A Domain of “Our” Own

“Clarysse” By Sofie Muller flickr photo by cogdogblog https://flickr.com/photos/cogdog/35013345241 shared into the public domain using (CC0)

From the first sip of coffee on Monday morning my brain was in put into high gear and stayed there except the brief hours of sleep in between. It’s Thursday and I still feel it. Words have been difficult to find – a feeling shared by many others who attended. For me it comes from not knowing what to call something new.

This is something new

Domains was the first conference where I felt a real connection – to the people, purpose, content and in a strange way the location. Having Domains at the 21C Museum Hotel was a masterstroke. The eclectic mix of art, installation and industrial rehabilitation was an amazing backdrop to the themes, practice and issues being discussed over the two days. (I’d love someone to write a post matching the artworks to sessions if anyone needs a prompt). That deep connection across those elements is something new.

Conferences don’t usually feel like that, they don’t engage with you on that level, they don’t give you energy. They’re usually draining events – both physically and mentally. You get stuck in sessions that a boring, you try and make space for yourself by skipping out and retreating from the crowds. That wasn’t the case at Domains 17. I went to everything, I sucked up every opportunity to learn more, I felt invigorated to go back and get more the next day. Even today I’m hanging out to find out other peoples impressions, to read their reactions and responses. That is something new.

It was a great thrill for me to connect with people in person. Finally catching up with people you’ve been circling for years, connecting with new and old friends and being in the presence of such a diverse group of amazing people is worth all the time and effort to fly halfway round the world. As someone who struggles to define my role and place in the world I felt more at home professionally than ever before. That’s something new.

There was a tangible sense of community at the event too, bought about by something that I think Kate Bowles would appreciate – hospitality. There was genuine care and concern demonstrated in the practices, decisions and choices on display – from the organisers through to the presenters and attendees. The whole event kicked off with the Domains Fair – a chance for people to share their practice and with time to engage, converse and discuss. This set the scene for the whole event. We were all there to learn from each other. No one was trying to sell us anything, make us feel stupid or inadequate, pull the rug out from under us, bring up petty differences or reignite long held rivalries and arguments. There was cohesion, attention and dialogue at the heart of everything across the two days. Even the failed attempt to do Karaoke. That was new too.

I’m not sure that this “newness” is a shared phenomenon – maybe it;s just my antipodean experience and naiveté – but those that I’ve spoken to have seem to have a shred enthusiasm for it. They too have been uplifted by the event and inspired to push themselves forward – ready to adopt new ideas, work hards to make improvements and are returning home with sack full of new knowledge and ideas from some of the best practitioners on the planet. I’m just a little flummoxed about where to begin, but beginnings are often the hardest part. That part’s nothing new.


Feature Image: “Clarysse By Sofie Muller” flickr photo by cogdogblog https://flickr.com/photos/cogdog/35013345241 shared into the public domain using (CC0)

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SXSW: Meeting the People

If Day 3 at SXSWedu was a day of disappointment the Day 4 was one of affirmation. Affirmation of the fact that there are people that care, are looking at how we can change and actively working on those transformations.

The morning panel was titled Breaking the University From the Inside Out hosted by Allison Dulin Salisbury (EdSurge – Dir, Higher Education Strategy) and included Josh Kim (Dartmouth College – Dir of Digital Learning Initiatives), Sean Hobson (Arizona State University – Chief Design Officer EdPlus) and Paul Freedman (Entangled Ventures – CEO).

The discussion centred around how innovation was structured and supported in the two institutions while Paul provided an industry perspective on working with institutions. Josh and Sean offered quite different models for how innovation works in their institutions. Josh outlined how at Dartmouth it was often an outside in approach that worked. Innovation occurred at the edges and made it’s way into the core learning and teaching via the main learning and teaching support unit. Sean offered a radically different approach, where at ASU innovation has become a central part of the organisation. The EdPlus part of the organisation was in charge of developing new models and technology for digital teaching and learning. This central unit was also responsible for strategic partnerships and they’d developed relationships with 150 companies and ventures. Paul’s insight was that the only companies that are successful in EdTech do it with an institution – outside in is a design flaw & doesn’t work. One of the key hurdles noted here was that often University incentive structures work against innovation, which re-enforces a risk adverse environment. A model suggested to mitigate this was to start innovation outside the core, where the risk of failure isn’t there, but to ensure there is a transition path so that successes are bought back into the core.

The discussion around the links between the educational institutions and EdTech companies was interesting to note. Both sides seem to agree that the relationships with vendors are too often transactional. They’re not partnerships, or even collegial and maybe because there is little transparency and divergent interests. The reality is that Edtech can’t answer the questions universities are asking – is effective, does it improve learning, does it improve retention – and they won’t be able to until they start to show respect for instructional design and research. EdTech dishing out the “education is broken” narrative at every opportunity is reducing the possibility of collaboration because it shows little respect for the profession, for history and for the practitioners who are working damn hard. Partnerships are a better way of working but they need to be nurtured and based upon respect.

One thing that was said that I’m still mulling over was the statement:

Education is a system. An app is not going to disrupt a system – it’s too big and too complex.

While it’s true, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about what it implies. Particularly when you see the influence of the Khans and Gates on the policy and direction of that system. One app might not change the system, but the billion dollars made from one app just might.

After the panel I had lunch with Allison, Josh and Anne Keehn and discussed some of the issues that came out of the session. One themes was around collaboration – how do we get more meaningful collaboration happening at institutions? What are the mechanisms, tools and models for doing this? I liked Josh’s insistence that Centers for Teaching and Learning are an incredibly relevant and important part of this conversation. Just about every university has one, but the degree in which they collaborate, pool their knowledge and influence is pretty minimal. What if we empowered these unit and gave them greater visibility? What if they became a louder voice in the conversation? Josh outlines this argument in one of his recent blog posts EdTech Units, CTLs and the Postsecondary Subordination Narrative. I think this is a viable model and a way to quickly gain traction on a global scale. I know a lot of EdTech professionals, but more on an individual basis and what they do personally, not what their university is working on. 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 develop and training through to learning design and pedagogy. I’ve had a few conversations recently discussing this problem – how to we empower people in these roles? What do we need to learn? How can we gain recognition and become part of the broader conversation about education and technology? How can we access the kinds of resources and information we need to work better?

SXSWedu didn’t provide any answers, but it did connect me to more people – and that’s a powerful thing. The solutions will never come from technology, it will come from people. An app won’t change the system, but people can.

SXSW: Pop Edu

Day 3 at SXSW was a bit of a bad day. My Bubble Burst and then I was exposed to (by my own choice), what I can only call “Pop Edu”.

First up was the keynote presentation How to Think (and Learn) Like a Futurist from Jane McGonigal and then in the afternoon I went to the panel Igniting a Practice Revolution that included Sal Khan and discussed a project to improve the SAT performance using Khan Academy. I went to these presentations already a sceptic to the evangelical pronouncements both speakers are know for, and it was very much driven by a need to “know thy enemy”.

If Pop Music can be adequately described as music that appeals to teenagers and is a bland watered-down version of rock’n’roll, then these two panels are very much in the vein of Pop Edu. They also illustrate that the banal evil that lies behind pop music – commercial interests and maintaining power structures – exists in Pop Edu too.

If I was to break Pop Edu down it would look a bit like this:

  1. Neophilic – it’s all about the new, what’s next, quick fads not quality, high turnover, everything is replaceable – and will be in ever shorter cycles.
  2. Shallow – there is no depth to what’s being proposed. Everything is simplified and provided in bitesized pieces.
  3. Manipulative – it’s persuasive because it deploys tactics aimed at presenting a specific narrative. There’s always a half truth, but the whole truth is always glossed over with a convenient narrative (e.g. Everything is broken)
  4. Saccharine – The message is always too sweet and positive. It never delves into anything that looks painful or reflective of reality (e.g. never addresses race, inequality, sexism).

Unpacking the McGonical talk is a case study in Pop Edu. It started well. Here’s a narrative about a “successful” person – without addressing what it was they were really successful in doing. We can gloss over the pedagogically poor “projects” undertaken because they were “massive”. Lots of people equals success right? Just like platinum albums go to the best musician! That’s all before we get to predicting the future! McGonical hails from the Institute for the Future (which has sounds as credible as the Ponds Institute and the Laboritoire Garnier) which claims “helping all kinds of organizations make the futures they want”. So who wants the future McGonical is presenting? Who paid the Institute for the Future for the Learning is Earning campaign and what it represents? Let’s get an answer to that before we invest in that vision, OK? Now let’s get into the mechanics of what’s on offer. Just like a three chord pop song there’s not a lot of depth or nuance here, instead it relies on effects and gimmicks (think auto tune). Edublocks sounds cool and has all the right buzz words that Edu Pop needs – badges, blockchain, unbundling – but brush aside the buzz (no need to dig deep here, it’s shallow remember) and there’s nothing here that’s particularly innovative or good. The base unit of an Edublock is still time, this isn’t about learning it’s about delivering. I think you can see quite clearly this is an attempt to disrupt the monopoly that universities and community colleges currently have over accreditation. The end game however is not about accreditation – it’s about access to funds. Government funds in particular, and once you’ve got access to those then you can degrade the product to maximise profits. That’s how disruptive innovation works remember? But to get to a point where that’s at least possible you’ve got to get into the market – and Silicon Valley isn’t there yet. Yet – because Learning is Earning is part of a very distinct form of Edu Pop. Country had Nashville, Grunge had Seattle, Edu Pop has Silicon Valley.

Meanwhile Sal Khan is changing policy. I personally don’t have a problem with the Kahn Academy in the same way that some people do. I think for certain topics – in particular foundational mathematics – the drill method of learning works because it is about committing stuff to memory and then recalling it. Students can do this at their own pace in and in their own time. It’s simple but thats fine and making resources freely available to assist student is a nice thing. Beyond that specific purpose though you’re going into different waters, waters where the pedagogy the Khan Academy utilises falls over pretty quick. What works for foundational maths is not going to work for History, Art or even Science where there is more complexity and understanding required. What was interesting about this session was the good buddy routine with the head of the College Board – the people who set the SAT exams. What was interesting was not the fact that Khan Academy was involved in providing students preparation for the exam, that seems like a natural market, but the fact that the SAT WAS CHANGED in this process. That’s right they changed the test in order to assist students studying via Khan Academy. They removed the logic questions because, not only are they hard, you can’t really study for them, especially using the Khan Academy model. Despite waffling on about “mastery” what they were doing was removing the only real means to test mastery in the exam. Memorising and applying a set formula to a question is not the same as applying logic to it. The most galling fact though is that Khan Academy was influential in changing the exam to suit their product, not for the students. Again, no depth. Instead of assessing the suitability of the SAT they just changed the test to suit what was currently the new trend. Pop Edu pop at work again.

Rather than shake my beliefs, this all just confirmed my suspicions. It just made them clearer and tangible.

What was interesting was that during both session is how the audience reacted. McGonigal had the crowd right up till the video for Learning is Earning. At that point the sighs were audible as was the grumbling. The guy next to me was particularly explicit about how he felt with several audible groans, sighs and expletives. What was more noticeable was the walk outs. Streams of people just getting up and leaving. Pop isn’t to everyone’s taste.

Honestly the Pop comparison only came to me last night, but it’s been subconsciously inspired by the recent musical musings of various EdTechers out there and the fact that I’ll be talking Indie EdTech later this week. Indie music is a really interesting model for discussing Pop, because Indie is the antithesis of Pop. Indie is:

  1. Retro – there’s an understanding and knowledge of the past. Indie utilises history in order to make better decisions, avoid the pitfalls and do things more simply.
  2. Deep – it shows a real understanding of the underlying structures, is self critical, reflective and embraces the complexity of what’s involved. Talent is able to be exhibited and challenged in this environment.
  3. Open – it’s truthful and honest, often to a fault and its own detriment. There is no need to manipulate, Indie is what it is – it’s what’s on the label, it wears it’s heart on its sleeve (right next to the tattoos).
  4. Bitter – Indie relies on the ying & yang and often goes to the other end of the scale in order to justify itself. Disaster porn rather than candy. It wants to tackle the hard stuff and creates a space for real conversations.

What’s important to note is that Pop never changed anything. It’s never really disrupted or innovated anything. Seriously, ever. Music has always been changed from the outside and those on the fringe. Change is driven by the independent artists not those married to the mainstream. Pop just steals from Indie, distorts it into its own image and strips it of history & context. Pop always claims to be the new sounds, but it’s really just the same thing over and over and over again.

All this means I’m looking forward to Friday, when I can finally get my Indie EdTech on. And the drive there so I can listen to a few of my favourite tunes!


PS: While Jim Groom loves his punk I will always be a metal guy, and to me Metal is the great example of successful indie music scene. Here’s an entire genre that thrives outside the mainstream – no radio, no TV and no media. Yet it succeeds inspire of this, in fact it succeeds because of this. It’s global yet highly localised. It’s mobile and agile yet always remains committed to its roots and history. And metal is diverse, this is not a homogeneous or single strained style – this is a full genre that requires a whole family tree to encapsulate it. Metal is the antithesis of Pop, but also of rock and roll (for those not with me on that one, it at least bites it’s head off, swallows it up and vomits its back out). If we want indie EdTech to go far, become more Metal!

SXSW: The day the Bubble burst

Day 3 was a big one for me. A couple of things I attended really spooked me and challenged my world view about education. A following post will discuss some of the challenges that education is facing.

I came to a career in education. It wasn’t predestined. It wasn’t even on my radar until I started, and even then I wasn’t sure it was a long term thing. But I liked it. I liked putting my design and multimedia skills to something a little more noble than advertising and marketing materials. When I took a full time job I set out to learn. Learn as much about the field I was entering so that I could start to speak on the same terms. To make more work better, not just look good. To think about the Learner Experience and the broader context of what I was making in terms of learning resources.

I taught myself about pedagogies, learning design, how people teach, how people learn – not just the theories but the practicalities. I absorbed everything thrown at me, asked questions and started to feel comfortable about being in education. My blog signifies that I was comfortable enough with what I knew that I could actually contribute to the discussion.

I thought education as a sector was with it too. That deep down it knew all this stuff too. It had spent time reading, listening, going to conferences and learning about what it means to learn. Today the bubble burst.

Last year I had a running debate on Yammer with a colleague. His contention was that education was still a pre-professional field. I thought I was doing the right thing when I went in to bat for education – but today I’ll admit I was wrong.

I’ve been living in a bubble. I’m surrounded by people who are innovating and who care deeply about utilising best practice to create engaging learning. They are driven to ensure the learning experience they provide their students is the best that it can be. Most importantly they are aware of what is considered “best” or even “good”. But that’s my bubble. That’s not education as a whole – and for better or for worse SXSWedu has given me a better insight into the larger world.

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.

Reflecting on my current work I was beginning to think that it really wasn’t innovative enough. That much of our work seems to be foundational to online learning and that it seemed too obvious. I’ve changed my mind – what we are doing at CSU in uImagine is incredibly important. We’re building those foundations together with our staff. We’re providing a vocabulary through which best practice becomes knowable, identifiable and practical. It’s innovative because it’s about changing the model at an institutional level – which very few seem to be focussed on. It’s also about changing practices and pedagogy.

There’s a part 2 to this coming…

SXSW: Big Challenges & Questions

Big Challenges

Day two at SXSWedu was a lot different to day one. I took a diversion from the main program and spent most of the day at sessions organised by the NMC and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I felt a lot more at home in this environment and spent the morning with a team of incredibly interesting people looking some of the challenges facing those working in higher ed. The event took a workshop style format where teams engaged around a specific problem nominated by the attendees. It was incredibly well organised and facilitated by staff from the NMC who engaged the talents of Phil Hill, Michael Feldstein and Allison Salisbury. Every table had a member of the NMC act as a scribe and had a student representative to ensure their voice was part of our discussions. At my table we had a member of the local university, a staff member of OpenStax and myself – the obvious outsider. Each challenge was facilitated by the individual who had submitted the initial challenge.

I felt more in my element in this space – discussing issues in higher ed. It’s interesting to note that despite their differences the US and Australian higher ed spaces are faced by many of the same issues – decreasing funding, increasing demand, increasing costs and greater competition. Plus the people I was discussing with were incredibly intelligent, articulate and experienced. This is especially noticeable in our student – 18 years of age and chock full of wisdom to share. The world of the student has changed so much just in the last decade, let alone the 20+ years many administrators might have between their student experience, so that voice is incredibly important.

“When a leader proposes something new, Faculty emit a natural antibody to change”.

This quote came up during our discussion about change in the university and I enjoyed the biological element it invokes. It’s something that most of us who’ve worked in higher ed for any amount of time have encountered. But it’s a trope, a broad generalisation that does little to further the argument. It was also countered by our wise student who noted:

“Can we all just admit we all don’t react well to change?”

And that’s pretty close to the mark – as fellow Aussie at the event Joyce noted in GIF form:

Big Questions

In the afternoon I went and spoke with a number of the companies who received Gates Foundation funding to explore Personalised Learning. Then it was on to a town hall about Personalised Learning. This was really interesting – and again well run (conference organisers please note this – well facilitated panels, workshops and presentations are worth their weight in gold. Consider sacrificing quantity over quality).

The town hall was run by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation who have pumped a lot of money into the area of personalised learning. It’s a noble aim – to ultimately provide a tailored and customised education to each and every child – and that’s something I can believe in. But (and it’s a big one) we need to start discussing what that really means. Who is tailoring the education? What is being customised? Based on what information? What is being cut-out? What is being sacrificed?

At one point the conversation was steered to what would the critics say? That put me in a tough position because it depends on what purpose you think critics play? The facilitators seemed to treat critics as unbelievers – flat eathers who just don’t understand the concept – so what do we need to say to convince them? This is in contrast to my belief – that critique is there to make the work stronger. That by encouraging critique through the lens of the work at the outset you end up with something far stronger and capable. By socialising the work and exposing it to an audience you create an opportunity to learn, to reflect, test assumption and to change the work in order to make it better.

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.