Softening the machine

Later today I’ll be giving a talk at the AU Learning Services conference, so here are my slides.

Softening the machine (note – only available to logged in users) BIG DOWNLOAD ALERT! May slow down the server if many people do this at once. UPDATE: Scribd version of the slides for viewing in a Web browser, no big download needed, at

For those who want the condensed version, here is a stream of consciousness brain dump on the message I am trying to get acroos:

Like all educational systems, Athabasca University is a machine, composed of many technologies. Some of these are directly about teaching, some with processes around it, some with helping people to work together and more. Because Athabasca developed as a distance institution in the industrial age of distance learning, based primarily on the postal service and telephones, both its institutional and teaching processes became brittle: essentially, Michael Moore’s theory of transactional distance that treats distance as a continuum between structure and dialogue puts us in a tricky situation: limits on dialogue inevitably mean an increase in structure. Technologies developed from the Web 1.0 era that enable richer and more inclusive communication are changing that but they are based on a model of closed groups, focused and task-centric. And that tends to be the nature of dialogue, both in teaching and in the daily workings of the university. The real social connection stuff is still largely left to happen in more or less occasional face to face meetings. Web 2.0 technologies open that out and level the playing field, enabling serendipity, creative engagement, filling those spaces between the islands – that’s what the Landing is about, in both teaching and in ‘learning organization’ terms. However, the Landing is a soft technology: it offers enormous potential to increase the ‘adjacent possible’ but that comes at a price in terms of difficulty of use. The harder technologies from which most of Athabasca’s processes are built have the big benefit of making it easier, but at a cost of constraint. So, we are evolving the Landing so that it can make hard things softer, but also hard things softer. And it’s worth putting in the effort because the payoff can be large.

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, 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. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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