Babies in the learning-style bathwater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Free download of 'Digital Habitats'!

Wenger, White, & Smith’s excellent “Digital Habitats: stewarding technology for communities” is now available for free, in major ebook formats!

I really like this book: though it is a bit of a patchwork in places, longer than it needs to be, and heavier on practice than theory, it is an absolute goldmine of ideas for those creating, managing, and nurturing online communities, covering technical, managerial, social, and many other issues in an admirably holistic fashion. Very well written by people that really get it. This is going to be high up among the “highly recommended” readings for my Social Computing course (there are and never will be required readings) because the approach – which gives no special priority to tools, processes, social engagement, management, etc – fits it to a T.

Address of the bookmark: http://technologyforcommunities.com/2016/12/happy-holidays-free-download-of-digital-habitats/

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post-reality fictoid-facts

Satirists are mostly flummoxed by Trump, because there’s no absurdity they can dream up that is more absurd than the evil orange turd itself, and that is not out-trumped by some yet more appalling and improbable excrescence oozing from its tiny bitter orifices. Armando Iannucci does, however, make a pretty good stab at the problem in this letter to Trump. He accurately captures the essence of Trump’s underlying modus operandi thus:

“They used to tease you about your attitude to the truth, didn’t they? All your post-reality fictoid-facts, like how global warming was a myth invented by the Chinese, how you respected all women without exception, except the greedy, grasping, ugly ones who were trying to suck you dry, how Obama wasn’t born in America, and also how you put everyone right when you said he was.

And that rigged election: you had evidence the election was rigged against you and you were going to lose, and then, when you won it fair and square, you had proof you would have won it even more fairly and squarely had it not been rigged against you so you couldn’t win so bigly. And now they say the Russians rigged the election, and you say the election wasn’t rigged, it was never rigged, and you’ve been saying for months: it was never rigged.”

Logic fails in the face of contradiction, and fails badly. If both A and not-A are true, the moon is (logically) made of green cheese. If you can persuade people to believe both the thing and its contradiction, then the consequences are dire. As Iannucci puts it:

You’ve taught people to believe not what is empirically true but what is emotionally true, which is a better truth. You’ve set free the credulity of the people.”

This is how most religions work too, as it happens. 

Address of the bookmark: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/21/letter-to-donald-trump-president-armando-iannucci

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The Ghost in the Machines of Loving Grace | Library Babel Fish

An article from Barbara Fister about the role and biases of large providers like Google and Facebook in curating, sorting, filtering their content, usefully contrasted with academic librarians’ closely related but importantly different roles. Unlike a library, such systems (and especially Facebook) are not motivated to provide things that are in the interests of the public good. As Fister writes:

“The thing is, Facebook literally can’t afford to be an arbiter. It profits from falsehoods and hype. Social media feeds on clicks, and scandalous, controversial, emotionally-charged, and polarizing information is good for clicks. Things that are short are more valuable than things that are long. Things that reinforce a person’s world view are worth more than those that don’t fit so neatly and might be passed over. Too much cruft will hurt the brand, but too little isn’t good, either. The more we segment ourselves into distinct groups through our clicks, the easier it is to sell advertising. And that’s what it’s about.”

These are not new points but they are well stated and well situated. I particularly like the point that lies and falsehoods are not a reason to censor a resource in and of themselves. We need the ugliness in order to better understand and value the beauty, and we need the whole story, not filtered parts of it that suit the criteria of some arbitrary arbiter. As Fister writes:

“There’s a level of trust there, that our students can and will approach a debate with genuine curiosity and integrity. There’s also a level of healthy distrust. We don’t believe it’s wise to leave decisions about truth and falsehood up to librarians.”

Indeed. She also has good things to say about personalization:

“If libraries were as personalized, you would wave your library card at the door and enter a different library than the next person who arrives. We’d quickly tidy away the books you haven’t shown interest in before; we’d do everything we could to provide material that confirms what you already believe. That doesn’t seem a good way to learn or grow. It seems dishonest.”

Exactly so.  She does, though, tell us about how librarians do influence things, and there’s only a fine and fuzzy (but significant) line between this and the personalization she rejects:

“Newer works on the topic will be shelved nearby that will problematize the questionable work and put it in context.”

I’m not sure that there is much difference in kind between this approach to influencing students and the targeted ads of Google or Facebook. However, there is a world of difference in the intent. What the librarian does is about sense making, and it accords well with one of the key principles I described in my first book of providing signposts, not fenceposts. To give people control, they have to first of all have the choices in the first place, but also they need to know why they are worth making. Organizing relevant works together on the shelf is helping students to make informed choices, scaffolding the research process by showing alternative perspectives. Offering relevant ads, though it might be dishonestly couched in terms of helping people to find the products they want, is not about helping them with what they want to do, but exploiting them to encourage them to do what you want them to do, for your own benefit, not theirs. That’s all the difference in the world.

That difference in intent is one of the biggest differentiators between a system like the Landing and a general-purpose public social media site, and that’s one big reason why it could never make any sense for us to replace the Landing with, say, a Facebook group (a suggestion that still gets aired from time to time, on the utterly mistaken assumption that they duplicate each other’s functionality). The Landing is a learning commons, a network of people that, whatever they might be doing here, share an intent to learn, where people are valued for what they bring to one another, not for what they bring to the owners and shareholders of the company that runs the site. Quite apart from other issues around ownership, privacy and functionality, that’s a pretty good reason to keep it.

 

Address of the bookmark: https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/library-babel-fish/ghost-machines-loving-grace

Teens unlikely to be harmed by moderate digital screen use

The results of quite a large study (120,000 participants) appear to show that ‘digital’ screen time, on average, correlates with increased well-being in teenagers up to a certain point, after which the correlation is, on average, mildly negative (but not remotely as bad as, say, skipping breakfast). There is a mostly implicit assumption, or at least speculation, that the effects are in some way caused by use of digital screens, though I don’t see strong signs of any significant attempts to show that in this study.

While this accords with common sense – if not with the beliefs of a surprising number of otherwise quite smart people – I am always highly sceptical of studies that average out behaviour, especially for something as remarkably vague as engaging with technologies that are related only insofar as they involve a screen. This is especially the case given that screens themselves are incredibly diverse – there’s a world of difference between the screens of an e-ink e-reader, a laptop, and a plasma TV, for instance, quite apart from the infinite range of possible different ways of using them, devices to which they can be attached, and activities that they can support. It’s a bit like doing a study to identify whether wheels or transistors affect well-being. It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. The researchers seem aware of this. As they rightly say:

“In future work, researchers should look more closely at how specific affordances intrinsic to digital technologies relate to benefits at various levels of engagement, while systematically analyzing what is being displaced or amplified,” Przybylski and Weinstein conclude. 

Note, though, the implied belief that there are effects to analyze. This remains to be shown. 

Address of the bookmark: https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-01/afps-tut011217.php

Moral panic: Japanese girls risk fingerprint theft by making peace-signs in photographs / Boing Boing

As Cory Doctorow notes, why this headline should single out Japanese girls as being particularly at risk – and that this is the appeal of it – is much more disturbing than the fact that someone figured out how to lift fingerprints that can be used to access biometric authentication systems from photos taken using an ‘ordinary camera’ at a considerable distance (3 metres). He explains the popularity of the news story thus:

I give credit to the news-hook: this is being reported as a risk that young women put themselves to when they flash the peace sign in photos. Everything young women do — taking selfies, uptalking, vocal fry, using social media — even reading novels! — is presented as a) unique to young women (even when there’s plenty of evidence that the trait or activity is spread among people of all genders and ages) and b) an existential risk to the human species (as in, “Why do these stupid girls insist upon showing the whole world their naked fingertips? Slatterns!”)

The technical feat intrigued me, so I found a few high-res scans of pictures of Churchill making the V sign, taken on very good medium or large format film cameras (from that era, 5″x4″ press cameras were most common, though some might have been taken on smaller formats and/or cropped) with excellent lenses, by professional photographers, under various lighting conditions, from roughly that distance. While, on the very best, with cross-lighting, a few finger wrinkles and creases were partly visible, there was no sign of a single whorl, and nothing like enough detail for even a very smart algorithm to figure out the rest. So, with a tiny fraction of the resolution, I don’t think you could just lift an image from the web, a phone, or even from a good compact camera to steal someone’s fingerprints unless the range were much closer and you were incredibly lucky with the lighting conditions and focus. That said, a close-up selfie using an iPhone 7+, with focus on the fingers, might well work, especially if you used burst mode to get slightly different images (I’m guessing you could mess with bas relief effects to bring out the details). You could also do it if you set out to do it. With something like a good 400mm-equivalent lens,  in bright light, with low ISO, cross-lit, large sensor camera (APS-C or higher), high resolution, good focus and small aperture, there would probably be enough detail. 

Address of the bookmark: https://boingboing.net/2017/01/12/moral-panic-japanese-girls-ri.html

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

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

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

Bridge champion who played her cards right (From The Argus)

Sandra LandySad news for the world of bridge, about which I know almost nothing apart from what Sandra Landy, several-times world and European bridge champion, occasionally shared with me, and sad news for me. I learned today that she died last week, at the age of 78.

Though she never persuaded me to take up bridge, Sandra was a great influence on both my computing and my teaching careers. Firstly, she created (though was at the time no longer leading) the innovative and well-respected MScIS from which I graduated in the early 90s at the University of Brighton. On the course, she taught me Cobol, and supervised my project. At the end of the course, it was because of her recommendation and support that I became a principal software technician and, later, academic support manager for the university’s IT department and, some years later (again with her enthusiastic support and encouragement) became a lecturer, leading me fairly directly to my current career. She used to live down the road from me in a huge house in Hove (which was convenient when she wanted me to fix her computers!).

Sandra was an incredibly intelligent woman, a force of nature to be reckoned with whose influence on the teaching of computing at the University of Brighton, and beyond, was vast. Her subject knowledge was immense, her curiosity intense. She had conducted the first ever lecture on the first ever computing degree in the UK (at Brighton) in 1964 when I was just a toddler, and had played a major role in getting it off the ground in the first place. She was an intellectual powerhouse with a strong will, a clarity of vision, and a total lack of fear in critiquing anything and anyone, including herself. In fairness, as a result, she intimidated a lot of staff and students at the university, but she and I always got on famously. We amused and entertained each other. She had a marvellously dry sense of humour and a wonderfully rich, cigarette-sanded voice that could charm the birds off a tree as easily as it could leave strong people quivering like jelly. Suffice to say, she usually got her way, and her way was usually a very good one, but she was as compassionate as she was passionate. She listened as intently as she spoke and, if the idea made sense to her (after she had challenged it, of course!), she would lend it her full and considerable support. Quite a lot of the more disruptive innovations I was able to bring in during my time in a support role at Brighton were only possible because Sandra stood behind me and barged through any objections.  Her indelible stamp on the computing courses at the University of Brighton gave them a very distinctive character, an enviable mix of rigour and humanity, that persisted long after she retired. The world is a poorer place without her. 

Address of the bookmark: http://www.theargus.co.uk/news/15015130.Bridge_champion_who_played_her_cards_right/

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TEL MOOC from Athabasca University

Starts today…

Course Description

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

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

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DeepDyve – Your Personal Research Library

‘Like Spotify for academic articles’, the slogan says. It gives access to a claimed 10,000 paywalled academic journals for $40USD/month ($30/month for a year). The site correctly claims that you can therefore get a whole year’s access to all these journals for the cost of about 10 individual articles in an average paywalled journal, so it seems like a pretty good deal for any researcher outside academia needing to access more than a handful of papers in closed journals a year.

I had a quick browse, and here are my initial observations:

  • There’s a fairly decent selection of many of the more significant profiteering journals, albeit some that I read regularly are not there (including, interestingly, some paywalled but not-for-profit publications). It’s worth noting that, unlike Spotify for music or Netflix for movies, it can be a serious problem if a required paper is not available to a researcher. Some is better than none, but I don’t think 10,000 journals is anything like enough to make this truly compelling or disruptive.
  • The access is a bit variable – not all is full-text, and it looks like there are some notable limitations on what you can do with at least some of the papers (limits on pages you can print per month is a warning sign – this is at best a rental model, the equivalent of streaming).
  • The site seems a bit flaky – the search doesn’t work very well, and sometimes fails altogether, and it seems to lose session state very easily – but it’s mostly a modern, easy-to-use system.
  • There are some useful browser add-ins etc that make it easy to hook in things like Scholar.

It’s not up there with a good university library. Not even close. Athabasca University Library, for instance, gives access to and indexes about 65,000 journals, albeit including a number that are open-access already. But AU library also gives access to a host of physical books and journals, and a very large number of online books, loads of conference proceedings, an excellent group of skilled information professionals to provide help with finding what you need, and plenty more.  Our undergraduate students get all of that for 6 months, as well as any textbooks needed for their courses, and their course materials, for a grand total of $180CAD ($30/month), paid as a standard resources fee. We do run this at a substantial loss (costs to us were, according to the last set of figures I saw, over $250/student, mainly thanks to immoral textbook pricing) but, even so, $40USD a month for a fraction of the services seems extremely steep to me. 

It would be unfair, though, to call this pricing predatory: I expect the company has been fleeced by the publishers just like everyone else. DeepDyve is just filling a market niche left by the truly predatory publishers that steal publicly funded research, then hold it to ransom in closed, legislatively locked containers to sell back to those that produced it (and others), lining their filthy pockets with obscenely huge profits all the way down the line. DeepDyve reduces the costs for some people, and that’s OK, but it’s hardly a solution to the bigger problem, and may actually bolster a status quo that is fundamentally corrupt down to its core, because it provides an ongoing revenue stream to publishers that might otherwise be bypassed by ‘grey’ sources (if you want papers from paywalled journals and books, mail the author!) or ‘pirate’ sites like Sci Hub or Academic Torrents. The correct answer to the problem is for all of us to stop publishing in closed, profiteering, exploitative journals, to stop letting them steal from us in the first place. 

 

 

Address of the bookmark: https://www.deepdyve.com/howitworks

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