Leadership Outside the Hierarchy

This is the fouth year I’ve been invited to participate in the CSU Think Piece project. The idea here is to put forward a brief presentation on the challenges and opportunities of learning and teaching at CSU to help stimulate an ongoing and open dialogue. This years theme is “Leadership for Innovation in Learning and Teaching”.

If you would prefer to watch and listen the presentation is available on Youtube.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy

My Name is Tim Klapdor – the Online Learning Technology Leader in uImagine. In this think piece I wanted to explore the notion of leadership and hierarchy in the increasingly complex environment that is education.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy2

One of my long standing beliefs is that the human default for organisation is the hierarchy. It’s simplicity enables us to quickly organise a group of people in order to achieve a set task.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy3

And while default may just be, as Homer Simpson suggests, the two sweetest words in the English dictionary – I tend to question their value.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy4

The most obvious reason is that people rarely move beyond the default. For most of us the default isn’t the starting point, but the end. They are used as a shortcut – assuming for a fact that someone with more skills has looked at all the issues and made decisions on our behalf.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy5

While initially an organisational structure may have been adaptive, over time hierarchy becomes an embedded part of the culture. It becomes the default lens for seeing all problems and the default way in which they are the addressed. When all you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy6

When it comes to defaults we need to start questioning the consequence of them:

  • What it is they entrench?
  • What do they avoid?
  • What do they hide?
  • What do they improve?
  • What do they enhance?
  • What to they leave behind?

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy7

And more importantly WHO?

  • Who do they entrench?
  • Who do they avoid?
  • Who do they hide?
  • Who do they improve?
  • Who do they enhance?
  • Who to they leave behind?

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy8

When it comes to current concept of leadership and the language around it, the default is to think about it in terms of hierarchy. In particular – leaders and followers – which immediately embeds a power dynamic based on Us & Them.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy9

This seems at odds with the kinds of organisations we want and of what we ultimately want to be a part of. But Hierarchy tends to distills roles into these kinds of binaries which may work well in simple organisations but tend to stretch and break the larger an organisation gets.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy10

The reality is that Hierarchies and the kind of leadership they promote won’t help us move into the future. One result of hierarchical organisations is that they divorce people from power. Rather than empower people, they seek to confine it to just a few and use the hierarchy itself as the mechanism to maintain and support this function. This kind of leadership has limited use and really only work well for small, simple problems – something that education is increasingly not.

So it begs the question:

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy11

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy12

If we think about the kind of environment our organisation operates in – most would say that it’s pretty complex. There are a variety of connected, dynamic, interdependent and interactive factors at play – financial, social, personal and political systems that we intersect with at both individual and organisational levels.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy13

One way to make sense of this complexity is to use something like the Cynefin framework.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy14

Developed by Dave Snowden the framework is a tool to facilitate Sense-Making. Where we can plug in different situations into the framework to consider the kinds of approaches and characteristics that work in each of the domains.

You can find an excellent explanation of the Cynefin Framework from Dave himself on you tube

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy16

In order to understand hierarchies and leadership in today’s climate I think we need to focus on the Complex domain. That what worked previously doesn’t work any more because the environment that we’re operating has changed significantly.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy17

Education is no long simple or even complicated because it now operates at a global and local level of interplay with various markets, governments, communities and individuals (both students and teachers). You throw in a couple of decades of computing and rapidly changing communications technology and we have a system that no longer knows what is best practice. It’s difficult to even define what is good practice.

Complexity challenges simple wisdom:

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy18

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing twice and expecting a different result”

In a complex environment, doing the same thing twice will give a different result.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy19

“You can’t fix what you can’t measure”

You can intervene in a complex environment, even if you can’t measure it reliably.

Complexity also challenges existing measures and metrics and often finds them inadequate. Problems often have many contributing factors, often far beyond an organisations control, be they social, political or cultural. But rather than admitting defeat, complexity challenges us to find ways to intervene rather than fix or solve a solution entirely. That small changes can have big effects. And we see it when providing support to a student at a particularly difficult time results in them completing their degree goes on to ultimately changing their, and their whole family’s, lives.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy20

In the Complex domain even beginning to understand the problem requires experimentation. The final solution is only apparent once discovered and in hindsight it might seem obvious, but it was not apparent at the outset. No matter how much time you spend in analysis, it is not possible to identify the risks or accurately predict the solution or effort required to solve the problem. Complexity requires us to focus on emergent solutions.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy21

Associate Provost for Digital Learning a Middlebury College, Amy Collier uses the phrase Not-Yetness to describe what is happening in Distance and Online Education. To quote her:

In our context, emergence is allowing new ideas, new methodologies, new findings, new ways of learning, new ways of doing, and new synergies to emerge and to have those things continue to feed back into more emergence. Emergence is a good thing. For us, not-yetness is the space that allows for emergence. Not-yetness is not satisfying every condition, not fully understanding something, not check-listing everything, not tidying everything, not trying to solve every problem…but creating space for emergence to take us to new and unpredictable places, to help us better understand the problems we are trying to solve.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy22

Emergence is not only key to solving problems, but to discovering and defining them too. Emergence is the practice required in the complex domain and it looks and feels a lot like learning and research – two things that universities are more than capable of. It may seem counter intuitive but emergence is about loosening control and providing space for iteration and adaption. Of being willing to take risks and for risk to be part of the equation, rather than something that has to be eliminated. It is the realisation that to affect change it has to be in numerous small and in many different ways.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy23

A single silver bullet that will fix everything will never happen in a Complex environment.

But

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy24

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy25

The way we currently do things doesn’t really allow for emergence and it certainly doesn’t support iterative development. These two things are key aspects of innovation. The silos and bottlenecks that hierarchy creates impedes innovation at Every. Step. Of. The. Way.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy26

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy27

One way is to rethink the concept of leadership and to uncouple it from the hierarchical structure. Leadership should be something that we can build and develop outside the hierarchy. To model a different kind of leadership, one that doesn’t rely on the concept of leaders and followers.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy28

Leadership is taking the responsibility to create an environment that facilitates a transition between states.

This is the definition I came up with during the Graduate Certificate in University Leadership and Management. It’s an attempt to define the role of a Connected Leader.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy29

Instead of authority there’s responsibility. Instead of control there is autonomy through a focus on environment. And instead of change (which is now the rule rather than the exception) I’ve tried to define a process that is more holistic and captures the journey as much as the destination.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy30

Another way to to change is to shift the focus from the vertical elements in the hierarchy and to develop of horizontal structures – teams that compliment, collaborate & share across divisions, schools and faculties. To augment the hierarchy and reduce the silo issues teams that span the silos that a hierarchy creates work together in a more holistic way. These teams share and create knowledge that span the organisation rather than it being concentrated.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy31

Another way would be to invest in areas that create diversity within the organisation. This would be a process of investing in innovations outside the normal “business functions” of the organisation and in areas that the organisation relies on for support. Technology is an obvious one, investing in the development new systems that support the delivery of our online courses. There are other areas like professional development that would allow use to develop and test new and innovative practices, course designs and methodologies

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy32

Perhaps the best way to encourage Emergence is to provide greater autonomy. To allow individuals to explore within their unique circumstances. The work we’ve been doing in uImagine embodies some of these ideas. The Online Learning Model provides a language and a way of thinking about teaching and learning that allows individuals to adopt an adapt practices to suit their needs without being prescriptive. It’s elements provide a way of thinking about and conducting teaching and learning in the online space that is based in research and evidence. It is a way of allowing staff across the organisation to participate in the conversation and explain the vision for what our online course can be.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy33

Another method is to to connect the knowledge that exists across the organisation. Our next project, the Online Learning Exchange, seeks to support the autonomy of the individual by providing access to exemplars of practice. It will hopefully become a tool that provides individuals with the information they need to make changes to their subjects and practices, and in turn share those with the CSU community. The vision for the Learning Exchange is that it will become a resource for sharing – connecting knowledge across the institution by operating outside of faculty and school structures. It will become a place for not only finding exemplars of practice – but contributing to them too.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy34

Perhaps we don’t need to dispense with the hierarchy totally – it provides a stable scaffold from which the organisation can run. But perhaps we can create spaces in and around it in which we can work. Through which innovation and change can emerge through a culture that accepts the notion of not-yetness.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy35

Images

Complexity by Mark Skipper

Links

License: CC-BY-NC 4.0 @TimKlapdor

A Tidal Response

Last week my post Does it Scale? was featured on Doug Belshaw & Dai Barnes’ excellent podcast – TIDE. Honestly it was a surprising pleasure to hear my name get mentioned and listen to some deeper analysis of what I’d written as I pottered around the kitchen. The episode featured two guests, Greg McVerry and Ian O’Byrne, so my piece was commented on by four people – plus some additional commentary from Laura Hilliger’s newsletter.

It’s been a little while since I’ve been on the end of a critique like this – and it was a unique experience to listen to it done via podcast. I was interested to hear the quite different interpretations of that particular post. While I don’t think anyone disagreed with the overarching point, there seemed to be a few points that raised some concerns. I thought I would address a couple of these as part of a dialogue that seems to be spanning multiple medias and mediums. This post is a reply to what’s been said and aims to continues the conversation. To be clear – I don’t disagree with what anyone has said, but I want to address a couple of points in order to clarify my intent and present the other side of the discussion:-) .

Limitations and Potential

Doug mentions Laura Hilliger’s newsletter in which she took issue with a particular section. I wrote

“Human’s have limits. We can only be so fast, so strong, so big, so small, so smart. We are finite creatures. We have biological, physical, mental and neurological limitations. We have to choose how we operate within those constraints.”

to which Laura responded:

which I wildly disagree with. Our bodies are anti-fragile, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that our minds are too. I agree that “everything has to scale” and “we need MOAR” are myths that are suck-all for learning. Automating education, as Dai puts it, doesn’t work. Equally insidious these attitudes are contributing to the the destruction of the planet. I agree that learning is human, but not that it is finite or that the stuff we can learn is finite. No, no. Learning, growth, development for a human is an endless and never-ending journey. If we’re going to be a broken record on the topic of “scale”, let’s start talking about how we scale the “economy of care”.

What I’d like to comment on here is the interpretation of the word “learning”. In my original post my intention was to describe and attach these ideas to the concept of learning as a process – the how of learning, not the what. The post aimed to discuss learning as a process – not the stuff we learn, nor the technology we may utilise to do it, nor the system through which we use for access.

Another point I do want to discuss here is something that Laura and Ian raise as well – the idea of the finite human – as it seems to have hit a nerve.

In many ways I agree with Laura, that “learning, growth, development for a human is an endless and never-ending journey” – specifically as it applies to our potential and the plasticity of the human mind. The proof is that humans are the most supremely adaptable species on the planet, able to adjust and change to massive changes in climate, culture and environment. I agree with Doug that it’s at this point that Laura and I might just be talking past each other, because while I agree that we have virtually incalculable potential to do things, the reality is that we still have limits. This is the (unfortunate?) reality of the universe we live in and the dimensions we inhabit. Growth is not infinite, there’s often scope for a lot of it, but as with the planet, at some point it begins to swallow up and affect other things.

It’s not comfortable for many people to accept this point of view as it flies in the face of embedded cultural ideas that we can be and do anything – but the reality is that we can’t. We all have physical and mental limitations, and that’s before we move on to the social and economic ones. It is important to note that these limitations do not affect our potential – we can certainly be and do almost anything we want – but only if we are granted the right opportunities and are prepared to work at it.

And to sacrifice. As a creature with hard physical and mental limits in order, we need to recognise that to improve and live up to our potential we have to sacrifice certain aspects of our mental and physical selves.

We specialise and devote more of our limited resources to specific areas. In order to know more about one area we sacrifice learning in another. In order to be a faster runner we remain an awful swimmer. We can do a bit of everything or concentrate on just a few – we can’t do both. Those that transcend to another level of consciousness as Ian puts it, do so by sacrificing vast amounts of knowledge (by exclusion and focus) and experience (science, food, travel and family come to mind). Humans have limitless potential to be who and what they want – but they are limited by what they are able to do. Infinite growth is impossible. Can you go beyond the limits of where you are? Of course, but it’s through sacrifice.

Education isn’t Learning

The other point I want to make is that Education isn’t learning. Greg goes on to make the point that we have scaled up learning at a number of points in time – the printing press and the web are two examples. But I argue that those elements aren’t really learning per se nor are they related to learning as a process. As technologies they augment our human abilities to transfer information, open up new avenues for what we can learn and have pushed us to the brink of how much information we can actually store in our heads – but have they actually changed the process of learning? Making content available is not learning. It can assist the process of learning, in particular the process of teaching and instructing – but you can’t conflate content nor access with learning. The underlying practices of learning and the neurological underpinnings have remain unchanged. And the things we know about how people learn best haven’t changed – authenticity, discussion, engagement, individual attention. We’ve scaled up the system around learning – this thing we call Education – but how much have we really changed or scaled when it comes to learning? A MOOC may have 100,000 participants – but are they learning differently? Has their learning actually been scaled up or is scale being applied to the provision of certain aspects of an education? Are those participating actually learning in different ways?

Technology Changes Things

With all that said – technology tends to change things. In many ways technology allows us to augment our human limitations and to push beyond. A forklift allows one person to pick up and move a load that would normally be too heavy for one person – overcoming the limits of strength as applied to the human. Digital technology has massive potential for us to augment some of our limitations when it comes to learning but, as per the original post, current efforts are all focused on this idea of scale. Of making education available to as many people as possible at the lowest cost, not on doing much to improve the learning process. Ed-tech is being led down a certain path and shaped in a certain way that is based on industrial process and not on the human aspects to improve the process of learning.

That’s why I’m here – because I’m not interested in scale, I’m interested in learning. I think technology can change, can improve, can transform learning – and pursuing that change is a goal worth my time and effort. At the end of the day it will be worth it if we can improve someones learning in order for them to reach their potential – however limitless that maybe.

PS – A Lament for Blogs

I was keen to add something to this discussion but it may not have happened. I don’t know if another podcast has ever discussed my work – I was lucky that I listen to TIDE on a regular basis. I didn’t know Laura had commented on it either. It’s times like this that I miss blogging and it’s associated technologies – in particular pingbacks and comments. I see why blogging was so powerful and why so many people lament the lack of it – because through blogs you could create and follow a thread across sites and platforms… something that’s much harder to do today!

From Us & Them to We

One of my long standing beliefs is that the human default for organisation is the hierarchy. It’s simplicity enables us to quickly organise a group of people in order to achieve a set task. With the Cynefin framework in mind, a hierarchy works for Simple problem space. At a stretch they can be used in Complicated problem spaces, but more often than not this is where they start to fail. Too many possibilities and influences mean that more layers are added and each layer becomes a bottle neck. Once we get into Complex spaces hierarchy becomes an impediment rather than an aid and in Chaordic space they often become destructive. Hierarchies have a limited scope and are useful for small, simple problems. However, as our world becomes more populated and more connected, the problems we face are becoming bigger and increasingly more complex. The systems that enable us to thrive and survive (and those needed into the future to address the ecological strain we’ve created) are complex adaptive systems. Finance is no long simple because it operates with a global level of the interplay between various markets, debts and risks. The logistics of supporting life in cities is incredibly complicated, with complex supply chains and logistical operations that crisscross continents and nations. The reality is that Hierarchies won’t help us move into the future.

What I’ve been trying to think about is why do hierarchies work and why do we default to them?

Divide and Conquer

The power paradigm associated with hierarchies is that of division. They create a power dynamic by establishing an Us & Them situation. One has access to power the other doesn’t. One leads, the others follow. When problems were relatively simple and the number of people involved are few, a hierarchy made sense. In a biological way humans are set up to be social and a hierarchy enables a social system to be set up relatively quickly and easily. We can debate patriarchal and matriarchal pros and cons, but hierarchies are more about who has the power not the reasoning for a power dynamic in the first place.

Us & Them

What hierarchies create are a distinction between Us and Them. Whether you’re the one with power or not, there is a common Us that you share with others and a Them that represents those who are foreign to you. Us & Them becomes an embedded mindset and a lens in which we see the world. We become focussed on what is different to Us. Identifying who are the others becomes a driving force in how we see the world and operate within in.

Us & Them has become the defining feature of the cultural systems we humans have devised so far. From governments to religions, sports to the courts, finances to education – we have created adversarial and competitive systems that create and operate around division. Us & Them defines how we currently operate on this planet.

But is it becoming less relevant? In a globally connected world who They are is increasingly difficult to define. So too Us. When we are connected do borders matter? Do borders contain us? Do they define an Us? Does locality matter any more when distance is no longer a factor? When instantaneous global communication is a reality who do we call Them?

From Us to We

The reality is that every human on the planet shares 99.5% of their DNA. That means that all the differences we perceive to exist between us – the colour of our skin, gender, race, sexuality – is represented in just 0.5% of our genetic make up. If anything else in the world was 99.5% the same we would call it identical. The actual differences are so minute they just don’t exist. Once you come to see humanity as 99.5% the same, instead of seeing Us & Them you begin to see a We. That we share too much to be defined as truly different. Differences are simply augmentations, often based on things well beyond our control. The fact that we think randomality within our 3 billion lines of DNA code defines Us, that 0.5% of our makeup makes us part of something is laughable. This isn’t some hippy ideal – statistically speaking we are all the same.

When we become a “We” the way the world is perceived changes completely.

What do We deserve?

When the world is a We rather than an Us & Them most of our cultural systems are called into question.

If We are the same then why do 62 people have more wealth than 3.5 billion?

Does the current for of representative goverment and parliament work when we don’t directly vote on the laws we are governed by or choose how our taxes are spent?

How do we justify the treatment of refugees and those fleeing for their lives?

How do we justify the destruction of lives through war?

It’s easy to justify many of the things behaviours and decisions we as individuals and collectively as governments make with Us & Them mindset, but almost impossible once you do look at them through the lens of We.

We is a counter cultural mindset when the world around us is defined by Us & Them. It was something that some of the Hippies got back in the 60s – rather than a world built on hierarchy we did it differently? That small cultural shift led to massive changes in the US around Vietnam, feminism and civil rights. This isn’t a new or original idea – take the teachings of Buddha or Jesus, they are predicated on us ditching the Us & Them and embracing the We. It’s about seeing the world differently, and once we see the difference we can make the change.

Visual Thinking: Private, Public, Civic, Social

I tend to ponder on big issues – politics, the state of the planet, humanity in general – the usual. Recently I’ve been trying to map out some of thoughts like:

  • What do certain political ideologies look like?
  • What does the Panama Papers means for our societies?
  • How does Silicon Valley effect my local community?
  • What did societies look like at certain points in history?

To achieve this aim I started with simple graphs, then started to think in 3D and then it all got too complicated.

I came back to this problem this week and developed this simple concept:

private-public-social-civic-1

This maps out the main domains we tend to inhabit, the:

  1. Private
  2. Public
  3. Civic
  4. Social

These represent quite different ways of operating and forms of expression.

The way that I’ve been thinking is that the Private domain represents a personal expression – “I am” and is individualistic in its operation. The Public domain however is group driven “We are” and operates as a competitive environment. The Social domain is about an individuals constructed connection – “I am part of” and operates as a cooperative, together but with a personal outcome. The Civic domain represents communities that we inhabit, “We are part of”, they are collaborative achieving effort for the community as a whole.

The idea with the graphic here is to adjust size and overlap to represent different ideas. You could also overlay additional domains one might interact with, for example the Corporate domain:

private-public-social-civic-2

And then you can play around with different ideas – like the Neo-Liberal Agenda:

private-public-social-civic-3

What might Communism have looked like?

private-public-social-civic-4

What about a local community?

private-public-social-civic-5

At the moment I’m just playing around with the idea of thinking visually … and as a way to represent thoughts in something other than words. I’ve been thinking about the overlaid areas and what they might mean – for example is the cross over between the Civic and Personal domains Family? Social and Personal friends?

I just thought I’d put this out there – I’m not sure it’s of any use – or just a copy of something someone has already done. Just thinking out loud.

Everything on this page is CC-BY and if you want source files get in contact – happy to provide them. 

Administrivia and APIs

It was great to spend time talking with students at the #IndieEdTech/API Conversation a couple of weeks ago. Listening to their voices is something I need to make sure is a bigger part of what I do. It was both refreshing and insightful… And slightly concerning.

The concerns raised by students in various groups during the design sprint (judging by the various blog posts out there) seem to have been focussed on administrative tasks.

Finding and accessing information that has value and meaning seems to be a huge issue for university students. Navigating the complexities of our organisational design, corporate structure and responsibilities is tremendously difficult. Institutional Knowledge is simply inaccessible for most students, especially those who need it most – first in family, the under privileged, minorities and the disenfranchised – who often lack the cultural capital to seek, let alone find, information within our organisations.

I’m not sure if those working in Higher Ed realise just how complex our internal structures and systems are to navigate. Those of us who’ve been in here long enough have learnt it’s not what you know (or even where you go) it’s who you know. The fact is that the skills required to navigate the system aren’t embodied by the system, but in the tacit knowledge of those who work in it. This should be of concern to everyone involved in the system.

But it isn’t. We are failing to communicate effectice and do very little to address the administrative overload we place on staff and students – we just keep adding more. We just add another system. We just create a new department. Or rename an existing one. We restructure again. We run a project for 6 months. We create another new website but leave the old one in place. Information is constantly added but nothing is ever removed. This all becomes a burden that hinders students from focussing on their primary aim – learning!

Then there’s the language. In my organisation I think it’s possible to have an entire conversation that would be unintelligible to any outsider just by using our internal nomenclature. The effect that the casual observer may think we’re speaking in Swahili. We have so many unnecessary acronyms and seem to waste an incredible amount of time explaining them, but no desire to simplify the language in order to make it accessible. How does this help students or new staff?

There’s a massive assumption that technology actually offers efficiencies and not more administrative overheads. Every product sells itself as more efficient and more effective than what proceeded it, that everything will be faster and better. But when you measure those claims against the one constant we have – time – do they stand up? Has anything ever actually freed up more time to teach? Improved your life so much you can switch to more fulfilling tasks? Or has the amount of administration simply exanded to the point of suffocation?

I agree with this tweet, to a point – teachers can’t be replaced with technology – but how much of the technology that we’ve rolled out in the last 10 years has created more time for teachers to focus on their learners and build relationships?

The Ed-Tech industry (and the billions of venture capital dollars being fed into it) seem to assume that the problem is not the technology, but the teachers. That if we get rid of them, or automate their function we’ll somehow get a better education system.

I agree with Helen on this one – that the way forward is definitely not more technology, but less. Less faux interaction and more real ones – with actual human beings. What’s needed is to stop the need for people to the part of the technology that makes it all work, the soft malleable stuff that glues things together. Less automation of the human elements and more automation of the data itself.

Context Sensitivity

I’m always so surprised at how unhelpful our technology tends to be. Yes, our phones are connected to the internet so the world of information is at our finger tips, but why is the search prompt the primary interface of my phone? Why is it that so little information seems to actually come to me despite a myriad of data points available.

I read Bret Victor’s Magic Ink paper some time ago and I suggest you have a look as it’s thoroughly engaging discussion on this topic and not particularly technical. The abstract reads:

The ubiquity of frustrating, unhelpful software interfaces has motivated decades of research into “Human-Computer Interaction.” In this paper, I suggest that the long-standing focus on “interaction” may be misguided. For a majority subset of software, called “information software,” I argue that interactivity is actually a curse for users and a crutch for designers, and users’ goals can be better satisfied through other means.

Information software design can be seen as the design of context-sensitive information graphics. I demonstrate the crucial role of information graphic design, and present three approaches to context-sensitivity, of which interactivity is the last resort.

Bret goes on to illustrate and outline his ideas with wonderful demonstrations and cases that model the kinds of behaviour he’d like software to represent. When I reflect on many of the conversations and topics discussed at the #IndieEdTech event, particularly around the concept of the Personal API and the issues outlined above, there is a strong parallel to this paper:

  • When we talked about non-traditional students accessing a knowledge bank – it was to overcome the curse of having to interact with a system that has no understanding of your context, structures with no meaning and language that’s incomprehensible.
  • When we talked about a course handbook that contained ratings and examples of student work – it was because of how barren and decontextualised the information that students had access to when making choices on what to study and why.
  • When we talked about using Slack as a model for interaction between students, the LMS and their class – it’s because so much time was wasted navigating these systems that the purpose – actually learning – was being lost.
  • When we talked about building an API mixer – it was to empower users to take control of their data, but also to automate the drudgery of “interaction” with the glut of information systems within the university.

My experience of APIs with IFTTT has enabled me to actually reduce the administrivia I’m required to perform in my professional and personal life. I’ve programmed an auto-updating timesheet based on geo-location. I get a personal weather update based on my location at the time I’m usually getting dressed so I can make sure I’m clothed appropriately for the climate outside. The simplicity of IFTTT recipes mean that I can utilise a range of APIs to provide the Context Sensitivity to improve my experiences with technology. Technolgy begins to work for me. Imagine what would be possible for learning if we applied the same thing to Ed-Tech? APIs rather than Robots. Simple solutions rather than complex ones.

Simpilicty of Language

Another way forward is to begin to simplify the language used in universities. One of the things that I got from listening to Kin evangelising APIs was the role of language in the design process. By starting a project off with the development APIs you could actually design in a much more thoughtful way. This process of developing an API system represents the simplification of language in order to develop clearly defined functions and purposes within an organisation. It’s a document that everyone should be able to can relate to – from administrators through to designers and developers – it should be Human Readable. This process requires the functions and purposes of the Univeristy to be abstracted from the specificity of systems, and creates a more broadly accepted and accessible language from which we can all operate from. This way of working with technology can dramatically reduce the friction in terms of technical implementation – but adopting the same language would have a real impact on reducing the institutional knowledge gap that staff and students have.

Language really matters and I would love to see institutions take steps to make theirs more accessible. To go through a process of simplification in order to remove it as a barrier for learning, but also for adopting and utilising technology.

Smarten Up Dumb Technology

I’m going to keep going back to this – but for me #IndieEdTech really is about increasing autonomy and agency. Part of that is empowering users to take control over their technological footprint – to utilise the tools they want in ways that suit them.

So rather than seeking to constantly create smarter technologies, what if you simply allowed people more control over how they interacted with them? What if you provided tools that allowed users to move data between systems more easily? What if you got your internal systems to talk to each other in a shared language? What if you made systems more contextually aware? What if instead of investing millions in “better” technology you empowered your users?

I think APIs are a way in which we can do that. They don’t represent the solution, but a way to find it.

Does it Scale?

“Yeah, but does it scale?”

This question seems to have become the catch cry of today’s education circles. From politicians to presidents, tech pundits to tech critics, teachers to theorists1 we all seem to be concerned with scale.

But what are we really talking about when we discuss scale? What does the idea of scale imply? How does it impact the way we think?

The idea of Scale seems to be informed by the Industrial Age, and in particular manufacturing. Scaling up of manufacturing, from hand-made artisan processes via mechanisation and machine production lines, led to significantly lower unit costs i.e. stuff got a lot cheaper. This was seen as a great thing and led to the transformation of global economies from aristocratic driven to consumer driven economies. It reorganised the concentration of wealth and power in the economy from the few to the many, from the state acting on the whim of the few to being powered by a market force. In this case, scaling up manufacturing was a good thing as it allowed more people to purchase and own manufactured objects, which had been out of reach for most of the population. It dragged people up out of povery into a life more comfortable and less demeaning. It changed the power base of economies around the world from the few to the many. (At least for a short time… until the few worked out how the new levers worked and to regained control and re-concentrate the wealth being generated.)

But education isn’t an object. Learning is not something that can be mechanised, it is organic and biological. Learning is human – and therefore the only scale that works is human scale.

Human scale is the set of physical qualities, and quantities of information, characterising the human body, its motor, sensory, or mental capabilities, and human social institutions.

Human’s have limits. We can only be so fast, so strong, so big, so small, so smart. We are finite creatures. We have biological, physical, mental and neurological limitations. We have to choose how we operate within those constraints.

It doesn’t matter how much growth you have in your mindset – there’s a hard limit because the world we inhabit is finite. Whether we can truly comprehend that fact seems to be another matter, because at this point in time we seem to be completely fixated on growth and not on whether that’s actually possible.

The idea of Scale plays into this obsession. Nothing seems to have value anymore unless it’s at a massive scale. Perhaps it’s because technology has shrunk our concept of distance that we tend to think global rather than local. Today we can hop on a plane and within hours cross oceans, traverse mountains, plains and rivers. What we consider as “big” has changed, so that we now tend to think of big as being in the billions rather than hundreds. It’s at this point that Scale stops being a human thing and instead Scale becomes de-humanising.

We start referring to people as customers or users. Wealth in dollars rather than happiness. Change as percentage points. Everything translates into numbers. We can abstract our whole world into a spreadsheet.

In a Scaled world numbers replace humans – those fleshy individuals with thoughts and feelings and family and friends. Climate change becomes an argument over 2° rather than the fact that we are taking the planet to the point where billions of people will die.

Scale undermines human concepts like care, solidarity, love, compassion, sharing, joy or sadness. As Doug Belshaw put it recently:

Caring doesn’t scale and Scaling doesn’t care.
– Tide Podcast

Scale has become an important part of the Neoliberal ideology that is running the world. It works well as part of it’s hyper-libertarian agenda which seeks to justify the destruction of the social and civic components of our society and replace them with corporate structures. By invoking the concept of Scale those in power can easily dehumanise that which they wish to dismantle and destroy. Business becomes a term for global mega-corporations rather than anything that resembles a “family business” that you and the ones you love might build together and dedicate your life to. No, instead of seeking models that are sustainable and contribute something back to society, the focus is on monopolies and creating “unicorns” that simply extract wealth and ship it off shore. Business becomes an operation that embody Scale itself – in all it’s dehumanising glory.

In many ways Scale is a way of thinking about big things but without addressing any of the complexities that are associated. It doesn’t require you to think about who or what is being exploited, what waste and bi-products are being produced or the social and environmental impacts. Scale boils all that down into a single number – profit.

Yes education needs to get bigger in order to meet the demands of a larger global population with changing labour and social conditions, but it doesn’t need to have Scale applied to it. Instead it needs investment, fostering, change and development. It needs care, solidarity and compassion. It needs sharing and support because Education is fundamentally about being Human.

By following the lead of manufacturing and applying it’s model of Scale to education we are changing what is being offered. The more we unbundle, in order to find greater efficiencies, the less we see the student as a whole – as a person. The more we seek to Scale education the less it embodies what it is to be human.

Yet, education doesn’t have to be automated nor does it have to seek out a way of making it cheaper “per unit” – because there is no base unit when it comes to education. Despite the efforts to standardise education around ideas like the “credit hour” – the fact is that learning is not an object or currency that we trade in. Students are not vessels or banks that we deposit learning into. As I’ve said before:

Learning is not something that is easy to understand or pin down. For example, it is not the process of education, thats just what we do to earn it, the same as selling an object for money. It is not the act of teaching, researching or publishing – those are merely some of the actions that enable learning to occur. It’s not the buildings, the desks, the chairs, the computers, the stationary or any of the infrastructure – but they all help to create an environment for it to happen.
No, learning is a subjective, personal and sometimes spiritual event. An intangible, ephemeral and immeasurable object. It is something that is perceivable only by its consequence and affect. We can measure it through testing and demonstrating knowledge, skills, application and process – but it is measurement by proxy, not of the learning itself.
The Reality Distortion Field

How do you Scale what is at it’s heart Human? You don’t.

Photo: BIG/small by B.A.D. shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license


  1. Yes, even I have succumbed to employing the idea of scale in my writing and thinking. 

The Technopédagogue

Occasionally I like to trawl through the stats on my blog – seeing where people come from and how they find this sight. I’m still somewhat astounded by the global audience this blog gets, so am always keen to find out how people might have arrived here. It was on one of these occasions I came across this post “Créativité, innovation… des mots qui perdent leur sens à force d’être galvaudés” or via Google Translate “Creativity, innovation … words lose their meaning through being overused“. The post by Jean-Sébastien Dubé peaked my interested for a number of reasons:

  1. It was in French!
  2. I seem to be mentioned alongside Stephen Downes and Donald Clark
  3. There were a couple of pull quotes from one of my recent posts that I really like.

My knowledge of French is limited to counting and terrible mispronunciation so I had to utilise Google Translate to find out if this was a hatchet job or not. I got a smile out the fact that my post was described as a rant – but hey, it’s probably apt and what I seem to be good at if my stats are anything to go by. The post links the fact that Donald and I seem to be fed up with the overuse of certain terms in education – but also the fact that they seem to being “claimed” as something unique and to our times. Something shared by Audrey Watters too:

I think we need to call bullshit on this appropriation of language, particularly when it seeks to deny history and redefine meaning according to a specific narrative.

However, what really caught my eye was the fact that I was being called a technopédagogue. This was an entirely new term for me and so I went looking for a definition. I found one developed by Samantha Slade over on consulting firm website Percolab – again in French. I really liked a lot of what was there so I’ve had a go at taking the Google Translation and working it into a better English version:

The technopedagogue is a kind of bilingualist, one foot in human needs and learning process, and the other in technology and its potential. So a technopedagogue can oversee the design, implementation and even the implementation of interfaces, environments and the digital tools that support learning or various processes. The technopedagogue communicates easily with system architects and programmers as well as administrators, trainers and teachers. They can also act as a translator between the two, often translating the educational needs into the technical requirements. What makes this techno-pedagogical bridge so vital to our digital society is the ability to maximise the potential of the technological tools to meet our needs, which are first and foremost, human.

As someone who has tried and failed to find a job title that actually encapsulates what I actually do – this is the closest I’ve found. I am not a teacher, nor am I programmer – but I bridge the gulf between.

I’m not sure I’m ready to change my bio and add technopédagogue to my CV just yet – but I’ll definitely use this definition to describe what it is I actually do for work.

From PC to Mobile

This is the presentation From PC to Mobile: Changing Mindsets for the New Paradigm that I gave at the 2016 Practice Based Education Summit in Sydney on the 13th of April.

The presentation explores how mobile technology has changed the very paradigm of computing, how we are changing the ways we engage and utilise these technologies, and finally how we can employ these changes to improve our practice with a focus on Work Place Learning assessment.

PC-to-Mobile

PC-to-Mobile2

Almost under our noses one of the most dramatic technological changes has occurred. A global phenomenon that has altered the very concept of computing

PC-to-Mobile3

The Smart Phone

PC-to-Mobile4Prior to the smart phones computer looked like this. They required keyboards, mice and monitors.

PC-to-Mobile5And wires

PC-to-Mobile6

Lots of wires. And all these wires need to go somewhere, so now you needed a special room to house them in.

PC-to-Mobile7

Then there were the power points & the furniture.

PC-to-Mobile8

Finally there’s the peripherals. With all this stuff required it’s no wonder Computing became tethered. Tethered to very specific place and space that could contain all the wires and house all of this stuff that you needed in order to make it all work.

PC-to-Mobile9

And because computing had to be situated within a specific space, to make any use of it required you to go there. Into a seperate room and away from what you may have been doing. It was inconvenient and the practice of using a computer was often abstracted away from the task at hand.

PC-to-Mobile10

We also relied on pretty passive forms of interaction and communication too. We replicated physical letters with email. We broadcast our opinions and ideas onto discussion forums, which tend to look more like a room full of people shouting than an actual discussion! Getting these technologies work in order to properly interact and communicate is almost a hack.

PC-to-Mobile11

The experience of using this kind of technology, these kinds of interactions and communications is isolation. Using this kind of technology was separate from our lives. We had to go somewhere else to engage, a room in our house to be alone, and it leant credence and weight to the idea of “virtual” being seperate from our real lives.

PC-to-Mobile12

Then in January 2007 Steve Jobs launched the iPhone and changed the paradigm of computing. This wasn’t just an iPod with a Phone attached this was the beginning of something much bigger and in just 9 years the paradigm of computing has changed.

PC-to-Mobile13

Today we carry around our computers in our pockets. There’s no keyboard or extra peripherals required. In fact there’s more more equipment stashed away inside this thing than your average PC or laptop. There’s two cameras, a microphone, speakers, a battery, accelerometer, gyroscope, bluetooth, WiFi, 4G, NFC, fingerprint scanner, barometer, GPS, 128GB of storage, 2GB of RAM and a screen with more pixels than your High Definition TV.

PC-to-Mobile14

All of a sudden we have hardware that can match, if not out perform, our PCs. And in a more convenient, portable and capable form that fits into the palm of our hand. Whether we are conscious of it or not, the paradigm of computing has changed. Technology today is driven by a “mobile first” mindset. Companies like that have leveraged that mindset – Instagram, Uber, Snapchat, Twitter and Apple – all depend on mobile, not just for their success but their financial viability.

PC-to-Mobile15

But culturally the mindset most of has towards online and digital technology is stuck with PCs. We think desktop before mobile, we think mouse before touch, and it’s time to change how we think about how engage with technology.

PC-to-Mobile16I developed this table to suggest the kinds of changes that have been taking place in how we engage and interact with technology. The idea is that we are moving from the PC mindset into the mobile one, and it changes how we relate to each of these key areas. 

(I did riff a little off this slide – let me  know in the comments if you think it might be useful to follow up with more details)

PC-to-Mobile17So how does this effect PBE?

PC-to-Mobile18uImagine and EFPI have been working on a project to investigate Assessment in Work Place Learning, and in particular how mobile technology can be utilised to enhance its purpose and process. The main area of work that I’ve been involved in has been analysing what the current practices are across a number of disciplines are, and from that developing a needs analysis and to begin to map out some of the functional requirements in order to develop a prototype of an enhanced WPL system. Through this processes I’ve identified a number of key areas that form part of the assessment process and how they are currently being managed. 

PC-to-Mobile19

The key areas are:

  • plan – develop and list the outcomes or objectives
  • track – what students have done
  • record – details about the tasks carried out
  • report – what supervisors observe students doing
  • reflect – on students ability to perform these tasks
  • verify – that students are completing tasks
  • measure – of students ability and progress

PC-to-Mobile20

In the current practices that were reviewed in this project each instance utilises a “Document Model” to perform these tasks. The Document Model describes how all information is recorded in a single “document”, which is either a paper or digital file. These documents take the form of paper or digital handbooks, manuals, workbooks, forms and spreadsheets. These documents and the data they contain inhabit a singular location, whether that be physical or digital. This means that there is no co-location of data and only a single copy exists which is only accessible via proximity to the document.

PC-to-Mobile21So how can we address this problem thinking “Mobile First”?

PC-to-Mobile22

So I’ve been working on an alternative model for these practices which I’ve dubbed the Cloud Model which essentially entails moving from the current document model to an online database. This would provide significant benefits to current practices.

PC-to-Mobile23

It would allow a paper free workflow and eliminate the associated inefficiencies. It would allow multiple users to access the data but also customise the interface to suit the users role – whether they be students, teachers, administrators, supervisors or even accreditation bodies. It could provide rich reporting and visualisation tools that are accessible in Real-Time. It would also utilise the ubiquity of mobile devices as a primary access point and utilise the additional available data they can generate (e.g. geolocation, video, audio, photos). This extra data would also improve the security, verification and authenticity of the data collected. So if we look at those key areas of assessment:

PC-to-Mobile24

Planning moves from a to-and-fro process to something that can be dialogic and collaborative – regardless of the environment or location.

PC-to-Mobile25

Students can record in rich detail what tasks they’ve done using photos, audio and video. Rather than just ticking boxes students can gather much richer evidence of their placement and their practice.

PC-to-Mobile26

By utilising mobile technology students can update their tasks at the point that they do them. This data can then be reported back to their supervisors and lecturers in real time which eliminates the delay inherent with document model.

PC-to-Mobile27

Reflection is often seen as an add on to the assessment process and it can simply be enhanced through something like video diaries. But there are significant gains to be had is in making reflection part of the verification process. By recording their reflections students can marry the pedagogical benefits of reflection to the administrative requirement to verify their actions and their learning.

PC-to-Mobile28

Another way mobile can be utilised is in bringing together the process of measurement and the provision of feedback. By allowing students to record their tasks in richer formats we gain a much richer data to measure with – rather than just a score between one and ten. It also opens up the possibility for supervisors and teachers to provide feedback in richer ways. By utilising video, images and annotation tools in the process they can provide more comprehensive feedback. This feedback in turn provides a more effective tool to measure against in terms of a student’s learning, ability and progress.

PC-to-Mobile29

More broadly – mobile can be key to building bridges between institutions and practice. and between learning and working, between knowing and doing. Mobile technology provides the material for building the bridge to allow the professions to come into the classroom and for the classroom to come in to the professions. By changing our mindsets and rethinking the ways in which we can utilise and engage with technology, we can transform the pedagogies and possibilities for engaging education for and with the professions.

PC-to-Mobile30

PC-to-Mobile31

Embedding Activity in Online Learning

This is the second post that shares a theme and discuss ideas that relate to agency and autonomy in education. The first was Learning On Rails.

So for a long time I’ve been a proponent of an active approach to online learning. At the same time I’ve never really articulated what that means I suppose I need to explain what I mean by that.

I think historically what we’ve done when Universities have moved their courses online, has been entirely focused on a content driven approach. Content went online primarily because it was a more effective and efficient method of delivery. It’s cheaper and quicker to post documents online because there’s less time required, no extra resources, no printing, no logistics in mailing stuff out. But content is very passive – it exists in order to be consumed and failure to engage with student any more beyond that initial consumption.

Activity is how learning really happens. Using that content – putting it through a synthesising process, applying it, remembering it, building on it – that’s how we learn. And in terms of the face-to-face teaching – that’s we do – we tend to build activity into the teaching process, and it’s quite easy to kind of facilitate. Here you have a classroom, you’re colocated, you’re face-to-face, you can talk directly to people, it’s not a consumptive environment.

For Online it’s different. The consumptive bits aren’t the homework – they are often the entirety of the course. The active elements of face-to-face teaching aren’t substituted with anything meaningful, they just disappear or they’re replaced with stop-gap functions like a forum, which tends not to replicate anything like what would actually happen face-to-face. Any interactions of benefit that occur through a forum or similar tools are almost a byproduct of the system, rather than because of the system itself. The way a forum tends to work is that it gives everyone the ability to post thoughts and opinions, in essence what that means is that it creates a room full of shouting people – which is nothing like an actual discussion. A real discussion, conversation or interaction is facilitated. It is premised around certain activities and work to be done and it’s managed and maintained, but those functions haven’t followed online. Sure there are people who have succeeded in replicating practice this online, and can do it particularly well, but those people will probably tell you that it’s hard hard work to initiate and maintain it. They are also the exception to the rule again. Most forums and comment sections generally de-evolve into silence or hatred.

To me Online Learning has been very much driven by it’s passively, and if you look at a lot of what people are calling innovation in this space it’s simply new ways of generating more passive content. Watch this. Read that. New ways of going through the motions of what I’ve referred to as Learning on Rails. That you’re guided through a set of questions and tasks rather than the kinds of organic processes that good learning often looks and feels like. It’s just now you can do it with iPads, or with Augmented Reality – no wait it’s virtual reality now! This passivity has also removed the opportunity for autonomy and agency – both from the teacher and learner side of the equation. With a model driven by ready-made content consumption what opportunity does a teacher, let alone a student, have to take agency over the process and to personalise it to suit their needs?

So Mark Caulfield has written a recent post, Why Learning Can’t Be “Like a Video Game” talking about what he thinks are the big problems with VR and 3D environments. Essentially it’s the passivity of them. These environments are constructed to be consumed and there is very little possibility to really interact with the world and that instead interaction occurs on top of the world. In most games and virtual environments the world is simply a foundation that allows something else to occur, and it’s that abstraction that leads it to feel fake. Everything is heavily facilitated by the by the technology to the point where it’s so heavily reliant on it that anything else is merely an add on. Second Life is an example where the interactions were usually just the same kind of interactions that are possible in other mediums, but this time they were done on top of a virtual world.

If we compare that with something like Minecraft you can see that at its heart a very different model. Minecraft is very much structured around a generative learning process. That the reason it exists is for people explore, find, communicate, share and in this kind of environment the virtual world takes a back seat. The virtual world is not part of that process, it becomes a way of simply facilitating those kinds of functions within itself, not replicating existing functions from outside.

A Lack of Language

Part of the reason why I think we keep falling into Passivity is that it we don’t have a clear vocabulary around activity. We seem to slip back into calling things interactive or immersive yet those terms are so loosely defined. Interactive can mean that users get to click on a button. Beautifully rendered 3D environments are called Immersive even if there’s nothing to do in them to sustain interest for more that five minutes. There’s a missing taxonomy around what’s actually taking place – what are the actions and activities that are really going on. Instead we keep using these container words that do little to describe the reality of what’s going on.

Mike’s piece was also quite interesting that when talking about this idea of “linkage” as a primary function for learning resources. The ability for student to create links allows students to embed content it into their learning, into their practices and into their own environments is how learning occurs. This calls into question the idea of creating resource to be consumed as opposed to resources to be explored. Resources that can be linked, discovered and pulled apart. The same thing can be said about teachers where a good tool can be immersed into almost any discipline area, and that with mild adaptions can be used across a whole range of different applications.

What we are missing is a language in order to gain a more nuanced approach to this. I have always hated the word “Interactive” to describe what happens in a digital and online space, because it’s so poorly applied to just about everything that exists in that space. For me interaction is a feedback and conversational dialogue facility. That’s what “real interaction” actually looks like – having a dialogue or a conversation within an environment. Clicking a button is not that, it’s just a basic transaction.

Looking Ahead in Real-Time

So it’d be nice to think that going into the future that we could start to have more mature conversations about what Online Learning really is right now and a more mature way of thinking about what it could be. I think we need to start to embrace Activity as the driving force for Online Learning and to take advantage of the opportunities that online presents. There are such huge things that we can do right now and are failing to embrace. Things like Real-Time technologies that enable face-to-face chat and messaging. The ability to actually do things together – to collaborate and cooperate in order to create, build and share.

When I think about the opportunities that digital technologies provide I think that Real-Time is one area that we’ve failed to embrace in education. Online Learning has narrowly focussed on the delivery of content – email and the LMS provide content faster and more conveniently, but it’s replicated the same old function. It’s modelled on the asynchronous aspects of correspondence based education but now gets the fancy label of “flexibility”. Online assignment submission is not something new, it’s just the removal of the printing process and the associated time and effort. Yes we can provide the flexibility for students to go off and do things on their own and in their own time, but what we’ve failed to see is that time and distance have been removed entirely from the equation thanks to mobile technology. Mobile provides a connection, a computer and a variety of communications technologies (text, voice and video) in a convenient package that reduces time and distance to zero regardless of physical location. Students and teachers can now inhabit the same space regardless of where in the world they are as long as we are willing to do it in the digital environment. We now have the opportunity to get students together in the same space and time to work cooperatively and collaboratively and to push the kinds of interactions that are possible.

It was interesting at the Indi Ed-tech meetup that the group I worked with in the design challenge looked at using chat as an interface for the learning environment. Modelled on Slack we explored the ways that chat and real-time communications could improve the learning significantly and provide students with a voice and a way of participating in the learning rather than being passive recipients of it.

The obvious criticism of Real-Time is that it’s hard to schedule. Seriously? That’s it? We can transcend time and space and the reason for not doing it is it’s hard to organise? The possibilities of Real-Time asks us, no challenges us to change (dare I say it – because it’s innovative) and that’s the biggest hurdle. We would have to change how we think about Online Learning, but if we can say that a textbook is a fricking mandatory, then surely we can schedule a time in a week to meet! Yes, people need flexibility but we are giving it to them in different areas – they can choose where they will be rather than when they will be. It might mean shifting teaching to 7pm instead of 9am and that requires the organisation to change, but what you gain is the ability to embed real activity in online learning. To change the whole way we think about Online Learning and move away from content delivery to a model that allows students and teachers to interact, to do – to be active participants in their learning. To become more autonomous and to have more agency!

Featured image from http://sparksheet.com/welcome-real-time-revolution-just-getting-started/

Learning on Rails

This is the first in a couple of posts that share a theme and discuss ideas that relate to agency and autonomy in education. Some have been half baked drafts sitting in a folder – others are newer – but all seem to share some commonality that has been made more concrete by the Indi Ed-tech meetup.

If you’ve ever been inside a video arcade or bowling alley you would have seen those video games. You know, the ones with a the physical guns on them? Well I think learning is often like them.

(Not in the slaughter of innocents way, this isn’t that kind of post!)

These games deploy a type of gameplay often referred to as a Rail Shooter. The player effectively cedes control over movement in order to concentrate on a singular task – shooting wave after wave of aliens, zombies or whatever the faceless “baddies” the weak narrative is premised around. Surrendering control of movement means that the action tends to take place “on rails”. It follows a predetermined path through the game environment where the only parameter the player has any input on is the completion of the set task. Did they kill all the zombies? Yes, move on. No, game over. There is never an opportunity to diverge from the path that’s been hard coded into the game. Players can’t explore the created environment in any way. They are herded through the game facing predetermined scenarios completing set tasks and objectives.

I’m going to generalise here but I’m going to suggest that this is most people’s experience of education most of the time.

Of course there are exceptions, but they are that, exceptions. The rule is that learning occurs on rails.

Learning on Rails

Over the last decade or so there has been a greater push to standardise learning. This has led to the broad development, articulation and implementation of graduate and learning outcomes across our educational institutions. Having those goals and aspirations are a good thing for the sector – we should be able to articulate what we are trying to achieve. What has tended to be done poorly is the implementation – how are we going to achieve them?

What I think has happened is that learning has along the way been defined as a linear exercise which has led the system of education down a certain path. This exercise implies a simplicity and linearity that isn’t inherent of learning and led to the constructivist model, where learning is assembled according to instructions from elements that are designed accordingly. Learning becomes something that is linear, programmed and hard coded rather than something that is discovered, experienced or explored. This approach sees learning as a mechanised and industrialised process that paves over our organic, biological and experiential human nature.

Students are herded through the course facing predetermined scenarios completing set goals and objectives.

There is little opportunity to move beyond the defined path. Student’s can’t opt out of the tasks assigned, choose a different track or be and do anything that looks remotely like an autonomous action. No, learning in this sense is binary – you either pass or fail, graduate or drop-out. Learning is an act of consumption and not participation. Accountability and the associated metrics have come to represent success, which have become less about capturing or measuring learning and more about a complicated process being boiled down to a number. Abstraction rather than qualification. While the educational experience may seem more immersive – rich media, real time communication, mobile, apps, virtual reality – the underlying model of the students role one of passive spectatorship. They are not creators. They do not decide. They do not choose. They do not explore. “Learning” has become a process divorced from the participants.

Learning as a System

The problem with Learning on Rails as opposed to the Rail Shooters is that there is no alternative. Rail Shooters are merely a genre of games, not representative of the gaming universe. In fact what they represent is the shallowest of gaming experience, designed not to engage a player in deep and pervasive ways, but to suck coins from their pockets. They are cheap thrills and nothing more. And I wonder what does that mean for learning? Has it been reduced to just cheap thrills? Engagement in the most shallow of ways? There’s a reason Rail Shooters rarely make it to the home console where players have the time and space to dedicate – because there’s nothing really there. Nothing to explore, nothing to really achieve.

I bemoaned this kind of vision of education and the one currently being promoted in the popular media. Mainly because what it does is reinforce this passivity on the students behalf. Removed from all the choices and decisions, and despite all the whizzbang immersive technology, they are thoroughly unengaged from the learning. Why? Because in this vision learning is still seen as an exercise, a step-by-step program that any idiot can do. Learning is something you can consume. Learning comes almost via osmosis or proximity. Learning is a passive thing done to you.

Expanding the System

All this comes back in many ways to the conversations around Indie Ed-Tech and what I believe to be the underlying drivers of it – agency & autonomy.

Indie Ed-tech is infrastructure that supports scholarly agency and autonomy.

Indie adds another genre to the mix. It supports the more active approaches to learning – connectivist and rhizomatic models for example – that involve both teachers and students as participants of the learning.