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.

Beyond learning outcomes

What we teach, what a student learns, what we assess This is a slide deck for a talk I’m giving today, at a faculty workshop, on the subject of learning outcomes.

I think that well-considered learning outcomes can be really helpful when planning and designing learning activities, especially where there is a need to assess learning. They can help keep a learning designer focused, and to remember to ensure that assessment activities actually make a positive contribution to learning. They can also be helpful to teachers while teaching, as a framework to keep them on track (if they wish to remain on track).  However, that’s about it. Learning outcomes are not useful when applied to bureaucratic ends, they are very poor descriptors of what learning actually happens, as a rule, and they are of very little (if any) use to students under most circumstances (there are exceptions – it’s a design issue, not a logical flaw).

The big point of my talk, though, is that we should be measuring what students have actually learned, not whether they have learned what we think we have taught, and that the purpose of everything we do should be to support learning, not to support bureaucracy.

I frame this in terms of the relationships between:

  • what we teach (what we actually teach, not just what we think we are teaching, including stuff like attitudes, beliefs, methods of teaching, etc),
  • what a student learns in the process (an individual student, not students as a whole), and
  • what we assess (formally and summatively, not necessarily as part of the learning process).

There are many things that we teach that any given student will not learn, albeit that (arguably) we wouldn’t be teaching at all if learning were not happening for someone. Most students get a small subset of that. There are also many things that we teach without intentionally teaching, not all of them good or useful.

There are also very many things that students learn that we do not teach, intentionally or otherwise. In fact, it is normal for us to mandate this as part of a learning design: any mildly creative or problem-solving/inquiry-oriented activity will lead to different learning outcomes for every learner. Even in the most horribly regimented teaching contexts, students are the ones that connect everything together, and that’s always going to include a lot more than what their teachers teach.

Similarly, there are lots of things that we assess that we do not teach, even with great constructive alignment. For example, the students’ ability to string a sentence together tends to be not just a prerequisite but something that is actively graded in typical assessments.

My main points are that, though it is good to have a teaching plan (albeit that it should be flexible,  reponsive to student needs, and should accommodate serendipity)learning :

  • students should be participants in planning outcomes and
  • we should assess what students actually learn, not what we think we are teaching.

From a learning perspective, there’s less than no point in summatively judging what learners have not learned. However, that’s exactly what most institutions actually do. Assessment should be about how learners have positively changed, not whether they have met our demands.

This also implies that students should be participants in the planning and use of learning outcomes: they should be able to personalize their learning, and we should recognize their needs and interests. I use andragogy to frame this, because it is relatively uncontroversial, is easily understood, and doesn’t require people to change everything in their world view to become better teachers, but I could have equally used quite a large number of other models. Connectivism, Communities of Practice, and most constructivist theories, for instance, force us to similar conclusions.

I suggest that appreciative inquiry may be useful as an approach to assessment, inasmuch as the research methodology is purpose-built to bring about positive change, and its focus on success rather than failure makes sense in a learning context.

I also suggest the use of outcome mapping (and its close cousin, outcome harvesting) as a means of capturing unplanned as well as planned outcomes. I like these methods because they only look at changes, and then try to find out what led to those changes. Again, it’s about evaluation rather than judgment.

DT&L2018 spotlight presentation: The Teaching Gestalt

The teaching gestalt  presentation slides (PDF, 9MB)

This is my Spotlight Session from the 34th Distance Teaching & Learning Conference, at Wisconsin Madison, August 8th, 2018. Appropriately enough, I did this online and at a distance thanks to my ineptitude at dealing with the bureaucracy of immigration. Unfortunately my audio died as we moved to the Q&A session so, if anyone who was there (or anyone else) has any questions or observations, do please post them here! Comments are moderated.

The talk was concerned with how online learning is fundamentally different from in-person learning, and what that means for how (or even whether) we teach, in the traditional formal sense of the word.

Teaching is always a gestalt process, an emergent consequence of the actions of many teachers, including most notably the learners themselves, which is always greater than (and notably different from) the sum of its parts. This deeply distributed process is often masked by the inevitable (thanks to physics in traditional classrooms) dominance of an individual teacher in the process. Online, the mask falls off. Learners invariably have both far greater control and far more connection with the distributed gestalt. This is great, unless institutional teachers fight against it with rewards and punishments, in a pointless and counter-productive effort to try to sustain the level of control that is almost effortlessly attained by traditional in-person teachers, and that is purely a consequence of solving problems caused by physical classroom needs, not of the needs of learners. I describe some of the ways that we deal with the inherent weaknesses of in-person teaching especially relating to autonomy and competence support, and observe how such pedagogical methods are a solution to problems caused by the contingent side effects of in person teaching, not to learning in general.

The talk concludes with some broad characterization of what is different when teachers choose to let go of that control.  I observe that what might have been Leonardo da Vinci’s greatest creation was his effective learning process, without which none of the rest of his creations could have happened. I am hopeful that now, thanks to the connected world that we live in, we can all learn like Leonardo, if and only if teachers can learn to let go.

Tim Berners-Lee: we must regulate tech firms to prevent ‘weaponised’ web

TBL is rightfully indignant and concerned about the fact that “what was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms.” The Web, according to Berners-Lee, is at great risk of degenerating into a few big versions of Compuserve or AOL sucking up most of the bandwidth of the Internet, and most of the attention of its inhabitants. In an open letter, he outlines the dangers of putting so much power into hands that either see it as a burden, or who actively exploit it for evil.

I really really hate Facebook more than most, because it aggressively seeks to destroy all that is good about the Web, and it is ruthlessly efficient at doing so, regardless of the human costs. Yes, let’s kill that in any way that we can, because it is actually and actively evil, and shows no sign of getting any nicer. I am somewhat less concerned that Google gets 87% of all online searches (notwithstanding the very real dangers of a single set of algorithms shaping what we find), because most of Google’s goals are well aligned with those of the Web. The more openly people share and link, the better it gets, and the more money Google makes. It is very much in Google’s interest to support an open, highly distributed, highly connected Web, and the company is as keen as everyone else to avoid the dangers of falsehoods, bias, and the spread of hatred (which are among the very things that Facebook feeds upon), and, thanks to its strong market position and careful hiring practices, it is more capable of doing so than pretty much anyone else. Google rightly hates Facebook (and others of its ilk) not just because it is a competitor, but because it removes things from the open Web, probably spreads lies more easily than truths, and so reduces Google’s value.

I am somewhat bothered that the top 100 sites (according to WIkipedia, based on Alexa and SimilarWeb results) probably get far more traffic than the next few thousand put together, and that the long tail pretty much flattens to approximately zero after that. However, that’s an inevitable consequence of the design of the Web (it’s a scale-free network subject to power laws), and ‘approximately zero’ may actually translate to hundreds of thousands or even millions of people, so it’s not quite the skewed mess that it seems. It is, as TBL observes, very disturbing that big companies with big pockets purchase potential competitors and stifle innovation, and I agree that (like all monopolies) they should be regulated, but there’s no way they are ever going to get everything or everyone, at least without the help of politicians and evil legislation, because it’s a really long tail.

It is also very interesting that even the top 10 – according to just about all the systems that measure such things – includes the unequivocally admirable and open Wikipedia itself, and also Reddit which, though now straying from its fully open model, remains excellently social and open. In different ways, both give more than they take.

It is also worth noting that there are many different ways to calculate rank. Moz.com (based on the Mozscape web index of 31 Billion domains and 165 Billion pages) has a very different view of things, for instance, in which Facebook doesn’t even make it to the domains listing, and is way below WordPress and several others in the popular pages list, which is a direct result of it being a closed and greedy system. Quantcast’s perspective is somewhat different again, albeit only focused on US sites which are a small but significant portion of the whole.

Most significantly, and to reiterate the point because it is worth making, the long tail is very long indeed. Regardless of the dangers of a handful of gigantic platforms casting their ugly shadows over the landscape, I am extremely heartened by the fact that, now, over 30% of all websites run on WordPress, which is both open source and very close to the distributed ideal that TBL espouses, allowing individuals and small communities to stake their claims, make a space, and link (profusely) with one another, without lock-in, central control, or inhibition of any kind. That 30% puts any one of the big monoliths, including Facebook, very far into the shade. And, though WordPress’s nearest competitor (Joomla, also open source) accounts for a ‘mere’ 3% of all websites, there are hundreds if not thousands of similar systems, not to mention a huge number of pages (50% of the total, according to W3Techs) that people still roll for themselves.

Yes, the greedy monoliths are extremely dangerous and should, where possible, be avoided, and it is certainly worth looking into ways of regulating their activities, nationally and internationally, as many governments are already doing and should continue to do so. We must ever be vigilant. But the Web continues to grow, and to diversify regardless of their pernicious influence because it is far bigger than all of them put together.

Address of the bookmark: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/mar/11/tim-berners-lee-tech-companies-regulations

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/3105535/tim-berners-lee-we-must-regulate-tech-firms-to-prevent-weaponised-web

Facebook has a Big Tobacco Problem

A perceptive article listing some of Facebook’s evils and suggesting an analogy between the tactics used by Big Tobacco and those used by the company. I think there are a few significant differences. Big Tobacco is not one company bent on profit no matter what the cost. Big tobacco largely stopped claiming it was doing good quite a long time ago. And Big Tobacco only kills and maims people’s bodies. Facebook is aiming for the soul. The rest is just collateral damage.

Address of the bookmark: https://mondaynote.com/facebook-has-a-big-tobacco-problem-f801085109a

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/3046034/facebook-has-a-big-tobacco-problem

Facebook’s days may be numbered as UK youth abandon the platform

The end of Facebook couldn’t come soon enough, but we’ve been reading headlines not unlike this for around a decade, yet still its malignant tumour in the lungs of the Web grows, sucking the air out of all good things.

Despite losses in the youth market (not only in the UK), as the article notes, Facebook has deep pockets and is metastasizing at a frightening rate. Instagram and WhatsApp are only the most prominent recent growths, and no doubt far from the last. Also, the main tumour itself is still evolving, backed by development funding that staggers belief. It would take a lot to cure us of this awful thing. On the optimistic side, however, Metcalfe’s Law works just as well in reverse as going forward. Networks can grow exponentially, but they can shrink just as fast. Perhaps these small losses will be the start of a cascade. Let’s hope so.

 

 

Address of the bookmark: http://www.alphr.com/facebook/1008480/facebook-youth-numbers-drop-over-55-rise

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/3037494/facebook%E2%80%99s-days-may-be-numbered-as-uk-youth-abandon-the-platform

Signal : now with proper desktop apps

Signal is arguably the most open, and certainly the most secure, privacy-preserving instant messaging/video or voice-calling system available today. It is open source, ad-free, standards-based, simple, and very well designed. Though not filled with bells and whistles, for most purposes it is a far better alternative to Facebook-owned WhatsApp or other near-competitors like Viber, FaceTime, Skype, etc, especially if you have any concerns about your privacy. Like all such things, Metcalfe’s Law means its value increases with every new user added to the network. It’s still at the low end of the uptake curve, but you can help to change that – get it now and tell your friends!

Like most others of its ilk it hooks into your cellphone number rather than a user name but, once you have installed it on your smartphone, you can associate that number (via a simple 2D barcode) with a desktop client. Until recently it only supported desktop machines via a Chrome browser (or equivalent – I used Vivaldi) but the new desktop clients are standalone, so you don’t have to grind your system to a halt or share data with Google to install it. It is still a bit limited when it comes to audio (simple messaging only) and there still appears to be no video support (which is available on smartphone clients) but this is good progress.

Address of the bookmark: https://signal.org/download/

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/2813683/signal-now-with-proper-desktop-apps

The return of the weblog – Ethical Tech

Blogs have evolved a bit over the past 20 years or so, and diversified. The always terrific Ben Werdmuller here makes the distinction between thinkpieces (what I tend to think of as vaguely equivalent to keynote presentations at a conference, less than a journal article, but carefully composed and intended as a ‘publication’) and weblogging (kind of what I am doing here when I bookmark interesting things I have been reading, or simply a diary of thoughts and observations). Among the surprisingly large number of good points that he makes in such a short post is that a weblog is best seen as a single evolving entity, not as a bunch of individual posts:

Blogging is distinct from journalism or formal writing: you jot down your thoughts and hit “publish”. And then you move on. There isn’t an editorial process, and mistakes are an accepted part of the game. It’s raw.

A consequence of this frequent, short posting is that the product isn’t a single post: it’s the weblog itself. Your website becomes a single stream of consciousness, where one post can build on another. The body of knowledge that develops is a reflection of your identity; a database of thoughts that you’ve put out into the world.

This is in contrast to a series of thinkpieces, which are individual articles that live by themselves. With a thinkpiece, you’re writing an editorial; with a blog, you’re writing the book of you, and how you think.

This is a good distinction. I also think that, especially in the posts of popular bloggers like Ben, the blog is also comprised of the comments, trackbacks, and pings that develop around it, as well as tweets, pins, curations, and connections made in other social media. Ideas evolve in the web of commentary and become part of the thing itself. The post is a catalyst and attractor, but it is only part of the whole, at least when it is popular enough to attract commentary.

This distributed and cooperative literary style can also be seen in other forms of interactive publication and dialogue – a Slashdot or Reddit thread, for instance, can sometimes be an incredibly rich source of knowledge, as can dialogue around a thinkpiece, or (less commonly) the comments section of online newspaper articles. What makes the latter less commonly edifying is that their social form tends to be that of the untarnished set, perhaps with a little human editorial work to weed out the more evil or stupid comments: basically, what matters is the topic, not the person. Untarnished sets are a magnet for trolls, and their impersonal nature that obscures the individual can lead to flaming, stupidity, and extremes of ill-informed opinion that crowd out the good stuff. Sites like Slashdot, StackExchange, and Reddit are also mostly set-based, but they use the crowd and an algorithm (a collective) to modulate the results, usually far more effectively than human editors, as well as to provide shape and structure to dialogues, so that dialogues become useful and informative. At least, they do when they work: none are close to perfect (though Slashdot, when used well, is closer than the rest because its algorithms and processes are far more evolved and far more complex, and individuals have far more control over the modulation) but the results can often be amazingly rich.

Blogs, though, tend to develop the social form of a network, with the blogger(s) at the centre. It’s a more intimate dialogue, more personal, yet also more public as they are almost always out in the open web, demanding no rituals of joining in order to participate, no membership, no commitment other than to the person writing the blog. Unlike dedicated social networks there is no exclusion, no pressure to engage, no ulterior motives of platforms trying to drive engagement, less trite phatic dialogue, more purpose, far greater ownership and control. There are plenty of exceptions that prove the rule and plenty of ways this egalitarian structure can be subverted (I have to clean out a lot of spam from my own blogs, for instance) but, as a tendency, it makes blogs still very relevant and valuable, and may go some way to explaining why around a quarter of all websites now run on WordPress, the archetypal blogging platform.

Address of the bookmark: https://words.werd.io/the-return-of-the-weblog-f6b702a7cf99

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/2740999/the-return-of-the-weblog-%E2%80%93-ethical-tech