My keynote slides from Confluence 2021 – STEAM engines: on building and testing the machines in our students’ minds

STEAM Engines

These are my slides for my keynote talk at the IEEE 11th International Conference on Cloud Computing, Data Science & Engineering (Confluence-2021), hosted by Amity University, India, 28th January 2021. Technically it was 27th January here in Vancouver when I started, but 28th January when I finished. I hate timezones.

The talk winds up being about how to be a (mainly online) teacher in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) – not how to teach, as such – but it gets to the point circuitously through discussing some aspects of the nature of technology, using a subset of my coparticipation model. In (very brief) the idea behind that is that ‘technology’ means organizing stuff to do stuff (any stuff), and we are not just users but participants in that organization, either playing our roles correctly (hard technologies) or organizing stuff ourselves (soft technologies). Almost always, thanks to the fact that almost all technologies are assemblies of and with other technologies, it is a mix of the two. In the technologies of learning there are many coparticipants, all playing roles, soft or hard or both. The designated teacher is only one of these, of varying significance.

The talk dwelt on the technological nature of teaching itself, and on the technological nature of the results of teaching. Teaching (as a distributed process) can usefully be seen as a process of building technologies in learners’ minds, some hard (training), some soft (teaching). These technologies can, like all technologies, be assembled together or with others, so our minds are both enacted and extended through technologies with one another and with the constructed world around us.

In STEM subjects there is a tendency to focus a lot more on building hard technologies than on soft technologies, because there tends to be a lot of hard stuff to learn before you can do anything much at all. There are many other subjects like this, including one of the biggest, language learning. The same is actually true in softer disciplines but students tend to come equipped with a lot of the basic hard stuff – especially language, debating skills, etc – already, so a really big part of the machine already exists. However, as much as it is in the liberal arts (the ‘A’ in STEAM), it is actually the soft technologies – what we do with those hard machines in our minds, the soft technologies we assemble with them – that actually matters, personally, in the workplace, and in our social lives. Also, from a motivational perspective it is normally a really bad idea to force people to learn a lot of hard stuff without them actually having a personal need or desire to do so. Training people in the hard stuff without using it in a soft, personally/socially relevant and meaningful context is a recipe for failure, though the fact that hard skills and knowledge can be accurately measured means that assessments of it tend to create an illusion of success. ‘Success’, though, just means that the hard machine works as intended, not that it actually does anything useful.

Avoiding this chicken and egg problem – the need for hard skills before you can do anything, but the uselessness of them in isolation – is not difficult. In fact, it is how we learn to speak, and many other things. It means letting go of the notion that teachers control everything, embracing the distributed nature of teaching, and designing ways of learning that support autonomy, achievable challenge, and relatedness. To do this means making learning (not just its products) visible, creating a culture and tools for sharing, and designing in support processes to help learners overcome obstacles. Basically, from a designated teacher’s perspective, it’s about letting go and staying close. It’s much the same as how we bring up our kids, as it happens.

It was an odd session, a lecture with no direct interaction. In itself, this would not be a great learning experience for anyone. However – and this is one of my big points – it is the assembly that matters, not the individual components, and I was not the one doing that assembly. Seen as a component of learning, attended without coercion or extrinsic goals, my little lecture is something that can be assembled to make something quite useful.

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the former Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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