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.

A Year Ago

We thought you’d like to look back on this post from 1 year ago.

That’s the sentiment from Facebook.

Remember that time someone broke into your house stole all your stuff and then set it on fire?

Yes I do. How could I forget? How could I possibly forget?

I’d love to remember not the loss, but the overwhelming support and love that our friends, family and strangers gave us at that time. I’d love to remember the tears of happiness that ran down my face when people bought round a bag of clothes, toys for my daughter or a whole damn month of groceries (including booze!) when we moved into our “temporary accommodation”. That’s when I felt lucky, even happy. Knowing I had these people in my life got me through a pretty terrible event.

I’d like to remember the whole saga in less detail and with less pain in my heart and anger in my belly.

At the moment though I can’t. The trauma is drawn out and replaced by yet another saga – The Insurance Company. I’d love to be posting pics of the house all fixed, the new furniture and us as a happy family back in our home – but that’s not where we are. At the moment we’re waiting. Waiting for someone in the Ombudsmans office to pick up our file and hopefully release us from having to deal with these incompetent chumps. Waiting in temporary accommodation, that a year Later doesn’t feel temporary at all.

A Year Ago I would have assumed we’d be back in our home. I would have assumed some kind of normality would be in place. Maybe next year. Maybe next year when Facebook’s algorithm helps me remember, I can look back at a Year Ago with happiness and relief.

Culture vs Institutions: Who Pays for Change?

A robust discussion has emerged online stimulated by a number of tweets and blog posts from Jim Groom, Mike Caulfield and Stephen Downes. An interesting aspect of this discussion ,that stems from a post Mike wrote, was the need for institutions in order to to implement and maintain change. Stephen Downes wrote a rebuttal against a number of Mike’s points and offered an alternative perspective that in order to get change happening what’s required is Culture. It’s Culture that pushes things forward, that makes change possible and culture is something that happens outside of the institution (often in spite of it).

What I found interesting was that I don’t necessarily disagree with either of them and I’d say that I actually agree with both sides – if that’s possible. Both offer compelling arguments and perhaps there’s more nuance required in the definitions, or perhaps because it’s a complex problem there isn’t a simple for and against argument. Both are valid and both are correct. There just isn’t a simple cause and effect at play – this is a multifaceted problem that requires more depth and perspectives. So to be honest I don’t want to enter into the debate itself.

What I want to throw into the discussion here is the the idea of cost., and who actually pays for change?

What I find interesting here within in this discussion, and perhaps more broadly in ed-tech and technology more generally, is the concept of who pays for change to occur? For some reason we don’t seem to discuss this point very often, but the reality is that it requires actual money for change to occur. To do this stuff it requires resources, time and effort which has to come from somewhere and be paid for by someone. While sometimes there might not be a direct dollar amount attached, we can still attach a dollar values for what is invested, and who picks up that cost is incredibly important. Particularly if you want to assess success and benefit.

So let’s take a cursory glance at the two sides – Culture vs. Institutions and who pays.


When it comes to Culture being utilised as the tool for change I’d suggest that it forces the cost to be taken up by individuals. Really powerful things can achieved when individuals take on the responsibility for change. It’s part of the libertarian ideal of empowered individuals, taking ownership and mastery of their own domain. But, for change to actually occur via Culture, it comes down to the individuals capacity to bear the associated costs. Can those who need the change actually bear the cost of change? White men are more likely than anyone on the planet to have the facilities to bear the cost, so Culture has a certain appeal as the agent for change. It appeals to their sense of meritocracy, which is challenged by an ideal like fairness. Becasue for everyone who doesn’t have the privilege of being a white male, they simply cannot bear the cost. People who are minorities, who are oppressed, who are excluded from society, who are poor, who are women(!) – the personal cost is often too much for an individual to bear. If we look at the endemic racism and sexism happening, extreme poverty levels, growing inequality – it isn’t a result of not wanting change, but an inability to bear it’s cost. The people who need change, desire it, just cannot risk their jobs, insult their bosses, bear the abuse, sacrifice time with their families, or jeopardise their future for the pursuit of change. When there is no safety net and no support on hand, why would you take risks? Cultures reliance on the individual to bear the cost means that those who are disadvantaged have little opportunity to engage with it. Culture is prejudiced towards those with privilege, and it’s capacity to actually effect change is limited if it doesn’t seek to engage with Institutions and the systems and levers behind them. Relying on Culture for change makes it the domain of those with privilege and support.


On the other side of this argument are the Institutions. They have their own set of problems – they are slow and come with their own inbuilt inertia and aversion to change. Quite often Institutions themselves are barriers to changes, but at the same time institutions have the resources to devote to supporting change and providing the infrastructure, often indirectly. This infrastructure allows change to build up its own momentum so that it can smash through the cultural and institutional barriers that exist. If we take feminism and civil rights as examples, we can see that these were supported and facilitated by institutions. Feminism was able to became such a powerful agent of change because universities employed people who contributed to it. They helped develop the culture by creating space for academic debate. It paid peoples wages and provide platforms to publish and engage politically and socially. Higher Education provided an infrastructure that allowed a movement, a Culture, to foster and grow, even if it didn’t directly contribute. For Civil Rights in the US, it was religion. It was churches who provided the necessary infrastructure for change to occur. They provided a safety net for those who took risks and stood up to their oppression. They provided the logistics and coordination required for focussed and successful protest. In these and many cases it was institutions that paid for change to occur. That picked up the tab when the price was too high for individuals to bear. They provided a way forward, leadership when it was necessary. Quite often we create new institutions as part of this change that go beyond Culture. Unions emerge from Culture but become Institutions, democratising the cost of change.

The Intertwined

There’s plenty of ambiguity in these terms so maybe there is no real debate possible. But the idea of asking who pays, and maybe more importantly – who should pay – is no less valid. I think depending on Culture to elicit change is asking people to bear too much of the cost personally. Depending on Culture for change limits its potential and capacity to effect real and lasting change. But Instututions don’t necessarily fair any better when they go out on their own to make change. They lack the buy-in, the support and vibrancy of a culture. We need to acknowledge we need both – and that we need them to work together. This shouldn’t be about Culture vs Institutions, it should be about Culture with Institutions. Institutions particularly those whose income is “crowd sourced” (in a loose and encompassing way), have a responsibility to act as agents of change and to bear the associated costs as a service for to their community. Providing the infrastructure for change is every bit as important as the change itself. Every contracted employee reduces the precarity and the cost of that individual to support change themselves. Institutions allow the cost of change to be shared and distributed, and can help reduce the risks posed to an individual. Institutions provide a way to create momentum and are at their most powerful when they engage with Culture.

When I think about Culture and Institutions, and what their roles and responsibilities are – it’s really hard to disentangle them. They are both requirements for change, and they often support each other. Culture helps drive and steer change but Institutions help spread the costs. The best of both worlds would be utilising Institutions to provide ways of facilitating and supporting Culture, of creating infrastructure for change to occur. Allowing their staff to engage more directly with change, to participate in developing and maintaining Culture and rewarding that kind of work. Institutions working with Culture, and vice-versa, provides a more equitable way of paying for change and distributing the cost.

The Dynamics of Static Sites

For the last few websites I’ve worked on I’ve utilised this thing called a Static Site generator, and one in particular, Jekyll. I’ve wanted to post about this for a little while because it’s honestly been one of the best things I’ve done in along time. It’s forced me to deeply think about webdesign in a verry fundamental way, learn a bunch of new techniques and skills, exposed a whole new way of building with the web and returned my enthusiasm and passion for the web that I fell in love with two decades ago. The recent podcast from the Tech Gypsies was the inspiration and motivation to finally sit down and write, so here we go.

What are Static Site Generators?

Lets kick this off with a quick overview of what a Static SIte Generator (SSG) is. StaticGen, a site dedicated to listing and ranking these tools, fortunatel had this pretty adequately covered :

The typical CMS driven website works by building each page on-demand, fetching content from a database and running it through a template engine. This means each page is assembled from templates and content on each request to the server.

For most sites this is completely unnecessary overhead and only adds complexity, performance problems and security issues. After all, by far most websites only change when the content authors or their design team makes changes.

A Static Site Generator takes a different approach and generate all the pages of the website once when there’s actually changes to the site. This means there’s no moving parts in the deployed website. Caching gets much easier, performance goes up and static sites are far more secure.

In many ways static site generators simplify the technical overhead required to design, write and publish on the web. Yes there are skills you will need to employ and technology you will have to understand, but these skills and knowledge are essential literacies for working with the web. Literacies that I think gets lost when using most CMS’s and social media platforms, because their shiny Admin interfaces ad WYSIWYG editors, essentially divorce users from the underlying workings of their site and they become dependant on developers and programmers to make the web work. Static sites are a return to the essentials of the web and what makes it great and powerful.

What’s It Like Using a Static Site Generator?

Using a Static Site generator work in ways similar to Dremweaver templates but with a numbder of key enhancements You create template pages that define the look and structure of your site and you keep your content completely seperate and simple, and then with a small amount of programming code you build your site.

From here on in I’m going to be talking about Jekyll, the most popular SSG out there at the moment. While I am familiar with the range of SSGs out there, Jekyll is the only one I’ve spent a lot of time with. I’m keen to have a play with Grav in the near future – as I think it might be capable of some of the dynamic components I need with some projects.

How Jekyll works is that you create a few HTML pages as templates, utilise Liquid to create some basic queries to populate pages with content, write your content in Markdown and metadata in YAML and then get Jekyll to do the grunt work of putting it all together. What you end up with are essentially two folders – one is your development area and contains all your build files, the other is your finished site full of HTML pages, links and menus all built for you and ready to deploy on a server. If you have web hosting already set up – just FTP the folder to your site and you’re done. Even cooler – make the site a repository in GitHub and it can host it and do the build for you for free. That’s right, free websites!

The Learning Curve

For some of you that last paragraph may have been written in cypher – yes you will need to learn new things but I can assure you that the curve isn’t steep. Each of the technologies listed are core to working with the web and understanding how it works:

  • HTML – is the building block of the web and once you understand how it works, you can manioulate and publish virtually anything you want. You can tweek, hack and change your web experience.
  • Liquid – is pretty basic programming and developing an understanding is a transferable skill.
  • Markdown – can be viewed as simplified HTML, but it also introduces the power of plain text as a timeless and adaptable content format. It also brings to the for the cetral idea of seperation content from presentation.
  • YAML – is a great introduction to metadata. Using metadate we can connect content, posts, ideas and visuals and also seperate display options, graphics and information about the content from the content.
  • FTP – File Transfer Protocol is the equivalent of a file manager for your web server. It allows you to upload, copy, move, delete and update files and it kind of what the CMS admin menu will let you do – except now your dealing with real files and folders.
  • GitHub – Git is a version control system, GitHub is a service that allows you to host your digital projects online and take advantage of versioning and centralised access that’s great for teams. GitHub have also built a bunch of useful tools and additions – like website hosting, wikis and issue tracking – that make it incredibly useful for open and public projects.

Working with Text

What you will need to get used to is working with text. Rather than a fancy Graphical User Interface, to use Jekyll you’ll need to embrace the Terminal and run commands and to tweak and build things you’ll need a Text Editor. The beauty of this is that neither of these require expensive or proprietry tools, in fact there are plenty of great free options so the total cost for development is close to zero. (Side note: I’m on a Mac and have used Homebrew to get me up and running quickly.)

Developing on my local machine meant installing Ruby and Jekyll by copying and pasting in some commmands – which does mean opening the terminal. This might be pretty scary for some people – but to be honest, most of the code is cut and paste from some of the fantastic documentation and demonstration that are available. Did I tell you how awesome the community is? Well it’s one of the greates things about developing this these tools, because the resources people have shared are incredible and impressive. Even if you’re a novice you’ll find a wealth of tutotials, videos and discussion forums to learn from and engage with.

My Workflow

Working with SSGs has meant that I’ve been able to focus on the design a lot more. I’m able to use my knowledge of HTML and CSS to put together simple and well designed websites – Quickly! That’s a key element to this for me – time – and I’ve been able to invest more time doing and learning about these sites than planning, researching, shopping and hacking them together. And then having them break over time.


  • Brackets – This is my text editor of choice at the moment. It’s free, it’s from Adobe, and it’s build using web technology. It’s open, customisable and simple to use.
  • Skeleton CSS – Getting started with the actual design of a website should really begin in the code. Rather than start from scratch I’ve found the Skeleton library to be a light weight and simple starting point. In my latest project I found a SCSS version of Skeleton up on GitHub that I’ve used. This has broken up Skeleton into a bunch of components that I can add or remove from a project if needed. It also takes advantage of Jekyll being able to compile SCSS and take advantage of variables within the code.
  • GitHub – I’m a pretty novice user of Git – but GitHub I use alot. From finding interesting projects, unearthing code snippets and examples, to digging through source code – GitHub is a fantastic resource. I’ve also made use of their ability to host a couple of my sites and setting up domains to point there.
  • Reclaim Hosting – I’m a paid up memeber of the Reclaim crew, but to be honest I still have plenty of work to do on my Reclaim Project. That said setting up domains and utilising FTP is an incredibly easy and painless way of getting sites up and running.
  • Chrome – I do most of my debugging in the Chrome browser. Whenever you’re working in the web you need to see what you’re looking at and being able to bring up the developer tools (CMD+OPT+I) to inspect a site is so easy. Plus, if you see something you want to steal, Inspect and find the source code🙂
  • Jekyll Serve – one of the hand commands is Jekyll serve which basically tells Jekyll to watch a folder and anytime there’s a change, rebuild the site. When I’m making I leave this on the whole time, which means any change is a simple refresh away.

My Jekyll Projects

So in the last year or so I’ve ran a number of projects through Jekyll.

  • Inhal.es – this was my first project utilising Jekyll. The site was inspired by Stephen Downes’ amazing OLDaily posts and Audrey Watters’ HackEducation (so much so I used the same theme!). I wanted to create something similar, find an interesting article and comment on it. To set this up I had to install Ruby and Jekyll on my local machine and then tweaked the Mediator theme developed by Dirk Fabisch. The site is hosted on GitHub pages and the domain redirects from my account with Reclaim Hosting. See the repo.
  • Lessons From Dad – This project is yet to be finished or finalised, but it’s a collection of lessons I want to pass on to my daughter. I started these just before she was born and aim to continue to add to these over the next 14 years till she’s 18 – and then hand them over as a present. This project was simply playing with a different theme and finding my way around Jekyll.
  • TimKlapdor.com – This was my first big foray into using Jekyll for something beyond a blog. Instead of using Pages and Posts this site uses Collections to group content. The aim of the site was to create a simple one page resume – so each section makes use of a different type of collection. I created custom YAML data as well so that I could use Liquid to parse and populate the index page. See the repo.
  • Resume Builder – This project takes what I created for TimKlapdor.com and turned it into a forkable and reusable boilerplate for creating your own one-pager online. I’ve simply stripped the site of personal information and left it ready for you to fill in. By simply copying and adding your own Markdown files for each of the sections the page will build itself and put it all together. Most of the configuration is done in the _config.yaml file where you can change colours and various bits of informationSee the repo
  • CSU Online Learning Exchage – This has been my main project for the last couple of months. Originally this was going to be WordPress site and I started to create a Plugin that would create a custom post type and related taxonomies. As the project rolled on it was getting to difficult to define all the data and structure that I needed and there were ongoing disagreements about terminology. So instead I went back to the drawing board and decided to keep it simple. Rather than go all out with the build – I decided to make it adaptable and iterate to get it right. So I went with Jekyll. The idea was that over the next couple of months we would flesh out the site, test it with users and add features and changes as required. I can do a lot of what we need in Jekyll, and am exploring adding search via Javascript. If it fails the content is in Markdown and easily transferable and reused. The site is also an example of my recent learning. I started with SCSS as I wanted to do as much as I could with HTML and CSS without resorting to JS. I find it a lot easier to write CSS in this way, and the fact that Jekyll looks after the compiling make it simple. The banner colour is me playing with a CSS gradient animation – wait for a little while and it will change from Orange to Pink to Purple to Blue,and back again. The Mixer page was built using HTML and Flexbox, a fairly new layout function thats available and makes life a hell of a lot easier when it comes to layout. While I’ll admit it can be a little confusing, it seems to do a nice job of showing what is essentially 11 A4 pages of text🙂 . Jekyll doesn’t come with Archive pages like WordPress so I borrowed some code to create the pages for the strategies for each of the Elements . The View All page was created using Tags and some borrowed and tweaked liquid code. I also used a Liquid include to create a reusable YouTube Embed snippet. The site mixes HTML and Markdown and renders fine because I’ve added a markdown="1" to the container tag. The Learning Exchange (or LX as I’ve come to know it) is the culmination and proof for me that there is an undeniable power associated with the current crop fo SSGs. The speed I was able to get this up and running from a some basic mockups was astonishing.

So the future is Static?

I’ve loved reconnecting with some of the “old” ways of developing with the web. I’ve realised how much faster I am at hand coding stuff, becasue there’s no abstraction or middleware in your thinking. I can write, review, re-wrire, review and repeat – much, much faster. There’s no UI to get in the way. I know some people may struggle with this, but as someone who was first to code their first website by hand in Notepad – it’s hard at first, but it is ultimately beneficial. If you’re learning about web development, this is the equivalent of immersion to learn a foreign language. It can be hard at first, but you’ll see results faster and be practicing with more fluency than in any other way.

I’m not sure if WordPress is the best introduction to the web – there’s a lot that gets in the way of learning the mechanics and masquerades what’s actually happening underneath the hood. SSGs maybe more “raw” becasue you can see the engine working, kind of like a hot rod. And continuing with that metaphor – they don’t lack power or control or nuace – they just have it on show. Perhaps SSGs are the Centre Pompidou of the web.

Will SSGs suit everyone? No.

If you need forms and a bunch of server-side functions you’re better off with an existing CMS. The same goes for large complex sites because rebuilding an entire site for every small change is going to take time.

But if you just want to serve up content quickly and easily, there are few better options. I’m not entirely sure why the default for a website became a CMS which needs a complex database and programmatic language to drive it, but for most applications its simply overkill. I think SSGs are a return to the traditions of the web but with some 2015 Delorean Upgrades. Not new, but definately improved!

On Dealing with Insurance Companies

I’ve spent a great deal of time dealing with our insurance company over the last ten months since The Fire, and more so in the last month since lodging an official complaint. It doesn’t look like we’ll be in our house within the year since we lost everything, and at this point lucky if we’ll be in before Christmas. We are tired, stressed and sad, yet we have to put on a brave face everyday in order to continue at least the appearance of normal for our child and our work.

In the last couple of weeks that’s become incredibly difficult and both of us have faltered, cracked and broken down. I thought nothing could be as bad as losing everything you owned, but dealing with an insurance company has proven otherwise. The process attaches the extremely raw emotional ties to something as important as ‘home’, to a beauracratic and uncaring behemoth in order to reach some kind of resolution. You can imagine the results are less than stellar. 
Here’s some of what I’ve learnt in the process:

You are not in control. Despite this being an intensely personal subject, decisions will be made for you, not by you. You will be disconnected from concepts like “home” and “normal” the more the claim drags on. Logic is not your friend, it is the path to despair. Conflict is the only way to achieve an outcome. Ask for everything in writing, if they won’t do it, there’s a problem you are not aware of. Ask for every document related to your claim, there are mistakes everywhere. Create a timeline and keep track of every interaction. Let nothing slide longer than a week. Set reminders and make demands. Cry and scream, do not try to bottle it up and put on a brave face. Everyone will understand your circumstances, except the insurance company.

From AI To IA

When I Bryan Rieger use the term intelligent agents, almost in passing, to describe the current reality of what artificial intelligence looks like today, it really struck a chord with me. Despite all the hype and all the investment I’m not even close to being convinced about Artificail Intelligence. An intelligent agent however is achieveable and perhaps the best that we can hope for today. The kind of Artificial Intelligence that is sold to us is pure hype. What we have at the moment is single purpose code. AlphaGo is not intelligence, it’s an algorithm that’s been refined and worked on for years that only plays the game Go. It can’t play chess because ut can’t think beyond Go. It can’t respond to other stimuli or interact with you in any way. It’s not going to take your job, truth is it can’t even make your coffee.

When I listen to people talk about artificial intelligence I cringe. Their analogies and examples require a level of abstraction that requires you to leave your intelligence at the door. AI is an attempt to recreate thought, recreate how our brains work, not the other way around because our brains aren’t like computers. A computer requires something to be coded and encoded and so that there’s a distance between the information in the code and reality. The code is a construct of reality and it will remain that way for a long time.

But when Bryan mentioned this idea of Intelligent Agents it really got me thinking. Rather than these fanciful imaginations of AI that resemble 1950s Science Fiction and posit something like Silicon lifeforms, what if we focussed on the practical? An Intelligent Agent would be incredibly helpful. Having the computer perform tasks in our digital space could actually be life changing. I’m not even thinking about physical tasks like making coffee or ironing shirts, but the ability to use technology to bridge what’s in your brain and bringing it into reality.

At this point I want to mention Bret Victor’s The Humane Representation of Thought. One of the really interesting concepts in this talk was the idea of creation via conversation.

“I’m talking about improvising and sketching dynamic models in seconds, not hours or weeks, as part of the real-time give and take of a conversation.”

Bret talks about this in terms of bringing computational models and functions into forms beyond the visual and symbolic, which is quite forward thinking. That’s incredibly interesting, but the idea of creation through conversation made an impact on me. What if through the process of talking about an idea, you were able to construct it? What if you were able to develop tools and systems not through abstraction and code, but through conversation?

So I started to think about the emerging chat bot interface (something that Ben Werdmuller covers incredibly well) and how that could be combined with an intelligent agent to get things done. What if instead of asking a bot simple tasks like fetch, you could actually be developing and writing software? Developing and writing software without having to learn to code. What if instead of needing to learn a language you learnt the grammar of programming. The way that you can put things together, to string ideas together and do that in a natural language which the Intelligent Agent would be able to translate that into actual coded products.

When I start talking about the kinds of tools that I want — for example if I want to create an app for my iPhone which pushes a selected photo to Facebook, Flickr, iCloud and Dropbox simultaneously – I could make that happen via a conversation with a chat bot. A set of commands and parameters I answer as questions from the Bot, would be all I needed to create that app.

If you could created a grammar for an Intelligent Agent to translate text to code, a chat bot to provide and interface and utilise the power of APIs – anyone could easily create their own apps. To start with this would work great just text (anyone from Australia or Scotland will understand the infuriating nature of voice recognition) but it could easily become much more complex and powerful. Expanding the agents grammar, writing across different languages and platforms would extend it’s usefulness. You could even have a conversation with multiple Agents — each dealing with different aspects of the build — running the AWS services, setting up databases, designing a front end.

The idea of Intelligent Agents working with us in our digital environments would be empowering to people, as opposed to our subservient role in the projected AI driven robot future. Democratising the ability to code, write applications and manipulate data would be welcoming back to the idea of digital being a kind of protean entity. If the digital became malleable we could reform it into what we need it to be, we could take our data and turn it into something else, something that tends to be lost in proprietary formats and code that is written by only a select few.

This kind of Intelligent Agent could revolutionise the world and I think we’re getting closer to being able to do that. To get to a point where we can actually create customised systems for ourselves would be incredibly empowering because digital technology has for a long time been something that’s done to us. Sometimes it’s done for us but very rarely done with us.

I think this, Intelligent Agents, are a massive opportunity we need to explore because it could change everything. Artificial Intelligence as it stands is just the status quo, replicating the same power structures and with the same lack of respect to our humanity. Intelligent Agents though would people to create their own real world solution. It could provide regular people with the agency to build their own rather digital solutions and not be reliant on the elites in Silicon Valley, or for that matter the elites of the western world.

Rather than the future of slavery, joblessness and insecurity that Artificial Intelligence represents, what about the autonomy, agency and empowerment we could gain from our Intelligent Agents?

I’m starting to think that there’s an interesting indie ed-tech project in here. Bots + APIs + DooO = Apps of ones Own.

Temporary Permanence

This is a long post that seeks to join three threads together. It’s taken a while to get to this point and it is definitely something I am still actively thinking through. Feedback appreciated.

1. Home (or the lack there of)

I haven’t really written about my personal life for quite some time, not since The Fire from last year. Part of that’s been a choice of mine not to publicly discuss and publish my experiences and those of my family. Part of it was an inability to actually articulate the emotions of dealing with the loss of our home and everything that entails.

Now that we’re coming up to ten months since the fire and we’re still not in back in our house, I feel the need to describe the state that we’ve been living in. I don’t want to start “pity party” – but there is something in this uncomfortable reality that’s been part of our everyday lives. A force and effect that has been shaping our physical, mental and emotional state that I would would describe as temporary permanence.

The temporary part relates to the fact that at some point we will be moving home and rebuilding our physical spaces along side the emotional space around that thing that we call Home. When, where and how seems ephemeral, but it will happen eventually. It’s been telling not to have Home as part of our lives. It isn’t simply a physical building, it’s a combination of different spaces and states that act as an anchor, a reset point, and a refuge. Being without a Home has led to a very different kind of mental and emotional mindset that guides how we think, feel and deal with our day-to-day lives.

The Permanent component is the fact that this has been going on for soooo long that it no longer looks, feels or smells like something that’s temporary. When I consider the what is temporary, I picture a couple of months at best (or worst). But dealing with the loss of our home has been going on now much longer than that.

This temporary mindset has been going on for so long that it is now embedded into our routine physically and mentally. The temporary has become part of the permanent. There is significant distance between Home and where we are now. We exist in a transient state that combines the features of both the temporary and the permanent. We stand on, in and between two different temporalities. Two completely different realities and ways of seeing, interacting and rules for operating in.

It reminds me of the demountable buildings used so often by schools. Designed to be be bought in on a truck and erected quickly to house students during a crisis, like extra enrolments or to carry out repairs to a building, they lack the fixtures and fittings of a permanent space. They’re used for something that can clearly be judged as a temporary measure, but they don’t ever seem to go away. Over time they become a permanent fixture, they don’t stop being used and they’re never actually demounted and moved somewhere else. They stay and become permanent fixtures, looking awkward and out of place as they settle into the landscape. That idea of something designed to be temporary, living in a permanent space is what I’m feeling. It’s a juxtaposition a whole bunch of questions and choices that seemingly contradict each other. Choices that work in a temporary space are not built to cope with permanence and vice versa.

This manifests itself in this concept of Home and the role it plays in our lives. We are/were lucky to have access to temporary rental accommodation that came fully furnished, a rarity in Australia. At the time it was a godsend not to have to rush out and buy furniture for a place that was always going to be temporary for us. We could just move in and inhabit the space . That was fine and accepted in a temporary mindset, this is only going to be a couple of months, after that we’ll be Home. Back to our place, our stuff, our space, our choices and decisions. Until then we were OK with what the temporary afforded us because we knew that soon enough we’d be house with our own fixtures and fittings and personal items.

Ten months on and it doesn’t quite feel the same. The clear edge between what is temporary and what is permanent is gone. The furnished state of this house is now a cumbersome burden that impedes us from really claiming the spaces as Home and provides a constant reminder that this isn’t our space. We are foreigners here. This is not our Home, and that has a direct effect on how we process things emotionally and how those emotions influence our lives. So little things like the appliances in the kitchen, the furniture layout and configuration of the rooms begins to grate on you. They’re so foreign to the Home that we left and become an impediment to engaging with the space and to treating it like our home. And that sentiment seeps into the rest of your life. In many ways that disconnect becomes part of how you live life. You begin to act, behave and care like this is all just temporary. It seeps in that deeply. You have to adapt to what’s here and what’s present and now, and that is starkly different to what was. Your whole life becomes a nice place to visit but at least I don’t have to live there! But now you do, the length of time spent dealing with the temporary has constructed a permanence that changes everything.

The place that was a refuge is now a prison. This place now mounds every aspect of your life – your hopes, dreams and aspiration. Your thoughts and feelings become detached as realities and temporalities collide. Life becomes stuck, a victim of this Temporary Permanence.

2. An Age of Temporary Permanence

In the last few weeks, having got to the point where I can recognise and articulate this experience, there has been a profound recognition that this is a lived experience for so many people on this planet. This disorientation and contradiction and the affect of temporary permanence is a global state. For every refugee in the world that it’s displaced, this is their reality. The refugee camps that were seen as a release and a safe haven from conflict become prisons over time. Where years are spent readjusting and living in not just temporary accommodation, but temporary lives, cut off from Home but also work, family, community and place. My affinity is limited to just to place, I don’t have any other trauma to deal with, so by no means do I want to compare what my family have been through with those of refugees. But I understand now that kind of disruptive emotional state that temporarily permanence places on someone.

There’s a stress and conflict created by the inability to divide the temporary and the permanent, they actually co-exist within the same space. For us it’s been the constantly changing timelines of the process of rebuilding. We’ve kind of gone from thinking that this is a short term temporary thing to not actually knowing when we will ever be in our house due to the continuing delays.

I think this is the root of it is that I don’t think we are designed as humans to cope with that coexistence of temporalities. That the temporary and the permanent need to be separate in order for us to cope. The ambiguities around time lines is the disrupting force here. These changes affect emotions and the way that our brains cope with the information and the situations we find ourselves in. We can’t rely on our mindsets and processes from our previous experiences. This is like nothing you’ve ever felt or experienced before, and most people don’t and won’t experience this.

3. Temporary Acts Permanently Changing Lives

Perhaps the most stark example of the effect of the Temporary Permanence was captured in the recent footage from ABC Australia’s Four Corners program, Australia’s Shame. Of greatest concern for me was the fact that children were being a locked up in solitary confinement for arbitrary and extended periods of time. There was now defined dates or times for these kids. The rules around adult solitary confinement were completely ignored and I am deeply concerned about the psychological and mental state of those children. This is situation where Temporary Permanence is harmful, and we watched as these kids cracked over time. The inability to attached themselves or their lives to anything permanent, the fact that what was supposed to be temporary punishment become a permanent state, that these kids were already damaged by the system – it creates a powder keg, and the resulting explosion is that of a young persons life.

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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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

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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

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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.

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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:

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“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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Complexity by Mark Skipper


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.