AIs can pass SATs. So, what does this tell us about SATs?

So, a machine can achieve about an average score on a SAT (scholastic assessment test). This is a cool achievement. What interests me more, though, is what this tells us about SATs.

Passing a SAT is presumably meant to show that someone is capable of something other than passing a SAT. But of course it doesn’t. Just like many of the people that are forced to sit these barbaric, ill-considered things, this machine is no more capable of applying that knowledge than a toaster. We need to put an end to this kind of meaningless, inhuman, illusory and deeply harmful approach to assessment and we need to do it now. It kills motivation, kills learning, kills teaching, causes untold suffering, and it doesn’t even do what it is supposed to do in the first place.

Address of the bookmark:

George Siemens says 'Adios Ed Tech. Hola something else'

soft and hard technologies My friend and colleague George Siemens is concerned about dehumanizing trends in educational technology and, in this post, disassociates himself from them. I couldn’t agree more and I am especially glad that he is distancing himself fully from the harder end of the learning analytics movement, which has worried me since before it became a thing (we used to have such issues in adaptive hypermedia). And I couldn’t agree more about the dangers of Knewton.

George is concerned not about edtech in general but about what I would call hard educational technologies. Hard technologies orchestrate phenomena for us: they take away human agency. This can be a very good thing sometimes. I’d much rather have a hard technology sorting out my annual leave requirement or my taxes than one which I have to use creatively, though I do deeply hate the cog-like role that I do have to play in such things – it’s the worst of all possible worlds when we must be a component of a hard technology, doing badly what a machine can do better. I am even less enamoured of those that Ursula Franklin describes as prescriptive technologies and that Gary Boyd calls ‘dominative‘, that actively control me, especially if they are trying to make me learn or teach in a way that someone else has decided I should. These are the ones George hates, and so say we all.

I think that what George is seeking is what I would call soft educational technologies, akin to (but not identical to) what Franklin calls holistic and Boyd calls liberative technologies. These are flexible tools (including the cognitive, pedagogic, social, ethical, organizational and physical) that we orchestrate ourselves, that demand creativity of us, that are incomplete without us, that allow us to do better things as human beings, not as part of someone else’s program or orchestration – words, pencils and paper, guitars, computers (when we control them), pedagogies, and so on. We are even more a part of soft technologies than we are of hard ones because they have no meaningful existence without us. We bring them into being. 

Hard technologies can very much be a part of soft assemblies – they give us bigger, smarter, more interesting chunks to assemble and play with – and that is great, as long as they do not demand that we become a part of them. If they add to what we can do then it is wonderful – we can (literally) go to the Moon with hard technologies. If they replace what we can do, then it is only worthwhile if the thing they replace was not worth doing in the first place. There are many hard technologies that we must be a part of – where our role is entirely fixed and proscribed – that would be far better done by machines.  Automation, a particular subset of hardening, can be awful, but it can be great too, as long as it automates the right things and does not take away our agency in the process. For instance, I really like that fact that modern cars can park themselves (as long as I can do it myself if I wish) or that Twitter hashtags are auto-linked so I don’t have to run a manual search any more, or that I don’t have to be a uuencode/decode guru just to send an attachment through email, or that I don’t have to be a part of the hard technology of putting letters on a page with a pen (though I could if I wished) or sharpening a quill.

What matters is automating the right things and extending the adjacent possible, not diminishing it. And it is always important to remember what we lose in the process as well as what we gain. I’m very glad that people don’t have to read my handwriting any more (and so are they, trust me on that) but there are times when nothing else will replace it. The physicality of the handwritten letter, the intimacy of it, the connection it makes with another human being, is not so easily replicated by a machine. There are likewise things about paper books that e-books, despite their manifest superiority in most ways, cannot duplicate. Giving someone an e-book just ain’t the same as giving them a physical book, and the space they take on the shelf serves other cognitive purposes apart from making it easier to find them. And don’t get me started on learning management systems as drop-in replacements for physical classrooms…

Hopefully we will figure that out as part of making our technologies more human, not to return to the old but to fulfill the promise of the new. One of McLuhan’s Laws of Media is concerned with what new media retrieve that was previously obsolesced. To see that, we need to know what we have lost. When we grasp adjacent possibles we don’t always notice what we leave behind, and we really, really should.



Address of the bookmark:

Resources for writing a dissertation

Grainne Conole has shared this useful page of annotated links aimed at education masters students, including links to process guidance, tool tutorials, writing tips and guidelines, referencing standards, research methodology help, and theory. This will be of most value to EDDE, MDDE and some MAIS students, but there is plenty of useful stuff here for anyone wishing to do a project, essay, thesis or dissertation that falls broadly into social science/applied science areas.

Caveat emptor – it’s not all great. This is just Grainne’s helpful hint list that accompanies her teaching, so not all the resources will mean much to everyone, and not all are of the same high quality. Most of it is very useful, though. Anyone that has to write a lit review would do well to heed the list of hints from Tom Reeves at the end of the page.


Address of the bookmark:

Best Way to Take Notes In Class Isn't On Your Laptop, (bad) Research Finds

The best way to learn is not to have classes that demand that you take notes to remember their content in the first place. But, putting that very obvious objection to one side for a moment…

This describes one of those awful bits of research that pays no heed to the fact that there are infinitely many ways to take notes and many different purposes behind doing so, nor that there are massive differences between individuals.


  1. your intent is to remember what someone is telling you,
  2. you are determined to keep lots of distracting tools open while you are taking notes,
  3. you are not as good at typing as you are with writing with a pen or pencil 
  4. you have an uncontrollable urge to transcribe rather than reflect when taking notes with a computer,
  5. your tools do not include tablets with rich note-keeping features that you are reasonably proficient with, and
  6. you are a pretty average learner,

then, perhaps, on average (with notable exceptions), you might be better off using a pen or a pencil. Or, at least, you should learn how to use a laptop more effectively.

I’m not suggesting you should always use a laptop. There are plenty of occasions when pens etc are normally more useful (or at least more convenient), for instance if you are the rapporteur for a group or you are sharing a piece of paper, a flip chart or a whiteboard. There are good high-tech solutions for such things but they are expensive, often fragile, and typically come with a learning curve. Such things are not for everyone, at least, not all of the time. But, to suggest that you should not take notes with a laptop is to completely miss the point. It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. See my previous post on a similarly harmful bit of nonsense for more reasons you might prefer to take notes electronically at least some of the time.

The mediaeval pedagogies are the cause of the problems, not the note taking or use of laptops during lectures. I don’t mind teachers suggesting that it is probably not a good idea to do something that demands effort while doing something else that also demands effort. That’s just common sense advice, like warning people not to text and drive. But, if teachers didn’t force people to learn in a hugely ineffective, coercive, power-crazed fashion in the first place, as though centuries of pedagogical research had never happened, none of this would be a problem at all. Nor would it be a problem if, instead of telling students to give up their really useful tools, teachers went to the trouble of helping them to learn how to use them more effectively. That would be more like teaching. Maybe the teachers would learn something in the process too.


Address of the bookmark:

What Maslow’s Hierarchy Won’t Tell You About Motivation

A simple, clear description of self-determination theory, with a few examples of how it might be applied. The example given is nothing like as good as the description – it is concerned with making people bend to your will through motivational trickery – but the description of SDT is good, as is the brief, dismissive debunking of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (an armchair theory with little or no foundation in reality).

Address of the bookmark:

Keep laptops out of lecture halls, professor says

Another in a long line of ‘keep digital technologies out of the classroom’ nonsense. Sometimes I despair.

Lecture with skeletonThe sad thing is that this idea (banning the taking of notes in lectures using keyboards) is actually quite valid, in the context of an oppressive, coercive and ineffective pedagogy, given the very limited goals of this kind of transmissive model of learning. If you want your passive students to be able to parrot your wise thoughts back at you, and this is what you value in the assessment, and if you have so little imagination that you can’t figure out a better way to deliver that information than through a lecture, then this is roughly what it takes to make a lecture at least partially work in the manner intended.

To use lectures this way is unbelievably wasteful and stupid. Students will get much more of what you want them to get from just reading a book, or maybe reviewing your own lecture notes or, if you must, watching a recording of your last lecture. Of course, there are normally far better ways to learn than reading or watching, but there is usually a need for simply passing on information in a digestible manner in even the most active approaches to learning.

And yet…

It took me a few years of railing against lectures to realize that lectures are not the problem. I actually don’t mind even the most traditional stand-up-and-preach variety of lectures per se at all. As long as you are not labouring under the illusion that they are at all efficient as a means of helping people to fill their heads with information, and as long as you don’t force people to attend them (including by assessing them on the informational content afterwards), they can play a useful role as catalysts, way-points, and connectors. 

It’s no big deal to give up an hour or so of your time to attend a lecture. You will probably get some inspiration (even if not quite what the lecturer intends), the simple fact that you are devoting time exclusively to it will focus you on the topic of the lecture and give you uninterrupted time to reflect, and it’s a great way to meet people and talk about the topic with them afterwards. As long as you choose whether or not you attend, this can be very motivating. This is even true of rather dull lectures. As long as you don’t set out with the intent of retaining information from them (for which they are very ill suited) they are powerful tools in the pedagogical toolset. 

I do nearly always take notes, typically on a tablet or cellphone, when I attend lectures at conferences etc. A few of those notes may contain reminders about the content, links shared, references, etc: perhaps those might stick better if I made them as hand-written notes (and, sometimes, I’ll scribble them in the margins of the conference program for that reason). But, mostly, my notes contain my reflections and my responses, which are often quite tangential to the intent of the speaker or the content. I might be provoked by something mistaken or dumb, I might pick up a throwaway bit of wording that sparks a divergent train of thought, or I might see connections with something I have been doing, or maybe discover a different way of seeing the same thing or maybe, occasionally, discover something quite new. Handwritten notes are worse for that kind of thing. They’re much more likely to be lost, cannot so easily be re-used, cannot incorporate images of slides or other reminders, cannot contain active hyperlinks and are not so easily indexed.

If you are treating lectures as a source of information then hand-written notes, especially with pictures and visual models of connections, are a good way to make the best of a very bad job. If instead you see lectures as catalysts for thought and creativity, as sparks to light flames, as spaces to reflect, or as conversation starters, then handwritten notes really aren’t that great at all.


Address of the bookmark:

Personalization in Lumen’s “Next Gen” OER Courseware Pilot

I always enjoy reading posts by David Wiley. This is a good one on the progress of Lumen Learning but the main reason I am bookmarking it is for one of the clearest explanations I have seen of the central problem with far-too-common naive approaches to personalized learning. David uses the example of Google’s seldom-used ‘I’m feeling lucky’ button to explain why having a machine (or, as he puts it ‘a passionless algorithm’) make learning choices for you, even if they are pretty likely to be good ones from a short-sighted objectives-based perspective, is normally a bad idea.

I’d go a bit further. Having a human make those choices for you can be equally bad for learning. While human judgement might lead to better choices than a dispassionate algorithm, the problem in learning is not so much one of making the best choices to reach an objective, but of learning how to make those choices yourself. There is a risk that careless use of analytics by teachers to lead students in a particular direction might simply substitute a human for a machine. Beyond the most trivial of skills (not to trivialize trivial skills) effective teaching – the stuff that persists and transforms – is not about making choices on the behalf of a learner. It is much more about provoking and responding (and a host of other things like caring, nurturing, challenging, soothing, inspiring, etc, none of which can be done well by machines).

Having teachers make choices is not what David is talking about, though. He rightly emphasizes the importance of engaging in ‘good old-fashioned conversations’, which are the very opposite of teacher control, and of simply using models from the machine to help inform those conversations. This is great. The more you know about someone, the richer the conversations can be and, as an expert with a good understanding of the model, a teacher should be able to interpret it wisely – an aid to decision-making, not a decision-maker in itself.

I’m not so sure about feeding the model back to the learner directly though. In all but the most trivial of models there are some big risks of misapprehensions, misdirection, missing parts, and misattributions. Any model is just that – a simplification and abstraction of a much more complex whole.  As long as it is understood that way by the learner then you would think all should be fine, but it is not so simple. For example, I was given one of those dreadful fitness tracker devices that uses just such a simple model. It miscounts steps, fails to understand the concept of cycling, sailing, swimming, playing a guitar or even of a standing desk, but none-the-less continues to present believable-looking statistics about my health to me and even tells me in pure Skinner fashion to get up and jog, without having the slightest idea about the state of my knees or ankles, let alone my distaste for jogging. I completely understand the crude and ugly behaviourist reward/punishment pedagogy it attempts to inflict on me and am fully aware of the fact that it is often hundreds of percent wrong about my activity and I completely get the limitations of the model. But it still draws me in. No matter how much I can intellectually explain that there is nothing inherently meaningful about it counting 500 or 15,000 steps in a day, those reassuring graphs affect me, and not in a good way. Sometimes I have found myself walking places in order to reach the machine’s target when I would otherwise have cycled (a much healthier alternative) and congratulate myself on a nice looking graph when I know that all I have been doing is playing the guitar (which the machine identifies as walking – maybe it’s my foot tapping). It’s a sure sign of extrinsic motivation when, even though I am the only one that knows or cares, I cheat. Being aware of limitations is not enough.

Address of the bookmark:

Grit: A Skeptical Look at the Latest Educational Fad (##) – Alfie Kohn

One of two related articles by the ever-wonderful Alfie Kohn. The other, on ‘growth mindsets’ is at

Both are cutting attacks on a couple of terrible education fads that appear to be gaining sway with politicians and that are both, as Kohn explains very well, not about supporting creative, interested, engaged learners but instead about ensuring conformity and control. As it often the case in Kohn’s articles, both swing round to Kohn’s central agenda of promoting self-determination theory, both are well informed by substantial research. Kohn is kinder to Carol Dweck’s growth mindset research than to the appallingly unsupported and unsupportable ‘grit’ nonsense promoted by appropriately named Paul Tough, but the results are much the same: the focus on making individuals fit the structure rather than changing the poisonous structure of educational systems themselves.

Read one, read both.

Address of the bookmark:

Teaching with the Internet; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Google In My Classroom ~ Stephen's Web

Lecture with skeleton Stephen Downes questions Adeline Koh’s questioning of the lecture form for keynotes. He’s right to question.

In a classroom, the lecture is imposed, regularly scheduled, controlled, and it epitomizes all that is wrong in regulated institutional learning. A classroom lecture is about making people learn what you want to make them learn. At least, that’s the norm. And a lecture is incredibly bad at playing that role – much worse than a book or a decent website. That’s why, for the most part, most good teachers don’t habitually do lectures or, if they do, they keep them very short and situate them in other activities, as Koh suggests they should, and/or use them as ignition points for the real learning that goes on outside the classroom.

A keynote at a conference is not like that at all. With very few exceptions, every attendee makes a deliberate choice to attend and to devote a small chunk of time to being inspired and/or challenged. At least, we hope that’s what will happen. That is at least why we try to get keynotes with interesting things to say. It’s not a means of drumming facts into people. It’s a voluntarily chosen opportunity to see the world a bit differently, not unlike choosing to see a movie that you suspect will affect you. Personally, I do like to provide a bit of variety and audience engagement in my keynotes, especially if I can encourage attendees to engage face-to-face or onine, but that’s really just to keep the interest rolling and to find ways of helping people take ownership of the things that matter to them in whatever it is that I am rabbiting on about. I do so because it’s pretty hard to spend an hour being consistently inspiring and it seems a pity to waste the opportunity to engage with a bunch of smart, interested, like-minded people if they have taken the trouble to attend.

A bad keynote is tedious. I have been bored to sleep by those, who were otherwise some of the greatest thinkers with really interesting things to say, that just stood up and read at me or, worse, read at their notes while barely looking up. Why bother doing that? I’d much rather watch a movie. Even a bad keynote, though, is not entirely a waste of time. The real value of such a thing is not the boringly delivered lecture itself, but that you are sitting there with a load of other bored people with whom you can talk about it afterwards. It’s a shared focal point. This can help spark some interesting conversations, especially if some people managed to overcome their boredom and found inspiration in the words.

If lectures at schools and universities were run like keynotes, with voluntary attendance and carefully chosen inspirational speakers, it might not be a bad thing at all, though the rest of the accreditation framework would have to change too. There were some optional lectures in my first degree but I attended only one in the whole time I was there. I still remember that lecture quite vividly – it did change how I think and it really was inspiring – but there were dozens of others that I missed because they wouldn’t be on the exam (nor was the one I attended – it was just really interesting and someone I respected had suggested I might like it). I attended dozens of such lectures in my second degree because I was a far more mature learner and I was there to learn, not to pass the test: I attended because I was interested, not because I had to do so, and I got a huge amount out of them and the surrounding conversations. This is what we need – people that learn because they want to, not because we tell them they must, and not because we will punish them if they do not. Disaggregation of teaching and assessment is the crucial next step we absolutely have to take if we are to make institutional education as useful as it should, and easily could, be.

Address of the bookmark:

Measuring transactional distance in web-based learning environments: an initial instrument development

From the ironically named Taylor & Francis journal ‘Open Learning’ (which is closed), an interesting attempt to come up with a means to measure transactional distance. Regular readers will know that I am a fan of Moore’s theory of transactional distance, a systems theory that explains some of the central the dynamics of educational systems and that can be extremely valuable in both designing and predicting the effects of distance learning, but that is susceptible to multiple interpretations and that is fuzzy around the edges. Coming up with a reliable instrument to measure it would therefore be quite useful.


“This study was an initial attempt to operationalise Moore’s transactional distance theory by developing and validating an instrument measuring the related constructs: dialogue, structure, learner autonomy and transactional distance. Data were collected from 227 online students and analysed through an exploratory factor analysis. Results suggest that the instrument, in general, shows promise as a valid and reliable measure of the constructs related to transactional distance theory. Potential refinement of the instrument and future research directions are included at the end of the article.”

There’s lots of good discussion of previous work in this paper and some fair attempts to dismantle the mechanisms and meanings of transactional distance, as well as a good research process capable of revealing some interesting insights. However, I am unconvinced by some of the very basic assumptions, so the instrument remains a bit blunt. I am a bit disappointed that one of my papers is cited for its minor criticism of the fuzziness of the theory, but the authors do not consider the major point of the paper (and a solution to much of that fuzziness) that the fundamental dynamic of transactional distance is concerned with control. I have a very strong suspicion that they might have found far more useful things in this study if they had explicitly taken that on board and tried to examine the exchange of control in the system.  Instead, they got caught in the well-known trap of seeing autonomy as a personal and unsituated characteristic, and made rough assumptions about structure/dialogue that take no account of the scale (or, as the late John Holland would have more accurately put it the boundaries) of the systems being looked at. These are not separate or separable categories – the dynamics shift according to where and when you place the boundaries. They would also have benefitted greatly from considering the various presences in the community of inquiry model, which would have made it easier to lose that very arbitrary one-to-one correspondence of teacher, student and content roles that constrains the model in quite artificial ways. Teachers are also other students, writers of content, and the creators of the surrounding physical and organizational environment. Again, the boundaries are not fixed, nor are they mutually exclusive. The most disappointing thing, though, is that that their initial hypotheses about the nature of transactional distance (which is, after all, what it was supposed to be about and that might have been a really valuable contribution, if validated) got completely lost in the process. The one thing that they really needed to show is the one thing that they did not. This is not a bad thing at all, and it is a discovery that is worthy of discussion. However, that is not quite how they see it:

“Transactional distance included learner–instructor transactional distance and learner–learner transactional distance. The original closeness, shared understanding and perceived learning did not merge; yet, the related items merged into the learner–instructor transactional distance and learner–learner transactional distance, respectively.”

This rather begs the question – if their initial model was not correct, what is that transactional distance that they are talking about and that they are attempting to measure? Their initial model, though fuzzy, was interesting and based on some thoughtful analysis but, in the final model, all they have done is to say that there are two different kinds of transactional distance depending on whether you are a learner or a teacher, without saying what they are, coming up with a sweeping sub-categorization that is just an artefact of the initial assumptions.  I think another closely related part of the problem is that they assumed at the start that transactional distance is in some way additional and separate to structure, dialogue and autonomy, rather than strictly following Moore’s meaning that it is a function of them. Their worthwhile attempt to analyze it further, by unpicking aspects of that, turned out to be fruitless because the aspects they picked were not the right ones.

This is not to suggest that the results are valueless. Far from it. This is a nicely conducted study that models a little of the complexity of learning transactions in a useful, if fuzzy, way, that explores the various meanings of transactional distance expressed in the literature pretty well, and, as well, helps to show some relatively unfruitful lines of enquiry. It’s just that it doesn’t meet the objectives set out in its own title, and it does not really do much to reduce the fuzziness of the construct that is the main problem that it set out to solve.

Address of the bookmark: