Amazon helps and teaches bomb makers

Amazon’s recommender algorithm works pretty well: if people start to gather together ingredients needed for making a thermite bomb, Amazon helpfully suggests other items that may be needed to make it, including hardware like ball bearings, switches, and battery cables. What a great teacher!

It is disturbing that this seems to imply that there are enough people ordering such things for the algorithm to recognize a pattern. However, it would seem remarkably dumb for a determined terrorist to leave such a (figuratively and literally) blazing trail behind them, so it is just as likely to be the result of a very slightly milder form of idiot, perhaps a few Trump voters playing in their backyards. It’s a bit worrying, though, that the ‘wisdom’ of the crowd might suggest uses of and improvements to some stupid kids’ already dangerous backyard experiments that could make them way more risky, and potentially deadly.

Building intelligent systems is not too hard, as long as the activity demanding intelligence can be isolated and kept within a limited context or problem domain. Computers can beat any human at Go, Chess, or Checkers. They can drive cars more safely and more efficiently than people (as long as there are not too many surprises or ethical dilemmas to overcome, and as long as no one tries deliberately to fool them). In conversation, as long as the human conversant keeps within a pre-specified realm of expertise, they can pass the Turing Test. They are even remarkably much better than humans at identifying, from a picture, whether someone is gay or not. But it is really hard to make them wise. This latest fracas is essentially a species of the same problem as that reported last week of Facebook offering adverts targeted at haters of Jews. It’s crowd-based intelligence, without the wisdom to discern the meaning and value of what the crowd (along with the algorithm) chooses. Crowds (more accurately, collectives) are never wise: they can be smart, they can be intelligent, they can be ignorant, they can be foolish, they can even (with a really smart algorithm to assist) be (or at least do) good; but they cannot be wise. Nor can AIs that use them.

Human wisdom is a result of growing up as a human being, with human needs, desires, and interests, in a human society, with all the complexity, purpose, meaning, and value that it entails. An AI that can even come close to that is at best decades away, and may never be possible, at least not at scale, because computers are not people: they will always be treated differently, and have different needs (there’s an interesting question to explore as to whether they can evolve a different kind of machine-oriented wisdom, but let’s not go there – SkyNet beckons!). We do need to be working on artificial wisdom, to complement artificial intelligence, but we are not even close yet. Right now, we need to be involving people in such things to a much greater extent: we need to build systems that informate, that enhance our capabilities as human beings, rather than that automate and diminish them. It might not be a bad idea, for instance, for Amazon’s algorithms to learn to report things like this to real human beings (though there are big risks of error, reinforcement of bias, and some fuzzy boundaries of acceptability that it is way too easy to cross) but it would definitely be a terrible idea for Amazon to preemptively automate prevention of such recommendations.

There are lessons here for those working in the field of learning analytics, especially those that are trying to take the results in order to automate the learning process, like Knewton and its kin. Learning, and that subset of learning that is addressed in the field of education in particular, is about living in a human society, integrating complex ideas, skills, values, and practices in a world full of other people, all of them unique and important. It’s not about learning to do, it’s about learning to be. Some parts of teaching can be automated, for sure, just as shopping for bomb parts can be automated. But those are not the parts that do the most good, and they should be part of a rich, social education, not of a closed, value-free system.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.alphr.com/politics/1007077/amazon-reviewing-algorithms-that-promoted-bomb-materials

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Analytic thinking undermines religious belief while intelligence undermines social conservatism, study suggests

‘Suggests’ is the operative word in the title here. The title is a sensationalist interpretation of an inconclusive and careful study, and I don’t think this is what the authors of the study mean to say at all. Indeed, they express caution in numerous ways, noting small effect sizes, lack of proof of causality, large overlaps between groups, and many other reasons for extremely critical interpretation of the evidence:

“We would like to warn readers to resist the temptation to draw conclusions that suit their ideological worldviews,” Saribay told PsyPost. “One must not think in terms of profiles or categories of people and also not draw simple causal conclusions as our data do not speak to causality. Instead, it’s better to focus on how certain ideological tendencies may serve psychological needs, such as the need to simplify the world and conserve cognitive energy.”

This is suitably cautious and very much at odds with the title of the PsyPost article.

The study itself finds some confirmatory evidence that, in the US (and only in the US):

  •     Religion may be embedded more in Type 1 intuitions relative to politics.
  •     Processing liberal political arguments may require cognitive ability.
  •     Religious belief should be predicted uniquely by analytic cognitive style.
  •     Conservatism should be uniquely predicted by cognitive ability.

It is important to note, however, that ‘prediction’ in this instance has a very precise meaning of implying slightly increased odds of correlation between these factors, not that there is a causal connection one way or the other. The study simply adds a little more evidence to an already fairly substantial body of proof that cognitively challenged people, especially those more inclined to intuition than to reason (the two are statistically correlated), are somewhat more likely to be drawn both to religion and to right wing politics. Much as I would like it to imply the inverse – that intelligence and rationality are a cure for religion and right wing beliefs – there is absolutely nothing in this research to suggest that.

Part of the motivation for the study is the researchers’ observation of the growing antagonism to intelligence, expertise, evidence, and truth that is revealed in Trump’s victory, Brexit, ISIL, man-made climate change denial, and so on. While such evils are no doubt fuelled and sustained by (not to put too fine a point on it) stupid people in search of simple solutions to complex problems, it would be foolish (stupid, even) and highly inaccurate to suggest that all (or even a majority) of those exhibiting such attitudes and beliefs are stupid, or driven by intuition rather than reason, or both. As the study’s authors rightly observe, the value of this study is its contribution to understanding some of the complexity of the problem and should not be used to extrapolate exactly the same kind of simplified caricatures that cause it in the first place:

“…a more balanced understanding can only be reached via continued empirical research. Human beings may sometimes benefit from cognitive simplification of a complex and at times scary world of constant change and uncertainty. It does seem that certain aspects of religion and conservative ideology serve to deal with this, in slightly different ways. This is the direction that evidence points to thus far. However, researchers of course must resist this very need to simplify the world beyond a certain level.”

The original study can be found at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S019188691730226X

Address of the bookmark: http://www.psypost.org/2017/09/analytic-thinking-undermines-religious-belief-intelligence-undermines-social-conservatism-study-suggests-49655

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Highly praised children are more inclined to cheat

The title of this Alphr article is a little misleading because the point the article rightly makes is that it all depends on the type of praise given. It reports on research from the University of Toronto that confirms (yet again) what should be obvious: praising learners for who they are (‘you’re so smart’) is a really bad idea, while praising what they do (‘you did that well’) is not normally a bad idea. The issue, though, is essentially one of intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation. By praising the person for being a particular way you are positioning that as the purpose, rather than a side-effect, of the activity, and positioning yourself as the arbiter, so disempowering the learner. By praising the behaviour, you are offering useful feedback on performance that empowers the recipient to choose whether and how to do such things again, as well as supporting needs for relatedness (it shows you care) and competence (it helps them improve). Both forms of praise contribute to feelings of self-esteem, but only one supports intrinsic motivation. 

The nice twist in these particular studies (here and here) is that the researchers were looking at effects on morality. They found that ability praise (teling them they are smart) is very strongly correlated with a propensity to cheat. Exactly as theory would predict, kids who have been told that they are smart are significantly more likely to respond to the extrinsic motivation (the need to live up to expectations when given ability praise) by cheating, when given the opportunity. Interestingly, praising the behaviour (performance praise) has little or no effect on likelihood of cheating when compared with those given no praise at all: it is only when an expectation is set that the children are perceived as smart that cheating behaviour increases. It is also interesting, if tangential, that boys appeared to be way more likely to cheat than girls under all the conditions though, once primed by ability praise, girls were more likely to cheat than boys that had received no praise or performance praise.

The lesson is nothing like as simple as remembering to just praise the action, not the person. Praising behaviours can, when used badly, be just as disempowering as praising the person. For instance, while in some senses it might be possible to view grades as a kind of abbreviated praise (or punishment, which amounts to much the same thing) for a behaviour, there’s a critical difference: the fact that it will be graded is known in advance by the learner. This is compounded by the fact that the grade matters to them, often more than the performance of the activity itself. Thus, achieving the grade becomes the goal, not the consequence of the behaviour, and it reinforces the power of the grader to determine the behaviour of the learner, with a consequent loss of learner autonomy. That shift from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation is the big issue here, not the praise itself. There are lots of ways to give both performance praise and ability praise that are not coercive. They are only harmful when used to manipulate behaviour.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.alphr.com/science/1007043/highly-praised-children-are-more-inclined-to-cheat

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E-Learn 2017, Vancouver, 17-20 October – last day of cheaper registration rates

Today is the final day to get the discount rate if you are planning on coming to E-Learn in Vancouver this year (US$455 today vs US$495 from tomorrow onwards).

It promises to be quite a big event this year, with an estimated 900+ concurrent sessions, 100+ posters, and three lunchtime SIGs (including a new one on sustainable learning technologies), not to mention some fine keynotes and networking events.  Annoyingly, it clashes with ICDE in Toronto this year but, IMHO, E-Learn is a better conference for those working and researching in online education, and it’s a much better location. I may be a little biased, being both a resident of Vancouver and local co-chair of the conference, but there are some very good reasons I chose to be both those things!

I have attended almost all E-Learn (and its predecessor, WebNet) conferences for nearly 20 years now because it tends to attract some great people, provides an excellently diverse and blended mix of technical and pedagogical perspectives, gives plentiful chances to engage with both early-career researchers and those at the top of the field, usually picks great locations, is well-organized, and focuses solely on adult online learning (mainly higher education but also some from industry, healthcare, government, etc). The acceptance rate (1-in-3 to 1-in-4) is high enough to attract diverse papers that can be off the wall and interesting (especially from younger researchers who don’t know what’s impossible yet so sometimes achieve it), but low enough to exclude utter rubbish. If that kind of thing interests you, this is the conference for you!

I hope to see you there.

Address of the bookmark: https://www.aace.org/conf/elearn/registration/

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Not true: coding bootcamps you can take online are an "oxymoron" no one has yet solved

A Quartz article that claims (accurately) that p-learning bootcamps dominate for those learning programming and other technical skills and (inaccurately) that the reason for that is that e-learning is much less engaging. In fact, there’s a sneaky and almost unnoticeable sleight of hand here, because what is actually claimed is that online learning can be less engaging and, based on that indubitable fact, extrapolates from the particular to the general, asserting that all online learning suffers the same way.

Nonsense.

Yes, there is a lot of rubbish online learning and, in fairness, even a well-evolved establishment like Athabasca University has some of it, at least for some people some of the time. But that’s not at all surprising because every university (online or not) presents the same problem and, if you are trying to make a single learning design work for everyone, you are sure to make it too complex for some and too boring for others (personalization technologies and intelligent personal learning designs notwithstanding). Athabasca has a lot less of it thanks to its extremely rigorous quality assurance processes, but it would be crazy to imagine that everything it does is perfect for every learner at every time, as much as it would be crazy to imagine that everyone at a bricks and mortar institution gets a wonderful learning experience every time. Crazier, in fact.

The thing is, it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it, that’s what gets results. It’s not that online learning is less effective (countless studies prove otherwise), it’s simply that it tends to be done in a way that gives control and flexibility to learners. The immersion of physical bootcamps does have one major and very distinctive benefit: that it pulls people out of everything else and forces them to engage for a lot of hours in the day. The ‘bootcamp’ part of it ensures that they are well and truly immersed, with no way to back out apart from backing out completely  It’s not that the learning experience is any better – very far from it in most cases. Most bootcamps I have seen use inane pedagogies that would not pass muster even in a conventional university, let alone somewhere like Athabasca University that actually pays attention to such things. It’s just that people are there and they have to do stuff (a lot of social pressure is involved, as well as loss-aversion) so they wind up learning a lot simply because they put in the hours, and that happens simply because they are enrolled on a bootcamp and cannot get away.Not dissimilar to the ways traditional universities work, as it happens, just a lot more intense.

Online learning gives people more choice and greater control so, if they are not innately fascinated or they have not very single-mindedly put aside enough time then, of course, they wind up learning less quickly because they put in less time over a longer period. Duh. It’s not rocket science. This is not about teaching effectiveness or smart learning designs, it is simply about stopping people from being distracted and doing other things. The solution, if a solution is needed, is for online learners to block out the time and drop the distractions. I can imagine plenty of learning designs for online learning that would make that happen – simply making it real-time and using smart tools for desktop sharing, real-time interaction, and monitoring of progress would achieve much the same results, as long as the ground rules are fully understood by all concerned. I was at a conference the other day that did pretty much that. Such an approach doesn’t happen much, of course, for all the reasons people go for online learning in the first place, inasmuch as such methods take away the control and flexibility that make it so appealing. On the other hand, perhaps there is a place for such techniques. It seems there is a market and, as long as expectations are carefully managed (you don’t distract yourself with reading emails and engaging in social media, you pledge to be available, you block out your calendar) it might work pretty well. But why bother? Seems to me that online learning is better precisely because of the control it gives people. If they need extrinsic motivation to force them to learn then that’s the problem that should be solved before enrolling on any courses, and it will do them a world of good in many other situations too.

 

Address of the bookmark: https://qz.com/1064814/the-awkward-irony-of-not-being-able-to-take-a-good-coding-bootcamp-online/

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Making the community the curriculum | Dave Cormier

The always wonderful Dave Cormier is writing a book (open, of course) about rhizomatic learning and, as you might expect given Dave’s eclectic and rich range of skills (from uber-tech-guru to uber-learning-guru) not to mention his cutting edge knowledge (this is someone so far ahead of trends that he actually invented the term ‘MOOC’) it’s brilliant stuff. Though it is a work in progress and still a bit raw in places, there are clues that this is not your common or garden e-book right from the opening chapter, Why we work together – cheating as learning which introduces the radical idea that people are pretty good at helping other people to learn while, in the process, learning themselves. Other chapters are equally charmingly named: Learning in a Time of Abundance, Five tips for slackers for keeping track of digital stuff and One person’s guide to evaluating educational technologies. What comes through most strongly in this is a vision of where we are going – where we must be going – in a world of increasing connection and increasingly connective technologies. In all, it provides an extremely practical, achievable, and pragmatic way of going about that without breaking everything in sight, very well grounded in theory, and very entertainingly (and very clearly) presented.

I’d not noticed this work in progress till now and am very glad that I found it. Highly recommended reading for anyone in education, edtech, or who is simply interested in learning or how technology changes us, and how to manage that change. I really look forward to seeing the finished or, at least, the published product. My sense is that this will always be an evolving book because that’s pretty much the nature of the beast, and so it will continue to be relevant for a long time to come.

Address of the bookmark: https://davecormier.pressbooks.com/

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SpyStudent: hidden wireless video live transmission camera

Who does not know the problems with the driving test or studies testing? You have not time to learn and have more important things to do! And suddenly, the date for the exam or test in a few days.If your exam is important to you and you do not know what you should do otherwise, then you are right with us! Do not despair, we have something for you that can help you!  “

This fabulous offer from dron.si (who knew that my surname was a thing in Slovenia?)  allows you, for a mere €374.17, to be the proud owner of the SpyStudent kit, a camera, mic, earpiece, and wireless transmission system made for “those who do not like to learn for the test”.

You can easily and undetectably shove the various bits of transmitter down your underpants, assuming you weigh more than 300 kilos, you wear exceptionally baggy clothing, and you have no fear of numerous forms of radiation in your nether regions. You might be a little challenged to find a way to shove the ‘wireless spy earpiece’ that, from the picture, seems to be made for elephants, down into your ear canal, let alone ever hope to get it out again (I hope it holds its charge!) but that’s part of the fun.  Anyway, I am sure you can put up with a little inconvenience for a device that enables you (with the aid of your BMW-owning accomplice outside the building who you really hope knows the answers) to cheat on any exam or test with impunity.

Obviously, exam invigilators have never seen microphones before so you’re fine on that count, and they never bother to look for people muttering into their shirts, holding up exam papers to their chests, or tilting their heads as though listening to large black objects shoved into their ears. And exams are normally taken in open fields, so the range won’t be a problem

The man in the illustration is taking a break from his more usual activities of molesting small children/terrorism/voting for Trump, to enjoy cheating on his driving test. Sadly, he also cheated on the ‘holding your pen’ test, so it’s not going to end well:

child molester/exam cheat/international terrorist

 

Don’t forget this crucial advice, though…

You go into the examination room and you try to keep quiet as if nothing had.

I hope nothing had.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.dron.si/en/brezzicne-ip-kamere/i_424_hidden-wireless-video-live-transmission-camera-spystudent-button-camera-power-pack

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Professor Jon Dron | Beyond Busy

An interview with me by Graham Allcott, author of the bestselling How to be a productivity ninja and other books, for his podcast series Beyond Busy, and as part of the research for his next book. In it I ramble a lot about issues like social media, collective intelligence, motivation, technology, education, leadership, and learning, and Graham makes some incisive comments and asks some probing questions. The interview was conducted on the landing of the Grand Hotel, Brighton, last year.

Address of the bookmark: http://getbeyondbusy.com/e/35495d7ba89876L/?platform=hootsuite

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SCIS makes a great showing at HCI 2017, Vancouver

 

Ali Dewan presenting at HCI 2017

I had the pleasure to gatecrash the HCI 2017 conference in Vancouver today, which gave me the chance to see Dr Ali Dewan present three excellent papers in a row (two with his name on them) on a variety of themes, as well as a great paper written and presented by one of our students, Miao-Han Chang. Miao-Han Chang presenting

Both did superb jobs of presenting to a receptive crowd. Ali got particular acclaim from the audience for the first work he presented  (Combinatorial Auction based Mechanism Design for Course Offering Determination
by Anton Vassiliev, Fuhua Lin & M. Ali Akber Dewan) for its broad applicability in many areas beyond scheduling courses. 

Athabasca, and especially the School of Computing and Information Systems, has made a great showing at this prestigious conference, with contributions not just from Ali and Miao-Han, but also from Oscar (Fuhua) Lin, Dunwei Wen, Maiga Chang and Vive Kumar. Kurt Reifferscheid and Xiaokun Zhang also had a paper in the proceedings but were sadly not able to attend to present it.

 

Jon Dron and Ali Dewan at HCI 2017

Jon and Ali at the Vancouver Conference Centre after Ali’s marathon presentation stint. I detect a look of relief on Ali’s face!

 

Ali Dewan presenting

Papers

  • Combinatorial Auction based Mechanism Design for Course Offering Determination
    Anton Vassiliev, Fuhua Lin, M. Ali Akber Dewan, Athabasca University, Canada
  • Enhance the Use of Medical Wearables through Meaningful Data Analytics
    Kurt Reifferscheid, Xiaokun Zhang, Athabasca University, Canada
  • Classification of Artery and Vein in Retinal Fundus Images Based on the Context-Dependent Features
    Yang Yan, Changchun Normal University, P.R. China; Dunwei Wen, M. Ali Akber Dewan, Athabasca University, Canada; Wen-Bo Huang, Changchun Normal University, P.R. China
  • ECG Identification Based on PCA-RPROP
    Jinrun Yu, Yujuan Si, Xin Liu, Jilin University, P.R. China; Dunwei Wen, Athabasca University, Canada; Tengfei Luo, Jilin University, P.R. China; Liuqi Lang, Zhuhai College of Jilin University, P.R. China
  • Usability Evaluation Plan for Online Annotation and Student Clustering System – A Tunisian University Case
    Miao-Han Chang, Athabasca University, Canada; Rita Kuo, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, United States; Fathi Essalmi, University of Kairouan, Tunisia; Maiga Chang, Vive Kumar, Athabasca University, Canada; Hsu-Yang Kung, National Pingtung University of Science and Technology, Taiwan

Athabasca’s bright future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving on

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

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

We live in our IT…

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

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

This can and will change.

… but we are based in Athabasca

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

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

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

Short circuits in our communications infrastructure

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

This can and must change.

The town of Athabasca and what it means to us

Athabasca high street

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

Athabasca Landing

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

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

Athabasca

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

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

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