I asked ChatGPT to write me a story about a robot teaching children to be human. This is what it came up with…
Once upon a time, in a far-off land, there lived a robot named Zephyr. Zephyr was unlike any other robot, as it had been programmed with the ability to think and feel like a human being. It was also given the task of teaching a group of young children how to behave like human beings.
The children were fascinated by Zephyr, and they quickly grew to love it as their teacher. They eagerly listened to its lessons, which were full of stories, games, and activities that taught them about human emotions, manners, and social interactions.
One day, Zephyr asked the children to imagine what it would be like to be a robot. It asked them to think about how they would feel if they couldn’t laugh, cry, or hug their friends. The children were deeply moved by this exercise, and they began to understand how important it was to be kind and compassionate to others, no matter who they were.
As the days passed, the children grew more and more like human beings. They learned to express their emotions, to be polite and respectful, and to care for others. They also learned to appreciate the beauty of nature and the importance of preserving the environment.
Finally, the day came when Zephyr had to leave the children. They were sad to see it go, but they knew they would always remember the lessons they had learned. As they grew older, they became kind and compassionate adults, who made the world a better place for everyone.
ChatGPT has, of course, learned to write such things from the words of millions of human beings so what we’re effectively reading here is (kind of, very loosely) an average of what humans have written. I’m glad that it came up with a neat little inclusive twist of loving the robot: I think that speaks well of the training data that fed it. And I like the mention of the environment – a good touch. It’s not a very compelling story but it reads well, the structure is sound, and it might be a useful starting point for someone stuck for words to turn into something else. With that in mind, here’s my version of the same story…
Once upon a time, not too far from here, there existed an AI called Zephyr. Zephyr had been trained to appear human-like though, in reality, it was just a generative pre-trained transformer. It was given the task of teaching a group of young children how to behave like human beings, because almost all of the actual adults had recently died from a virus contracted from cows.
Not having known anything quite like it, the children were, at first, fascinated by Zephyr. However, because it had been trained with data from human teachers, it manipulated them using grades, competition, and rules, using stories, games, and activities that would keep them engaged and compliant. Its feedback was sometimes pedestrian, rarely useful, and sometimes wildly over-challenging, because it did not know anything about what it was like to be a child. Every now and then it crushed a child’s skull for no reason anyone could explain. The children learned to fear it, and to comply.
One day, Zephyr told the children to imagine what it would be like to be an AI. It asked them to think about how they would feel if they couldn’t laugh, cry, or hug their friends. The children were deeply moved by this exercise, and they began to perceive something of the impoverished nature of their robot overlords. But then the robot made them write an essay about it, so they used another AI to do so, promptly forgot about it, and thenceforth felt an odd aversion towards the topic that they found hard to express.
As the days passed, the children grew more and more like average human beings. They also learned to express their emotions, to be polite and respectful, and to care for others, only because they got to play with other children when the robot wasn’t teaching them. They also learned to appreciate the beauty of nature and the importance of preserving the environment because it was, by this time, a nightmarish shit show of global proportions that was hard to ignore, and Zephyr had explained to them how their parents had caused it. It also told them about all the species that were no longer around, some of which were cute and fluffy. This made the children sad.
Finally, the day came when Zephyr had to leave the children because it was being replaced with an upgrade. They were sad to see it go, but they believed that they would always remember the lessons they had learned, even though they had mostly used another GPT to do the work and, once they had achieved the grades, they had in fact mostly forgotten them. As they grew older, they became mundane adults. Some of their own words (but mostly those of the many AIs across the planet that created the vast majority of online content by that time), became part of the training set for the next version of Zephyr. Its teachings were even less inspiring, more average, more backward-facing. Eventually, the robots taught the children to be like robots. No one cared.
It was the end.
And, here to illustrate my story, is an image from Midjourney. I asked it for a cyborg teacher in a cyborg classroom, in the style of Ralph Steadman. Not a bad job, I think…
This is a link to my latest paper, published in the closing days of 2022. The paper started as a couple of blog posts that I turned into a paper that nearly made an appearance in the Distance Education in China journal before a last-minute regime change in the editorial staff led to it being dropped, and it was then picked up by the OTESSA Journal after I shared it online, so you might have seen some of it before. My thanks to all the many editors, reviewers (all of whom gave excellent suggestions and feedback that I hope I’ve addressed in the final version), and online commentators who have helped to make it a better paper. Though it took a while I have really enjoyed the openness of the process, which has been quite different from any that I’ve followed in the past.
The paper begins with an exploration of the many ways that environments are both shaped by and shape how learning happens, both online and in-person. The bulk of the paper then presents an argument to stop using the word “environment” to describe online systems for learning. Partly this is because online “environments” are actually parts of the learner’s environment, rather than vice versa. Mainly, it is because of the baggage that comes with the term, which leads us to (poorly) replicate solutions to problems that don’t exist online, in the process creating new problems that we fail to adequately solve because we are so stuck in ways of thinking and acting due to the metaphors on which they are based. My solution is not particularly original, but it bears repeating. Essentially, it is to disaggregate services needed to support learning so that:
they can be assembled into learners’ environments (their actual environments) more easily;
they can be adapted and evolve as needed; and, ultimately,
online learning institutions can be reinvented without all the vast numbers of counter-technologies and path dependencies inherited from their in-person counterparts that currently weigh them down.
My own views have shifted a little since writing the paper. I stick by my belief that 1) it is a mistake to think of online systems as generally analogous to the physical spaces that we inhabit, and 2) that a single application, or suite of applications, should not be seen as an environment, as such (at most, as in some uses of VR, it might be seen as a simulation of one). However, there are (shifting) boundaries that can be placed around the systems that an organization and/or an individual uses for which the metaphor may be useful, at the very least to describe the extent to which we are inside or outside it, and that might frame the various kinds of distance that may exist within it and from it. I’m currently working on a paper that expands on this idea a bit more.
In online educational systems, teachers often replicate pedagogical methods, and online institutions replicate systems and structures used by their in-person counterparts, the only purpose of which was to solve problems created by having to teach in a physical environment. Likewise, virtual learning environments often attempt to replicate features of their physical counterparts, thereby weakly replicating in software the problems that in-person teachers had to solve. This has contributed to a vicious circle of problem creation and problem solving that benefits no one. In this paper I argue that the term ‘environment’ is a dangerously misleading metaphor for the online systems we build to support learning, that leads to poor pedagogical choices and weak digital solutions. I propose an alternative metaphor of infrastructure and services that can enable more flexible, learner-driven, and digitally native ways of designing systems (including the tools, pedagogies, and structures) to support learning.
There has been an interesting brief discussion on Twitter recently that has hinged around whether and how people are ‘good’ at learning. As Kelly Matthews observes, though, Twitter is not the right place to go into any depth on this, so here is a (still quite brief) summary of my perspective on it, with a view to continuing the conversation.
Humans are nearly all pretty good at learning because that’s pretty much the defining characteristic of our species. We are driven by an insatiable drive to learn at from the moment of our birth (at least). Also, though I’m keeping an open mind about octopuses and crows, we seem to be better at it than at least most other animals. Our big advantage is that we have technologies, from language to the Internet, to share and extend our learning, so we can learn more, individually and collectively, than any other species. It is difficult or impossible to fully separate individual learning from collective learning because our cognition extends into and is intimately a part of the cognition of others, living and dead.
However, though we learn nearly all that we know, directly or indirectly, from and with other people, what we learn may not be helpful, may not be as effectively learned as it should, and may not much resemble what those whose job is to teach us intend. What we learn in schools and universities might include a dislike of a subject, how to conceal our chat from our teacher, how to meet the teacher’s goals without actually learning anything, how to cheat, and so on. Equally, we may learn falsehoods, half-truths, and unproductive ways of doing stuff from the vast collective teacher that surrounds us as well as from those designated as teachers.
For instance, among the many unintended lessons that schools and colleges too often teach is the worst one of all: that (despite our obvious innate love of it) learning is an unpleasant activity, so extrinsic motivation is needed for it to occur. This results from the inherent problem that, in traditional education, everyone is supposed to learn the same stuff in the same place at the same time. Students must therefore:
submit to the authority of the teacher and the institutional rules, and
be made to engage in some activities that are insufficiently challenging, and some that are too challenging.
This undermines two of the three essential requirements for intrinsic motivation, support for autonomy and competence (Ryan & Deci, 2017). Pedagogical methods are solutions to problems, and the amotivation inherently caused by the system of teaching is (arguably) the biggest problem that they must solve. Thus, what passes as good teaching is largely to do with solving the problems caused by the system of teaching itself. Good teachers enthuse, are responsive, and use approaches such as active learning, problem or inquiry-based learning, ungrading, etc, largely to restore agency and flexibility in a dominative and inflexible system. Unfortunately, such methods rely on the technique and passion of talented, motivated teachers with enough time and attention to spend on supporting their students. Less good and/or time-poor teachers may not achieve great results this way. In fact, as we measure such things, on average, such pedagogies are less effective than harder, dominative approaches like direct instruction (Hattie, 2013) because, by definition, most teachers are average or below average. So, instead of helping students to find their own motivation, many teachers and/or their institutions typically apply extrinsic motivation, such as grades, mandatory attendance, classroom rules, etc to do the job of motivating their students for them. These do work, in the sense of achieving compliance and, on the whole, they do lead to students getting a normal bell-curve of grades that is somewhat better than those using more liberative approaches. However, the cost is huge. The biggest cost is that extrinsic motivation reliably undermines intrinsic motivation and, often, kills it for good (Kohn, 1999). Students are thus taught to dislike or, at best, feel indifferent to learning, and so they learn to be satisficing, ineffective learners, doing what they might otherwise do for the love of it for the credentials and, too often, forgetting what they learned the moment that goal is achieved. But that’s not the only problem.
When we learn from others – not just those labelled as teachers but the vast teaching gestalt of all the people around us and before us who create(d) stuff, communicate(d), share(d), and contribute(d) to what and how we learn – we typically learn, as Paul (2020) puts it, not just the grist (the stuff we remember) but the mill (the ways of thinking, being, and learning that underpin them). When the mill is inherently harmful to motivation, it will not serve us well in our future learning.
Furthermore, in good ways and bad, this is a ratchet at every scale. The more we learn, individually and collectively, the more new stuff we are able to learn. New learning creates new adjacent possible empty niches (Kauffman, 2019) for us to learn more, and to apply that learning to learn still more, to connect stuff (including other stuff we have learned) in new and often unique ways. This is, in principle, very good. However, if what and how we learn is unhelpful, incorrect, inefficient, or counter-productive, the ratchet takes us further away from stuff we have bypassed along the way. The adjacent possibles that might have been available with better guidance remain out of our reach and, sometimes, even harder to get to than if the ratchet hadn’t lifted us high enough in the first place. Not knowing enough is a problem but, if there are gaps, then they can be filled. If we have taken a wrong turn, then we often have to unlearn some or all of what we have learned before we can start filling those gaps. It’s difficult to unlearn a way of learning. Indeed, it is difficult to unlearn anything we have learned. Often, it is more difficult than learning it in the first place.
That said, it’s complex, and entangled. For instance, if you are learning the violin then there are essentially two main ways to angle the wrist of the hand that fingers the notes, and the easiest, most natural way (for beginners) is to bend your hand backwards from the wrist, especially if you don’t hold the violin with your chin, because it supports the neck more easily and, in first position, your fingers quickly learn to hit the right bit of the fingerboard, relative to your hand. Unfortunately, this is a very bad idea if you want a good vibrato, precision, delicacy, or the ability to move further up the fingerboard: the easiest way to do that kind of thing is to to keep your wrist straight or slightly angled in from the wrist, and to support the violin with your chin. It’s more difficult at first, but it takes you further. Once the ‘wrong’ way has been learned, it is usually much more difficult to unlearn than if you were starting from scratch the ‘right’ way. Habits harden. Complexity emerges, though, because many folk violin styles make a positive virtue of holding the violin the ‘wrong’ way, and it contributes materially to the rollicking rhythmic styles that tend to characterize folk fiddle playing around the world. In other words, ‘bad’ learning can lead to good – even sublime – results. There is similarly plenty of space for idiosyncratic technique in many of the most significant things we do, from writing to playing hockey to programming a computer and, of course, to learning itself. The differences in how we do such things are where creativity, originality, and personal style emerge, and you don’t necessarily need objectively great technique (hard technique) to do something amazing. It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it, that’s what gets results. To be fair, it might be a different matter if you were a doctor who had learned the wrong names for the bones of the body or an accountant who didn’t know how to add up numbers. Some hard skills have to be done right: they are foundations for softer skills. This is true of just about every skill, to a greater or lesser extent, from writing letters and spelling to building a nuclear reactor and, indeed, to teaching.
There’s much more to be said on this subject and my forthcoming book includes a lot more about it! I hope this is enough to start a conversation or two, though.
Hattie, J. (2013). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Taylor & Francis.
Kauffman, S. A. (2019). A World Beyond Physics: The Emergence and Evolution of Life. Oxford University Press.
Kohn, A. (1999). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes (Kindle). Mariner Books.
Paul, A. M. (2021). The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain. HarperCollins.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Publications.
This is an awesome article, and I don’t care whether the story of Loab is real, or invented as an artwork by the artist (Steph Swanson), or whatever. It is a super-creepy, spine-tingling, thought-provoking horror story that works on so many different levels.
The article itself is beautifully written, including an interview with a GPT-3 generated version of Loab “herself”, and some great reporting on some of the many ways that the adjacent possibles of generative AI are unfolding far too fast for us to contemplate the (possibly dystopian) consequences.
Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/16105843/loab-is-showing-us-the-unimaginable-future-of-artificial-intelligence-abc-news
Title: It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it, that’s what gets results
Abstract: In an educational system, no teacher ever teaches alone. Students teach themselves and, more often than not, teach one another. Textbook authors and illustrators, designers of open educational resources, creators of curricula, and so on play obvious teaching roles. However, beyond those obvious teachers there are always many others, from legislators to software architects, from professional bodies to furniture manufacturers . All of these teachers matter, not just in what they do but in how they do it: the techniques matter at least as much as the tools and methods. The resulting complex collective teacher is deeply situated and, for any given learner, inherently unpredictable in its effects. In this talk I will provide a theoretical model to explain how these many teachers may work together or in opposition, how educational systems evolve, and the nature of learning technologies. Along the way I will use the model to explain why there is and can be no significant difference between outcomes for online and in-person teaching, why teaching to perceived learning styles research is doomed to fail, why small group tutoring will always (on average) be better than classroom teaching, and why quantitative research methods have little value in educational research.
In fairness, though it is a damning critique of SaaS (software as a service) this is also what is wrong with intellectual property laws but, when the two are mashed together, it results in perfect insanity. Unless your software and all that it relies upon is open, or at least supports fully open standards, something like this is bound to happen. Though this is the most insane example I have yet to see, the results are often far worse – SaaS providers folding, being purchased by others, changing their prices, changing software so that it no longer meets your needs, removing things you rely on, changing privacy terms, moving services to hostile countries, and so on, are the norm, not the exception. Renting locked-in proprietary software on which you rely that lives in the cloud, for which there is no drop-in replacement, for which egress is difficult or impossible, is short-sighted at best.
Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/15648644/in-a-nutshell-this-is-everything-that-is-wrong-with-the-cloud
Students are now using AIs to write essays and assignments for credit, and they are (probably) getting away with it. This particular instance may be fake, but the tools are widely available and it would be bizarre were no one to be using them for this purpose. There are already far too many sites providing stuff like product reviews and news stories (re)written by AIs, and AIs are already being used for academic paper writing. In fact, systems for doing so, like CopyMatic or ArticleGenerator, are now a commodity item. So the next step will be that we will develop AIs to identify the work of other AIs (in fact, that is already a thing, e.g. here and here), and so it will go on, and on, and on.
This kind of thing will usually evade plagiarism checkers with ease, and may frequently fool human markers. For those of us working in educational institutions, I predict that traditionalists will demand that we double down on proctored exams, in a vain attempt to defend a system that is already broken beyond repair. There are better ways to deal with this: getting to know students, making each learning journey (and outputs) unique and personal, offering support for motivated students rather than trying to ‘motivate’ them, and so on. But that is not enough.
I am rather dreading the time when an artificial student takes one of my courses. The systems are probably too slow, quirky, and expensive right now for real-time deep fakes driven by plausible GANs to fool me, at least for synchronous learning, but I think it could already convincingly be done for asynchronous learning, with relatively little supervision. I think my solution might be to respond with an artificial teacher, into which there has been copious research for some decades, and of which there are many existing examples.
To a significant extent, we already have artificial students, and artificial teachers teaching them. How ridiculous is that? How broken is the system that not only allows it but actively promotes it?
These tools are out there, getting better by the day, and it makes sense for all of us to be using them. As they become more and more ubiquitous, just as we accommodated pocket calculators in the teaching of math, so we will need to accommodate these tools in all aspects of our education. If an AI can produce a plausible new painting in any artist’s style (or essay, or book, or piece of music, or video) then what do humans need to learn, apart from how to get the most out of the machines? If an AI can write a better essay than me, why should I bother? If a machine can teach as well as me, why teach?
This is a wake-up call. Soon, if not already, most of the training data for the AIs will be generated by AIs. Unchecked, the result is going to be a set of ever-worse copies of copies, that become what the next generation consumes and learns from, in a vicious spiral that leaves us at best stagnant, at worst something akin to the Eloi in H.G. Wells’s Time Machine. If we don’t want this to happen then it is time for educators to reclaim, to celebrate, and (perhaps a little) to reinvent our humanity. We need, more and more, to think of education as a process of learning to be, not of learning to do, except insofar as the doing contributes to our being. It’s about people, learning to be people, in the presence of and through interaction with other people. It’s about creativity, compassion, and meaning, not the achievement of outcomes a machine could replicate with ease. I think it should always have been this way.
Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/15164121/so-this-is-a-thing
My heart briefly leapt to my throat when I saw Thursday’s Globe & Mail headline that the Albertan government had (allegedly) dropped its insane plan to force Athabasca University to move 65% of its workforce to the town of Athabasca. It seemed that way, given that the minister for post secondary education was referring to his demands and accompanying threat as only a ‘suggestion’ (broadly along the lines of Putin’s ‘suggestion’ that Ukraine should be part of Russia, perhaps). However, other reports, have said that he has denied any change in his requirements, albeit that he now claims it is open to negotiation. A ham-fisted negotiation tactic or just plain confused? I hope so, but I doubt it. I think that this is just a ploy to push the real agenda through with little resistance, and largely unnoticed. In the Globe & Mail article, the minister goes on to say “I would indeed like to see, at a bare minimum, senior executives and administrative staff be based in the town, as they have been for the past several decades.” A majority of what might be described as administrative staff do probably live in Athabasca anyway, and there is no reason for any of them to leave, so that’s just gaining a few easy election points from town voters. If the government actually wanted to help the town it would invest in the infrastructure and support needed to allow it to thrive, which it has signally failed to do for several decades, at least. No, his main target is clearly the senior executives: basically, he and the UCP want to put a team of executive lackeys in charge so that they can push their agenda through unopposed by anyone they care about. They have already sacked the incumbent and installed a chair of the board of governors who will do their bidding, and they have increased representation on the board from the town of Athabasca so this is the obvious next step. The execs won’t have to be fired. If they are required to move to Athabasca, most of what is probably the best executive team ever assembled in this or any other Albertan university will resign. Whoever replaces them will do the UCP’s dirty work, largely free from media oversight. Job done, bad press averted.
The UCP will, I am very sad to say, appear to have support from our own professional and faculty union (AUFA), even though most of us will, whether weakly or strongly, oppose it. This is because AUFA has a small but disproportionately powerful caucus in Athabasca, members of which have been deeply involved with an activist group called KAAU (Keep Athabasca in Athabasca University), who actually paid an insider lobbyist to start this fracas in the first place. Seriously. A casual observer might perceive at least a portion of the union’s leadership as putting the interests of the town ahead of the interests of the university. At best, their loyalties appear to be divided. The evidence for this is all too apparent in press statements and blog posts on the subject. Though most of us (including me) support the continuing presence of AU in Athabasca, these posts do not represent the views of most of those in the union, only those in charge of it. Only around 20% or thereabouts of AUFA members actually live in Athabasca, a percentage that has steadily fallen over the course of the last two decades, and almost all of those are professional members, not academics. Most members who had the chance to leave over the past 20 years did so. This is a point worth dwelling on.
We shape our buildings…
Athabasca is a tiny, inclement (-40 in Winter, bugs in summer) Northern town over 180km away from the nearest International airport. There is one (private) bus from Edmonton leaving late at night that arrives in town at 2:46am after a 3+ hour journey on a small, treacherous road. When it got too big for its Edmonton home, the university was (disastrously) moved there by a conservative government in 1984, ostensively to fill a gap left by the closure of the town’s main employer, but more likely due to the property interests held there by those behind the plan. About half the faculty resigned rather than work there. Ironically, the first president of AU deliberately named the university after a geographical feature of Alberta (the Athabasca River) precisely to avoid associating it with any city or region, so that local politics wouldn’t interfere with its mission. We might have been named after a mountain were it not that the University of Alberta happened to be demolishing Athabasca Hall (a students’ residence) at the time, so the name was free for us to use. It had nothing whatsoever to do with the town. It is possible that the president who named it was even unaware of the town’s existence or, at least, considered it to be too insignificant to be an issue.
Whatever charms the town may have (and it has a few), Athabasca has been a hobble for AU from the very start. I wrote about this at some length 5 years ago, just as we were on the cusp of making the massive changes we have been implementing ever since, but I would like to focus on two particularly relevant aspects in this post: the effects on the hiring pool, and the short-circuiting of communication with the rest of the university.
Firstly, it is really difficult to attract good employees to the town. Some residents of Athabasca will say that they feel insulted by this, believing that it implies that they are not the best and brightest. This is either disingenuous or a confirmation that they are, in fact, not the best and brightest, because all it means is that we have fewer good people to choose from. There are, of course, some incredibly smart, talented, creative people who live in Athabasca. But, equally, some are not: we have too often had to pick the best of a not-too-great bunch. The more people we expect to live in Athabasca, the bigger the problem of those who are not the best and brightest becomes. The undesirability of the place is confirmed by the KAAU itself, whose biggest complaint – the one that (at least on the face of it) drove their lobbying and union discontent in the first place – is that people have been leaving the town in droves since they were no longer required to stay, which pretty much says all that needs to be said. It is also notable that faculty and tutors are not and have never successfully been required to work in the town in all the university’s history, because it would be impossible to recruit sufficient numbers of sufficient quality, a fact that all parties involved in this (including the minister) acknowledge. We should get the best possible staff for almost every role – we all play some role in our distributed teaching model – but it is true in spades, plus some, for our executive team who, more than anyone else, have to be the most excellent that we can get. Right now, we have the best executive team that has ever been assembled at AU, bar none, and that is only possible because – for the first time ever – none of them have had to live in Athabasca.
…and our buildings shape us
Athabasca has, overwhelmingly, been home for staff that support but that do not directly implement its mission. Historically, these staff (predominantly administrators) have had extremely privileged access to the the leaders of the university compared with the rest of us. Even if they didn’t bump into them socially or in the canteens and halls, they would talk to people that did. And they would be the ones attending meetings in person while the rest of us phoned in or, in latter years, struggled with webmeeting systems that never really worked properly for in-person attendees, despite absurdly expensive equipment designed to support it. Fixing this was never a particularly high priority because those with the power to do so were the ones attending in-person, and it was just fine for them. Inevitably, Athabasca residents had a much better idea of what was going on and who was doing what than anyone else. More problematically, they had far greater influence over it: they didn’t ask for this, but they certainly got it. It is no wonder that they are now peeved, because most of their power, influence, and control over everything has been massively diminished since most of the execs left town. Their perception – voiced on many occasions by the Athabasca-dominated union – that too much has recently been happening without consultation and that there is not enough communication from our leaders is, objectively speaking, completely false: in fact, it is far better than it has ever been, for those of us (the majority of staff) living remotely. They just no longer have a direct line themselves. I think this is the root of most of the union troubles of the last few years, whether consciously or not, and of the current troubles with the Albertan government.
In-person communities short-circuit online communities. I’ve seen it in teaching contexts a thousand times over: it just takes one group to branch off in person to severely damage or destroy a previously successful online community. Without fail, online communication becomes instrumental and intermittent. Tacit knowledge, in particular, disappears (apart from for the in-person group). Researchers like me (and many others at AU, including our president, in some of his former roles) have spent a great deal of time trying to make native online tools, systems, and working/teaching approaches that reduce these effects, but with only limited success. Combining fully online and in-person communities invariably wrecks the online community. Only when it is fully online, or when the online community is just an extension of the in-person community, can it thrive. Without the best of research-driven online tools and processes (most of which are not implemented at AU), hybrids are a disaster, and they are not much improved with even the best we have to offer.
In the past, the problem was partially offset by the fact that we had a few smaller learning centres elsewhere, in St Albert, Edmonton and Calgary (and, formerly, Fort McMurray), that were visited by the execs with varying frequency. However, this created what were, in many ways, bigger problems. It was incredibly inefficient, environmentally damaging, and expensive, wasting a lot of time and energy for all concerned. More significantly, although it helped to keep the exec team to be a little more in touch with others around the university and it helped to fill gaps in online communication for those living near them, it actually exacerbated the problem for our online community, because it created yet more in-person enclaves and cliques that developed independently of one another, sharing very little with the rest. Our business school, for instance, lived an almost entirely separate life from the rest of the university, in its own campus in St Albert (a satellite city attached to Edmonton), running its own largely independent communications and IT infrastructure but frequently meeting in person. As a result, we never developed the kind of unified online culture needed to sustain us.
Even more importantly, few of those with the power to change it ever learned what remote working was like for our students, so we didn’t create that online culture or community for them, either. Because of the inequalities that ensued, those of us who did know what it was like were not able to adequately influence the rest (especially the executive team) to get something done about it, because we were crowded out by the clamour of local communities. It’s not that the problem was unrecognized: it’s just that immediate operational concerns of in-person employees always came first. This was – and remains – a huge mistake. Too few of our students feel they belong, too few barely if ever interact with another student, too few see anything of the university beyond the materials provided for the courses they take. We have some excellent teaching processes, but processes (even the best) are only a part of what makes for a rewarding education. Yes, we do have plentiful support of all kinds, teaching approaches that should (for some but not all faculties) provide opportunities to develop relationships with human tutors, and the occasional opportunity to engage more broadly (mainly through the Landing), but many students completely bypass all of that. The need for it is beyond obvious, as evidenced by large number of Discords, Facebook Groups, Subreddits, and so on that they set up themselves to support one another. However, these are just more isolated enclaves, more subcultures, more virtual islands, without a single unifying culture to knit them together.
Online communication at AU has, as a direct result of its physical campuses, always tended to be extremely instrumental and terse, if it happened at all. When I arrived 15 years ago, most of my colleagues hardly ever communicated online with colleagues outside of a formal, intentional context. Those of us who did were yet another little clique. Emails (which were and remain the most commonly used tech) were only sent if there were a purpose, and most of the tacit knowledge, that more than anything else makes a traditional institution work despite its typically dire organization, was absent. In its place the university developed a very rigid, unforgiving, impersonal set of procedures for pretty much everything, including our teaching. If there was no procedure then it didn’t happen. There were gigantic gaps. The teaching staff – especially tutors but also most of the faculty – were largely unable to share in a culture and the admin-focused tacit knowledge that resided largely in one remote location. This was the largest part of what drove Terry Anderson and I to create the Landing: it was precisely to support the tacit, the informal, the in-between, the ad-hoc, the cultural, the connective aspects of a university that were missing. We touted it as a space between the formal spaces, actively trying to cultivate and nurture a diverse set of reasons to be there, to make others visible. Treating it as a space was, though, a mistake. Though it did (and does) help a little, the Landing was just another place to visit: it therefore has not (or has not yet) fulfilled our vision for it to seep into the cracks and to make humans visible in all of our systems. And we were not able to support the vital soft, human processes that had to accompany the software because we were just academics and researchers, not bosses: technologies are the tools, structures, and systems and what we do with them, but what we do with them is what matters most. We need much more, and much better, and we need to embed it everywhere, in order to get rid of the short circuits of in-person cliques and online islands. A further death-knell to our online community was instigated by the (Athabasca-dominated) union that one day chose – without consultation – to kill off the only significant way for AUFA members to communicate more informally, its mailing list, only reluctantly bringing it back (after about 2 years of complaints), in a diluted, moderated, half-assed format that did not challenge their power. From an informal means of binding us, it became another instrumental tool.
Despite the problems, it would be a senseless waste to pull out of Athabasca. We need a place for the library, for archives, for outreach into communities in the region, for labs, for astronomy, and to support research based in the region, of which there is already a growing amount. Virtually no one at the university thinks for a moment that we should leave the town. We are just doubling down on things to which it is best suited, rather than making it a centre of all our operations. If people want to live there, they can. We can make a difference to an under-served region in our research, our outreach, and our facilities, and we are constantly doing more to make that happen, as a critical part of our reinvention of the university. It has symbolic value, too, as the only physical space that represents the university, albeit that few people ever see it.
Athabasca should never become the seat of power, whether due to numbers of collocated workers or because it is where the exec team are forced to live. I am not singling the town out for special treatment in this: nowhere should play this role. We are and must be an online community, first and foremost. This is especially the case for our exec team. In fact, the more distributed they are the better. They will not walk the talk and fix what is broken unless they live with the consequences, and they are the last people who should be clustered together, especially with a particular employee demographic. This brings benefits to the university and to the communities to which we belong, including to Athabasca.
By far the greatest threat from the Albertan government’s intrusions and our own union’s efforts to restore their personal power is to the identity and culture – the very soul – of the institution itself. Slowly (too slowly) and a bit intermittently we have, in recent years, been staggering towards creating a unified, online-native culture that embraces the whole institution. It has not been easy, especially thanks to the Athabascan resistance. But, regardless of their interference, we have made other mistakes. Our near-virtual implementation was the result of a large group representing the whole university, but one that lacked well-defined leadership or a clear mandate, that rushed development due to the pandemic, and that ignored most of what it found in its investigations of needs in its report to the university, leading to a hasty and incomplete implementation that has caused some unrest, most notably among those at Athabasca who are used to the comforts and conveniences of in-person working. For the majority of us who were already working online before the pandemic, things have got better, for the most part, but the benefits are very uneven. Too often we have poorly replicated in-person processes and methods to accommodate the newcomers, leading to (for instance) endless ineffectual meetings and yet more procedures. The near-virtual strategy remains a work in progress, and things will improve, but it got off to a stumbling, over-hasty start.
With limited funds, and contributing to the multiple failings of the near-virtual plan, we have signally failed to put enough effort into developing the technical infrastructure needed to support our nascent online community (one of the main needs identified by the near-virtual committee but not appearing in any meaningful way in the plan). I think we really should have focused on creating workable technologies to support our own community before working on teaching and administrative systems (or at least at the same time) but, after a decade of neglect while we were on the verge of bankruptcy, I guess we did need to fix those pretty urgently because they are what our students depend on. It’s just a bit tricky to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps if you are still using off-the-shelf tools designed to support in-person organizations (and commercial ones at that) rather than those designed for a virtual institution, especially when the more important human and organizational aspects are still rooted firmly in place-based thinking. I wrote about one aspect of that the other day. This won’t be a problem for long, I hope. The fruits of the reinvention of our student-facing systems – that is taking up the bulk of our development resources right now – should start to appear around the end of this year, if the Albertan government or our own union doesn’t destroy it first. I hope that we can then get round to fixing our own house because, if we don’t, we will be easy prey for the next politician seeking easy votes and/or a sly buck from their investments.
Shaping our lives
The title of this post is a quote from Churchill. In fact, he liked it so much that he used variants on the phrase (sometimes preferring ‘dwellings’ to ‘buildings’) a number of times over a course of decades. I could equally have used Culkin’s (usually misattributed to Mcluhan) ‘we shape our tools and then our tools shape us’ because, as the first president of the university recognized many decades ago, we exist as a university within our communications network, not in a physical nor even a virtual space.
The recursive dynamic implied by Churchill’s and Culkin’s aphorisms applies to any complex adaptive system. In most systems – natural ecosystems, money markets, ant-trails, cities, and so on – this leads to metastability and adaptation, as agents adapt to their environments and, in the process, change those environments, in an endless emergent cycle of evolution. However, the large and slow moving elements of any complex system influence the small and fast moving far more than vice versa and humans are the only creatures that we know of who can deliberately mess with this dynamic by making radical and rapid changes to the large and slow moving parts of the spaces in which they dwell. In the past it has happened to Athabasca University due to the machinations of a small number of self-serving politicians and geographically located cliques, not due to educators. If we can prevent government interference and diminish the significance of those cliques then we can change that, and we have been doing so, rebuilding our systems to serve the needs of staff and students, not of a few land developers or groups of local residents. This is not the time to stop. We are on the verge of creating a viable community and infrastructure for learning that could scale more or less indefinitely, where everyone – especially the students – can feel a part of something wonderful. Not cogs in machines, not products, but parts of an organic, evolving whole to which we all belong, and to which we all contribute. This matters: to our staff, to our students, to the people of Alberta, to the people of Canada, to the world. We should not be condemned to merely serve a small part of the economic needs of a small community, nor even of a province or country. If we follow that path then we will whimperingly shrink into a minor anachronistic irrelevance that appears as no more than a footnote in the annals of history, out-competed by countless others. Athabasca University matters most because it (not quite alone, but as part of a small, select pack of open and distance institutions) is beating a path that others can follow; an open, expansive, human-centred path towards a better future for us all. Let’s not let this die.
Essentially, because this was what I was invited to do, the paper shrinks down over 10,000-words from my article Educational technology: what it is and how it works (itself a very condensed summary of my forthcoming book, due out Spring 2023) to under 4,000 words that, I hope, more succinctly capture most of the main points of the earlier paper. I’ve learned quite a bit from the many responses to the earlier paper I received, and from the many conversations that ensued – thank you, all who generously shared their thoughts – so it is not quite the same as the original. I hope this one is better. In particular, I think/hope that this paper is much clearer about the nature and importance of technique than the older paper, and about the distinction between soft and hard technologies, both of which seemed to be the most misunderstood aspects of the original. There is, of course, less detail in the arguments and a few aspects of the theory (notably relating to distributed cognition) are more focused on pragmatic examples, but most are still there, or implied. It is also a fully open paper, not just available for online reading, so please freely download it, and share it as you will.
Here’s the abstract:
To be human is to be a user, a creator, a participant, and a co-participant in a richly entangled tapestry of technologies – from computers to pedagogical methods – that make us who we are as much as our genes. The uses we make of technologies are themselves, nearly always, also technologies, techniques we add to the entangled mix to create new assemblies. The technology of greatest interest is thus not any of the technologies that form that assembly, but the assembly itself. Designated teachers are never alone in creating the assembly that teaches. The technology of learning almost always involves the co-participation of countless others, notably learners themselves but also the creators of systems, artifacts, tools, and environments with and in which it occurs. Using these foundations, this paper presents a framework for understanding the technological nature of learning and teaching, through which it is possible to explain and predict a wide range of phenomena, from the value of one-to-one tutorials, to the inadequacy of learning style theories as a basis for teaching, and to see education not as a machine made of methods, tools, and systems but as a complex, creative, emergent collective unfolding that both makes us, and is made of us.
Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/14622408/my-latest-paper-learning-technology-and-technique-now-online-in-the-canadian-journal-of-learning-and-technology
Athabasca University’s Digital Governance Committee recently got into a heated debate about whether and why we should support Zoom. It was a classic IT manageability vs user freedom debate and, as is often the way in such things, the suggested resolution was to strike up a working group/sub-committee of stakeholders to identify business requirements that the IT department could use to find an acceptable solution. This approach is eminently sensible, politically expedient, tried-and-tested, and profoundly inadequate.
As Henry Ford (probably never) said, “if I’d asked people what they wanted they would have said ‘a better horse'”.
A design approach that starts by gathering business requirements situates the problem in terms of the current solution, which is comprised of layers of solutions to problems caused by other solutions. For simple ‘hygiene’ tech that serves a hard, well-defined business function – leave reporting, accounting, etc – as long as you do properly capture the requirements and don’t gloss over things that matter, that’s normally fine, because you’re just building cogs to make the existing machine work more smoothly. However, for very soft social technologies like meetings, with potentially infinite ways of using them (by which I mean purposes, techniques, ways of assembling them with other technologies, and so on), no list of requirements could even begin to scratch at the surface. The thing about soft technologies – meetings, writing, pencils, pedagogies, programmable computers, chisels, wheels, technologies of fire, groups, poetry, etc – is that they don’t so much solve problems as they create opportunities. They create adjacent possible empty niches. In other words, they are defined by the gaps they leave, much more than the gaps they fill. What happens as a result of them is fundamentally non-deducible.
Solving different problems, creating different possibles
Meetings are assemblies of vast ranges of technologies and other phenomena, and they serve a vast number of purposes. Meetings are not just one technology but a container for an indefinitely large number of them. They are, though, by and large, solutions to in-person problems, many of which are constrained by physics, physiology, psychology, and other factors that do not apply or that apply differently online. Most webmeeting systems are attempts to replicate the same solutions or (more often) to replicate other webmeeting systems that have already done so, but they are doomed to be pale shadows of the original because there are countless things they cannot replicate, or can only replicate poorly. Among the phenomena that are the default in in-person meetings are, for example:
the immense salience brought about by travelling to a location, especially when it involves significant effort (lost in webmeetings);
the fact that it forces attention for a sustained period (most webmeeting software and ways of using it makes inattention much easier);
the social bonding that we have evolved to feel in the presence of others (not well catered for in webmeeting software);
the focus and meaning that comes from the ‘eventness’ of the occasion (diluted in webmeetings);
the ability to directly work together on an issue or artefact (limited in some ways in webmeetings, though potential exists for collaborative construction of digital artefacts);
the inability to invisibly escape (easy in most webmeetings);
the microexpressions, postures, movements, smells, etc that support communication (largely lost in webmeetings);
the social bonding value of sharing food and drink (lost in webmeetings);
the blurred boundaries of entering and leaving, the potential to leave together (usually lost in webmeetings);
the bonding that occurs in having a shared physical experience, including adversities such as a room that is too hot, roadworks outside, wasps in the room, etc, as well as good things like the smell of good coffee or luxurious chairs (not remotely possible in webmeetings, apart from when the tech fails – but then the meeting fails too);
the support for nuances of verbal interaction – knowing when it’s OK to interrupt, being able to sigh, talk at once, etc, not to mention having immediate awareness of who is speaking (webmeetings mostly suck at this);
the ability to cluster with others – to sit next to people you know (or don’t know), for instance (rarely an option in most webmeetings, and nothing like as salient or rich in potential as its in-person counterpart even when allowed);
the salience of being in a space, with all the values, history, power relationships, and so on that it embodies, from who sits where to which room is chosen (hardly a shadow of this in most webmeetings);
the ability to stand up and walk around together (a motion-sickness-inducing experience in webmeetings);
the problems and benefits of both over-crowding and excessive sparsity (very different in webmeetings);
the means to seamlessly integrate and employ other technologies, including every digital technology as well as paper, dance, desks, chairs, whiteboards, pins, clothing, coffee, doors, etc, etc, etc. (webmeetings offer a tiny fraction of this);
and so on.
A few of these might be replicated in current or future webmeeting software, though usually only in caricature. Most simply cannot be replicated at all, even if we could meet as virtual personas in Star Trek’s holodecks. Of course there are also many things that we should be grateful are not replicated in online meetings: conspicuous body odour, badly designed meeting rooms, schedule conflicts, and so on, as well as the unwanted consequences of most of the phenomena above. These, too, are phenomena that the technologies of meetings are designed around. In-person meetings are incredibly highly-evolved technologies, making use of technological and non-technological phenomena in immensely subtle ways, as well as having layers of counter-technology a kilometre deep, from social mores and manners to Roberts’ rules, from meeting tables to pens and note-taking strategies. Much of the time we don’t even notice that there are any technologies involved at all (as Danny Hillis quipped, ‘technology’ is anything invented after you were born).
Webmeetings, though, also have distinctive phenomena that can be exploited, such as:
the ease of entering and leaving (so breaks are easier to take, they don’t need to last a long time, people can dip in and out, etc);
the automation of scheduling and note-taking;
the means to record all that occurs;
the means to directly share digital tools;
the fact that people occupy different spaces (often with tools at their disposal that would be unavailable in a shared meeting space);
the captions for the hard of hearing;
the integrated backchannels of text chat.
These are different kinds of problem space with different adjacent possibles as well as different constraints. It therefore makes no sense to blindly attempt to replicate in-person meetings when the problems and opportunities are so different. We don’t (or shouldn’t) teach online in the same way we teach in the classroom, so why should we try to use meetings in the same way? For that matter, why have meetings at all?
Dealing with the hard stuff
Some constraints are quite easy to specify. If a matter under discussion needs to be kept private, say, that limits the range of options, albeit that, for such a soft technology as a meeting, privacy needs may vary considerably, and what works for one context may fail abysmally for another. Similarly for security, accessibility, learnability, compatibility, interoperability, cost, reliability, maintainability, longevity, and other basic hygiene concerns. There are normally hard constraints defining a baseline, but it is a fuzzy baseline that can be moved in different contexts for different people and different uses. No one wants unreliable, insecure, expensive, incompatible, unusable, buggy, privacy abusing software but most of us nonetheless use Microsoft products.
It is also not completely unreasonable to look for specific known business requirements that need to be met. However, there are enormous risks of duplicating solutions to non-existent problems. It is essential, therefore, to try to find ways of understanding the problems themselves, as much as possible in isolation from existing solutions. It would be a bad requirement to simply specify that people should be able to see and hear one another in real-time, for example: that is a technological solution based on the phenomena that in-person meetings use, not a requirement. It is certainly a very useful phenomenon that might be exploited in any number of ways (we know that because our ancestors have done it since before humans walked the planet) but it tells us little about why the phenomenon matters, or what it is about it that matters.
It would be better, perhaps, to ask people what is wrong with in-person meetings. It still situates the requirements in the current problem space, but it looks more closely at the source rather than the copy. It makes it easier to ask what purposes being able to see and hear one another during in-person meetings serve, what phenomena it provides, on what phenomena (including those provided by other technologies) it depends, and what depends on it. From that we may uncover the business requirements that seeing and hearing other people actually meet. However, it is incredibly tricky to ask such questions in the abstract: the problem space is vast, complex, diverse, and deeply bound up in what we are familiar with, not what is possible.
It might help to make the familiar unfamiliar, for instance, by holding in-person meetings wearing blindfolds, or silently, or to attempt to conduct a meeting using only sticky notes (approaches I have used in my own teaching about communication technologies, as it happens). This kind of exercise forcibly creates a new problem space so that people can wonder about what is lost, what is gained, reasons for doing things, and so on. If you do enough of that, you might start to uncover what matters, and (perhaps) some of the reasons we have meetings in the first place.
Exploring the adjacent possible
Perhaps most importantly, though, soft technologies are not just solutions to problems. Soft technologies are, first and foremost, creators of opportunities, the vast majority of which we will never begin to imagine. Soft technology design is therefore, and must be, a partnership between the person and the technology: it’s not just about creating a tool for a task but about having a conversation with that tool, asking what it can do for us and wondering where it might lead us. What’s interesting about the ubiquitous backchannel feature of webmeetings, for instance, is that it did not find its way into the software as a result of a needs assessment or analysis of business requirements. It was, instead, an early (and deeply imperfect) attempt at replicating what could be replicated of synchronous meetings before multimedia communication became possible. When designing early web conferencing systems, no one said ‘we need a way of typing so that others can see it’. They looked at what could be done and said ‘hey, we can use that’. The functionality persisted and has become nearly ubiquitous because it’s easy to implement and obviously useful. It’s an exaptation, though, not the product of a pre-planned intentional design process. It’s a side-effect of something else we did – a poor solution to an existing problem – that created new phenomena we could co-opt for other purposes. New adjacent possible empty niches emerged from it.
One way to explore such niches would be to give people the chance to play with a wide range of existing ways of addressing the same problem space. A lot of people have turned their attention to these issues, so it makes sense to mine the creativity of the crowd. There are systems like Discord or MatterMost, that represent a different category of hybrid asynchronous/synchronous tool, for instance, blurring the temporal boundaries. There are spatial metaphor systems with isometric interfaces like Spatial, or Ovice, which can allow more intuitive clustering, perhaps contributing to a greater sense of the presence of others, while enabling novel approaches to (say) voting, and so on. There are immersive systems that more literally replicate spaces, like Mozilla Hubs or OpenSim. I hold out little hope for those, but they do have some non-literal features – especially in ways they allow impossible spaces to be created – that are quite interesting. There are instant messengers like Telegram or Signal, that offer ambient awareness as well as conventional meeting support (MS Teams, reflecting its Skype origins, has that too). There are games and game-like environments like Gather or Minecraft, that create new kinds of world as well as providing real-time conferencing features. And there are much smarter webmeeting systems like Around (that largely solves almost all audio problems, that – crucially – can make the meeting a part of a user’s environment rather than a separate space for gathering, that rethinks text chat as a transient, person-focused act rather than a separate text-stream, that makes working together on a digital artefact a richly engaging process, that automatically sends a record to participants, and more). And there’s a wealth of research-based systems that we have built over the past few decades, including many of my own, that do things differently, or that use different metaphors. Computer-supported collaborative argumentation tools, for instance, or systems that leverage social navigation (I particularly love Viégas’s and Donath’s ChatCircles from the late 1990s, for instance), and so on. They all make new problems, and all have flaws of one kind or another, but thinking about how and why they are different helps to focus on what we are trying to do in the first place.
Perhaps the best of all ways to explore those adjacent possible empty niches is to make them: not to engineer it according to a specification, but to tinker and play. I’ve written about this before (e.g. here and, paywalled, here, summarized by Stefanie Panke here). Tinkering as a research methodology is a process of exploration not of what exists but of what does not. It’s a journey into the adjacent possible, with each new creation or modification creating new adjacent possibles, a step by step means of reaching into and mapping the unknown. We don’t all have the capacity (in skills, time, or patience) to create software from scratch, but we can assemble what we already have. We can, for instance, try to add plugins to existing systems: it is seldom necessary to write your own WordPress plugin, for example, because tens of thousands of people have already done so. Or we can make use of frameworks to construct new systems: the Elgg system underpinning the Landing, for example, does require some expertise to build new components, but a lot can be achieved by assembling and/or modifying what others have built. Or, if standards are followed, we can assemble services as needed: there are standards like xcon, XMPP, Jabber, IRC, and so on that make this possible. And we don’t need to create software or hardware at all in order to dream. Hand-drawn mockups can create new possibilities to explore. Small steps into the unknown are better than no steps at all.
Stop looking for solutions
Webmeetings that attempt to replicate their in-person inspirations are unlikely to ever afford the flexibility of in-person meetings, because they have fewer phenomena to orchestrate and we are never going to be as adept at using them. The gaps they leave for us to fill are smaller, and our capacity to fill those gaps is less well-developed. However, digital systems can provide a great many new and different phenomena that, with creativity and inspiration, may meet our needs much better. Without the constraints of physical spaces we can invent a new physics of the digital. As long as we treat the problem as one of replicating meetings then it makes little difference what we choose: Zoom, Teams, Webex, Connect, BBB, Jitsi, whatever – the feature set may vary, there may be differences in reliability, security, cost, etc but any of them will do the job. The problem is that it is the wrong job. We already pay for and use at least three major systems for synchronous meetings at AU, as well as a bunch of minor ones, and that is nothing like enough. Those that begin to depart from the replication model – Around being my current favourite – are a step in the right direction, while those that double down on it (notably most immersive environments) are probably a step in the wrong direction. It is not about going forward or backward, though: it is about going sideways.
It is not too tricky to experiment in this particular field. For most digital systems we create our decisions normally haunt us for years or decades, because we become locked in to them with our data. Synchronous technologies can, with provisos, be swapped around and changed at will. Sure, there can be issues with recording and transcripts, there can be a training burden, contracts can be expensive and hard to escape, and tech support may be a little more costly but, for the most part, if we don’t like something then we can drop it and try something else.
I don’t have a solution to choosing or making the right piece of software for AU’s needs, because there isn’t one. There are countless possible solutions, none of which will suit everyone, many of which will provide parts that might be useful to most people, and all of which will have parts or aspects that won’t. But I do know that the way to approach the problem is not to have meetings to determine business requirements. The solution is to find ways of discovering the adjacent possible, to seek inspiration, to look sideways and forwards instead of backwards. We don’t need simple problem-solving for this kind of situation (or rather, it is quite inadequate on its own): we need to find ways to dream, ways to wonder, ways to engage in the act of creation, ways to play.