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.

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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.

Tools

  • 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!

Administrivia and APIs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Context Sensitivity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simpilicty of Language

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

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

Smarten Up Dumb Technology

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

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

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

Does it Scale?

“Yeah, but does it scale?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Technopédagogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embedding Activity in Online Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Lack of Language

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

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

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

Looking Ahead in Real-Time

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

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

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

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

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

Learning on Rails

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning on Rails

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

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

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

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

Learning as a System

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

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

Expanding the System

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

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

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

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!

SXSWedu: The Obvious Innovation

My revelation or insight from one day at SXSWEDU:

What’s needed in education is better dissemination of good practice.

Based on the sessions I attended yesterday and the level they were pitched at that’s the only conclusion I can come to. But it supports my experience. At my own institution little is articulated by faculty staff about what good teaching practice is, what it looks like and how to do it. There is a disconnect from the practice required to do well and the profession itself.

Don’t get me wrong – there are many, many staff out there who don’t fit this generalisation. I’ve worked with them, listened to them speak and share, but they are not the majority.

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. That’s a big problem and may be why the education system seems to be in a quagmire at the moment and unable to truly move forward. If we can’t articulate what good practices are, then how can we move forward? How can we fight the colonisation from Silicon Valley? How can we petition against funding cuts and student debts? What are we fighting for?

I went to a session with members of the University Innovation Alliance which was interesting. What struck me though is their description of their work: Innovate – Scale – Diffuse. Nothing wrong with that at all, but given the climate my mind started to wonder – is that the right order of things?

If I was to make a change it would be to concentrate on the Diffusion of good practice first. Get it out there, get people discussing it, give people a vocabulary and shared language and provide rich examples that allow people to learn, share, adopt and adapt.

Then focus on scaling up. Once people know what it is you want them to do, they can get on with it. Show them how, provide them with the incentives, policy and structures to support their work. Scaling up what you know is easy, scaling up to early will only highlight issues and introduce an element of risk.

Finally, Innovate on top of a solid foundation. Innovating first leads to obvious issues and only entrenches the “pockets of innovation” that is the heart of our current problems. Get good practice embedded – diffused across teaching staff and scaled across the organisation – and then innovation becomes easier. Improve first, not fail first. The fact is that there’s 100 or so years of research and practice to draw on – we can do this without a whole lot of effort. I’m not advocating for a single form of good practice – far from it – education needs diversity and best practice should suit the organisation and student cohorts.

This Diffuse – Scale – Innovate pattern seems to match quite nicely with the work that I’m actually involved in at Charles Sturt University. We’ve developed a strategy and articulated a model that suits our institution. We’re working on the initial pilots to help us articulate and illustrate that model and we’re planning our scale up now. Once we’re there then we have a real solid foundation to innovate on and around.

There’s a lot of work to do – but the in the search for the newest shiniest innovation, we’ve forgotten the most obvious.