Dissecting the Complex

Wow America! That was something else. President Trump!?! Not for the first time we are seeing Life imitating the Simpsons. I’ve spent a couple of days listening to friends and colleagues in the US and home. As I’ve read through the out pouring of grief and anger (and joy for some) it’s plain to see people are searching for answers. What caused this? Why did this happen? 

The simple answer is that it’s complex. Not that it’s complicated, as in there’s many steps in the process but there’s a linear thread which provides meaning. No its complex, as in there are many causes and they each interact with each other in a way that there is no definitive path or causality. In a complex problem it’s impossible to quantify causality or the level of effect something might have had on the outcome in any real and determinate way. 

So when it comes to Trump – no one thing caused his ascent. 

It’s racism AND sexism AND misogyny AND white supremacy AND economic deprivation AND income inequality AND the labour market AND healthcare AND cities vs regions AND poverty AND education AND student debt AND all other debt AND the global financial crisis AND what Obama and Hillary represent AND resurgent conservatism AND evangelical religion AND Bernie AND Twitter AND Facebook AND anti Semitism AND neoliberalism AND socialism AND Russia AND Snowden AND Wikileaks AND email AND Thiel AND Silicon Valley AND the Rust Belt AND the Electoral College. It’s all of these things (and MANY, MANY more) interacting with each other. 

Anyone that tries to boil the cause of the Trump presidency down to one these thing is over simplifying the actual problem, and mostly for good reasons. They’re trying to simplify the problem because as humans were good at simple. We can understand it and effect it. We suck at complexity because causality is fluid in a complex problem and there is no singular cause to effect relationship. Instead the whole space is dynamic, there is power and influence to deal with. Not to mention that adaption takes place as time goes on. A complex problem is a system and things become codified, modified, normalised and power dynamics shift. Incident along the way can have a ripple effect and cascade over time. 

 The way I’ve started to make sense of complexity is to think of them as dynamic problems. They’re similar to fluid dynamics where the liquid had properties and momentum but control is difficult. You can mitigate and manipulate the but you can’t change the liquid itself. So in looking to tackle complex problems it’s not about trying to simplify them to a simple cause and effect statement, but to concentrate on ways to manipulate the dynamics. This can be done in fairly simple ways – shifting power, changing relationship, influencing attractors – but it doesn’t seek to change the problem space. At the same time “solutions” are influential rather than definitive (this is a big change in mindset for most people). They also need to be adapted and changed over time as the system corrects and changes. The most powerful method of working is through iteration. Create a feedback loop that allows faster insights and structure for change. 

Often the best solution to complex problem are simple. They don’t seek to change the problem itself and simplify it, but are simple ways to affect the dynamics. Like when people come together. 

An American Election

I couldn’t write today. By the time the afternoon rolled around the winner was confirmed. I read a lot. Many friends were truly dismayed, many were upset, many fearful. Many shared their dread of having to tell their kids that Trump not Hillary had one when they woke up in the morning. That one struck a nerve. 

So when I got home I had a few drinks and thought. Mulled over what was happening. Sat and contemplated the world while watching a nature documentary on Americas West. 

It was a BBC one, and at the end of the program they had a “making of” section. They were trying to film coyotes in Death Valley. There’s an expression on the producers face when they arrive at their destination in the air conditioned car and open up the door. The expression was recognisable, I’ve made the exact same one. It was the reaction to feeling the Death Valley heat hitting your face for the first time. The dash gauge read 116 degrees, and at that temperature the heat becomes physical. You feel it fall across your skin and the hot air feels more like liquid than anything else. 

That sensation, of something non-physical actually manifesting itself and making physical contact – that was today. That how that loss felt. Not my country, not my vote, but I felt it none the less. I didn’t have to pop my kids hopes, or reassure them everything will be ok. But I felt it. 

Be More Robot?

I often think the quest for “productivity” is less about living to ones potential, and is instead an attempt to be more robot. It seems the logic is by embracing routine we’ll impose order on our lives and somehow morph into productive beings. The movement seems to assume that what we do now isn’t productive and that being more productive is “better”. It assumes we can exert control over our lives and our environment. It never investigates these assumptions or explores their truth, but a a theology and a “science” have somehow grown up around them. Productivity is unquestionably good, and routine is the answer.

Robots and automatons are great. They can do things faster than people can. They can do things longer than people can. They don’t need food or wages. They don’t need health and safety. They don’t need leave or care. They just have routine. They are perfect. 


I am not a robot.

I get hungry and tired and bored. My mind starts thinking about other things and I get distracted. Sometimes my work is sloppy. Sometimes I make mistakes. But I am not a robot, because I can change. I don’t need control or order because I can adapt. Whatever life throws at me I can cope with it. From flood and fire to death and new life. I can handle it because I don’t require routine. I don’t need to impose order, or the illusion of it.

Robots, automatons and the pathetic algorithms that supposedly represent Artificial Intelligence can’t change. They can’t learn. They can’t move. They can’t rethink. They can’t act or behave or operate outside of their parameters. They are robots. Routine driven.

I am not a robot, and I don’t want to be. Instead of looking at myself as being unproductive, I am simply being less robot. I am transducing. I am creating. I am defining my parameters and then breaking them. I am rewriting the code. I am resting, regenerating, restoring. I am self maintaining and repairing.

I am productive because I am not a robot. And if I’ve learnt anything in the past year it’s that I need to be less robot because life is chaos. It’s out of our control and I’m ok with that. I’m here for the journey, not the destination.

Post Burn

I think as a global community we’re approaching a historical milestone – Post Burn. As a species we have thrived because of our ability to burn stuff – to produce heat, warmth and cook through the consumption of available resources. From wood, to coal, to oil, to gas, to uranium – we’ve relied on the Burn to power our development and evolution. Our biology has been transformed by our ability to burn, and it has shaped our technological development too.

Our Burning has steadily become more and more efficient and powerful, but at the same time we have done untold damage to the environment as we’ve scale up production. Our carbon loaded fuel has spewed pollutant, ozone destroyers and smog across our planet and into every ecosystem. Our radioactive fuel has leached into our environment too – spilling into the air and the waterways where it slowly kills everything around it.

We’ve also made the resources we depend on more and more scare as we increase the burn. More and more of our resources are literally going up in smoke as we stoke the fires of industry. As we make more steel, poor more concrete and increasingly ship products around the world we take from the planet and spew back a foul mess.

We have been operating with a mindset of abundance – which simply isn’t reflected by our reality or the natural state of the planet. Trees are finite, soil is finite, water is finite – so too is the oil and gas and uranium. Somehow we’re under the delusion that this, how we live and make, is somehow sustainable.

What is happening now is a transition, because this just isn’t sustainable.

We can still power our world, not through the burn of an engine but the hum of electricity. We don’t need to dig up the ground to find fuel, fuel finds us, it caresses us as it passes by. Sunlight, Wind and Waves are there for us to use – free and open. The sun and the moon are there to be harnessed and supported. We don’t need to burn at all.

Renewable. Sustainable. This is the new guard. This is the way forward. The quiet hum of the electric motor. The silent flow of power through wires.

But the grey boney hands won’t yet cede control. The hacking cough masks a booming voice and the fossils must be burnt. The pump-jack – the oil horse, the oil jack, the donkey pumper, the nodding donkey, the rocking horse, the Big Texan – works tirelessly till the well is empty. And then we dig another hole. Till there’s nothing left to pump. Nowhere left to dig.

We can die slowly or we can make something new. We can learn to work with the sun. To work with each other and for each other. To harvest and share the collective benefits. From centralised fire pits to distributed rooftop arrays. Rather than opt-out and go off the grid, we could all connect and use the grid to share.

 

Photo by M1kha https://flickr.com/photos/mikham/6630747029 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Thoughts on Reporting and the News

I’ve become a bit dismayed by the news of late. Not necessarily what the news is covering (the subject matter) but the presentation of it. News has become a commercial entity and disassociated from the concept of service or link to civic and public space. The news today is driven by the same algorithmic curation that defines reality TV. I’m not suggesting that this is a new phenmenon, but rather it has become dominant. Alterative sources of news are disappearing or being drowned out. There is no single source of Quality Journalism, in fact the idea of quality being applied to news reporting seems to akin be a quaint concept from yesteryear. Qualty has no place in the industrial era of news. News is faster, stronger, higher and faster than ever before. It’s full of POWER and EXPLOSIONS. It saturates all aspects of life, entering our consiousness from every angle, medium and format. News is now multi-channel-cross-platform-psychologically-manipulaive-viral-content-chunks aimed at milking tears, and fury, and laughter for the full 10 seconds you actually pay it attention. Then it’s on to the next thing. 

The news doesn’t matter. The news isn’t a reflection of real life, its constitutes all the exceptions to the rule. Each war and death and scandal are out weighed by the persistent peace, life and normality of existence. The news won’t change the world, nor will it help you understand it. It might help you feel it, to run up your spine like charge but it is momentary. The news doesn’t engage you., because the news has another item coming up in the schedule it wants you to pay attenion to.


I think that news has to become something else. I think traditional sources – newspapers and their digital counterparts in particular – have to change what they do when it comes to news. They need to see news as a service to their community. They need to think beyond immediacy and start to think about the long term. What if news embraces it’s temporal nature and became more historical? Rather than treating each item of news as a singular, never seen before event, it contextualised it. What if it showed news in a historical context, mapped it’s evolution, showed it’s spread and influence? What if news was more like a timelapse rather than clickbait?


My personal preference for news and reporting at the moment, where the actual quality stuff isn’t coming from, is not traditional media but from the upstarts like Vice and Buzzfeed. For what it’s worth topical comedy shows are doing a better job of reporting news and current affairs. A John Oliver segment has more effort and rigour applied to it than most daily newspapers and news reports. And it shows. I can engage with John Oliver, I can’t with a newspaper that jus regurgitates press releases 

VICE programs seem to focus on narrative. Reporting is mixed with stories and real people. Does it make it more subjective? Yes, but it doesn’t shy away from that. It’s not pretending to be objective, nor is it trying to serve the interests of their corporate sponsors like corporate news channels. Reporting needs a story to be relatable. If I’m watching a piece about the destruction in Syria I should be crying, I shouldn’t be an objective experience. I should be feeling it. I should be connecting to it, and most of all I should be affected by it. When was that the case after watching the television news? Or reading a newspaper? When did the news from these traditional sources actually aim to affect you?

Alternative media seems to be bringing back the humanity required to tell the news. 

Being Dad

Before my daughter was born we investigated our parental leave options. Unfortunately while my workplace had a parental leave provision, it proved more a gesture than anything else. It seemed to be written as a compromise to parents who were adopting (specially same sex couple) an equivalent of maternity leave, which while important, but well short of anything that could be regarded as true parental leave. It wasn’t a policy that regard both parents as equal, and like so much beurcracy, it assumes that there is this mystical “primary care giver”. 

I don’t really understand that term. Can only one parent provide care? What’s kind of proportion qualifies you reaching a “primary” status? 51%?

Despite the insistance that we’re a progressive society gender roles and responsibilities are still deeply entrenched. My wife and discussed gaming the system, but in the end we went along with the status quo – she took leave, I kept working full time. When my daughter was born my wife was provided with 6 months maternity leave, and a part time position when she went back to work. I got 10 days off. Sure I could have used my anual leave, but 4 weeks doesn’t go very far, particularly when you have the idea of your wife returning to work in 6 months and a child needing care two and a half days a week. In this way being a Dad is something that is defined for you. Your not available 5 days of the week. You’re not provided the time to truly adjust to having a new person in your life. Your not able to really cope with sleep loss and the consant preassure of keeping up at work. Your not able to help or care as much as you want. As a new parent you have to cope with doing it with one arm behind your back. You don’t get into the rhythms of your child, you just have to adjust to their impact. You don’t get time to work out who you are now and what kind of relationship you have with your family and the world. You become “secondary care giver” whether you like it or not. 

And then there’s work. Work becomes your alter-ego. Professional Dad needs to put in more effort than ever becase you’ve been defaulted to the role of Bread Winner. As the bread winner the impetus isn’t only on you bringing in the regular pay check, it’s keeping that job too. You have to play it safe, follow the rules, give 110%, do everything that’s expected, give a little bit more, don’t complain, put up with it, keep your mouth shut and comply. The job isn’t an outlet or an escape from family but a distraction, and sometimes a trap. 
Let me just say – I’ve always wanted to give my daughter (and my wife) more time and attention. Some Dads don’t. Some are happy with the status quo, but I’m not. I’d like to find a better way of raising families. I’d like to dispell gender roles and divisions that things like “primary care giver” enshrine. I’d like parental leave – leave made available to parents, not arbitrary roles. I’d like parenting to be treated as a space for equality – regardless of gender, sex or sexuality.

I write this not to bemoan the plight of Dads, nor denigrate the role of Mums. If we want change we have to engage in the disucssion. We cannot reach anything like gender equity or the related cultural change if we don’t talk about men and the roles that have been defined for them. We can’t change if we can’t discuss what needs to change in a more expansive way.

We are Punitive

When did we become such a punitive society? When did punishment become the lone tool to engage with change? When did we lose respect for human complexity, of circumstance and context? When did we forget that we are essentially all the same? In Australia we have become preoccupied with solving issues with punitive measures. The way we have treated the influx refugees from conflicts around the world is appalling. We have set out to damage and punish those fleeing conflict, rape and death, and succeeded. Our detention centres, whether on the mainland or setup on desert islands in the Pacific, are hot beds of tragedy and pain that we seem willing to inflict on some of the most vulnerable people on the planet. 

We lock children in prison. 

We lock children in prison. 

We lock children in prison

Why do our politicians consider this OK? Why do we let them get away with it? For more than a decade we’ve been fed a narrative that it’s OK to punish these people. Why? Because it sold news, it got people elected, it made us feel secure, it provided a distraction, it gave us a scape goat. We were scared and somehow it made us feel safe. And now the lies we’ve been told about refugees have become truth, justification for inflicting pain. 

We keep being told it’s to stop the people smugglers – but we’re not locking them up! We haven’t done anything to the people smugglers. We’re not depriving them of freedom or dignity. We’re not threatening to ban them from ever entering the country. We’re not forcing them to resettle on remote 3rd world islands. No, we save that for those seeking safety from conflict for themselves and their families. We save that for children. 
I find the way we have been treating refugees in Australia abhorrent. It sickens and saddens me, and yet somehow I’m in the minority. Not only are these policies popular, they’re being considered around the world as a viable solution to what seems to be gripping the world – the fear of the other. Let’s be clear, this policy doesn’t fix the refugees crisis. It doesn’t resettle people faster. It doesn’t hurt or hinder people smugglers. It does stop the movement of desperate people, it actually forces it to become more sinister and exploitative. Desperate people turn to slavery and human trafficking in order to seek safety. We create a situation a where children become slaves. 

I don’t know why we we’ve adopted this punitive approach to dealing with other people. I don’t know why punishment has to involve inflicting pain on other people. I don’t know why we think it’s okay to do this. I don’t know when we lost our compassion, our empathy, our ability to collectively love, care and nurture. But we did. 

The MacBook Dilemma

The recent Apple event totally underwhelmed me. As the owner of an aging MacBook Air I was hoping for a “take my goddamn” money product to be launched. Something like the MacBook Air. A retina screen and a decent upgrade would have been enough for me to buy sight unseen. That’s not what we got. 
What was released was a laptop with a slightly gimmicky new touch bar and less ports than ever before. They even ditched MagSafe! What was launched was probably the least useable laptop from Apple I’ve seen in a long time. 

But is it?

As I’ve scrolled through the alternatives and seriously contemplated switching to Windows, even Linux, I’ve really reflected on how I use my computer. What apps do I use? What features do I need? What do I want from a laptop? Do I need a laptop?

Portable

I ditched the desktop PC years ago. Ever since I was no longer required to edit video I’ve been workingon a laptop. Portability trumps everything else. I don’t want or need anything bigger than 13″. I’ve had a 17″ and 15″ MacBook Pros before and at that size they becomes too heavy and cumbersome. I’ve also realised I don’t actually plug much into the laptop. Since getting a retina MacBook Pro I don’t use an external display or keyboard or mouse. Once you get those extra pixels you can’t go back and the all in one simplicity of the well crafted touchpad and keyboard means there’s little reason to add peripherals. The size of the screen doesn’t matter, what matters is no eye strain, no headaches and beautiful crisp images and type. With a decent hub I think I’d be fine for the occasional plugins of SD cards, external hard drives for backup and connect to a projector. Having lived through Apples DisplayPort era I’m used to having a stash of dongles in my laptop bag. 

Apps 

A long time ago Apps mattered a lot, but to be honest the ones I rely on are cross platform, mobile and web based. Apps aren’t going to swing this as much any more. 

Web server & Command line

This is where things get tricky. Over the last few years I’ve started to depend on local development for the web and increasingly relying on the power of a unix command line. Need to install an app? Homebrew has you covered. Want to run Ruby or NPN or Vagrant or a whole shit ton of really powerful computing options – it’s easy on a Mac. Copy a command, paste it into the terminal and you’re done. On Windows it’s follow a 12 page document, change the settings in 14 different control panels, sprinkle on some eye of newt and wish on a star and maybe, if the moon is in the right phase it might work. I can’t work like that any more. 

I’m no artist

I can’t deny the beauty and appeal of a talented artist making us of the touch interface and stylus of a Microsoft Surface. But lets be honest – I will never produce anything like that. I don’t draw or sketch like that, it doesn’t fit how I work. 

Simplicity

One thing that MacOS has over any other rival is simplicity. Despite the complex nature of the device itself, all the living parts and possibilities, Apple have always excelled at keeping the user interaction simple. Having been tech support to my family for sometime I’ve had to try and reason with Windows on many occasions, and it is a stubborn beast. Thing often don’t work, and with no explanation. It’s just a case of “computer says no”. MacOS makes the process of owning and running a computer easy, without sacrificing power and possibilities. Sure there’s an emphasis on aesthetics that can be gimmicky, you may have to surrender some control, but what you have is a highly usable device. 

— 

I think I’ve come full circle. Where previously it’s been the hardware that’s made a Mac, my realisations is that it’s actually the OS that matters. The fact that it’s tied so deeply to the hardware is its blessing and curse. I may not be excited about the new MacBooks, but I think I’ll be sticking with them. 

We Are Performative

Lacie: Don’t shit on me for aiming higher. 
Ryan: Pelican Cove higher? 

Lacie: What’s wrong with Pelican Cove? They’re great apartments! 

Ryan: They are fake-smile jail cells!


I watched the first episode of the new Black Mirror series the other day. It tracks the life of a woman that lives in a society where everything is rated. The economy is based on a Score that is based on ratings other people give you, an extension of what many have referred to as the “like economy”. That’s what Black Mirror does as a show – take snippets of society and culture and see them through to a logical (and often dystopian) conclusion. 

It made me revisit something that I’m already very uneasy about – the performative element of our social system. 

We are in the grip of ever increasing requirements to perform in our social lives. The structure of social media doesn’t provide a freedom of expression, but rather a requirement to perform. In this world we are never our true selves, rather we create facsimiles of ourselves that are filtered, curated and faked. We perform for everyone rather than present ourselves. We like, rate, retweet and “share” instead of engaging in dialogue. We may be connected, but we speak pat each other – each performing our own monologue. 

Our flaws, our scars, our frailities, our mistakes become something that we don’t want to be part of. We don’t want to show that part of us. We bury it, hide it, stuff it into a box. We seek to disassociate ourselves from reality and truth takes on a glossy and fake sheen. We practice in the mirror. Actions and interactions become stage managed, repeated, copied, refined to the point where they become pure performance. Robotic, automatic. 

We no longer seek to engage, but to show off. As animals it is in our DNA to perform. Its the selfish gene at play. We fake it till we make it. Today’s digital technology however expands our possibilities. We can refine, edit, crop, smooth and take a 1000 shots and display just the one that works. We don’t “fail faster”, we erase failure as a concept. Instagram and Facebook rely on us not to show our true self, but our performative self. The one that doesn’t have the drudgery of laundry waiting for them at the end of the day. That doesn’t have to wash up after their latest attempt at food porn.

But it isn’t us as actors that worries me, but rather us as the audience. We consume the performance with such veracity that it scares me. The performance used to be limited to the stage. Then in printed pages. Then on radio. Then in celluloid. Then on TV. But now its everywhere. Every screen, all the time. All of us with our own camera and suite of apps. All of us with the power to create and recreate, to perform to captured by the camera and published to the world in milliseconds. 

We seem driven to consume this fake reality. 


I try to be honest in my interactions on social media, but it’s all curated. It’s the highlights roll (or in some cases drawing attention to the low points). In my mind it’s also temporary, fleeting and ephemeral. That doesn’t mean it is, I’m sure you could review my timeline and find plenty of mistakes, flaws and wrongheaded statements. But I don’t want to delete them. I don’t want the record to be sanitised. I want people to grow up, to accept the flaws, to realise we all have them. And those that don’t, they’re the ones that we need to be concerned about. 

Ed-Tech as a Discipline

This post has spiralled slightly out of control. Initially it was just a couple of loosely connected ideas that I jotted down. Then I dug up an old half-written blog post. Then I went for a walk on yet another cold wet day and started to think more deeply about this and it turned into this.

1. Should Educational Technology be a discipline?

This deceptively complex question has led to an incredibly interesting discussion. Martin Weller and Audrey Watters have stirred the pot on this issue and the comments on Martin’s blog provide a number of expansive multidimensional perspectives on the issue.

I think Martin’s post does a good job of outlining some of the practical aspects of becoming a discipline:

  • to bring in a range of perspectives
  • establish good principles and processes
  • a body against which criticism can push

Audrey does a pretty good job critiquing the very concept of a discipline:

  • aim is to characterize, classify, specialize
  • it distributes along a scale, around a norm
  • imposes hierarchy on individuals in relation to one another
  • it can often disqualify and invalidate individuals
  • brings to bear disciplinary (punishment) practices, mechanisms and technologies

The comments on Martin’s blog are also incredibly enlightening:

  • Maha Bali suggests the discipline already exists as “critical digital pedagogy”
  • Tressie McMillan Cottom discusses discipline in the Weberian-Bourdieusian sense that needs institutions, exclusion/enclosure, prestige hierarchy. But also the evolution of Ed-Tech from and as a network “The indirect legitimacy in a network environment is actually post-institution even though the way we talk about it centers the institution”.
  • Kate Bowles is eloquent as ever “When the gain from disciplinarity turns out to be a shared who’s who and a consensus around ideas that matter, we overlook an entire history of subaltern thinking about who always gets left out when the lists are made. Because lists belong to someone, and conferences belong to someone, and professional associations belong to someone, and when we Venn Diagram it all, the same people get waitlisted, because first everyone has to get through the A-list.”
  • I particularly like the the imagery invoked by Laura Czerniewicz “One can look at a discipline as a field of players and moves and negotiations and power plays, a Bourdieu approach, and the approach of this discussion I think. Or as a structured knowledge terrain – the Bernstein perspective offers to edtech the notion of “horizontal knowledge structures in hierarchical discourses” in other words how knowledge is configured. Ed tech is never going to be a vertical discourse ie a coherent, explicit systematically principled structure. It is applied and fragmented and constantly added to.”

I’m left with the feeling that maybe a discipline isn’t what we need – but we do need something.

2. What is Ed-Tech?

I come into this having done some thinking on these issues, in particular while travelling in the US in April. Travelling across seven states by car gives you an opportunity to dwell and ruminate on these kinds of issues. In particular I was dwelling on the experience of having just attended SXSWedu. It was quite an experience and I wrote about it at the time:

There’s a couple of key points in this series of posts that I keep coming back to:

  • What’s needed in education is better dissemination of good practice. “Good practice in education seems to be nebulous – no one really knows what it is, what it looks like or how to describe it. They might be able to recognise it – but articulate it? No.” This is particularly evident in the research – what methodologies, practices and methods produce valid evidence and proof?
  • We need to bring the critical element into the discussion to solve problems. “Rather than try and “solve” the critics, those involved in Personal Learning should be encouraging and engaging in a dialogue with them. Invite them in. Listen, talk, learn.” Critique needs to become involved in the process, not screamed out from the sidelines. 
  • We are not a profession. “What’s become abundantly clear though is that most teachers, particularly in higher ed which relies on Academics who perform multiple roles and Adjuncts that have no permanency to their role, aren’t aware of best practice. Nor are they properly equiped or compensated to learn or implement those practices.” There are broader cultural and institutional issues at play here but ed-tech is good at highlighting significant structural problems. 
  • Pop Edu dominates the narrative, the bulk of investment and political capital. Pop Edu is neophilic, shallow, manipulative and saccharine but they are the ones at the table. The “rising stars” like Sal Khan and the walking chequebook of Bill Gates are the ones deciding where ed-tech will go, what it will do, what it will look like and who it will leave behind. We need to develop a credible and audible Alternative Scene, something that can challenge this mainstream crap. 
  • Education is a system. An app is not going to disrupt a system – it’s too big and too complex. But people… well they just might. There are many, many fantastic people out there working in the field, but we’re not working together. How can we bring people together to collaborate, pool their knowledge and influence? “There’s also little acknowledgement of the EdTech professionals out there – the actual people who work under a thousand different titles, perform similar jobs and have similar problems. EdTech is not a profession just yet, it’s something still undefined and under appreciated. Quite often they are the glue that makes everything work – from technology and systems to professional development and training through to learning design and pedagogy.”

A discipline appeals because it offers an answer to some of these points. It can act as a connector, a focus and opportunity to bring people and minds together. At the same time it may just entrench exactly the kinds of power dynamics many of us are seeking to subvert and disrupt.

After a couple of days in the car I arrived in Davidson, North Carolina, for an event that was poles apart from SXSW. The Indie Ed-Tech Idea Jam was the antithesis of SXSW – small, friendly, intelligent and humble. It bought together a very different group of people and a very different way of getting things done. It didn’t need millions of dollars, a journal or a policy platform – it was grassroots reform and change.

3. Change at both ends of the Spectrum

The reality is that there are different ways to do this. One is to utilise the machinations of the current system, another is to introduce a new force. To be honest I’m all for a discipline approach. Ed-tech and using digital technology for learning is something distinct and relatively new. It’s not computer, neuro or information science, or humanities or education – it sits outside the normal traditions. It needs staking out, research, evidence and practices in order to take a seat at the table and have access to the dollars and policies that define so much of what we do.

At the same time we desperately need indie ed-tech. An alternative ‘fuck you’ to the established system that goes out and makes its own way. The awesome thing is that we can do this inside the system. We don’t need vast sums of money or changes to the curriculum – we can act within the system, with or without it knowing. By combining forces, to create a ‘scene’ we also make it more powerful, palpable and recognisable. Uniquely local and connected globally at the same time.

Change can happen at both ends of the spectrum. I think we need to accept that the two paths are equally important, they ultimately compliment and support each other.

4. Discipline as an Organising Force

Perhaps what ed-tech needs isn’t a discipline in the academic sense, but discipline in the sense of organising itself. That what it needs is a coordinated and organised approach to its work, to define its conduct and behaviour. Those of us who’d subscribe to being part of the ed-tech movement need to get our shit together because we are being overrun by a class of robber barons, quacks and snake oil salesmen. They are the ones who get to speak about what we do, (re)write our history and define our ideology. They are who gets a seat at the table, to be at the table with presidents of universities and of nations. If ed-tech is not a discipline then it will defined as one by these robber barons and the snake oil men who are here to colonise and extract profits!

Resist Colonisation

We need to reclaim our culture, our research, our space and our ideology for ourselves and we need to do it now. Ed-tech is being colonised and exploited. These colonists are becoming the dominant voice and it’s their narrative that is being recorded and driving conversations. If we leave this too long there will be nothing left to Reclaim from the patchwork of data mining and surveillance capital systems that ed-tech will inevitably becomes. Now’s the time to get organised, to do something about this because otherwise we, our data and that of our students, are going to be enslaved and our resources mined and exported till its all gone.

It’s not just Pedagogy

Yes critical digital pedagogy is an important part of ed-tech but it isn’t encompassing enough. The tools that we use themselves are encoded with ideologies, so a pedagogical perspective, while important is simply not enough. Ed-tech needs to be critiqued and practiced at the level of the source code. The criticality needs to extend to the underlying technologies, their dependencies, access, and licensing – it is a technical problem as much a pedagogical one. The other shortfall of a purely pedagogical approach is the relationship with the learner. It relies too heavily on the concept of teacher and student, but the potential for ed-tech is to reframe that whole power dynamic and rewrite that relationship. Not everything has to be taught, somethings can just simply be learnt, but a pedagogical framework embeds the teacher and instructor as a central concept st a time when perhaps it should be challenged. I’d rather we approach ed-tech in a much more wholistic way.

Being at the Table

The problem I think we have is that the ed-tech community is simply not at the table. The database guy has more say in the roll out and deployment of ed-tech in most institutions. We are not part of the decision making, the policy making or the spending of actual money. George and Audrey and Jim are not at the table with the president talking about how they’re going to spend their money or what policy should they enact. We are not at that table and we are not having those discussions. But you know who is? Sal Khan. Sebastian Thrun. Tim Cook. Bill Gates. These men, these companies – they are the voice of ed-tech in the community. They have a seat at the table. This is what we need to reclaim. This is what we need to get organised about. This is what we need to stand up against.

5. Getting Organised

I think the idea of a discipline resonates with a lot of people because it’s an opportunity and motivation to finally get organised and get our shit together. It isn’t the trappings of an academic discipline that are attractive (nobody really wants a journal do they?) it’s the opportunity to cooperate and collaborate that we want. We can develop our ideology, write our history, because otherwise they’ll get written for us. Silicon Valley is eyeing off education around the world as an untapped market, here lies vast untapped riches to be exploited, and the language of colonisation isn’t coincidental. What worries me is that, discipline or not, if we don’t become disciplined we will be over run and there will be nothing left to Reclaim.
We have to start to organise, we have to get our shit together and we have to do it in a way that is sustainable. We have to get a seat at the table. We need to establish better research patterns and not fall for the trap of “scientific” rigour that seeks to disembody the human from the technology. This shit is complicated and complex. We need to develop and express an ideology, and god forbid a canon, not to entrench power but to help get people on board and join us.

For what it’s worth I think that’s what becoming a discipline does – it forces those things to happen it forces those debates out into the open. At the same time I agree that a traditional academic discipline is not what we should be aiming for. Audrey provided enough evidence and practical information in her critique to warn us off going down that path, but we need to get disciplined.

We need to start to unite around certain things, we need to come together. Even the idea of a canon, of some central ideologies and respected research, those kinds of things are really important for us for progress and to at least debate against. At the moment all that’s happening is history repeating itself, the same old technologies, the same old hype, the same flawed research being peddled out year after year. We need to get organised in order to build the critical component of our work into something that does something, that moves us from the sidelines and begins to actually effects change. We need to move beyond repeating the mistakes of the past and repeating the same Cassandra-esque warnings of impending doom. I just hope that doesn’t put Audrey out of a job.