Words will never be a substitute for grunts


Andrew Norton claims that online learning will never be a substitute for face-to-face learning.


Here are some other equally useful and true claims:

  • electric vehicles will never be a substitute for gasoline-fueled vehicles;
  • cellphones will never be a substitute for desktop computers;
  • MP3s will never be a substitute for vinyl records;
  • email will never be a substitute for letters;
  • word processing will never be a substitute for handwriting;
  • TV will never be a substitute for radio;
  • aircraft will never be a substitute for ships;
  • cars will never be a substitute for horses;
  • photography will never be a substitute for painting;
  • pianos will never be a substitute for harps;
  • folios will never be a substitute for scrolls;
  • cities will never be a substitute for villages;
  • writing will never be a substitute for speaking;
  • agriculture will never be a substitute for foraging;
  • cooked food will never be a substitute for raw food;
  • words will never be a substitute for grunts;
  • walking on two legs will never be a substitute for walking on four.

Do you see any patterns here? Indeed.

Perhaps it would be better to think about what is enabled and what is enhanced, rather than mainly focusing on what is lost. Perhaps it is a chance to think about what is the same, and maybe to think about how those similarities suggest weaknesses and missed opportunities in what we used to do, and thus to improve both the older and the newer. Perhaps we could try to see the whole assembly rather than a few of its obvious parts. Perhaps we could wonder about how to fill the gaps we perceive, or look for ways that they might already be filled even though we didn’t design it that way. Perhaps we could appreciate all the opportunities and the failings of everything that is available to us. Perhaps we could notice that everything new brings new problems to solve, as well as new opportunities to discover. Perhaps we could remember that we invented new things because they did stuff the old things could not do, or because they do some things better. Perhaps we should observe that new technologies hardly ever fully replace their ancestors, because there are almost always reasons to prefer the old even when the new seem (for some or most purposes, some or most of the time) better.

As it happens, I recently wrote a paper about that kind of thing.

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/8775146/words-will-never-be-a-substitute-for-grunts

What really impacts the use of active learning in undergraduate STEM education? Results from a national survey of chemistry, mathematics, and physics instructors

This is a report on an interesting study by Naneh Apkarian et al, that asked a large-ish number (3796) of in-person American STEM profs (college and university levels) about the effects of various known factors on their use of active learning approaches. To a large extent it seems that ‘active learning’ is mainly taken to mean ‘not lectures’ (which is both unfair to a minority of lectures and over-kind to a majority of alternative teaching methods). Photo of a lecture (credit to Sam Balye) It’s a good paper but the study itself has some gaping flaws (there are many chicken-and-egg issues here, lots of confounding factors, massive fuzziness, loads of systemic biases, and great complexity hidden in the details), which are, in fairness, very well recognized by the authors. Wisely, they largely avoid making causal connections and, when they do, they use other evidence beyond that of their findings to support them. Flaws aside, it’s a good contribution to our collective story, and a thoroughly interesting read. This is what they found:

1) Though active and inactive(TM) learning approaches are used across the board, lectures are far more likely to be used when class sizes are large (notably so at 60+ class sizes, predominantly so at 100+ class sizes). Depressing, but not surprising: big class sizes massively exaggerate the dominant role of the teacher, and controlling teachers faced with the scary prospect consequently tend focus on what they want to indoctrinate rather than what students need to do. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it’s how lecturing began in the first place, so it has a bit of a history.

2) If you schedule classes in lecture theatres, most people use them for lecturing. This could  be seen as useful supporting evidence for my own coparticipation model, which predicts this on theoretical grounds (large and slow technologies influence smaller and faster ones more than vice versa, defaults harden). However, it actually shows no causal relationship at all. In fact, the reasons are likely much more mundane. From my dim recollections of in-person teaching, if the course design involves lectures then you get classes scheduled into lecture theatres. If you are stuck with a lecture theatre because of dimwitted/thoughtless timetablers but want to do something different then you have a (fun and challenging) problem, but that’s not what the results here tell us.

3) There’s a small correlation between how teachers are evaluated/the perceived importance of teaching in those evaluations, and how they teach. Those who perceive teaching to be less valued tend to lecture more. This doesn’t seem very useful information to me, without a lot more information about the culture and norms of the institutions, relative weightings for research or service, and so on. Even then, it would be hard to find any causal relationships. It might show that teachers who don’t like or have time for teaching tend to lecture because it is the easiest thing for them to do, but I’d need more evidence to prove that. It might show that extrinsic motivation drives compliance (a little), but, again, it’s not even close to proven. Much more context needed.

4) Perceived job security has no obvious effects on teaching practice. This might be seen as a little surprising as there is a fairly widespread perception that people give up on doing good things when they get tenure, but it doesn’t surprise me, given the multiple factors that affect it. Whether active or not, you can always teach badly or well. The implied assumption that active approaches are riskier and more experimental is not actually true much of the time, and there’s nothing in the survey that draws out whether people are taking risks or not anyway. Most teachers continue to teach in ways that seemed to work before, and tenure makes little or no difference to that.

5a) Very active researchers tend to lecture quite a bit more than quite inactive researchers. Indeed. See 3 – if you are a researcher but not engaged in the scholarship of learning and teaching then you probably have less interest and/or time to spend on teaching well, not to mention the fact that many universities compete to get the best researchers and couldn’t care less whether they can teach or not. There is a happier corollary…

5b) those who engage in educational research of any form lecture a lot less. This speaks to common sense, to what educational research has consistently shown for about 100 years, and to the dominant educational doctrine that lectures are bad. Personally, I kind-of agree with that doctrine, but I think the problem is much subtler than simply that lectures are bad per se – lectures can play a useful role as long as you don’t ever try to use them to impart information, as long as you always remember the rest of the learning assembly into which they fit (and in which most of the learning happens), and as long as you never, ever, ever, whether implicitly or explicitly, mandate attendance. The fact that most institutional lectures fail on all three counts, and virtually all falter on at least the most important two, does indeed make them very bad, but it’s not inherent in the technology. Tain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.

6) People who have experienced active learning as learners are far more likely to use such approaches. Well, yes. It would be quite a surprise if, having discovered there are better ways to learn that are more satisfying and effective for all concerned, people did not then use them.

None of this is novel, all of it reconfirms (but doesn’t prove) what we already know, especially in the hard disciplinary areas of STEM. However, it will still be a useful paper to lend support to other research, or when thinking about what needs to change if institutions are trying an intervention.  I expect that I will cite it some time.

I’m more interested, though, in what lessons might be drawn for online teaching, especially in an institution like Athabasca University, where teaching is explicitly distributed, where roles in that distributed assembly are well defined and, too often, mutually exclusive, and where lecturing is almost unheard of. 

Inactive online learning

For AU courses, I think the nearest equivalent to a lecture is a heavily content-oriented course (typically greatly reliant on a textbook) with over-controlling, easily-marked assignments, and a proctored exam at the end. That’s the ‘don’t think about it’ too common default. It’s not quite that simple, because the involvement of experienced and well-educated learning designers, editors, and media experts tends to make the content quite well written and at least somewhat informed by theory. Also, compassionate tutors can fill in a lot of gaps: good tutoring is often the saving grace of an otherwise yawn-inducing pedagogical model. It’s efficient and well-honed, like the lecture, and it works most of the time because our students are wonderful and do much of the teaching themselves (despite  attempts to control them), but it’s not a great way to teach anyone. Better than lecturing, for sure, but it has to be because there’s not so much of the other stuff that teaches in in-person institutions. We do of course have a great many courses that do not follow this pattern, that involve far more active learning: it’s far from ubiquitous, even in STEM teaching.

I think that part of the reason for a preponderance of inactive approaches at AU can be found in the paper’s second finding. In our case, an LMS is the functional equivalent of a lecture theatre (with a similar emphasis on teacher control, structure, and content), especially as our self-paced model limits the options for using its already impoverished social features. There’s also a lot of rigidity in our course development processes, with a laser-sharp focus on measurable outcomes or, worse, clearly defined objectives, that tends to make things more content-driven. Perhaps a bigger part of the reason, though, relates more closely to finding 6. It’s not that our teachers aren’t engaged and interested in producing good stuff: they really are. It’s more that they don’t have a great many role models and examples to call on. This is compounded by:

  • again, the stupidity of LMS design (courses are enclosed and hidden, for the most part),
  • a lack of sharing of tacit knowledge between teachers (we tend to only meet and communicate with a defined purpose, leaving little time for incidental and passing exchanges), and
  • our contact with students tends to be similarly instrumental and formal so we don’t usually learn as much about how they feel about other courses as in-person teachers.

All in all, though it does happen, and we are constantly getting better at it, good ideas still do not spread easily enough. In fairness, that’s also true of many in-person institutions, but at least they have serendipity, greater visibility of teaching, and simpler ways to connect socially for free, because physics. We have to actively design our own social physics, and the results of doing are seldom particularly great. As we move towards become a near-virtual institution (or even nearer-virtual) we are really going to have to work much harder on that.

On the bright side, we are fortunate to have a vast number of faculty (around 40%) who fall into the 5b category. If only we could do a better job of sharing their learning. That, of course, is a lot of the reason I am writing this, and it was a big impetus behind why we created Athabasca Landing in the first place.

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/8727582/what-really-impacts-the-use-of-active-learning-in-undergraduate-stem-education-results-from-a-national-survey-of-chemistry-mathematics-and-physics-instructors

Educational technology: what it is and how it works


This is a link to my latest paper in the journal AI & Society. You can read it in a web browser from there, but it is not directly downloadable. A preprint of the submitted version (some small differences and uncorrected errors here and there, notably in citations) can be downloaded from https://auspace.athabascau.ca/handle/2149/3653. The published version should be downloadable for free by Researchgate members.

This is a long paper (about 10,000 words), that summarizes some of the central elements of the theoretical model of learning, teaching and technology developed in my recently submitted book (still awaiting review) and that gives a few examples of its application. For instance, it explains:

  • why, on average researchers find no significant difference between learning with and without tech.
  • why learning styles theories are a) inherently unprovable, b) not important even if they were, and c) a really bad idea in any case.
  • why bad teaching sometimes works (and, conversely, why good teaching sometimes fails)
  • why replication studies cannot be done for most educational interventions (and, for the small subset that are susceptible to reductive study, all you can prove is that your technology works as intended, not whether it does anything useful).


This theoretical paper elucidates the nature of educational technology and, in the process, sheds light on a number of phenomena in educational systems, from the no-significant-difference phenomenon to the singular lack of replication in studies of educational technologies.  Its central thesis is that we are not just users of technologies but coparticipants in them. Our participant roles may range from pressing power switches to designing digital learning systems to performing calculations in our heads. Some technologies may demand our participation only in order to enact fixed, predesigned orchestrations correctly. Other technologies leave gaps that we can or must fill with novel orchestrations, that we may perform more or less well. Most are a mix of the two, and the mix varies according to context, participant, and use. This participative orchestration is highly distributed: in educational systems, coparticipants include the learner, the teacher, and many others, from textbook authors to LMS programmers, as well as the tools and methods they use and create.  From this perspective,  all learners and teachers are educational technologists. The technologies of education are seen to be deeply, fundamentally, and irreducibly human, complex, situated and social in their constitution, their form, and their purpose, and as ungeneralizable in their effects as the choice of paintbrush is to the production of great art.

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/8692242/my-latest-paper-educational-technology-what-it-is-and-how-it-works

Are experienced online teachers best-placed to help in-person teachers cope with suddenly having to teach online? Maybe not.

lecturingI recently downloaded What Teacher Educators Should Have Learned From 2020. This is an open edited book, freely downloadable from the AACE site, for teachers of teachers whose lives were disrupted by the sudden move to emergency remote teaching over the past year or so.  I’ve only skimmed the contents and read a couple of the chapters, but my first impressions are positive. Edited by Richard Ferdig and Kristine Pytash, It springs from the very active and engaged AACE SITE community, which is a good indicator of expertise and experience. It seems well organized into three main sections:

  1.         Social and Emotional Learning for Teacher Education.
  2.         Online Teaching and Learning for Teacher Education.
  3.         eXtended Reality (XR) for Teacher Education

I like the up-front emphasis on social and emotional aspects, addressing things like belongingness, compassion, and community, mainly from theoretical/model-oriented perspectives, and the other sections seem wisely chosen to meet practitioner needs. The chapters adopt a standardized structure:

  • Introduction. 
  • What We Know. 
  • Lessons Learned for Research. 
  • Lessons Learned for Practice. 
  • What You Should Read. 
  • References

Again, this seems pretty sensible, maintaining a good focus on actionable knowledge and practical steps to be taken. It’s not quite a textbook, but it’s a useful teach-yourself resource with good coverage. I look forward to dipping into it a bit more deeply. I expect to find some good ideas, good practices, and good theoretical models to support my teaching and my understanding of the issues. And I’m really pleased that it is being released as an open publication: well done, AACE, for making this openly available.

But I do wonder a little about who else will read this.

Comfort zones and uncomfortable zones

The other day I was chatting with a neighbour who teaches a traditional hard science subject at one of the local universities, who was venting about the problems of teaching via Zoom. He knew that I had a bit of interest and experience in this area, so he asked whether I had any advice. I started to suggest some ways of rethinking it as a pedagogical opportunity, but he was not impressed. Even something as low-threshold and straightforward as flipping the classroom or focusing on what students do rather than what he has to tell them was a step too far. He patiently explained that he has classes with hundreds of students and fixed topics that they need to learn, and he really didn’t see it as desirable or even possible to depart from his well-tried lecture format. At least it would be too much work and he didn’t have the time for it. I did try to push back on that a bit and I may have mentioned the overwhelming body of research that suggests this might not be a wise move, but he was pretty clear and firm about this.  What he actually wanted was for someone to make (or tell him how to make) the digital technology as easy and as comfortably familiar as the lecture theatre, and that would somehow make the students as engaged as he perceived them to normally be in his lectures, without notably changing how he taught. The problem was the darn technology, not the teaching. I bit my tongue at this point. I eventually came up with a platitude or two about trying to find different ways to make learning visible, about explicitly showing that he cares, about taking time to listen, about modelling the behaviour he wanted to see, about using the chat to good advantage, and about how motivation differs online and off, but I don’t think it helped. I suspect that the only things that really resonated with him were suggestions about how to get the most out of a webcam and a recommendation to get a better microphone.

Within the context in which he usually teaches, he is probably a very good teacher. He’s a likeable person who clearly cares a lot about his students, he knows a lot about his subject, and he knows how to make it appealing within the situation that he normally works. His courses, as he described them, are very conventional, relying a lot on the structure given to them by the industry-driven curriculum and the university’s processes, norms, and structures, and he fills his role in all that admirably. I think he is pretty typical of the vast majority of teachers. They’re good at what they do, comfortable with how they do it, and they just want the technology to accommodate them continuing to do so without unnecessary obstacles.

Unfortunately, technology doesn’t work that way.

The main reason it doesn’t work is very simple: technologies (including pedagogies) affect one another in complex and recursive ways, so (with some trivial exceptions) you can’t change one element (especially a large element) and expect the rest to work as they did before.  It’s simple, intuitive, and obvious but unless you are already well immersed in both systems theories and educational theory, really taking it to heart and understanding how it must affect your practice demands a pretty big shift in weltanschauung, which is not the kind of thing I was keen to start while on my way to the store in the midst of a busy day.

To make matters worse, even if teachers do acknowledge the need to change, their assumption that things will eventually (maybe soon) return to normal means that they are – reasonably enough –  not willing and probably not able to invest a lot of time into it. A big part of the reason for this is that, thanks to the aforementioned interdependencies, they are probably running round like blue-arsed flies just trying to keep things together, and filling their time with fixing the things that inevitably break in the process. Systems thrive on this kind of self-healing feedback loop. I guess teachers figure that, if they can work out how to tread water until the pandemic has run its course, it will be OK in the end.

If only.

Why in-person education works

The hallmark technologies (mandatory lectures, assignments, grades, exams, etc, etc) of in-person teaching are worse than awful but, just as a talented musician can make beautiful noises with limited technical knowledge and sub-standard instruments, so there are countless teachers who use atrocious methods in dreadful contexts but who successfully lead their students to learn. As long as the technologies are soft and flexible enough to allow them to paper over the cracks of bad tools and methods with good technique, talent, and passion, it works well enough for enough people enough of the time and can (with enough talent and passion) even be inspiring.

It would not work at all, though, without the massive machinery that surrounds it.

An institution (including its systems, structures, and tools) is itself designed to teach, no matter how bad the teachers are within it. The opportunities for students to learn from and with others around them, including other students, professors, support staff, administrators, and so on; the supporting technologies, including rules, physical spaces, structures, furnishings, and tools; the common rooms, the hallways, the smokers’ areas (best classrooms ever), the lecture theatres, the bars and the coffee shops; the timetables that make students physically travel to a location together (and thus massively increase salience); the notices on the walls; the clubs and societies; the librarians, the libraries, the students reading and writing within those libraries, echoing and amplifying the culture of learning that pervades them; the student dorms and shared kitchens where even more learning happens; the parties; even the awful extrinsic motivation of grades, teacher power, and norms and rules of behaviour that emerged in the first place due to the profound motivational shortcomings of in-person teaching. All of this and more conspires to support a basic level of at least mediocre (but good enough) learning, whether or not teachers teach well. It’s a massively distributed technology enacted by many coparticipants, of which designated teachers are just a part, and in which students are the lead actors among a cast of thousands. Online, those thousands are often largely invisible. At best, their presence tends to be highly filtered, channeled, or muted.

Why in-person methods don’t transfer well online

When most of that massive complex machinery is suddenly removed, leaving nothing but a generic interface better suited to remote business meetings than learning or, much worse, some awful approximation of all the evil, hard, disempowering technologies of traditional teaching wrapped around Zoom, or nightmarishly inhuman online proctoring systems, much of the teaching (in the broadest sense) disappears with it. Teaching in an institution is not just what teachers do. It’s the work of a community; of all the structures the community creates and uses; of the written and unwritten rules; of the tacit knowledge imparted by engagement in a space made for learning; of the massive preparation of schooling and the intricate loops that connect it with the rest of society; of attitudes and cultures that are shaped and reinforced by all the rest.  It’s no wonder that teachers attempting to transfer small (but the most visible) parts of that technology online struggle with it. They need to fill the ever-widening gaps left when most of the comfortable support structures of in-person institutions that made it possible in the first place are either gone or mutated into something lean and hungry. It can be done, but it is really hard work.

More abstractly, a big part of the problem with this transfer-what-used-to-work-in-person approach is that it is a technology-first approach to the problem that focuses on one technology rather than the whole. The technology of choice in this case happens to be a set of pedagogical methods, but it is no different in principle than picking a digital tool and letting that decide how you will teach. Neither makes much sense. All the technologies in the assembly – including pedagogies, digital tools, regulations, designs, and structures – have to work together. No single technology has precedence, beyond the one that results from assembling the rest. To make matters worse, what-used-to-work-in-person pedagogies were situated solutions to the problems of teaching in physical classrooms, not universally applicable methods of teaching. Though there are some similarities here and there, the problems of teaching online are not at all the same as those of in-person teaching so of course the solutions are different. Simply transferring in-person pedagogies to an online context is much like using the paddles from a kayak to power a bicycle. You might move, but you won’t move far, you won’t move fast, you won’t move where you want to go, and it is quite likely to end in injury to yourself or others.

Such problems have, to a large extent, been adequately solved by teachers and institutions that work primarily online. Online institutions and organizations have infrastructure, processes, rules, tools, cultures, and norms that have evolved to work together, starting with the baseline assumption that little or none of the physical stuff will ever be available. Anything that didn’t work never made it to first base, or has not survived. Those that have been around a while might not be perfect, but they have ironed out most of the kinks and filled in most of the gaps. Most of my work, and that of my smarter peers, begins in this different context. In fact, in my case, it mainly involves savagely critiquing that context and figuring out ways to improve it, so it is yet another step removed from where in-person teachers are now.

OK, maybe I could offer a little advice or, at least, a metaphor

Roughly 20 years ago I did share a similar context. Working in an in-person university, I had to lead a team of novice online teachers from geographically dispersed colleges to create and teach a blended program with 28 new online courses. We built the whole thing in 6 months from start to finish, including the formal evaluations and approvals process. I could share some generic lessons from what I discovered then, the main one being to put most of the effort into learning to teach online, not into designing course materials. Put dialogue and community first, not structure. For instance, make the first thing students see in the LMS the discussion, not your notes or slides, and use the discussion to share content and guide the process. However, I’d mostly feel like the driver of a Model T Ford trying to teach someone to drive a Tesla. Technologies have changed, I have changed, my memory is unreliable.

bicycleIn fact, I haven’t driven a car of any description in years. What I normally do now is, metaphorically, much closer to riding a bicycle, which I happen to do and enjoy a lot in real life too. A bike is a really smart, well-adapted, appropriate, versatile, maintainable, sustainable soft technology for getting around. The journey tends to be much more healthy and enjoyable, traffic jams don’t bother you, you can go all sorts of places cars cannot reach, and you can much more easily stop wherever you like along the way to explore what interests you. You can pretty much guarantee that you will arrive when and where you planned to arrive, give or take a few minutes. In the city, it’s often the fastest way to get around, once you factor in parking etc. It’s very liberating. It is true that more effort is needed to get from A to B, bad weather can be a pain, and it would not be the fastest or most comfortable way to reach the other side of the continent: sometimes, alternative forms of transport are definitely worth taking and I’m not against them when it’s appropriate to use them. And the bike I normally ride does have a little electric motor in one of the wheels that helps push me up hills (not much, but enough) but it doesn’t interfere with the joy (or most of the effort) of riding.  I have learned that low-threshold, adaptable, resilient systems are often much smarter in many ways than high-tech platforms because they are part-human. They can take on your own smartness and creativity in ways no amount of automation can match. This is true of online learning tools as much as it is true of bicycles. Blogs, wikis, email, discussion forums, and so on often beat the pants off learning management systems, commercial teaching platforms, learning analytics tools or AI chatbots for many advanced pedagogical methods because they can become what you want them to be, rather than what the designer thought you wanted, and they can go anywhere, without constraint. Of course, the flip side is that they take more effort, sometimes take more time, and (without enormous care) can make it harder for all concerned to do things that are automated and streamlined in more highly engineered tools, so they might not always be the best option in all circumstances, any more than a bike is the best way to get up a snowy mountain or to cross an ocean.

Why you shouldn’t listen to my advice

It’s sad but true that most of what I would really like to say on the subject of online learning won’t help teachers on the ground right now, and it is actually worse than the help their peers could give them because what I really want to tell them is to change everything and to see the world completely differently. That’s pretty threatening, especially in these already vulnerable times, and not much use if you have a class to teach tomorrow morning.

The AACE book is more grounded in where in-person teachers are now. The chapter “We Need to Help Teachers Withstand Public Criticism as They Learn to Teach Online”, for example, delves into the issues well, in accessible ways that derive from a clear understanding of the context.  However, the book cannot help but be an implicit (and, often, explicit) critique of how teachers currently teach: that’s implied in the title, and in the chapter structures.  If you’re already interested enough in the subject and willing enough to change how you teach that you are reading this book in the first place, then this is great. You are 90% of the way there already, and you are ready to learn those lessons. One of the positive sides of emergency remote teaching has been that it has encouraged some teachers to reflect on their teaching practices and purposes, in ways that will probably continue to be beneficial if and when they return to in-person teaching. They will enjoy this book, and they may be the intended audience. But they are not the ones that really need it.

I would quite like to see (though maybe not to read) a different kind of book containing advice from beginners. Maybe it would have a title something like ‘What I learned in 2020’ or ‘How I survived Zoom.’ Emergency remote teachers might be more inclined to listen to the people who didn’t know the ‘right’ ways of doing things when the crisis began, who really didn’t want to change, who maybe resented the imposition, but who found ways to work through it from where they were then, rather than where the experts think (or know) they should be aiming now. It would no doubt annoy me and other distance learning researchers because, from the perspective of recognized good practice, much of it would probably be terrible but, unlike what we have to offer, it would actually be useful. A few chapters in the AACE book are grounded in concrete experience of this nature, but even they wind up saying what should have happened, framing the solutions in the existing discourse of the distance learning discipline. Most chapters consist of advice from experts who already knew the answers before the pandemic started. It is telling that the word ‘should’ occurs a lot more frequently than it should. This is not a criticism of the authors or editors of the book: the book is clear from the start that it is going to be a critique of current practice and a practical guidebook to the territory, and most of the advice I’ve seen in it so far makes a lot of sense. It’s just not likely to affect many of the ones who have no wish to change not just their practices but their fundamental attitudes to teaching. Sadly, that’s also true of this post which, I think, is therefore more of an explanation of why I’ve been staring into the headlights for most of the pandemic, rather than a serious attempt to help those in need. I hope there’s some value in that because it feels weird to be a (slight, minor, still-learning) expert in the field with very strong opinions about how online learning should work, but to have nothing useful to say on the subject at the one time it ought to have the most impact.

Read the book:

Ferdig, R.E. & Pytash, K.E. (2021). What Teacher Educators Should Have Learned From 2020. Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE). Retrieved March 22, 2021 from https://www.learntechlib.org/primary/p/219088/.

Incarceration in Real Numbers

This is stunning, both in terms of content and in terms of its presentation.

The content is depressingly familiar – the fact that the US incarcerates (in real numbers and as a percentage of population) vastly more people than any other country in the world, the fact that it really likes to do so to visible minorities in particular, and the fact that the system is shockingly corrupt at every level – but the detail is deeply disturbing. I was particularly amazed to learn that around 2% of those vast numbers of incarcerated Americans have actually had a trial. It provides lots of effective comparisons (with other countries, with different demographics, between different demographics, etc) that provide a good sense of the scale of the problem.

What makes this so powerful, though, is the brilliant, JavaScript-powered, interactive presentation. This is one extraordinarily long web page that shows individual images (in symbol form) of all 2.3 million incarcerated Americans, including a count of where you are now to put this into context. To read it, you have to keep scrolling. Keep scrolling, even if you get tired: it’s worth it. It’s particularly effective on a tablet, and less likely to lead to RSI. Some ingenious (but not at all complicated) coding brings phrases, infographics, statistics, and the occasional interactive element into view along the way, hovering for a while whilst you scroll, or becoming part of what you see as you scroll. You control this – you can slow down, go back, pause, and interact with much of the content as it appears. Watch out for some brilliant ways of representing proportions of population, showing graphs at their true scale, and emphasizing agency by showing the likely effects of different interventions.

The experience is deeply visceral – it’s an engagement with the body, not just the eye and brain.  The physical act of scrolling repeatedly hammers home what the numbers actually mean, and the fact that you play such an active role in revealing the content makes it much more impactful than it would be were it simply presented as text and figures, or hyperlinks. I’ve not seen this narrative form used in such a polished, well-integrated way before. This is a true digitally native artwork. The general principle is not dissimilar to that of most conventional e-learning content of the simplest, most mundane next-previous-slide variety. In fact it’s simpler, in many ways. The experience, though, is startlingly different.

It’s quite inspiring. I want to explore this kind of approach in my own teaching, though I don’t know how often I could use it before the effect gets stale, there may be some accessibility issues, and, if it were used in a course context as a means of sharing knowledge, it could easily become as over-controlling as a lecture. That said, it’s a brilliant way to make a point, far more powerfully than a PowerPoint, and  more engagingly than text, images, or video alone. It could be very useful. At the very least, it might provide a little inspiration for my students seeking ideas for using JavaScript on their sites.

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/8477597/incarceration-in-real-numbers

Affordable Internet for Canada – Virtual Day of Action today (March 16)


This is a timely event, running today via Zoom, as Rogers unexpectedly announce an attempted takeover of Shaw, thereby not only acquiring Shaw’s extensive cable Internet and TV business, but also one of the last remaining serious competitors to the big mobile companies, Freedom Mobile (my cellular provider of choice). The takeover of Freedom by Shaw was in itself a serious matter for concern, especially as it allowed them to sneak in an anti-competitive way to undercut small Internet service providers like Teksavvy (my Internet provider of choice), who use its infrastructure to offer better value options, and who have already been royally screwed by Shaw in every way legal loopholes allow. This would be a disaster for consumers.

Thanks to the power of the big three (Telus, Bell, and Rogers) Canada is already among the most expensive places for mobile and Internet plans in the world. This is bad news in countless ways, not least of which being the extra tax it adds for online learners, nor the fact that those most in need (outside large, mostly Southern urban areas) are the least well served. Destroying the competition does not seem like the best way to deal with this already serious problem. Successive governments have failed to curb the power of big telcos to do pretty much what they like, at best achieving small temporary victories, eventually being out-manoeuvred every time. More serious legislative action is needed, especially to support those in outlying areas.

Add your voice to the protest!

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/8477140/affordable-internet-for-canada-virtual-day-of-action-today-march-16

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.

EdTech Books

This is a great, well presented and nicely curated selection of open books on education and educational technology, ranging from classics (and compilations of chapters by classic authors) to modern guides, textbooks, and blog compilations, covering everything from learning theory to choice of LMS. Some are peer-reviewed, there’s a mix of licences from PD to restrictive CC , and there’s good guidance provided about the type and quality of content. There’s also support for collaboration and publication. All books are readable online, most can be downloaded as (at least) PDF. I think the main target audience is students of education/online learning, and practitioners – at least, there’s a strong practical focus.

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/7161867/edtech-books (where you can find some really interesting comments, including the one that my automated syndicator mistakenly turned into the main post the first time it ran)

How distance changes everything: slides from my keynote at the University of Ottawa

These are the slides from my keynote at the University of Ottawa’s “Scaffolding a Transformative Transition to Distance and Online Learning” symposium today. In the presentation I discussed why distance learning really is different from in-person learning, focusing primarily on the fact that they are the motivational inverse of one another. In-person teaching methods evolved in response to the particular constraints and boundaries imposed by physics, and consist of many inventions – pedagogical and otherwise – that are counter-technologies designed to cope with the consequences of teaching in a classroom, a lot of which are not altogether wise. Many of those constraints do not exist online, and yet we continue to do very similar things, especially those that control and dictate what students should do, as well as when, and how they should do it. This makes no sense, and is actually antagonistic to the natural flow of online learning. I provided a few simple ideas and prompts for thinking about how to go more with the flow.

The presentation was only 20 minutes of a lively and inspiring hour-long session, which was fantastic fun and provided me with many interesting questions and a chance to expand further on the ideas.


Course Content – London Interdisciplinary School


For those in other parts of the world, some translation may be needed here in order to understand what is novel about the London Interdisciplinary School (LIS): a course in the UK is equivalent to a program in North America, and a module is equivalent to a North American course (or unit, if you are Australian, or paper, if you are from NZ). The UK does also sometimes have programmes, though these are mostly administrative umbrellas to make course management easier, rather than things you can enrol on as a student. I will use the UK terms in this post.

The LIS is the first new ratified degree-awarding institution in the UK since the 60s, though more are coming soon. It has one and only one course. The modules for this course are problem-based, centred around real world issues, and they focus on connecting rather than separating subjects and disciplines, so students can take a very diverse range of paths through them, hooking them into workplace practice. There are plenty more conventional (mostly optional) modules that provide specific training, such as for research methods, web design, and so on, but they seem to be treated as optional supports for the journey, rather than the journey’s destination, in a similar way to that used on many PhDs, where students choose what they need from module offerings for their particular research program.

Strongly interdisciplinary and flexible courses are not new, even in the UK – Keele, for instance, has encouraged pretty much any mix of modules for more than half a century, and many institutions provide a modular structure that gives a fair bit of flexibility (though too rarely between, say, arts and sciences).  What differentiates the LIS approach is that it explicitly gets rid of subjects and disciplines altogether, rightly recognizing no distinct boundaries between them. I like this. The tribes and territories of academia are ridiculous inventions that emerge from place-based constraints, bureaucratic management concerns, and long, long path dependencies, not from any plausible rationale related to learning or intellectual coherence.

The college is partially funded by government but operates as a private institution. I look forward to seeing where they go next.

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/7019312/course-content-london-interdisciplinary-school