▶ How Education Works, the audio book: now with beats

My book has been set to music!

Many thanks to Terry Greene for converting How Education Works into the second in his inspired series of podcasts, EZ Learning – Audio Books with Beats. There’s a total of 15 episodes that can be listened to online, subscribed to with your preferred podcast app, or downloaded for later listening, read by a computer-generated voice and accompanied by some cool, soothing beats.

Terry chose a deep North American voice for the reader and Eaters In Coffeeshops Mix 1 by Eaters to accompany my book. I reckon it works really well. It’s bizarre, at first – the soothing robotic voice introduces weird pauses, mispronunciations, and curious emphases, and there are occasional voice parts in the music that can be slightly distracting – but you soon get used to it if you relax into the rhythm, and it leads to the odd serendipitous emphasis that enhances rather than detracts from the text. Oddly, in some ways it almost feels more human as a result. Though it can be a bit disconcerting at times and there’s a fair chance of being lulled to sleep by the gentle rhythm, I have a hunch that the addition of music might make it easier to remember passages from it, for reasons discussed in a paper I wrote with Rory McGreal, VIve Kumar, and Jennifer Davies a year or so ago.

I have been slowly and painfully working on a manually performed audiobook of How Education Works but it is taking much longer than expected thanks to living on the flight path of a surprising number of float planes, being in a city built on a rain forest with a noisy gutter outside my window, having two very vocal cats, and so on, not to mention not having a lot of free time to work on it, so I am very pleased that Terry has done this. I won’t stop working on the human-read version – I think this fills a different and very complementary niche – but it’s great to have something to point people towards when they ask for an audio version.

The first season of Audio Books with Beats, appearing in the feed after the podcasts for my book chapters, was another AU Press book, Terry Anderson’s Theory and Practice of Online Learning which is also well worth a listen – those chapters follow directly from mine in the list of episodes. I hope and expect there will be more seasons to come so, if you are reading this some time after it was posted, you may need to scroll down through other podcasts until you reach the How Education Works. In case it’s hard to find, here’s a list of direct links to the episodes.

Acknowledgements, Prologue, introduction

Chapter 1: A Handful of Anecdotes About Elephants

Chapter 2:  A Handful of Observations About Elephants

Part 1: All About Technology

Chapter 3: Organizing Stuff to Do Stuff

Chapter 4: How Technologies Work

Chapter 5: Participation and Technique

Part II: Education as a Technological System

Chapter 6: A Co-Participation Model of Teaching

Chapter 7: Theories of Teaching

Chapter 8: Technique, Expertise, and Literacy

Part III: Applying the Co-Participation Model

Chapter 9: Revealing Elephants

Chapter 10: How Education Works


Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/20936998/%E2%96%B6-how-education-works-the-audio-book-now-with-beats

Preprint – The human nature of generative AIs and the technological nature of humanity: implications for education

Here is a preprint of a paper I just submitted to MDPI’s Digital journal that applies the co-participation model that underpins How Education Works (and a number of my papers over the last few years) to generative AIs (GAIs). I don’t know whether it will be accepted and, even if it is, it is very likely that some changes will be required. This is a warts-and-all raw first submission. It’s fairly long (around 10,000 words).

The central observation around which the paper revolves is that, for the first time in the history of technology, recent generations of GAIs automate (or at least appear to automate) the soft technique that has, till now, been the sole domain of humans. Up until now, every technology we have ever created, be it physically instantiated, cognitive, organizational, structural, or conceptual, has left all of the soft part of the orchestration to human beings.

The fact that GAIs replicate the soft stuff is a matter for some concern when they start to play a role in education, mainly because:

  • the skills they replace may atrophy or never be learned in the first place. This is not even slightly like replacing hard skills of handwriting or arithmetic: we are talking about skills like creativity, problem-solving, critical inquiry, design, and so on. We’re talking about the stuff that GAIs are trained with.
  • the AIs themselves are an amalgam, an embodiment of our collective intelligence, not actual people. You can spin up any kind of persona you like and discard it just as easily. Much of the crucially important hidden/tacit curriculum of education is concerned with relationships, identity, ways of thinking, ways of being, ways of working and playing with others. It’s about learning to be human in a human society. It is therefore quite problematic to delegate how we learn to be human to a machine with (literally and figuratively) no skin in the game, trained on a bunch of signals signifying nothing but more signals.

On the other hand, to not use them in educational systems would be as stupid as to not use writing. These technologies are now parts of our extended cognition, intertwingled with our collective intelligence as much as any other technology, so of course they must be integrated in our educational systems. The big questions are not about whether we should embrace them but how, and what soft skills they might replace that we wish to preserve or develop. I hope that we will value real humans and their inventions more, rather than less, though I fear that, as long as we retain the main structural features of our education systems without significant adjustments to how they work, we will no longer care, and we may lose some of our capacity for caring.

I suggest a few ways we might avert some of the greatest risks by, for instance, treating them as partners/contractors/team members rather than tools, by avoiding methods of “personalization” that simply reinforce existing power imbalances and pedagogies designed for better indoctrination, by using them to help connect us and support human relationships, by doing what we can to reduce extrinsic drivers, by decoupling learning and credentials, and by doubling down on the social aspects of learning. There is also an undeniable explosion in adjacent possibles, leading to new skills to learn, new ways to be creative, and new possibilities for opening up education to more people. The potential paths we might take from now on are unprestatable and multifarious but, once we start down them, resulting path dependencies may lead us into great calamity at least as easily as they may expand our potential. We need to make wise decisions now, while we still have the wisdom to make them.

MDPI invited me to submit this article free of their normal article processing charge (APC). The fact that I accepted is therefore very much not an endorsement of APCs, though I respect MDPI’s willingness to accommodate those who find payment difficult, the good editorial services they provide, and the fact that all they publish is open. I was not previously familiar with the Digital journal itself. It has been publishing 4 articles a year since 2021, mostly offering a mix of reports on application designs and literature reviews. The quality seems good.


This paper applies a theoretical model to analyze the ways that widespread use of generative AIs (GAIs) in education and, more broadly, in contributing to and reflecting the collective intelligence of our species, can and will change us. The model extends Brian Arthur’s insights into the nature of technologies as the orchestration of phenomena to our use by explaining the nature of humans participation in their enactment, whether as part of the orchestration (hard technique, where our roles must be performed correctly) or as orchestrators of phenomena (soft technique performed creatively or idiosyncratically). Education may be seen as a technological process for developing the soft and hard techniques of humans to participate in the technologies and thus the collective intelligence of our cultures. Unlike all earlier technologies, by embodying that collective intelligence themselves, GAIs can closely emulate and implement not only the hard technique but also the soft that, until now, was humanity’s sole domain: the very things that technologies enabled us to do can now be done by the technologies themselves. The consequences for what, how, and even whether we learn are profound. The paper explores some of these consequences and concludes with theoretically informed approaches that may help us to avert some dangers while benefiting from the strengths of generative AIs.

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/20512771/preprint-the-human-nature-of-generative-ais-and-the-technological-nature-of-humanity-implications-for-education

Look what just arrived on my doorstep! #howeducationworks from @au_press is now available in print and e-book formats

Photo of hard copies of How Education Works

Hard copies and e-book versions of How Education Works are now available, and they are starting to turn up in bookstores. The recommended retail price is CAD$40 but Amazon is selling the Kindle version for a bit less.

Here are a few outlets that are selling it (or order it from your local independent bookstore!):

AU Press (CA)

Barnes & Noble (US)

Blackwells (UK)

Amazon (CA)

Amazon (JP)

University of Chicago Press (US)

Indigo (CA)

Booktopia (AU)

For those wanting to try before they buy or who cannot afford/do not want the paper or e-book versions, you can read it for free online, or download a PDF of the whole book.

The publishers see this as mainly targeted at professional teachers and educational researchers, but those are far from the only audiences I had in mind as I was writing it. Apart from anything else, one of the central claims of the book is that literally everyone is a teacher.  But it’s as much a book about the nature of technology as it is about education, and as much about the nature of knowledge as it is about how that knowledge is acquired. If you’re interested in how we come to know stuff, how technologies work, or how to think about what makes us (individually and collectively) smart, there’s something in the book for you. It’s a work of philosophy as much as it is a book of practical advice, and it’s about a way of thinking and being at least as much as it is about the formal practice of education. That said, it certainly does contain some ideas and recommendations that do have practical value for educators and educational researchers. There’s just more to it than that.

I cannot begin to express how pleased I am that, after more than 10 years of intermittent work, I finally have the finished article in my hands. I hope you get a chance to read it, in whatever format works for you! I’ll end this post with a quote, that happens to be the final paragraph of the book…

“If this book has helped you, however slightly, to think about what you know and how you have come to know it a little differently, then it has been a successful learning technology. In fact, even if you hold to all of your previous beliefs and this book has challenged you to defend them, then it has worked just fine too. Even if you disagreed with or misunderstood everything that I said, and even if you disliked the way that I presented it, it might still have been an effective learning technology, even though the learning that I hoped for did not come about. But I am not the one who matters the most here. This is layer upon layer of technology, and in some sense, for some technology, it has done what that technology should do. The book has conveyed words that, even if not understood as I intended them to be, even if not accepted, even if rabidly disagreed with, have done something for your learning. You are a different person now from the person you were when you started reading this book because everything that we do changes us. I do not know how it has changed you, but your mind is not the same as it was before, and ultimately the collectives in which you participate will not be the same either. The technology of print production, a spoken word, a pattern of pixels on a screen, or dots on a braille reader has, I hope, enabled you, at least on occasion, to think, criticize, acknowledge, recognize, synthesize, and react in ways that might have some value in consolidating or extending or even changing what you already know. As a result of bits and bytes flowing over an ether from my fingertips to whatever this page might be to you, knowledge (however obscure or counter to my intentions) has been created in the world, and learning has happened. For all the complexities and issues that emerge from that simple fact, one thing is absolutely certain: this is good.”



A decade of unwriting: the life history of "How Education Works"

How Education Works book coverAbout 10 years ago I submitted the first draft of a book called “How Learning Technologies Work” to AU Press. The title was a nod to David Byrne’s wonderful book, “How Music Works” which is about much more than just music, just as mine was about much more than learning technologies.

Pulling together ideas I had been thinking about for a few years, the book had taken me only a few months to write, mostly at the tail end of my sabbatical. I was quite pleased with it. The internal reviewers were positive too, though they suggested a number of sensible revisions, including clarifying some confusing arguments and a bit of restructuring. Also, in the interests of marketing, they recommended a change to the title because, though accurately describing the book’s contents, I was not using “learning technologies” in its mainstream sense at all (for me, poetry, pedagogies, and prayer are as much technologies as pots, potentiometers and practices), so it would appeal to only a small subset of its intended audience. They were also a bit concerned that it would be hard to find an audience for it even if it had a better title because it was at least as much a book about the nature of technology as it was a book about learning, so it would fall between two possible markets, potentially appealing to neither.

A few months later, I had written a new revision that addressed most of the reviewers’ recommendations and concerns, though it still lacked a good title. I could have submitted it then. However, in the process of disentangling those confusing arguments, I had realized that the soft/hard technology distinction on which much of the book rested was far less well-defined than I had imagined, and that some of the conclusions that I had drawn from it were just plain wrong. The more I thought about it, the less happy I felt.

And so began the first of a series of substantial rewrites. However, my teaching load was very high, and I had lots of other stuff to do, so progress was slow. I was still rewriting it when I unwisely became Chair of my department in 2016, which almost brought the whole project to a halt for another 3 years. Despite that, by the time my tenure as Chair ended, the book had grown to around double its original (not insubstantial) length, and the theory was starting to look coherent, though I had yet to make the final leap that made sense of it all.

By 2019, as I started another sabbatical, I had decided to split the book into two. I put the stuff that seemed useful for practitioners into a new book,  “Education: an owner’s manual”, leaving the explanatory and predictive theory in its own book, now grandiosely titled “How Education Works”, and worked on both simultaneously. Each grew to a few hundred pages.

Neither worked particularly well. It was really difficult to keep the theory out of the practical book, and the theoretical work was horribly dry without the stories and examples to make sense of it. The theory, though, at last made sense, albeit that I struggled (and failed) to give it a catchy name. The solution was infuriatingly obvious. In all my talks on the subject my catchphrase from the start had been “’tain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it, that’s what gets results” (it’s the epigraph for the book), so it was always implicit that softness and hardness are not characteristics of all technologies, as such, nor even of their assemblies, but of the ways that we participate in their orchestration. Essentially, what matters is technique: the roles we play as parts of the orchestration or orchestrators of it. That’s where the magic happens.

But now I had two mediocre books that were going nowhere. Fearing I was about to wind up with two unfinished and/or unsellable books, about half way through my sabbatical I brutally slashed over half the chapters from both, pasted the remains together, and spent much of the time I had left filling in the cracks in the resulting bricolage.

I finally submitted “How Education Works: Teaching, Technology, and Technique” in the closing hours of 2020, accompanied by a new proposal because, though it shared a theme and a few words with the original, it was a very different book.

Along the way I had written over a million words, only around a tenth of which made it into what I sent to AU Press. I had spent the vast majority of my authoring time unwriting rather than writing the book and, with each word I wrote or unwrote, the book had written me, as much as I had written it. The book is as much a part of my cognition as a product of it.

And now, at last, it can be part of yours.

30 months after it was submitted – I won’t go into the reasons apart from to say it has been very frustrating –  the book is finally available as a free PDF download or to read on the Web. If all goes to plan, the paper and e-book versions should arrive June 27th, 2023, and can be pre-ordered now.

It is still a book about technology at least as much as it is about education (very broadly defined), albeit that it is now firmly situated in the latter. It has to be both because among the central points I’m making are that we are part-technology and technology is part-us, that cognition is (in part) technology and technology is (in part) cognition, and that education is a fundamentally technological and thus fundamentally human activity. It’s all one complex, hugely distributed, recursive intertwingularity in which we and our technological creations are all co-participants in the cognition and learning of ourselves and one another.

During the 30 months AU Press has had the book I have noticed a thousand different ways the book could be improved, and I don’t love all of the edits made to it along the way (by me and others), but I reckon it does what I want it to do, and 10 years is long enough.

It’s time to start another.

A few places you can buy the book

AU Press (CA)

Barnes & Noble (US)

Blackwells (UK)

Amazon (CA)

Amazon (JP)

University of Chicago Press (US)

Indigo (CA)

Booktopia (AU)

Technological distance – my slides from OTESSA ’23

Technological Distance

Here are the slides from my talk today at OTESSA ’23. Technological distance is a way of understanding distance that fits with modern complexivist models of learning such as Connectivism, Heutagogy, Networks/Communities of Practice/Rhizomatic Learning, and so on. In such a model, there are potentially thousands of distances – whether understood as psychological, transactional, social, cognitive, physical, temporal, or whatever – so conventional views of distance as a gap between learner and teacher (or institution or other students) are woefully inadequate.

I frame technological distance as a gap between technologies learners have (including cognitive gadgets, skills, techniques, etc as well as physical, organization, or procedural technologies) and those they need in order to learn. It is a little bit like Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development but re-imagined and extended to incorporate all the many technologies, structures, and people who may be involved in the teaching gestalt.

The model of technology that I use to explain the idea is based on the coparticipation perspective presented in my book that, with luck, should be out within the next week or two. The talk ends with a brief discussion of the main implications for those whose job it is to teach.

Thanks to MidJourney for collaborating with me to produce the images used in the slides.

people as interlocking cogs

My keynote slides for Confluence 2023 – Heads in the clouds: being human in the age of cloud computing

 heads in cloudsThese are the slides from my keynote today (or, in my land, yesterday) at Confluence 2023, hosted by Amity University in India. It was a cloud computing conference, so quite a way outside my area of greatest expertise, but it gave me a chance to apply the theory of technology developed in my forthcoming book  to a different context. The illustrations for the slides are the result of a conversation between me and MidJourney (more of an argument that MidJourney tended to win) which is quite a nice illustration of the interplay of hard and soft technologies, the adjacent possible, soft technique, and so on.

Unsurprisingly, because education is a fundamentally technological phenomenon, much the same principles that apply to education also apply to cloud computing, such as: build from small, hard pieces; valorize openness, diversity and connection; seek the adjacent possible; the whole assembly is the only thing that matters and so the central principle that how you do it matters far more than what you do.

Slides from my Confluence 2023 keynote

Learning, Technology, and Technique | Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology

This is my latest paper, Learning, Technology, and Technique, in the current issue of the Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology (Vol. 48 No. 1, 2022).

Essentially, because this was what I was invited to do, the paper shrinks down over 10,000-words from my article Educational technology: what it is and how it works (itself a very condensed summary of my forthcoming book, due out Spring 2023) to under 4,000 words that, I hope, more succinctly capture most of the main points of the earlier paper. I’ve learned quite a bit from the many responses to the earlier paper I received, and from the many conversations that ensued – thank you, all who generously shared their thoughts – so it is not quite the same as the original. I hope this one is better. In particular, I think/hope that this paper is much clearer about the nature and importance of technique than the older paper, and about the distinction between soft and hard technologies, both of which seemed to be the most misunderstood aspects of the original. There is, of course, less detail in the arguments and a few aspects of the theory (notably relating to distributed cognition) are more focused on pragmatic examples, but most are still there, or implied. It is also a fully open paper, not just available for online reading, so please freely download it, and share it as you will.

Here’s the abstract:

To be human is to be a user, a creator, a participant, and a co-participant in a richly entangled tapestry of technologies – from computers to pedagogical methods – that make us who we are as much as our genes. The uses we make of technologies are themselves, nearly always, also technologies, techniques we add to the entangled mix to create new assemblies. The technology of greatest interest is thus not any of the technologies that form that assembly, but the assembly itself. Designated teachers are never alone in creating the assembly that teaches. The technology of learning almost always involves the co-participation of countless others, notably learners themselves but also the creators of systems, artifacts, tools, and environments with and in which it occurs. Using these foundations, this paper presents a framework for understanding the technological nature of learning and teaching, through which it is possible to explain and predict a wide range of phenomena, from the value of one-to-one tutorials, to the inadequacy of learning style theories as a basis for teaching, and to see education not as a machine made of methods, tools, and systems but as a complex, creative, emergent collective unfolding that both makes us, and is made of us.

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/14622408/my-latest-paper-learning-technology-and-technique-now-online-in-the-canadian-journal-of-learning-and-technology