My Kodak Moments

I started working on this post some time ago, and it’s sat languishing in my drafts folder. I decided I needed to finish it after reading Why Kodak Died and Fujifilm Thrived: A Tale of Two Film Companies. I loved the articles analysis which broke down the disruptive innovation narrative. At the heart of it, it was Kodak’s lack of diversification that condemned the firm to its fate.

The Kodak story is one of the founding myths of Innovationism. It is foundational to supporting the notions of disruptive innovation and Silicon Valley, as I said:

The lesson from the Kodak story is not the power of disruptive innovation, nor is it the inevitability of technology to swallow up a business. The lesson lies in being able to recognise the points of inflection that could have changed the outcome. An understanding of the environment and conditions that led to key decisions being made.

Earlier this year I read a document that described this point in time as our “Kodak Moment” in Higher Education. Not the kind of moment you want to preserve forever, but one of those inflection points where the decisions we make now will determine our future. That insight is both thrilling and foreboding. How you approach this inflection point has to do with how you interpret history. So below I’ve outlined my “Kodak Moments”, those inflection points that I see Higher Education needing to address. And for no extra cost I’ll throw in some free suggestions for what we could do as an alternative to doubling down on a faster, better film processor.


Confusing what you do for how you do it.

At some point the mission at Kodak got confused and it began to conflate what it did with how it did it. As a company it helped people create memories on film. The “help people create memories” was the what, and the “on film” was the how and somewhere along the way the two became one. In doing so it narrowed the vision so that Kodak became incapable of thinking about itself beyond film. The comparison with Fujifilm suggests that part of their survival was that they unpacked what they did at a much deeper level. They didn’t just capture memories, they had industrial process and manufacturing that could be applied to other industries.

Higher Education seems to be in a similar position. It doesn’t seem capable of articulating what it does. Perhaps it’s because each institution has, and should, have its own unique service to offer. I think all should start with “Helping people …” because it helps define them as a public service, but what comes next isn’t so obvious. What’s strange though is the uniformity of how, across institutions right around the world – a structured program of courses running between 12-14 weeks each. That’s it. That’s the how for higher education and it can’t (or it won’t) think beyond that.

Tip 1: Change the How

If you want innovation in Higher Education then go after the how. The iPod didn’t change what music was, it changed how we listed to it. The iPhone didn’t change what computers did, it changed how they were accessed. The internet didn’t change what information was available, but it certainly revolutionised how we access and share it. If Higher Education wants to innovate it needs to rethink how it does things. Start with how we structure “learning” and rethink the agricultural timetable we seem stuck with as the only model for delivery. Then you can think about how we’re funded, how we engage students, how we engage our communities and how we will create sustainable models of education into the future.

A Lack of Diversity creates Fragility

Kodak relied on income from a small number of sources. Any products Kodak offered were really about bringing people back into using their core product – printing photos. Fujifilm on the other hand diversified their income through product expansion and investments into other areas, which was key to their success when the downturn in film started to bite.

Higher Education is just like Kodak and is incredibly fragile. It relies too heavily on just one product – degrees. Those bits of paper are really what it boils down to, the one product that provides the “rivers of gold”. And considering that there’s very little difference in the how you get those bits of paper you can start to see my concern with Higher Education.

There is no real product differentiation in Higher Education. Sure you can choose different logos and locations but that’s about it. It is a globally saturated market and you have universities around the world teaching the same way for the same outcome. It’s no wonder that every man and his dog in Silicon Valley is queuing up to disrupt the sector – it is ripe for disruption. What has saved education so far is that it’s more complicated than it looks, not the robustness of the existing paradigm.

Tip 2: Focus on Learning

Education has become a product rather than a public good and a civic duty. It’s been Taylorised and Skinner Boxed, quantified and analysed. Learning went from an innately human trait to something that is pathologised. A condition that can be measured, treated and made more effective through Deliverology.

Bring the focus of the institution back to learning. We need real product differentiation and that means rethinking the degree as a product. In a saturated market you can’t simply improve – better, cheaper, faster – it’s just not enough. You must evolve the market. Provide something new but also meaningful. Engage people in more meaningful ways, inject learning into the everyday rather than something you need to take a vacation from life to do. Improving the specs won’t facilitate the change that’s required.

Tip 3: Focus on Connective Spaces

The other thing I wanted to mention here is the University Campus. Some of the most beautifully kept and under utilised places on the planet. Universities are still stuck on their establishment based on exclusivity rather than their establishment for a public services. They seem stuck on excluding their communities, from engaging with them and inviting them to be part of something bigger. Universities aren’t shared spaces despite their prominence within their communities.

Utilise the campus better. Make them available to the public. Host services, build parks and paths and places to explore. Get your community in there and being part of the space. Offer fee for services – get library access, pool and gym passes, sporting fields, meeting rooms and video conferencing. Use the university to be a connective space, not an exclusive one. Demand that research serve local purposes and serves the local community first. Bind yourself to the community you’re in rather than pretending you’re not a part of it.

The Debt Generation

One of the often overlooked facts is that the success of Kodak led to an overload of artefacts. People now had albums full of memories, ones that they barely looked at. In order to attain those memories you were required to invest time, money and space. Kodak had created debt through abundance, that people now had to give something up in order to have memories. This helped create the perfect conditions for an alternative that offered to reduce those factors, to lessen the debt. Early digital photography had technical deficiencies but it was attractive to many users – real time review of photos, easy editing to fix red eye and wonky framing and the simple fact that you could delete photos you didn’t want. What digital photography provided was real world value, one that bypassed the debt incurred through film. By providing that real world benefit they looked past the shortcomings of the technology. It made their users better, made their lives easier and you once you have that you have the momentum to change the market.

I’m not sure I’m can see the real world benefit in Higher Education anymore. Yes education is important, as are our memories, but the level of personal and financial debt required to attain an education today has reached a tipping point. We are at the point where most students have to work in order to study, and I’m talking working at a level close to full time hours rather than a shift or two on the weekend. But have the universities rethought how they teach, how they asses, when they offer classes? Have they given much through to these constraints that students now operate under? Has the bureaucracy changed in anyway? No they plough on with the same how, the same 12-14 week program. The same forms and administrivia in order to get extensions or access services still apply. Sure you can learn online these days, but the courses tend to be designed to force you through content, is that a really attractive off? Is that worth paying money for? Is it worth more than a textbook? Is it worth paying for on top of the text book? Is the piece of paper worth it?

Tip 4: Think Financially

Universities really have to come to the table around the financial viability of what they are offering. Most universities charge the same for online courses as they do for on campus. Many degrees cross subsidise other degrees from the more expensive disciplines, but is that fair on the students? Most courses are structured to get access to government funding, but could they be funded in other ways? Could fees and debt be accumulated in other ways? Could students work with and for the university in order to pay for their tuition?

Universities need to have a dialogue around the broader financials of study, not just the bottom line of their operations. If you fail to do this students will walk, taking their money with them. This isn’t something they’ll tell you about or signal in any way, they just won’t come any more – that’s what we do when we make a financial decision. Engage your students, think differently about how this works, for lack of a better phrase – think outside the box.

A Brand Buys Recognition, not Loyalty

A lot is made about the strength of Kodaks name and position in the market. They were the dominant force globally, They had a great brand. But a brand isn’t the same thing as loyalty. People, despite everything that marketing departments will tell you, are not loyal to a brand. They choose a brand – for financial reasons, for convenience, for purpose – but never based on anything as obscure as loyalty. Could loyalty have saved Kodak? No. Kodak wasn’t anything that you could be loyal to. It was an industrial processes and manufacturing outfit, it made widgets that went into gizmos where you clicked buttons.

Universities however are full of people, and they can elicit loyalty. However it’s sad to see how little universities around the world grasp that. As they have commoditised their product, they’ve also sort to commoditise their workforce. This is clearly illustrated in the rise of casualisation to the epic proportions we see now. Labour within the university has become increasingly precarious, and more and more teaching is done by people by casualised staff. Because of the nature of their employment these staff aren’t loyal to the institution, in fact they can’t – in order to make a living wage many have to teach across multiple institutions.

Do you think our students are any different? When we have commodified the degree and there is little product differentiation do you think students are going to be loyal to the brand? The only difference in terms of products at the end of the day is the logo printed on the piece of paper that signifies their degree. You will never get people to be loyal to your logo.

Tip 5: Start with your Own People

Universities need to stop fooling themselves that they are a seperate entity in the broader labour market. You cannot bemoan the change in labour conditions and the fact graduates face an uncertain employment future when you are part of that problem!

Universities are still running under the assumption that they are employing labour, and a labour based business can simply improve their efficiencies by outsourcing to a cheaper labour market. Labour in this sense is a simplified concept, yes “labour” is required for the university to function but that term doesn’t reflect what most people within the organisation actually do. What they do is deal with people and information and to do this they required understanding, and understanding requires the development of knowledge. So what our people do looks less like labour and more like knowledge. There is a key difference between knowledge and labour – labour has a static value, but knowledge can grow and change. Knowledge can develop and change organically, labour can’t. The casualisation of university staff treats knowledge as static, robbing it of its very essence in order to make it fit nicely onto someone’s spreadsheet.

Universities have to start changing their own practices. There is a revolution needed in terms of knowledge work. It shouldn’t take the equivalent of Black Lung or mesothelioma in order for you to realise the working conditions in universities are unsustainable. You shouldn’t need suicides to remind you of the strain people are under.

You could have loyalty, but you need something worth being loyal to, and that is your staff and the experience they provide your students and your institution. Rethink what your staff provide you, engage them before engaging a consultant. The thing about knowledge is that if you invest in it, it grows and increases in value. If you have more knowledgable staff, if you treat them with respect and assist their growth then your institution grows in value you too. That’s worthy of loyalty.

Advertisements

Earn or Learn, Eat or Read

Reason students leave school: time and money. For many it’s earn or learn, eat or read… today’s system is not designed for today’s students. #asugsv2018 https://twitter.com/DesieLiz/status/986281713453056000/photo/1

This tweet hit my timeline this morning as I sipped my coffee. It stuck in my craw.

The debate around the education system doesn’t seem particularly fruitful, instead it tends to centre on apportioning blame for one shortcoming or another. Education is a complex beast, mainly because it spans civic, private, social, public and increasingly, corporate realms. It involves economic, political and financial aspects at both macro and micro levels. So many spheres with so points of interaction and intersection that it is a tangled mess. But that’s what it is. No amount of streamlining, efficiency dividends, restructures or regulation will change that. Educations place in our society is as a nexus.

However, we cannot avoid the fact that the situation described in that tweet is real, students are increasingly faced with the choice to earn or learn, eat or read. And to rub salt into the wound, they are paying to do so!

But it’s this next bit that rubs me the wrong way – “today’s system is not designed for today’s students” – because I don’t think this is a problem that’s systemic within Education. Yes education has problems that contribute to this situation, but I think it’s society itself is the problem. The society that we live in is increasingly not designed for its citizens, in fact it’s becoming It’s more and more hostile to vast swathes of people, in particular the younger generation.

I’m not sure that the Education System is capable of addressing the kinds of problems that are on table. I think we’ve got a society whose value system has gone awry, and what’s happening in education is symptomatic of that.

We are in a state where we are asking to student to pay for the privilege of choosing to earn or learn, eat or read. Apparently we can’t afford to educate people any more, while at the same time we hand over billions in corporate welfare and tax breaks. We can’t afford to feed or house people any but we can give away our natural resources and sabotage our land and water.

Education can’t and won’t fix that. Education isn’t the solution here. It might even be part of the problem as the system seeks to maintain relevance and prestige by changing the concept of education to fit the ‘work ready’ mantra. We’ve shifted the costs and the burden of being a citizen onto the next generation to the point where they have to choose whether they eat or read!

Students & The Cost of Higher Education

The news of the government announcing an end to the demand driven higher education system shouldn’t come as a surprise. For one, this government’s oligarchy driven ideology likes to veil their policies in the concept of the “free-market”, but in reality they are anything but. This is a party based around favours for the rich, of keeping the status quo and a naive sense of regressionism to the “good old days” (when white men were in charge and everyone else knew their place was under their rule). So something like a demand driven system, you know something that resembles democratic choice, was bound to be pulled back because it didn’t fit their ideology. This time it was done as a budget measure to pay for tax cuts for the rich (who don’t seem to pay much tax… so not sure why they need another one).

The other reason that this was inevitable was that it was getting increasingly expensive for the government. Universities were under no obligation to reduce the cost of their courses as student numbers increased and economies of scale arguments could have easily been invoked. Instead most of universities spent big to attract more students with little thought of the long term consequences of scaling up their enterprises. The government could have been proactive in this and sought to undertake some real reform in the area, but instead of attempting to tackle some of the underlying issues in the current funding model but instead they simply sort to cut funding and magically all the problems will resolve themselves.

The silence around some of the key problems in higher education is deafening:

  • No one seems willing to discuss the fact that students are being forced to prop up the higher education system as the government slowly defunds it.
  • No one seems to willing to discuss the impact of students having to bear a vast amount of debt right from the outset of their careers.
  • No one seems willing to discuss how much of the fees students pay goes to cross subsidise research and if that is a justifiable expense to be shifted to students.
  • No one seems willing to discuss the massive casualisation of the teaching workforce and the lack of time and permanent staff allocated to teach students.
  • No one seems willing to discuss if higher education will retain its value for students going into the future.

No one seems willing to discuss students.

The language around higher education seems to ignore them completely, despite the fact that our future literally depends on them. Higher Education seems fine with de-humanising itself and in being discussed purely in economic or industrial terms. We love talking about money and value, and industry sectors and exports, and economic contributions and growth, and standards and rankings.

We don’t seem to want to spend any time talking about the people.

We don’t want to talk about the stress we place on staff through precarious employment. How we don’t pay them over summer. How they can’t get a loan because they’re not permanent. How our last minute hiring practices creates a heart in the mouth event every single session, or how they aren’t allocated enough time to actually engage with student in any other way than the delivery of content.

We don’t want to talk about the stress we place on students to perform. How this course is costing them $2000 a pop so the cost of failure has huge financial costs associated with it. How there is no financial support to study. How they are forced to work menial jobs to feed and cloth themselves most of the time. How we just cut penalty rates and took $100 a week from their pay check. How we fail to even acknowledge the mental anguish our student go through in order to study. How we belittle them with bureaucratic paperwork and arbitrary penalties. How we have removed sympathy from the system of education which would acknowledge it’s very human connection. How we are silent about suicide, even when it’s attempted our own campuses, in our dorm rooms.

What worries me about the coming debate about these budget cuts is that there won’t be a sliver of acknowledgement of staff or students or the predicament they find themselves in now, let alone the state we are forcing them into. We are forgetting that Education is an essentially human pursuit, and removing the humanity is not a cost we should be willing to bear.

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.

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy

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

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

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy

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

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy2

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

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy3

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

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy4

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

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy5

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

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy6

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

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

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy7

And more importantly WHO?

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

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy8

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

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy9

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

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy10

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

So it begs the question:

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy11

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy12

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

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy13

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

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy14

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

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

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy16

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

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy17

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

Complexity challenges simple wisdom:

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy18

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

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

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy19

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

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

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

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy20

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

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy21

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

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

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy22

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

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy23

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

But

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy24

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy25

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

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy26

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy27

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

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy28

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

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

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy29

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

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy30

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

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy31

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

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy32

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

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy33

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

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy34

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

Leadership Outside the Hierarchy35

Images

Complexity by Mark Skipper

Links

License: CC-BY-NC 4.0 @TimKlapdor

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.