Years End

I’ve tried a couple of times to write this post and failed. There’s a bunch of rejected drafts and I don’t know if this really encapsulates everything, but it gets closest. I’m still processing everything that has happened and am trying to work out what exactly it is I want to say, but I guess what I really want is to just record what 2016 was.

One of the hardest years I’ve had to live through.

Last year we had The Fire and I thought that losing pretty much all your possessions (clothes, treasures, instruments, music, technology, data, and all manner of things and stuff) would be the worst thing that could happen to you. Well, I was wrong, wait till to you have to deal with an insurance company.

The fallout from the fire has made the last twelve months just almost unbearable. We’ve had to deal with the chronic delays in getting anything done, inadequate paperwork, poor communication and an insurance company that seems reluctant to actually give us what our policy states. So we had to complain, and in doing so descended into another layer of hell. We’ve been in conflict for most of this year in an effort to just get home.

We have had to fight for everything. We had to fight in order to get anything done – from builders, to financial, from paperwork to any updates on progress. Everything (literally everything) this year has been a battle in terms of the company that ended up going all the way to the Financial Ombudsman Service where we finally reached an agreement to resolve our claim. A resolution that is basically them paying us the amount of money required to actually finish the job, and we who have to employ our own builder and project manage it all in order finish the job. Because this is what our house looks like:

This is the video I took the day we made our submission to the ombudsman’s office. This is 14 months after the fire. This is all the insurance company and the builder they employed were able to achieve in that time. The house didn’t burn to the ground and was structurally sound, all that had to happen was that it was repaired to its original specifications. We weren’t asking for more that, in fact we were ultimately making a number range of sacrifices and compromises in order to just get back home. But no one seemed to want to help us do that.

This process has confirmed all those worst fears about corporate motivations and how everything boils down to an economic rationale – they just didn’t want to pay out. They did everything in their power to delay paying us out any money. If they could pay less or not at all, then that was the course of action that was would choose. If they could delay making a decision, that’s what they would choose. The way they dealt with us a people was driven by this penny-pinching and economic rationale.

I wrote previously that

Logic is not your friend, it is the path to despair.

Logic in dealing with an insurance company is your worst enemy simply because things that make sense and seem reasonable don’t happen. They don’t happen because there is no economic rationale to support logic. It’s like an alternate universe where all the rules that govern physics and chemistry are completely reversed and randomised so that you’re unable to actually understand or comprehend anything. Nothing conforms to the norms and rules that you are used, the fundamentals and basis for understanding are gone.

Dealing with this ate up all my time and energy this year. And I was so driven and unrelenting in pursuing it because of how much fucking effort we had put into that house. The house didn’t represent just our Home, it was a portfolio piece and a testimonial to the literal blood, sweat and tears that went into making it ours. There was the mad rush to patch and paint when we first bought it. We drafted in friends and family to give us help get us get rid of the brown paint that adorned all the walls. There was putting up with a completely inadequate kitchen that was designed for little people and required you to stoop to wash the dishes. It had also no bench space and weird antiquated appliances that I refused to use for fear of explosions. It represents the amount of effort that was required to save and work along our career paths in order to fund the renovation work that we ended up doing. The kitchen that we spent huge amounts of time designing and tweaking and finding just exactly the things that we wanted. There was also the final nesting period before our daughter was born. I spent hours and hours patching and repairing the horse-hair plaster ceiling in her room as we finally put all the finishing touches on to get things ready for our little daughters arrival.

And we had that house for a couple of years. This little house, perfect for us and an encapsulation of who we were and what we had achieved.

And then The Fire happened.

And then the insurance company had happened.

And in essence what was under threat was our ability to go back and restore the little house that was ours, that we created and worked so hard for.

And so it drove me. Incessantly to argue, to fight and to doggedly go back and argue and complain and to complain more loudly until we were listened to.

But all we ended up settling was the policy, there’s no way to really compensate you for anything that you’ve suffered in this process. There is no real punishment for the insurance company either. There are no consequences for their bad behaviour towards us. Our case just gets marked as “resolved” because we accepted their offer, and the offer was purely to do what we were contractually required to do. There’s no penalty on the insurance company for the really shitty behaviour that they exhibited – the threats, the bullying, the delays. There were no consequences for their actions – we are the only ones that have to deal with those. We are the ones left inconvenienced. We are the ones left out of our home for 14 months and counting. We are the ones who have had to fight Every. Single. Day.

This year I’ve probably been the most stressed that I’ve ever had and that has had a really negative effect on my quality of life. It had an effect on my health and my motivation and my work. Trying to cope with the ongoing stress has eaten up so much time and effort that it’s literally drained me of energy. The decisions about food, activity, exercise, family and friends became secondary to just simply trying to get on with the fight and refuel and recover for the next battle. Because this is what this was, a series of ongoing battles, of getting one thing sorted only for the next one to rear its head. And then the next and the next. This wasn’t like a boxing match that was over in twelve rounds, this was more than twelve months of the fighting, twelve months of round after round, battle after battle, and it has worn me down mentally and physically. In the middle of November I broke. I got sick with the flu but since then health wise it’s been a bit slide. I’ve got pills to take but the real change that’s needed is much broader. I need time to heal and to make changes to a lot of aspects of my life – things that this Temporary Permanence doesn’t help.

One thing I’ve got out of this is an understanding of how neglectful I’ve been. I bought this on myself by not caring about me and now I have to deal with the consequences of being stressed for so long and having this kind of tension as a consistent companion. Physically and mentally I’ve been damaged by this experience, and I feel so guilty about doing that to the people I love most. I neglected myself, sacrificed in order to put my world right – and for what? A house? Want to guess how stupid I feel now?

This mental grind has transformed into physical consequence and I have to deal with it, and it is not a quick fix. It’s not just take a pill and it will be alright, this is going to be months of making significant life changes and improvements. Why these things didn’t take place was because there was no energy left to eat properly, exercise well, be mentally clear, be available to friends and family – all that got taken up by the fighting with the insurance company and dealing with this stupid claim.

So apart from all the celebrities dying, Trump, the rise of right-wing lunacy, the media falling over, Facebook and Twitter fuelling hate like petrol on a fire – apart from all that, 2016 has just been an atrocious year.

Previously, these end of year posts are a reflection on what is essentially year-on-year personal growth, but I think this year I’ve gone backwards. It’s an uncomfortable feeling knowing that you need to change quite significantly and that you fucked up. I’ve learnt that you really can’t neglect is yourself, your health and your friends and family and you can’t expect there to be no consequences when you do. And that’s kind of what 2017 will be for me – dealing with the consequences of a shitty year and some pretty awful decisions.

Maybe I’m not alone in that, maybe that’s what most people will be up to next year given what’s happened in 2016.

I suppose I’ll come out of this with at least one victory under my belt – that we did beat the insurance company. In the end it took a lot to get there but that doggedness that persistence paid off and now we can do things properly and we can get back home. We can return and inhabit that space and importantly apply that energy to making things better.

My daughter is going off to school next year and that is such a huge milestone in our lives. She inspires me to keep on going, to do better and to be better. 2017 is about change and about making things better and while there might not necessarily be growth, and that things might actually be really tough next year, it’s a time to bunker down and draw on our reserves. We are resilient and persistent creatures, and if I’ve learnt anything from this experience it’s that we can keep going, and we can keep standing up for what we need to stand up for.

From AI To IA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Temporary Permanence

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

1. Home (or the lack there of)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. An Age of Temporary Permanence

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

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

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

3. Temporary Acts Permanently Changing Lives

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

From Us & Them to We

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

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

Divide and Conquer

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

Us & Them

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

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

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

From Us to We

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

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

What do We deserve?

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

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

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

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

How do we justify the destruction of lives through war?

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

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

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.

The Apples & Oranges of Online Learning

I’m sitting in the airport right now, about to board a 16 hour flight to Dallas before making my way to Austin for SXSWedu. I’m going to the conference with eyes wide open, it will take a lot to impress me in terms of buzz words and vendors, but there are some amazing people attending which makes it a worthwhile journey. Online learning and EdTech & consumer technology’s role in it will form a large part of a lot of conversations that happen over the next few days. I’m really glad that events like this occur, but I’m hoping that the kinds of conversation that are happening are far more nuanced that they appear to be at the moment.

As online learning has grown up it has changed and adapted in many ways. This has precipitated a complexification in terms of what online learning is, what it looks like, how it’s conducted and what is possible if we choose to learn online. What that boils down to is that online learning is not a singular thing anymore – it’s diverse and multifaceted – yet the discussion about online often fails to make any acknowledgement of this diversity. What ends up happening is that Apples get compared to Oranges, Oranges compared to Pears, Pears compared to Pineapples – in fact the whole fruit cart is often at play. This means that any real debate about learning online, and the conclusions people make about it and the technologies involved, stunted and ineffective. It allows history to be glanced over, rewritten or completely ignored. Research that is conducted and written in ways that make validity impossible and vendors to make claims that verge on fantasy.

What is needed is for the conversation around online learning to become more nuanced. Ideas, technologies, statements even advertising has to become more qualified and more definite. Basically we need to compare Apples with actual Apples and Oranges with actual Oranges and compare like for like instead of the hyperbolic mess that we have now.

So a couple of ideas of some key areas when differentiation is necessary and helpful:

Real Time vs Asynchronous – the temporal constraints are one of the key ways the learning is differentiated because you simply can’t operate the same way. Real time has specific affordances that Asynchronous doesn’t and vice versa. The interactions that are possible are different, as are the textual vs oral nature of the communications. You just can’t do the same things in Real Time that you can Asynchronously – it would be great if we acknowledged that.

Linear vs Non-linear – The structure that learning takes also influences the design – and one of the biggest influences on design is whether the structure is linear or non-linear. Linear design makes specific assumptions about how students are going to travel through the course. It changes the way information is contextualised, accessed, architecture and presented. Again what works in a linear environment won’t work non-linear one. They don’t work the same way – they can’t. They aren’t compatible with each other and so have to be treated that way.

Automated vs Artificial Intelligence – While they sound similar they are not the same. Automation are actions that occur based on preset and programmed parameters. AI however requires the program to learn, make the decisions and their associated actions. By this definition AI is a long way off – and that’s kind of the point. Regardless of how complex your program – if it’s programmed, it’s automated.

Interaction vs Transaction – What is described as “interactive” these days has virtually rendered the term obsolete. But I personally like it – when its applied correctly. Clicking a button or a link is not “interactive”, Watching a video is not “interactive”. At best these are transactions – navigation or consumption – but very far from any real “inter” (between or mutual). I click this, I get that – that’s a transaction not an interaction.

Social vs Civic – Social has become the new black but I think it oversimplifies the ways in which people interact. Just because someone is in my class doesn’t mean they are my friend nor does it mean I want to socialise with them. Not everything happens in a social space either, and so I think we need to think about defining some of the spaces and interactions we expect from students as Civic. They are about interacting and creating a community, that doesn’t have to translate into friendship. I don’t necessarily want to invite them into my space, to meet them in social spaces – but I’d be quite happy to interact in a civic space. The town square vs the living room.

Personal vs Personalised – Another contentious one – but some differentiation between what is personal and what is personalised needs to be made. Personal is that which is of the person, Personalised is what is suited to the person. Personal is about the individual, personalised is about matching something to that individual. It would be unwise to try and program for the personal, but OK to parasitise something to suit the person.

OK, well the plane is starting to board – so I better finish up. Would love to hear your thoughts on this, and if you’re at SXSWedu – maybe catch up for a coffee or beer and chat!

You Are Not In Control

Tonight I’m giving a presentation for INF537 Digital Futures Colloquium, a subject part of the Master of Education (Knowledge Networks and Digital Innovation).

While the title slide is a little ominous it’s aimed at being a provocation to the class to stimulate discussion rather than a lecture. I really want to hear what the students have to say – even if they think I’m way off.

Hopefully the seminar “provides the stimulus to identify and reflect critically on topics that have implications for a student’s own professional development, professional practice and scholarly interest” the subject aims to do.

Personality in Teaching: Content, Activity & Relationships

Martin Weller’s post on the role of personality in education has stimulated a lot of really interesting conversation and dialogue (it’s particularly interesting to see so many comments on a blog post these days!). I’ve ummed and ahhed about writing a response to Martin’s post but I honestly couldn’t articulate what I was trying to say. This post is like Martin’s – some musings on the idea of personality – and how it relates to teaching and pedagogical models. There’s a disconnect for me between the personality in say an xMOOC and a course like DS106. How it’s expressed and what it represents are two very different expressions of “personality”. One sees personality as something akin to celebrity – the other uses personality as an adhesive or conduit that connects people, ideas and expression. MOOCs made embedding the personality into the content the main feature of their curriculum. Don’t learn a topic from just amy old hack, learn it from the “best”. The video has become so ubiquitous in MOOC pedagogy because it provides the simplest and most immediate injection of personality. Text is too hard, too nuanced and it’s not like you ever interact with the actual lecturer anyway. Content provides the only real way to embed any sense of the “teachers” personality. (Yes I’m using a few terms “loosely” in that paragraph). To me the objective dilemma that plagues institutions like the OU aligns quite nicely with the Reusability Paradox that illustrates the inverse relationship between reusability and pedagogical effectiveness. The more something becomes objective the less personality it retains and the less that there is to relate to. You need some personality but just how much? Yet when you think about it, particularly in the case of say the OU, personality is there – it’s just down the line. Rather than be in the content it occurs when the individual tutors that students interact with. Personality comes through this relationship rather than through the content. As I listened to Doug Belshaw and Dai Barnes discuss Martin’s post on their TIDE podcast the concept of “relationship” was raised. Rather than content being the focus in the classroom it’s the relationship that really matters. Which is one of the affordances of face to face teaching, particularly in schools where you have time and proximity on your side. That kind of deep and meaningful relationship is pretty difficult to establish online and so that expression of personality tend to be lost Interestingly when I think about the kind of work someone like Jim Groom, personality is often exhibited not through the content nor through establishing a deep relationships, but the activity of the course. Jim embeds himself in the tasks and activity of the course in a way that’s unmatched by most of his contemporaries. The wacky topics, the gifs, the assignment bank this is where Jim’s personality is embedded. Why? Because he makes himself a vital part of that activity. He is part of the action, not a passive observer, but an active participant – a learner as much as a teacher. It made me think that there are these three key expressions of personality in teaching:

  • Content
  • Activity
  • Relationship

Each of these components compliments the other and by changing the order of emphasis, where the personality is most expressed, there’s a fundamental shift in the pedagogical approach and the delivery to the students. What’s also interesting is that if any of these items are missing the learning experience is compromised. Content, Activity and Relationship actually provide an interesting model for understanding and mapping teaching, and more broadly education. When I think about it, it may provide an interesting lens to look at current trends. At first glance I’d say that MOOCs represent the pinnacle of a Content First approach. DS106 of Activity First and classroom teaching (perhaps best exhibited in primary and lower secondary schools) the focus is Relationships First. Shifting the emphasis between the three components provides a way of changing the possible pedagogies deployed. An online course that shifts from being fairly content centric to relationship centric would be pretty different in terms of design and structure. So too would shifting the emphasis in higher education to a more Activity First model – both in face to face and online.

Thoughts on Anzac Day

I spent today mostly with my daughter and in doing so could not have felt any more far removed from war, despite being surrounded and bombarded by its imagery for a number of weeks. I’ve seen ANZAC Day conflated with everything from supermarkets to fitness regimes. It’s gone beyond something I can ever relate to and has been turned into some commercial, plastic carnival.

On a day synonymous with the phrase “Lest We Forget” – I think we forgot.

A centenary on and Galipoli has been transformed into a myth that’s far removed from reality.

It was the moment that defined the Australian Nation.

If you were going to pick something from that era that defined Australia it wouldn’t be Galipoli. It would be what happened after the war. The rebuilding of a shattered society. Of repairing towns missing an entire generation of men. Of broken families that decided to mend and move on. Of mental anguish that destroyed not only individuals but enter families. It’s a story of women who sacrificed as much as the men. Women who had to clean up, recover and survive. Of a society that self medicated with booze and drank it the pain away. A society that embraced the surface dwelling larrikin as a mascot rather than confront the demons deep down and suppressed. It’s a white story too. One where we continued to not even recognise nations in our own county as actual people for another 50 years. A repressive, regressive nation that is yet to reconcile it’s mongrel beginnings.

Anzac Day doesn’t have to reflect any of that, but what it should, it doesn’t.

If it’s about remembering then let it be about that. Let’s not cram it in to a dawn service that takes grief and turns it into a well choreographed spectacle. Let’s not cram all that remembering into a morning so that we can fit in a footy match, get some shopping done and round it all out with a gamble.

What does that “remember”?

Innovation and the Novelty Factory

My ears and eyes seem to have been bombarded by one word so often over the last couple of weeks that I’m now developing something akin to shell shock. A nervous tick here, a Tourette-esque outburst there, a cringe and a cry, a bewildered look in my eyes and a wanton desire to disconnect and float away.


Over hyped and over used the mere mention of innovation makes me wince.

You see

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

What scares me about this trend is that now innovation is being talked about in government policy, institutional strategies and every goddamn mission statement known to man – and yet, I don’t think there is any understanding about what innovation is: what it really means, what it entails or the implications of adopting it actually are.

Horace Dediu posits a taxonomy which I think is extremely useful to help discern innovation and reduces some confusion:

Novelty: Something new
Creation: Something new and valuable
Invention: Something new, having potential value through utility
Innovation: Something new and uniquely useful

Using that model we can see that a lot of what people declare as “innovative” should be re-graded as simple novelty, and what people want in their mission statements isn’t innovation but creation. Innovation is not for everyone. It is not something that everyone should aspire to or need to achieve. In fact the pursuit of innovation often means that quality, sustainability and longevity are put at risk.

Innovation is a lot harder and more difficult to achieve because it is essentially change. And the reality is that most people don’t want to do that.

People want the same, but better. Faster and cheaper, but not different.

Change is hard. It’s disruptive and scary. Innovation isn’t additive, it’s subtractive – you have to lose or destroy something in order to attain it. It’s not the same but better, it’s different and better. It requires the embrace of something new, different and foreign.

Innovation is not something everyone should be striving for, and the reality is that they’re actually not. They use the label of “innovation” but if you listen to the pundits in government, technology and finance sectors what they actually want is Novelty. They want something that generates “new” at scale and from very little real investment or effort. What they crave is the Novelty Factory where you can package something differently, appify it, give it a new spin, change the colour and produce it at scale, but never actually do anything different. The reason for this is that novelty has the potential for massive profits, simply because who doesn’t like new? It’s engrained in our psyche to be curious and that’s exploited ruthlessly through an array of psychological manipulations that drive the cravings of a consumerist economy.

You’ll hear plenty about “disruption” but how much of that is actual innovation? How much is actually changing? Isn’t it just the same as before? Isn’t it just like the other thing? Isn’t it simile rather than metaphor? If we actually think about it, it’s distraction rather than disruption.

People don’t want to invest in innovation because change is really hard. It’s complex, expensive and risky and more often than not takes time – years if not decades. It requires behaviours and mindsets to adapt to entirely different concepts, inputs and environments. It requires people to leave behind what they did, what they built reputations on, what they trust and tacitly know, and replace it with something strange. Innovation is about trust and relationships more than anything else. It’s about building, shaping and learning not just coming up with ideas.

What most people want is novelty – simple, cheap, dumb and easy to sell. You can invest in that. You can profit from that.

Silicon Valley isn’t the hub of innovation – it’s a perfect model of the Novelty Factory churning out vast quantities of “new”, but affecting little real change. Sure there are innovators operating there, but they simply share the space rather than dominate it.

Real innovation requires change, not from the product but the audience, user or consumer. That’s where the complexity lies – it’s not about coming up with something new, its about convincing people to change. To let go of traditions and to trade in status, comfort and power from the old model to embrace something new and different. It’s for this reason that true innovation is exceedingly rare. There are plenty of new things we do, but how many require real change? How many were really just the same, but better? How many were subtractive and forced you to give away, give up and destroy?

Innovation is not as pervasive as we think, nor should it be as widespread as we’re led to believe.

I think there’s a need for a more nuanced approach to innovation, invention, creation and novelty. The distinctions are important and there’s a growing need to articulate the difference, to accept it and to choose what it is they need. If we want governments and institutions to embrace innovation we need to really understand what that means and what’s at risk. Maybe when we think about it novelty is enough, or that creativity is more important. Maybe that’s the real innovation.

*Image used