a bad place for some face-to-face branching out, perhaps semi-autonomously, perhaps in partnership with colleges in the region. It also has potential as a place for a research retreat though it is not exactly a Mecca that would draw people to it, especially without transit links to sustain it. A well-designed research centre cost a fortune to build, though, so it would be nice to get some use out of it.

Perhaps more importantly, we should not pull out because Athabasca is a part of the soul of the institution. It is a little fitting that Athabasca University has – not without resistance – had its fortunes tied to this town. Athabasca is kind-of who we are and, to a large extent, defines who we should aspire to be. As an institution we are, right now, a decaying frontier town on the edge of civilization that was once a thriving metropolis, forced to help ourselves and one another battle with the elements, a caring bunch of individuals bound by a common purpose but stuck in a wilderness that cares little for us and whose ties with the outside world are fickle, costly, and tenuous. Athabasca is certainly a hobble but it is our hobble and, if we want to move on, we need to find ways to make the best of it – to find value in it, to move people and things away from it that it impedes the most, at least where we can, but to build upon it as a mythic hub that helps to define our identity, a symbolic centre for our thinking. We can and will help ourselves and one another to make it great again. And we have a big advantage that our home town lacks: a renewable and sustainable resource and product. Very much unlike Athabasca the town, the source of our wealth is entirely in our people, and the means we have for connecting them. We have the people already: we just need to refocus on the connection.

Computer science students should learn to cheat, not be punished for it

This is a well thought-through response to a recent alarmist NYT article about cheating among programming students.

The original NYT article is full of holy pronouncements about the evils of plagiarism, horrified statistics about its extent, and discussions of the arms wars, typically involving sleuthing by markers and evermore ornate technological fixes that are always one step behind the most effective cheats (and one step ahead of the dumber ones). This is a lose-lose system. No one benefits. But that’s not the biggest issue with the article. Nowhere does the NYT article mention that it is largely caused by the fact that we in academia typically tell programming students to behave in ways that no programmer in their right mind would ever behave (disclaimer: the one programming course that I currently teach, very deliberately, does not do that, so I am speaking here as an atypical outlier).

As this article rightly notes, the essence of programming is re-use of code. Although there are certainly egregiously immoral and illegal ways to do that (even open source coders normally need to religiously cite their sources for significant uses of code written by others), applications are built on layer upon layer upon layer of re-used code, common subroutines and algorithms, snippets, chunks, libraries, classes, components, and a thousand different ways to assemble (in some cases literally) the code of others. We could not do programming at all without 99% of the code that does what we want it to do being written by others. Programmers knit such things together, often sharing their discoveries and improvements so that the whole profession benefits and the cycle continues. The solution to most problems is, more often than not, to be found in StackExchange forums, Reddit, or similar sites, or in open source repositories like Github, and it would be an idiotic programmer that chose not to (very critically and very carefully) use snippets provided there. That’s pretty much how programmers learn, a large part of how they solve problems, and certainly how they build stuff. The art of it is in choosing the right snippet, understanding it, fitting it into one’s own code, selecting between alternative solutions and knowing why one is better (in a given context) than another. In many cases, we have memorized ways of doing things so that, even if we don’t literally copy and paste, we repeat patterns (whole lines and blocks) that are often identical to those that we learned from others. It would likely be impossible to even remember where we learned such things, let alone to cite them.  We should not penalize that – we should celebrate it. Sure, if the chunks we use are particulary ingenious, or particularly original, or particularly long, or protected by a licence, we should definitely credit their authors. That’s just common sense and decency, as well as (typically) a legal requirement. But a program made using the code of others is no less plagiarism than Kurt Schwitters was a plagiarist of the myriad found objects that made up his collages, or a house builder is a plagiarist of its bricks.

And, as an aside, please stop calling it ‘Computer Science’. Programming is no more computer science than carpentry is woodworking science. It bugs me that ‘computer science’ is used so often as a drop-in synonym for programming in the popular press, reinforced by an increasing number of academics with science-envy, especially in North America. There are sciences used in computing, and a tiny percentage of those are quite unique to the discipline, but that’s a miniscule percentage of what is taught in universities and colleges, and a vanishingly small percentage of what nearly all programmers actually do. It’s also worth noting that computer science programs are not just about programming: there’s a whole bunch of stuff we teach (and that computing professionals do) about things like databases, networks, hardware, ethics, etc that has nothing whatsoever to do with programming (and little to do with science). Programming, though, especially in its design aspects, is a fundamentally human activity that is creative, situated, and inextricably entangled with its social and organizational context. Apart from in some research labs and esoteric applications, it is normally closer to fine art than it is to science, though it is an incredibly flexible activity that spans a gamut of creative pursuits analogous to a broad range of arts and crafts from poetry to music to interior design to engineering. Perhaps it is most akin to architecture in the ways it can (depending on context) blend art, craft, engineering, and (some) science but it can be analogous to pretty much any creative pursuit (universal machines and all that).

Address of the bookmark: https://thenextweb.com/dd/2017/05/30/lets-teach-computer-science-students-to-cheat/#.tnw_FTOVyGc4

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Learnium

Learnium is yet another attempt to overlay a cloud-based social medium on institutional learning, in the same family as systems like Edmodo, Wikispaces Classroom, Lore, GoingOn, etc, etc. I deliberately exclude from this list the far more excellent, theoretically grounded, and innovative Curatr, as well as dumb bandwagoners like – of all things – Blackboard (not deserving of a link but you could look up their atrocious social media management tools if you want to see how not to do this).

Learnium has a UK focus and it includes mobile apps as well as institutional integration tools. It looks slick, has a good range of tools, and seems to be gaining a little traction. This is trying to do something a little like what we tried to do with the Landing, but it should not be confused with the Landing in intent or design philosophy, notwithstanding some superficial similarities. Although the Landing is often used for teaching purposes, it deliberately avoids things like institutional roles, and deliberately blurs such distinctions when its users make use of them (eg. when they create course groups). It can be quite confusing for students expecting a guided space and top-down structure, and annoying if you are a teacher trying to control the learning space to behave that way, but that’s simply not how it is designed to work. The Landing is a learning space, where everyone is a teacher, not an institutional teaching space where the role is reserved for a few.

Learnium has a far more institutionally managed, teacher/course-oriented perspective. From what I can tell, it’s basically an LMS, cut down in some places, enhanced in its social aspects. It’s closer to Canvas than Moodle in that regard. It might have some value for teachers that like the social media tools but that dislike the lack of teacher-control, lack of privacy, deeply problematic ethics, and ugly intrusions of things like Facebook, and who do not want the cost or hassle of managing their own environments.  It is probably a more congenial environment for social pedagogies than most institutional LMSs, allowing learning to spread beyond class groups and supporting some kinds of social networking. There is a lot of scope and potential for vertical social networks like this that serve a particular kind of community in a tailored fashion. This is very much not Facebook, and that’s a very good thing.

But Learnium is an answer to the question ‘how can I use social media in my courses?’ rather than ‘how can social media help to change how people learn?’ It is also an answer to the question of ‘how can Learnium make money?’ rather than ‘how can Learnium help its users?’ And, like any cloud-based service of this nature (sadly including Curatr), it is not a safe place to entrust your learning community: things like changes to terms of service, changes to tools, bankcruptcy ,and takeovers are an ever-present threat. With the exception of open systems that allow you to move everything, lock stock and barrel, to somewhere else with no significant loss of data or functionality, an institution (and its students) can never own a cloud-based system like this. It might be a small difference from an end user perspective, at least until it blows up, but it’s all the difference in the world.

Address of the bookmark: https://www.learnium.com/about/institutions/

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Every attempt to manage academia makes it worse

Excellent post from Mike Taylor on the inevitable consequences of the use of incentives to shape a system (in this case, an educational system). As Mike notes, the problem is well-known and well understood, yet  otherwise intelligent people continue to rely on extrinsic incentives to attempt to shape behaviour. It’s a classic Monkey’s Paw problem – you get what you wish for but something very bad will inevitably happen, often worse than the problem you are trying to solve. We can make people do things with extrinsic incentives (reward and punishment), sure, but in doing so we change the focus from what we want to achieve to the reward itself, which invariably destroys intrinsic motivation to do what we want done, reinforces our power (and thus the weakness of those we ‘incentivize’), and ultimately backfires on us in tragically predictable ways, because what we actually want done is almost never the thing we choose to measure.

some consequences of incentives, Edwards and Roy (2017)

Our educational systems (and many others) are built around extrinsic incentives, from grades through to performance-related pay through to misguided research assessment exercises, evaluations based on publication records, etc. The consequences are uniformly dire.

Mike quotes Tim Harford (from http://timharford.com/2016/09/4035/) as providing what seems to me to be the only sensible solution:

“The basic principle for any incentive scheme is this: can you measure everything that matters? If you can’t, then high-powered financial incentives will simply produce short-sightedness, narrow-mindedness or outright fraud. If a job is complex, multifaceted and involves subtle trade-offs, the best approach is to hire good people, pay them the going rate and tell them to do the job to the best of their ability.”

Well said. Except that I would add that the effects on motivation of any incentive scheme are always awful, and that’s the biggest reason not to do it. It’s not just that it doesn’t achieve the results we hope for: it’s that it is unkind and dehumanizing. With that in mind, I wouldn’t tell them to do the job to the best of their ability. I might ask them. I might help to structure a system so that they and everyone else can see the positive and negative consequences of actions they take. I might try to nurture a community where people value one another and are mutually supportive. I might talk to them about what they are doing and offer my support in helping them to do it better. I might try to structure the system around what people want to do rather than trying to make them fit in the system I want to build. At least, that’s what I would do on a good day. On a bad day, under pressure from multiple quarters, overworked and overstressed, I might fall back on a three line whip or a plea to do their bit. I might make trades (‘do this and I will take away that’) or appeal to a higher authority (‘the Dean says we must…’) or to my own authority (‘this has to be done and you are the best one to do it..’), or to duty (‘it is in our contract that we have to do performance assessments…’).  And that’s where the problems begin.

Mike recommends Tim Harford’s ‘The Undercover Economist’ as a way out of this loop. I will read this, as I have read many books offering similar insights. It seems at first glance to fit very well with the findings of self-determination theory as well as behavioural economics. However, though the causes described here are the result of a failure to understand human motivation, this is, at heart, a systems problem of a broader nature: I recommend The Systems Bible (formerly Systemantics) by John Gall Systemantics by John Gall (formerly the Systems Bible) for a comprehensive set of explanations of the kinds of phenomena that give rise to stupid behaviour by groups of intelligent people. The book is deliberately funny, but the underlying theory on which it is based is extremely sound.

Address of the bookmark: https://svpow.com/2017/03/17/every-attempt-to-manage-academia-makes-it-worse/

Babies in the learning-style bathwater

A recent Guardian article reports on a letter sent to the paper by 30 eminent academics from neuroscience, education, and psychology disciplines, voicing concerns about the absurd popularity of learning styles among teachers.

They are, of course, correct to be concerned. There is no good evidence that being taught according to your learning style has any positive value, despite decades of spurious attempts to show a correlation. Moreover, even if there were such a correlation, it would behoove teachers to help learners to learn using different styles because real-life learning doesn’t come neatly packaged in forms that fit with how we want/are constituted to learn, and teaching should primarily be concerned with supporting learners’ capacity to learn. The fact that there are scores if not hundreds of incompatible learning style theories, most of which have similarly (un)compelling evidence to support them, should be a clue that there is something seriously wrong with the whole idea. And it’s not a harmless foible. Not only is it a massive waste of time and money, not to mention a terrible example to set in truthiness acceptance, it can be actively harmful to learners, teaching them to believe that they can only learn properly if things are packaged to suit their style.

What’s shocking in the article is the report on the number of teachers who, despite a total lack of evidence and copious amounts of debunking, continue to use and believe in the things. To our shame, I have even seen examples of it at AU (our own Math Site mentions them) where we really ought to know better. But we are not unusual in this. Not at all. In the UK and Netherlands in 2012, 80% of teachers apparently believed that individuals learned better when doing so in a manner according with their preferred learning style. This is like discovering that 80% of the world’s scientists believe that their horoscopes determine the results of their experiments.

That said, there’s a baby in this very dirty bathwater that should not be thrown out.

If a belief in learning styles means that teachers feel challenged to design learning experiences in different ways to suit more diverse needs, that’s not a bad thing, apart from that it increases the costs of learning development. In fairness, it would work at least as well if they used astrological star sign personality characteristics as a basis but, whatever the reasons, giving students choices is a worthwhile outcome. And, just like horoscopes, there is value to learners themselves in providing an opportunity and a framework for reflection, even if the framework itself is erroneous and based on fallacies.

I’m a sceptic, but even I use variants on the theme. For example, I often try to provide versions of learning content that are meant to cater for serialist and holist ways of learning (Gordon Pask’s approach to categorizing learning strategies). Notwithstanding the extra effort and cost of designing at least two ways to approach a topic, it’s a good creative catalyst for me, and it gives students greater choice and control over their own learning.

And, in fairness, not all learning-style types of theory are equally awful. Slightly less harmful variants talk of learning preferences rather than styles, which does not necessarily imply that those preferences are a good idea nor that they even need to be catered for, though it still perpetuates the myth that there are relatively fixed characteristics in such things. Much better ones, including Pask’s, talk of selectable learning strategies rather than stable characteristics or preferences of learners, which seems eminently sensible to me: it’s just about general pedagogical patterns. It’s not about labelling learners, though (sadly) some do try to apply the labels to learners, and even Pask himself (arguably) sometimes seems to present it in that way. The best of breed models recognize that learning strategies can and should change in different learning contexts as well as over time, and make no attempt to label or pigeon hole learners themselves at all. I think it is really useful to find regularities and patterns in learning designs, and that’s the baby we should not throw out when we (rightly) reject learning style theories.

Address of the bookmark: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/mar/13/teachers-neuromyth-learning-styles-scientists-neuroscience-education

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Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

A short article from Lisa Legault that summarizes self-determination theory (SDT) and its findings very succinctly and clearly. It’s especially effective at highlighting the way the spectrum of extrinsic-to-intrinsic motivation works (including the integrated/identified/introjected continuum), and in describing the relationships between autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Nothing new here, nothing inspirational, just a useful resource to point people at so they can learn about the central tenets of SDT

Address of the bookmark: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Lisa_Legault/publication/311692691_Intrinsic_and_Extrinsic_Motivation/links/5856e60d08ae77ec37094289.pdf

TEL MOOC from Athabasca University

Starts today…

Course Description

Teachers who want to learn more about teaching with technology will find this Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), Introduction to Technology-Enabled Learning (TEL), informative and engaging. Using up-to-date learning design and simple, accessible technology, the course runs on an easy-to-use learning platform available via the Internet. The course is designed for teachers who want to build on their knowledge and practice in teaching and learning with technology. It will run over five weeks and requires approximately three to five hours of time each week. Designed to accommodate teachers’ busy schedules, the course offers flexibility with options for learning the content. You will learn from readings, videos, discussions with other participants and instructors, meaningful exercises, quizzes and short assignments. Certification is available for those who wish to complete all required exercises and quizzes.

Address of the bookmark: https://www.telmooc.org/

Original page

Alfie Kohn: "It’s bad news if students are motivated to get A’s" – YouTube

A nice one-minute summary of Alfie Kohn’s case against grades at www.youtube.com/watch?v=EQt-ZI58wpw

There’s a great deal more Kohn has to say on the subject that is worth reading, such as at http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/case-grades/ or http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/grading/ or an interview at http://www.education.com/magazine/article/Grades_Any_Good/

From that interview, this captures the essence of the case pretty well:

“The research suggests three consistent effects of giving students grades – or leading them to focus on what grade they’ll get. First, their interest in the learning itself is diminished. Second, they come to prefer easier tasks – not because they’re lazy, but because they’re rational. After all, if the point is to get an A, your odds are better if you avoid taking intellectual risks. Third, students tend to think in a more superficial fashion – and to forget what they learned more quickly – when grades are involved.

To put it positively, students who are lucky enough to be in schools (or classrooms) where they don’t get letter or number grades are more likely to want to continue exploring whatever they’re learning, more likely to want to challenge themselves, and more likely to think deeply. The evidence on all of these effects is very clear, and it seems to apply to students of all ages.

As far as I can tell, there are absolutely no benefits of giving grades to balance against these three powerful negative consequences – except that doing so is familiar to us and doesn’t take much effort.”

 

Note: if this video shows up as a blank space in your browser, then your security settings are preventing embedding of untrusted content in a trusted page. This video is totally trustworthy, so look for the alert to override it, typically near the address bar in your browser.

Address of the bookmark:

The cost of admission to the unlearning zone

picture of dull classroom (pubic domain)I describe some of what I do as ‘unteaching’, so I find this highly critical article by Miss Smith – The Unlearning Zone –  interesting. Miss Smith dislikes the terms ‘ unteaching’ and ‘unlearning’ for some well-expressed aesthetic and practical reasons: as she puts it, they are terms “that would not be out of place in a particularly self-satisfied piece of poststructuralist literary analysis circa 1994.”  I partially agree. However, she also seems equally unenamoured with what she thinks they stand for. I disagree with her profoundly on this so, as she claims to be new to these terms, here is my attempt to explain a little about what I mean by them and why I think they are a useful part of the educators’ lexicon, and why they are crucially important for learners’ development in general.

First the terms…

Yes, ‘unteaching’ is an ugly neoligism and it doesn’t really make sense: that’s part of the appeal of using it – a bit of cognitive dissonance can be useful for drawing attention to something. However, it is totally true that someone who is untaught is just someone who has not (yet) been taught, so ‘unteaching’, seen through that light, is at best pointless, at worst self-contradictory.  On the other hand, it does seem to follow pretty naturally from ‘unlearning’ which, contrary to Miss Smith’s assertion, has been in common use for centuries and makes perfect sense. Have you ever had to unlearn bad habits? Me too.

As I understand it, ‘unteach’ is to ‘teach’ as ‘undo’ is to ‘do’.  Unteaching is still teaching, just as undoing is still doing, and unlearning is still learning. Perhaps deteaching would be a better term. Whatever we choose to call it, unteaching is concerned with intentionally dismantling the taught belief that teaching is about exerting power over learners to teach, and replacing it with the attitude that teachers are there to empower learners to learn. This is not a particularly radical idea. It is what all teachers should do anyway, I reckon. But it is worth drawing attention to it as a distinct activity because it runs counter to the tide, and the problem it addresses is virtually ubiquitous in education up to, and sometimes at, doctoral level.

Traditional teaching of the sort Miss Smith seems to defend in her critique does a lot more than teach a subject, skill, or way of thinking. It teaches that learning is a chore that is not valuable in and of itself, that learners must be forced to do it for some other purpose, often someone else’s purpose. It teaches that teaching is something done to students by a teacher: at its worst, it teaches that teaching is telling; at best, that teaching involves telling someone to do something. It’s not that (many) teachers deliberately seek these outcomes, but that they are the most likely lessons to be learned, because they are the ones that are repeated most often. The need for unteaching arises because traditional teaching, with luck in addition to whatever it intends to teach, teaches some terrible lessons about learning and the role of teaching in that process that must be unlearned.

What is unteaching?

Miss Smith claims that unteaching means “open plan classes, unstructured lessons and bean bags.” That’s not the way I see it at all. Unlike traditional teaching, with its timetables, lesson plans, learning objectives, and uniform tests, unteaching does not have its own technologies and methods, though it does, for sure, tend to be a precursor to connectivist, social constructivist, constructionist, and other more learner-centred ways of thinking about the learning process, which may sometimes be used as part of the process of unteaching itself. Such methods, models, and attitudes emerge fairly naturally when you stop forcing people to do your bidding. However, they are just as capable of being used in a controlling way as the worst of instructivist methods: the number of reports on such interventions that include words like ‘students must…’, ‘I make my students…’ or (less blatantly) ‘students (do X)’ far outnumber all others, and that is the very opposite of unteaching. The specific technologies (including pedagogies as much as open-plan classrooms and beanbags) are not the point. Lectures, drill-and-practice and other instructivist methods are absolutely fine, as long as:

  1. they at least attempt to do the job that students want or need,
  2. they are willingly and deliberately chosen by students,
  3. students are well-informed enough to make those choices, and
  4. students can choose to learn otherwise at any time.

No matter how cool and groovy your problem-based, inquiry-based, active methods might be, if they are imposed on students (especially with the use of threats for non-compliance and rewards for compliance – e.g. qualifications, grades, etc) then it is not unteaching at all: it’s just another way of doing the same kind of teaching that caused the problem in the first place. But if students have control – and ‘control’ includes being able to delegate control to someone else who can scaffold, advise, assist, instruct, direct, and help them when needed, as well as being able to take it back whenever they wish – then such methods can be very useful. So can lectures. To all those educational researchers that object to lectures, I ask whether they have ever found them valuable in a conference (and , if not, why did they go to a conference in the first place?). It’s not the pedagogy of lectures that is at fault. It’s the requirement to attend them and the accompanying expectation that people are going to learn what you are teaching as a result. That’s, simply put, empirically wrong. It doesn’t mean that lecturees learn nothing. Far from it. But what you teach and what they learn are different kinds of animal.

Problems with unteaching

It’s really easy to be a bad unteacher – I think that is what Miss Smith is railing against, and it’s a fair criticism. I’m often pretty bad at it myself, though I have had a few successes along the way too. Unteaching and, especially, the pedagogies that result from having done unteaching, are far more likely to go wrong, and they take a lot more emotional, intellectual, and social effort than traditional teaching because they don’t come pre-assembled. They have no convenient structures and processes in place to do the teaching for you.  Traditional teaching ‘works’ even when it doesn’t. If you throw someone into a school system, with all its attendant rewards, punishments, timetables, rules and curricula, and if you give them the odd textbook and assessment along the way, then most students will wind up learning something like what is intended to be taught by the system, no matter how awful the teachers might be. In such a system, students will rarely learn well, rarely persistently, rarely passionately, seldom kindly, and the love of learning will have been squashed out of many of them along the way (survivors often become academics and teachers themselves). But they will mostly pass tests at the end of it. With a bit of luck many might even have gained a bit of useful knowledge or skill, albeit that much will be not just wasted and forgotten as easily as a hotel room number when your stay is over, but actively disliked by the end of it. And, of course, they will have learned dependent ways of learning that will serve them poorly outside institutional systems.

To make things far worse, those very structures that assist the traditional teacher (grades, compulsory attendance, fixed outcomes, concept of failure, etc) are deeply antagonistic to unteaching and are exactly why it is needed in the first place. Unteachers face a huge upstream struggle against an overwhelming tide that threatens to drown passionate learning every inch of the way. The results of unteaching can be hard to defend within a traditional educational system because, by conventional measures, it is often inefficient and time-consuming. But conventional measures only make sense when you are trying to make everyone do the same things, through the same means, with the same ends, measured by and in order to meet the same criteria. That’s precisely the problem.

The final nail in unteaching’s coffin is that it is applied very unevenly across the educational system, so every freedom it brings is counterbalanced by a mass of reiterated antagonistic lessons from other courses and programs. Every time we unteach someone, two others reteach them.  Ideally, we should design educational systems that are friendlier to and more supportive of learner autonomy, and that are (above all else) respectful of learners as human beings. In K-12 teaching there are plenty of models to draw from, including Summerhill, Steiner (AKA Waldorf) schools, Montessori schools, Experiential Learning Schools etc. Few are even close to perfect, but most are at least no worse than their conventional counterparts, and they start with an attitude of respect for the children rather than a desire to make them conform. That alone makes them worthwhile. There are even some regional systems, such as those found in Finland or (recently) British Columbia, that are heading broadly in the right direction. In universities and colleges there are plenty of working models, from Oxford tutorials to Cambridge supervisions, to traditional theses and projects, to independent study courses and programs, to competency-based programs, to PLAR/APEL portfolios, and much more. It is not a new idea at all. There is copious literature and many theoretical models that have stood the test of time, from andragogy to communities of practice, through to teachings from Freire, Illich, Dewey and even (a bit quirkily) Vygotsky. Furthermore, generically and innately, most distance and e-learning unteaches better than its p-learning counterparts because teachers cannot exert the same level of control and students must learn to learn independently. Sadly, much of it is spoiled by coercing students with grades, thereby providing the worst of both worlds: students are forced to behave as the teacher demands in their terminal behaviours but, without physical copresence, are less empowered by guidance and emotional/social support with the process. Much of my own research and teaching is concerned with inverting that dynamic – increasing empowerment and social support through online learning, while decreasing coercion. I’d like to believe that my institution, Athabasca University, is largely dedicated to the same goal, though we do mostly have a way to go before we get it right.

Why it matters

Unteaching is to a large extent concerned with helping learners – including adult learners – to get back to the point at which most children start their school careers – driven by curiosity, personal interest, social value, joy, delight – but that is schooled out of them over years of being taught dependency.  Once misconceptions about what education is for, what teachers do, and how we learn, have been removed, teaching can happen much more effectively: supporting, nurturing, inspiring, challenging, responding, etc, but not controlling, not making students do things they are not ready to do for reasons that mean little to them and have even less to do with what they are learning.

However, though it is an immensely valuable terminal outcome, improved learning is perhaps not the biggest reason for unteaching. The real issue is moral: it’s simply the right thing to do. The greatest value is that students are far more likely to have been treated with the respect, care, and honour that all human beings deserve along the way. Not ‘care’ of the sort you would give to a dog when you train it to be obedient and well behaved. Care of the sort that recognizes and valorizes autonomy and diversity, that respects individuals, that cherishes their creativity and passion, that sees learners as ends in themselves, not products or (perish the thought) customers. That’s a lesson worth teaching, a way of being that is worth modelling. If that demands more effort, if it is more fallible, and if it means that fewer students pass your tests, then I’m OK with that. That’s the price of admission to the unlearning zone.

 

Understanding the response to financial and non-financial incentives in education: Field experimental evidence using high-stakes assessments

What they did

This is a report by, Simon Burgess, Robert Metcalfe, and Sally Sadoff on a large scale study conducted in the UK on the effects of financial and non-financial incentives on GCSE scores (GCSEs are UK qualifications usually taken around age 16 and usually involving exams), involving over 10,000 students in 63 schools being given cash or ‘non-financial incentives’. ‘Non-financial incentives’ did not stretch as far as a pat on the back or encouragement given by caring teachers – this was about giving tickets for appealing events. The rewards were given not for getting good results but for particular behaviours the researchers felt should be useful proxies for effective study: specifically, attendance, conduct, homework, and classwork. None of the incentives were huge rewards to those already possessing plenty of creature comforts but, for poorer students, they might have seemed substantial. Effectiveness of the intervention was measured in terminal grades. The researchers were very thorough and were very careful to observe limitations and concerns. It is as close to an experimental design as you can get in a messy real-world educational intervention, with numbers that are sufficient and diverse enough to make justifiable empirical claims about the generalizability of the results.

What they found

Rewards had little effect on average marks overall, and it made little difference whether rewards were financial or not. However, in high risk groups (poor, immigrants, etc) there was a substantial improvement in GCSE results for those given rewards, compared with the control groups. 

My thoughts

The only thing that does surprise me a little is that so little effect was seen overall, but I hypothesize that the reward/punishment conditions are so extreme already among GCSE students that it made little difference to add any more to the mix.  The only ones that might be affected would be those for whom the extrinsic motivation is not already strong enough. There is also a possibility that the demotivating effects for some were balanced out by the compliance effects for others: averages are incredibly dangerous things, and this study is big on averages.

What makes me sad is that there appears to be no sense of surprise or moral outrage about this basic premise in this report.

dogs being whipped, from Jack London's 'Call of the Wild' It appears reasonable at first glance: who would not want kids to be more successful in their exams? When my own kids had to do this sort of thing I would have been very keen on something that would improve their chances of success, and would be especially keen on something that appears to help to reduce systemic inequalities. But this is not about helping students to learn or improving education: this is completely and utterly about enforcing compliance and improving exam results. The fact that there might be a perceived benefit to the victims is a red herring: it’s like saying that hitting dogs harder is good for the dogs because it makes them behave better than hitting them gently. The point is that we should not be hitting them at all. It’s not just morally wrong, it doesn’t even work very well, and only continues to work at all if you keep hitting them. It teaches students that the end matters more than the process, that learning is inherently undesirable and should only done when there is a promise of a reward or threat of punishment, and that they are not in charge of it. 

The inevitable result of increasing rewards (or punishments – they are functionally equivalent) is to further quench any love of learning that might be left at this point in their school careers, to reinforce harmful beliefs about how to learn, and to further put students off the subjects they might have loved under other circumstances for life.  In years to come people will look back on barbaric practices like this much as we now look back at the slave trade or pre-emancipation rights for women.

Studies like this make me feel a bit sick. 

 

Address of the bookmark: http://www.efm.bris.ac.uk/economics/working_papers/pdffiles/dp16678.pdf