This is a link to my latest paper, published in the closing days of 2022. The paper started as a couple of blog posts that I turned into a paper that nearly made an appearance in the Distance Education in China journal before a last-minute regime change in the editorial staff led to it being dropped, and it was then picked up by the OTESSA Journal after I shared it online, so you might have seen some of it before. My thanks to all the many editors, reviewers (all of whom gave excellent suggestions and feedback that I hope I’ve addressed in the final version), and online commentators who have helped to make it a better paper. Though it took a while I have really enjoyed the openness of the process, which has been quite different from any that I’ve followed in the past.
The paper begins with an exploration of the many ways that environments are both shaped by and shape how learning happens, both online and in-person. The bulk of the paper then presents an argument to stop using the word “environment” to describe online systems for learning. Partly this is because online “environments” are actually parts of the learner’s environment, rather than vice versa. Mainly, it is because of the baggage that comes with the term, which leads us to (poorly) replicate solutions to problems that don’t exist online, in the process creating new problems that we fail to adequately solve because we are so stuck in ways of thinking and acting due to the metaphors on which they are based. My solution is not particularly original, but it bears repeating. Essentially, it is to disaggregate services needed to support learning so that:
they can be assembled into learners’ environments (their actual environments) more easily;
they can be adapted and evolve as needed; and, ultimately,
online learning institutions can be reinvented without all the vast numbers of counter-technologies and path dependencies inherited from their in-person counterparts that currently weigh them down.
My own views have shifted a little since writing the paper. I stick by my belief that 1) it is a mistake to think of online systems as generally analogous to the physical spaces that we inhabit, and 2) that a single application, or suite of applications, should not be seen as an environment, as such (at most, as in some uses of VR, it might be seen as a simulation of one). However, there are (shifting) boundaries that can be placed around the systems that an organization and/or an individual uses for which the metaphor may be useful, at the very least to describe the extent to which we are inside or outside it, and that might frame the various kinds of distance that may exist within it and from it. I’m currently working on a paper that expands on this idea a bit more.
In online educational systems, teachers often replicate pedagogical methods, and online institutions replicate systems and structures used by their in-person counterparts, the only purpose of which was to solve problems created by having to teach in a physical environment. Likewise, virtual learning environments often attempt to replicate features of their physical counterparts, thereby weakly replicating in software the problems that in-person teachers had to solve. This has contributed to a vicious circle of problem creation and problem solving that benefits no one. In this paper I argue that the term ‘environment’ is a dangerously misleading metaphor for the online systems we build to support learning, that leads to poor pedagogical choices and weak digital solutions. I propose an alternative metaphor of infrastructure and services that can enable more flexible, learner-driven, and digitally native ways of designing systems (including the tools, pedagogies, and structures) to support learning.
Oh drat. So Doppler Labs is no more. This is very sad.
I love my Here One bluetooth earbuds, have recommended them to many people, and would do so again. For simple noise cancelling they run countless rings around every other headphones and earbuds I have ever tried, including top of the line Bose devices costing a lot more (not that these were cheap). The moment that you turn the external sound down and enter a state of blissful silence is miraculous. But they are so much more than that: having entered that world of silence you can bring up sounds that you want to hear, notably the voices of people around you or (more specifically thanks to 6 built-in microphones) in front of you (or, for secret agents, behind you). It is quite eerie to sit on a bus and hear, with fair clarity, the conversations of people around you but to barely hear the rumble and clatter of the bus itself. It’s not always perfect, but it is still pretty remarkable. I’ve even been able to talk with people on a float plane, with massively reduced rumble and noticeably enhanced speech, almost normally. And it is marvellous to be cycling while listening to music while being able to hear approaching traffic and other significant things around me well enough to be safe. Or to wander through a park in the heart of a noisy city and hear nothing but birdsong. I particularly love being able to sit in a crowded bar or restaurant and to hear the conversation of people on the other side of the table but not those of the rest of the room (though it still has difficulty dealing with over-loud music). As a former professional musician with consequent hearing loss, this is transformative: I don’t need a hearing aid (yet) most of the time but, for those odd occasions when my hearing fails me, Here One provides a great solution. To cap it off, the sound quality for music etc is top notch – vastly superior to any other earbuds I have ever owned (mind you, they cost more than twice as much as any I have hitherto owned, so I would hope so). I suspect that at least some of the reason for this is that they store a hearing profile for me that knows which frequencies cause me difficulty and that therefore shape the sound to suit me better. They are basically computers for the ears.
There are weaknesses, some of which have till now been improving through software upgrades since I got the things. It’s a big pain having to control the buds from a cellphone for even pretty simple stuff like volume control. Though there are a few things that can be done by tapping them/double-tapping them (like switching off the noise cancelling or answering a phone) the process is unreliable and there’s a limited range of things you can do that way. The battery life, though improved since the first release and now quicker to recharge, is not that great, notwithstanding the fact that you can charge them two or three times from the case itself. I would prefer to be able to plug in a cable and/or battery booster to use on long flights without interruption. Despite multiple options for earpieces, they don’t always feel firmly set in my ears and, because the seal is pretty solid when they are inserted right, it can get uncomfortable on take-off and landing in planes, especially if you have a cold. And they don’t have a flight mode so, technically, I shouldn’t be doing that anyway. It is really annoying when bluetooth fails as, inevitably, it sometimes does (even though it may not be the fault of the earphones). It is hard to pair them with multiple devices, and the set-up for non-supported devices (anything that is not an iPhone or Android phone, basically) is gruelling and unreliable. It would be nice if they were waterproof. They stick out a bit, albeit not as much as most bluetooth buds. Sometimes they fail to turn off and cause feedback when returned to the case. But these are things I can live with, in return for wearing a completely new category of smart device that enhances the quality of my life.
I was really looking forward to some of the promised new features, especially real-time language translations, but I guess that will have to wait until it is a standard cellphone/smartwatch feature because it is no longer going to come from Doppler Labs. I am much more worried about the loss of support, and the fact that what I have now is what I will have for as long as the buds themselves last: it was one of the appealing things about them that they got better with each software/firmware update. If security flaws are discovered, they won’t get fixed. More worryingly, next time I change my phone (a common event) I may not be able to install the software that is essential to making them work at all. Even if I can, my experience with older iOS devices is that upgrades to phone operating systems often render older software unusable, so they could become a very expensive bit of junk very quickly. It would be nice to think that Doppler Labs might open source their software so that this is not a problem but, from the article, it sounds like they will be selling off the patents to the highest bidder and the chances of opening things up are therefore pretty slim. I fear there are not enough of the things out there in the wild to spark a community-based alternative. On the bright side, no doubt the brilliant innovations will be snapped up by a bigger, more sustainable firm and will find their way into more mainstream devices (Apple would be foolish to miss this one), but I will miss this company and I will miss this product.
This is the second high profile and apparently highly successful Kickstarter device that I have owned to suffer this fate, and I fear the outcomes will be similar. My Pebble watch continues to do basic service but I don’t know for how much longer. There has been nothing new arriving for it since the company folded earlier this year, and the apps it used to run are diminishing every week, as services that they rely upon fold. In olden days, we used to be able to continue to use our devices no matter what happened to their manufacturers. Nowadays, not so much.
I doubt that I will learn my lessons well from this as I am a great optimist when faced with a revolutionary new technology, but it’s something we all have to remember: software embedded in our hardware is an ongoing commitment, and we are surrounded by the stuff at work and at home, from TVs to cars to watches to lightbulbs to routers to phones, and so on. Increasingly, we’re no longer buying a product, we are buying into a service, so the quality and potential longevity of the company is even more important than the quality of the machinery. The only truly effective way to keep it safe, reliable, and sustainable would be for it to be open source and/or to use open standards, and for it not to rely on a single cloud-based service to operate. Sadly, far too little of the Internet of Things comes close to that. And far too much of it is hidden behind DRM, closed APIs, and other sinful mechanisms.
Though Microsoft has been unusually prone to the kind of chicanery described in this article for most of its existence, the problem of price hiking combined with shifting, decaying, or dying cloud services is inherent in the cloud model they are using itself.
Cloud services can make good sense when they are directly replaceable with competitive alternatives: there are compelling reasons to, say, run your virtual servers in the cloud (whether in virtual machines or containers), or to handle network services like DDoS protection, DNS management, or spam filtering, or even (under some circumstances) to run relatively high level application layer services like databases, SMTP mail, or web servers. As long as you can treat a service exactly like a utility – including, crucially, the ability to simply, cheaply, and fairly painlessly switch service providers (including back in-house) whenever you want or need to do so – then it can provide resilience, scalability, predictable costs, and agility. Sometimes, it can even save money. There are still lots of potential pitfalls: complex management concerns like privacy, security, performance, faults, configuration, and accounting need to be treated with utmost caution, service contract negotiation is a complex and trap-strewn art, training and integration can be fiendishly difficult to manage when you no longer control the service and it changes under your feet, and there are potential unpredictable problems ahead when companies go bust, change hands, or become subject to dangerous legislative changes. But, on the whole, a true utility service can often be a sensible use of limited funds.
The soon-to-be-defunct Outlook.com Premium looks deceptively like a utility service on the surface, ostensibly offering what look a lot like simple, straightforward, SMTP/IMAP/POP email services, with a cutesy (ie. from Hell) web front end, with the (optional) capacity to choose a domain that could be migrated elsewhere. To a savvy user, it could be treated as little more than a utility service. However, there’s a lot of integrated frippery, from tricks to embed large images, to proprietary metadata, to out-of-office settings, to integrations with other Microsoft tools, that makes it less portable the more you use it, especially for the less technically adept target audience it is aimed at, especially if you are using Microsoft Outlook or the Web interface to manage it. Along with some subtle bending of protocols that make even the simplest of migrations fraught with difficulty and subject to lost metadata at best, by far the most likely exit strategy for most users will be to shift to the (more expensive) O365 which, though not identical, has features that are close enough and easily-migrated enough to suit the average Joe. And that’s what Microsoft wants.
O365 is not a utility service at all, despite using the lure of almost generic email and calendaring (potentially replaceable services) to hook you in. It’s a cloud-based application suite filled to the brim with proprietary applications, systems and protocols, almost all of which are purpose-built to lock your data, processes, and skill set into a non-transferable cloud that is owned and controlled by an entity that does not have your interests as its main concern. In fact, exactly the opposite: its main concern is to get as much money from you as possible over as long a period as it can. If it were a utility like, say, electricity to your home, it would be one that required you to only plug in its own devices, using sockets that could not be duplicated, running at voltages and frequencies no one else uses. Its employees would walk into your house and replace your appliances and devices with different ones whenever they wanted (often replacing your stove while you were cooking on it), dropping and adding features as they felt like it. The utility company would be selling information about what devices you use, and when, to which channels you tuned your TV, what you were eating, and so on, to anyone willing to pay. You would have to have a microwave and toaster whether you wanted one or not, and you couldn’t switch any of them off. It would install cameras and microphones in your home that it or its government could use to watch everything you do. Every now and then it would increase its prices to just a bit less than it would cost to rip everything out and replace it with standards-based equipment you could use anywhere. Though it would offer a lot of different devices, all with different and unintuitive switches and remote controls (because it had bought most of them from other companies), none of them would work properly and, as they were slowly replaced with technologies made by the company itself, they would get steadily worse over a period of years, and steadily harder to replace with anything else. You would have to accept what you were given, no matter how poorly it fitted your needs, and you would be unable to make any changes to any of them, no matter how great the need or how useless they were to you. Perish the thought that you or your home might have any unique requirements, or that you might want to be a bit creative yourself. Welcome to Microsoft’s business model! And welcome to the world of (non-utility) cloud services.
Bad clouds closer to home
Given the tone of this article it is perhaps mildly ironic that Engadget, the source of it, reporting on the product less than a year ago, gave advice that “the Premium service might strike a good balance between that urge for customization and the safety net you get through tech giants like Microsoft.” You’d think a tech-focused site like Engadget would know better. I suspect that many of their reporters have not been alive as long as some of us have been in the business, and so they are still learning how this works.
It’s a short-sighted stupidity that infects way too many purchasing decisions even by seasoned IT professionals, whether it be for groupware like O365, or LMSs like Moodle, or HR hiring systems, or leave reporting systems, or e-book renting, or online exam systems, or timesheet applications, or CRM systems, or whatever. My own university has fallen prey to the greedy, malfunctioning, locked-in clutches of all but one of the aforementioned cloud services, and more, and the one it thankfully avoided was a mighty close call. All are baseline systems with limited customizations, that require people to play the role of machines, or that replace roles that should be done by humans with rigid rules and automation. Usually they do both. It is unsurprising that they are weak because they are not built for how we work: they are built for average organizations with average needs. If such a mythical beast actually exists I have never seen it, but we are a very long way from average in almost every way. Quite apart from the inherent business model flaws in outsourced cloud-hosted applications they cannot hope to match the functionality of systems we host and control ourselves or that rely on utility cloud services. They inevitably leave some things soft that should be hard (for example, I spend too much time dealing with mistakes entering leave requests because the system we rent allows people to include – without any signal that it is a bad idea – weekends and public holidays in their leave requests) and some things hard that should be soft (for example, I cannot modify a leave request once it has been made). A utility cloud service or self-hosted system could be modified and assembled with other utility services or self-hosted systems at will, allowing it to be exactly as soft or hard as needed. Things that are hard to do in-house can be outsourced, but many things do not need to be. Managing your own IT systems does cost a lot of money, but nothing like as much as the overall cost to an organization of cloud-based alternatives. Between them, our bad cloud systems cost equivalent of the time of (at least) scores of FTEs, including that of highly paid professors and directors, when compared with custom-built self-hosted systems they replace. You could get a lot of IT staff and equipment for that kind of money. Worse, all are deeply demoralizing, all are inefficient, and all stymie creativity, greatly reducing, and reducing the value of, the knowledge within the organization itself.
It’s a huge amount harder getting out of bad cloud services that it is getting into them (that’s the business model that makes them so bad) but, if we are to survive, we have to escape from such foolishness. The longer we leave it, the harder it gets.
A nice overview of where the NGDLE concept was earlier this year. We really need to be thinking about this at AU because the LMS alone will not take us where we need to be. One of the nice things about this article is that it talks quite clearly about the current and future roles of existing LMSs, placing them quite neatly within the general ecosystem implied by the NGDLE.
The article calls me out on my prediction that the acronym would not catch on though, in my defence, I think it would have been way more popular with a better acronym! The diagram is particularly useful as a means to understand the general concept at, if not a glance, then at least pretty quickly…