A Journey to discover what is Indie Ed-tech

What a weekend I’ve just had! What a week! What a fortnight! I met some amazing people at SXSW and on top of that I’ve just spent the last couple of days in the company of some of the most amazing and talented people in the world of technology, education and all the various ways they intersect. People often say “never meet your heroes” to soften the impact in case they might disappoint – but what’s the reverse? What if they blow you away? What if meeting them actually confirms that their humanity is actually far more engaging than their work that drew you in? That they are rich and complex people that extend beyond their work? What if their work is just a facade and behind that are people who are kind, funny, sweet and complex? I wasn’t really prepared for that and I’m still kind of in awe. In awe to spend time in their company, but to discuss and work with them – astounding!

Adam and Alan have put together a couple of excellent posts on what happened at the Indie EdTech Data Summit so I won’t rehash that. I do however just want to say thanks to Kristen Eshleman and the team at Davidson College who were amazing hosts and I was glad I got to spend a couple of extra days in their neck of the woods. Erin and Ben from Known ran an incredible design journey that everyone contributed to and resulted in something meaningful. Audrey and Kin who’s presentation kicked everything off and really got us thinking right away about why we were there and what we could do about it.

But what is Indie Ed-Tech, and what the hell is the Personal API?

The answer to that is why we were all gathered together. There was something about the unknown, the undefined and the mysterious that intrigued enough people to make it worth getting together. It’s a topic area that is very much in the realm of the Not-Yetness and the protean. Over the course of the weekend it was something that started to take shape and form, emerging from the mist and the clouds as something solid. I’ve been dwelling on this the last couple of days – trying to make sense of the experience and the ideas, emotions and themes that came out of working together. Students and teachers and technologists and creatives and designers and writers and thinkers. All coming together and sharing. So here’s some of my initial impressions – please take them and riff of them, or take them apart and redo them!

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

If it came down to a one sentence description – that would be it. So let’s unpack it a bit:

  • Infrastructure – I think what we would all like is for technology to become less visible, and to do that we have to bury it. To make it infra – under the ground – doesn’t deny it exists, but it relegates it to being part of the process, but not the process itself.
  • Scholarly – One of the best things I heard over the weekend was the case that we need to remove the teacher/student divide. Embracing the concept that education is based on a community of scholars allows change to occur in the power dynamics. It also removes an Us vs Them binary that tends to limit the discussion and vision around learning.
  • Agency – What the students involved in the workshop made pretty clear is that they have very little agency in their education (and this is in the liberal arts!). In fact I’ve heard many teachers communicate the same problem. Agency is missing and the centralised systems that currently dominate the [Pop Edu[(https://timklapdor.wordpress.com/2016/03/16/sxsw-pop-edu/) market don’t address this, in fact they tend to make it worse.
  • Autonomy – Another failure of current technologies is that there is little autonomy. There is a singular way to do things, a single system and single prescription that all students and staff have to adhere too. Greater autonomy increases investment into learning and improves engagement.

The agreed on example of Indie Ed-tech is Domain Of Ones Own because its been replicated across multiple institutions with considerable success thanks to the work of Jim Groom and Tim Owens at Reclaim Hosting. It exemplifies the statement above but also qualifies it – that success is based on change, there is a need to adopt the Indie mindset.

I came out of the weekend feeling that Indie represents an alternative vision for how technology might operate in education. The Indie mindset challenges and changes the existing power distribution and dynamics that are often at the heart of the issues we face. It emphasises networked rather than centralised practices and the relationships built through collaboration and cooperation. It empower users by allowing for greater choice, diversity and individual representation and expression. Indie is truly a game changer.

The Personal API

I’m still getting my head around the concept of the Personal API but having got to hear Kin Lane speak on a couple of occasions I can report that he has certainly earns the title of API Evangelist. One thing that Kin raised was the idea of an API First approach to design and it’s radically changed the way I think about design and development. Having experienced the failure of the Waterfall approach to project management and Agile (in my mind) not being quite the solution, centralising the design process around the API might be a way of developing front and backend designs simultaneously and collaboratively.

But what is the Personal API?

My initial musing about the Personal API (P-API) are in this provocation and boil down to:

  • a way to claim sovereignty over our own identity online
  • a first step towards independence
  • a way to create distributed systems
  • it provides a system for choice
  • it could create an enhanced form filler
  • improves transactional behaviours online
  • allows users to assign a death to data
  • backend for creating of my own operating system
  • fix the problems of the web
  • mechanism for us to make decisions about the web
  • it will be foundational to the “next web”
  • it needs to be accessible

So do they hold up? In many ways yes – but I was wrong to focus on the P-API being the product or the solution. The strength of the P-API is in the process and what it allows when you go through the effort of setting it up. I also came to appreciate the fact that the P-API is not the same thing as a Domain of Ones Own. That you can have a P-API but utilise existing systems and services, that PAPI and DOOO are not synonyms – they are and can be distinct entities.

The web is often described as “small pieces loosely connected”, but the P-API changes that. What’s possible with the P-API is the creation of small pieces deeply connected. Small pieces that can be swapped and changed to suit the individual, the technology available and the required outcome. In that sense the P-API can be seen as a backbone to Indie Ed-tech because of it’s influence on agency and autonomy. While none of the projects the groups designed would require the P-API to function they would all be greatly enhanced by it’s use because its the medium for connections. I came away thinking that what APIs in general represent are the cement that the web needs, and it’s for that reason they are vitally important. APIs will be the cement through which we can build something new and better from the web.

I’m going to finish up here – mainly because the airport I’m in is not really conducive to writing at all, but also because there’s plenty more to think about and say. This is really a rough dump of ideas – the most coherent any way – so a work in progress.


SXSW: Pop Edu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SXSW: Big Challenges & Questions

Big Challenges

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Questions

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

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

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

Rather than try and “solve” the critics those involved in Personal Learning should be encouraging and engaging in a dialogue with them. Invite them in. Listen, talk, learn.

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!

The Current State: Mobile Learning

I’ve written a couple of opinion pieces over the years about the Current State. There’s this one on the The Education System, this one on Society Transitioning, and Educational Technology and my personal state. They’ve been a nice way of articulating a specific view of space and time relating to a theme. They’re interesting as markers in the sand, for wayfaring and digging around the past. They’re also a way to think more deeply about what we’re doing. So in that tradition, here’s the current state of Mobile Learning.

I’ve been working around mobile in higher education since 2010. I’ve written a few papers, done presentations, developed mobile content, systems and apps – so feel I’ve got a good handle on it as a topic. While it’s true that mobile is now part of the conversation, I still wonder if Mobile Learning is even a thing yet.

Here’s some observations:

  • Single app adoption is widespread, but that seems to be the extent of “mobile learning”. A single app for a single use in a single subject with a single purpose. That’s nice and all but is that what we would call mobile learning?
  • Students and staff are ill prepared to use their devices for learning. They lack the knowledge, practice and skill to integrate the technology into their learning and teaching. Those fresh faces out of high school have just emerged from an environment where mobiles have been contraband, so have little concept of how or why to their mobile in a learning environment. Staff and mature age students have barely got beyond mastery of text messaging (see parents that text) let a lone anything more complex. It’s an interesting dilemma as far as technology goes because for maybe the first time the issue isn’t access or event equity. The issue is cultural and what we are willing to invest in.
  • Content is still rarely mobile friendly. There’s limited use of “eBook”s – ones that go beyond text on a page and cater for on screen reading experiences and interaction with content (highlighting, notes etc). There’s also the systemic reliance on PDF which means that content is locked away in an A4 page and nothing is “mobile friendly”.
  • The administration systems we tend to use are still only designed for the desktop. They still only ever support a full and rich experience from a desktop browser. Mobile is a poor cousin and the experience shows.
  • Institutional web teams are often too small to affect the kinds of redesigns at the kind of scale that’s required. Instead the result tends to be a set of piecemeal components that shatter any hope of a coherent user experience.
  • The only system or practice that seems to have a consistent increase in use and reach is…. email. Yep, it now infects every device we own with pings and vibrations that we attempt to ignore. Email – the most un-mobile of technologies. It fundamentally fails to provide a good experience – for reading or writing – or utilise any of the amazing affordances of todays mobile devices that open up the opportunity for improvements to communication.

Yay us!

The reality is that institutions (and the entire edtech industry) have under estimated the paradigm shift required to embrace mobile. It’s still treated as just a feature, or a nice to have rather than the future of computing.

In fact it’s the failure to actually treat mobile as a legitimate computing device that is perhaps the biggest problem.

Mobile is still treated like a toy rather than a serious device.

This is despite the fact that mobile is more contextual, more powerful and packed with more affordances than any PC. Somehow if it doesn’t have a keyboard or mouse it doesn’t seem to count. Mobile just doesn’t seem to justify investment in the eyes of most IT departments. This is despite the fact that the mobile device we have in out pockets is in most cases newer and more powerful than the junky PC we, and our students, are working on. Compare working with video on your phone vs your PC. Which one struggles? Which one drops frames? Which one renders longers?

The underlying fact is that mobile represents a significant change – in the type of technology, the kinds of affordances it makes available and more importantly, in the way we interact with it.

I published this table in 2013 to illustrate the kind of shift that mobile represents. It sticks out to me because I don’t think that much of the change or transition has actally occured. I think we’re still too PC in our mindset and have yet to actually embrace the reality that mobile represents. The current state of Mobile is that we’re not there yet – we’re stuck in the PC Age. Thinking PC thoughts. Doing things the PC way.

I developed this table at the end of 2013 as a way to express the diffferences I could see between the PC and Mobile mindsets and the way the thinking defined the two Ages. The idea was to encapsulate the change in affordances that each technology bought with it.

PC Age Mobile Age
tethered location mobile
static environment dynamic
slow speed of change rapid
separate technology embedded
formal structure organic
low level of convenience high
abstracted authenticity situated
centralised resources distributed

Since I published that earlier table I’ve worked on developing a more expansive list.

Version 2 Additions
passive interaction active
broadcast communication dialogue
institutional data sovereignty personal
linear timelines polysynchronous
curated content contributed
physical storage digital
possession content communal
concealed practice shared
isolated learning connected
generic interaction personal
consumtion information creation

The Current State?

So what’s the current state of mobile learning?

We’re haven’t even started.

The more things change, the more Universities try to stay the same

It’s been an interesting week regarding working in universities. First Mark Smithers wrote, what I can only assume, a cathartic post on leaving academia. Then David Jones joined in providing another perspective on a theme that seems to be gaining some notoriety. In the comments below was the voice of Sarah Thorneycroft who provided another perspective and posed some interesting question. These are really poignant, thought-provoking posts and they resonate because, to be frank and honest, I’ve been tossing up my career options of late and wondering whether this is where I need to be and where I should be investing my energy.

My Story

To start – I don’t work in academia – I work for the university in a divisional role. I’m what are often get referred to as ‘general staff’, although apparently that’s being upgraded to ‘professional staff’ now (oow fancy!). My experience and background never really prepared me for working in a university as there is a culture embedded in the sector that is quite foreign to what I usually refer to as, “the real world”. There are structures, processes, methodology and practices embedded and engrained in higher education that would get you fired and blacklisted in the “real world” but they seem expected, nigh on encouraged here. Promotions often only seem to be granted if you’ve checked all the items on that list!

That said universities are a good place to work. They often provide creative and well paid opportunities for a range of talented and intelligent people, and it’s because of this that Academia does have real appeal. Richard Hall, from Wackademia fame, portrays the ideal of the profession as one where you’re paid to think and write – which makes it seem quite romantic, attractive and worthwhile. That unfortunately doesn’t tend to be the reality, nor does it reflect the heavy toll required to ‘buy in’ to the system. First there’s the qualifications – years of practice, knowledge and experience count for squat unless you have a piece of paper and a thesis in something so obscure you seem to live your life recovering from it rather than building on top of it. Then there’s the work load, the dilemma of teaching or research – as it’s nigh on impossible to do both well without any serious ethical or health implications (and there are many exceptions that prove this assumption). A career path that is driven by metrics of no value, checkboxes and accumulation of statistics with no worth. There is a stark difference in what the life of an academic could be and what in reality it is.

So while I’m not academic I don’t operate in a vacuum, I see what’s happening and feel it’s effect just in a more indirect, but no less challenging way. The policies and processes implemented at universities and by governments inevitably effect me and my work too. The academic’s dilemma affects my ability to perform – I can only help those willing to be helped, and those that want my help are in effect putting their careers on hold so they can put some effort into their teaching! I can only work on projects that get allocated funding, things that are deemed necessary by those far above my status, yet lacking my skill and knowledge of the field. I can only watch as management just adds more and more dumb technology with unrealistic expectations of what staff across the organisation can do with it. There is no realistic sense of what we are creating or impacting on, students are barely represented in any of these decisions. Universities operate in piecemeal silos completely unaware of the accumulative affect they have on the whole. They act and behave like independent fiefdoms – battling each other and internally for some sense of control or influence – and in this environment my job has become a battle between what the organisation says and what the fiefdoms do. Strategy and direction is confused, scattered and often contradictory – seeming to come from central management and from the fiefdoms. Yet for all the talk and the words put into the myriad of strategy and planning documentation, any actual funds or resources to progress and facilitate change seem to be missing. It’s a system of competing priorities that takes us in a thousand different directions all at once.

At the moment it feels like I am at the centre of all of this and despite wanting to make a difference I lack any real influence or ability to do so. There are hooks and roots that are trying to pull me in different directions but rather than any forward movement they just cancel each other out, holding everything in place. Two steps forward, three back. It’s a stalemate and coming to work seems entail another round of justification or explanation to the various fiefdoms as to why I’m actually employed here. I’m starting to really wonder if it would be better to just opt out and take myself and my career down another path.

Systemic Thoughts

I think deep down I want to – but goddamn – universities make themselves so hard to love! Like Mark, Sarah & David I believe in higher education, just not the current flawed system that it inhabits.

After hearing endlessly that “education is broken” I have to finally admit that it is. Not education the idea, but the system itself – and no where can this dysfunction be so readily visible than in higher education at the moment.

Systemically universities are sick and rather than seeking to cure the cause of their sickness they are stuck treating the symptoms. The fetishistic treatment and adoption of educational technology is perhaps the most obvious case in point. The FOMO (fear of missing out) attitude that haunts the decision-making brains of Vice Chancellors and Presidents of universities around the globe shows a distinct lack of leadership and vision of what higher education should be! The reliance on numbers, analytics and “big data’ to tell us the “truth” of whats happening seems telling when perhaps what is needed is a dialogue, a conversation with those actually being affected.

Universities are sick because of the way they are structured, the way they function and what they do is becoming increasingly disconnected from reality and the world they inhabit.

So here’s my take:

  1. Whats wrong with Academia is that the system has deteriorated into individualistic hand-to-hand combat that tends to only foster an ego driven psychopathy rather that the collective, collaborative and collegial environment needed for quality research to occur. Universities don’t tend to generate the knowledge that will world or make it a better place to live from the majority of their research – instead they feed into a self aggrandising system based on closed journals, paid access, prestige, egos and a baseless “points” system.
  2. What’s wrong with the function of universities is that teaching has devolved into a hobby for many academics because the job security, promotional path, organisational strategy, structure and funding is all aligned with research. The elite Universities have let business and government dictate the terms over decades because it was in the best interests of their bottom line. Meanwhile this has left society and the rest of the higher education sector uncoupled from their communities, the professions and the economy. Despite sharing of knowledge being the great benefit to society, it seems to have become the underfunded secondary component of the organisation.
  3. What’s wrong with the structure of universities is that they are modelled on industrial businesses, as are the metrics they use. Universities must start to see, manage and organise themselves as knowledge organisations which are distinct, if not diametrically opposed, to industrial mechanical ideals. Knowledge organisations are based around people, they are organic, they behave, they grow and they change – that is the natural state. They don’t respond to mechanical management methods to improve efficiency, performance, timelines and standardisation. They don’t want conformity – they want diversity. They don’t want efficiency – that want effectiveness. They don’t want control – they want autonomy. They don’t need overbearing governance – they need trust and faith in their ability and their talent. You can tell a machine what to do, shape them and manipulate them directly – you can do none of those things to a human without taking away the essential humanity your organisation runs on.

To this extent, as Taleb would describe,

Higher Education has developed into a fragile system, so that when changes comes it will be catastrophic.

Despite universities being the most suitable environments to cope with volatility, randomness, disorder, risk, and uncertainty – given their wealth of expertise, intelligence and knowledge – they have over-structured themselves to be sensitive to change.This is why MOOCs and every new trend will scare the living shit out university leaders around the world – because it really could signal the end. Anything new could possibly be the beginning of the end, the straw that broke the camel’s back, because things have decayed so much that there is very little of the foundations supporting the institution left.

Brighter Future

Like Mark I would say that deep down I am an optimist. I do tend to be deeply critical about some things, but only in the sense that I believe in them and am trying to make them better. I am trying to contribute to the cause and not be a bystander – but I’m finding it increasingly difficult to engage and need something to give me some hope!

If there is something that can get us onto a different path its leadership. Universities are full of the smartest people on the planet – the ideas are here, we just need someone to start the conversation. Universities have to take charge of their destiny or face oblivion. I really believe what is needed is to start a conversation around education in a truly in-depth and holistic way – what does it mean, how does it matter and what should it look like.

This is about more than an opinion piece from Vice Chancellors in the New York Times, The Conversation or any of the press/blogs/journals/conferences – because they are just more examples of a tired, repetitive monologue. No, we need a dialogue, a dialogue with our communities – with the people and places we inhabit, and for once, not the lofty ideals of big business or government. Leadership is required to get us there but also to guide us through the process – because what higher education should look like is not what it is today.

Personally the frustrations of working in higher ed are taking their toll. I need a break and I’m looking forward to the end of the year and a chance to relax and take some deserved time out and away.

At the same time I am starting to think about alternatives and opportunities – ways of affecting change myself and different circumstances to operate in. Some inside the university, some outside. I can relate to Sarah’s investment in the permanency of the job – the security and the wage are difficult things to look past when you have a small family. I’m not quite at Mark’s Sisyphian level of frustration yet – but given time I know it would be achievable.

So here’s to change, for all out sakes!

The Changing Context of Learning

In 2013 Charles Sturt University, my workplace, decided to develop a new project aimed at creating a space and forum to think through some of the issues, challenges, problems and opportunities we face as an institution. The Think Pieces Project was born and I was asked to contribute, which is a real honour. Initially I just needed a title so seeing as I was working on mobile learning I figured that “The Changing Context of Learning” sounded like a good fit.

When I actually came to sit, think and write-up the presentation it became a little harder than I thought. For starters there was a time constraint which I was determined to stay within. I needed to ensure I was concise and I was starting to realise I already had way too many ideas to stuff inside the presentation – the result being that everything was touched on but nothing was explored to any depth. I needed to think harder!

After a number of drafts, slide revisions and a lot of practice I really felt like I was getting to the heart of the problem – a single, simple idea that I think goes to explain some of the issues we face in Higher Education. My talk evolved into discussing the need to shift the perspective through which we view the context of learning – away from the campus and onto one more centred around the student. This reframing and changing of perspective allows us to rethink the role of the university and as well how we think about pedagogy, practice, content and technology. 

I would love to get some broader feedback – as hopefully it does provoke and prompt some thinking to occur! If it does, even if there is disagreement, debate and conjecture, I think I fulfilled the task at hand.

The Think Piece is available as a Slideshare with audio or as a video if you prefer. Feel free to share and comment here or on twitter @timklapdor

The Current State: The Education System

I’m kind of annoyed that it has taken me so long to develop this post, so long that I’ve been beaten to the punch on a number of fronts. At the same time its nice to hear other similar voices airing similar ideas which has been comforting and reassuring – so I’ve tried to include their voices too. For this post to really make sense I do suggest reading my latest Current State post – The Current State: Society Transitioning – because what I see as the current state of education is a sector desperately trying to come to terms with much broader societal change. To briefly outline my last post, and its relevance:

The revolution going on at the moment in the Education sector is not happening in our system, it’s happening to it. The real change is going on outside and it’s a societal transition from passive consumerism to active ownership. This shift is systematically disrupting the institutions, traditions and values that have shaped society up until now because they rely on a relationship model that is changing. This societal change explains why and what we are experiencing right now but also points to the ‘real’ changes that are required to adapt. Interestingly the changes required are not the ones being peddled by various corporate interests or technological determinists, but are far more fundamental and human.

Education has been structured around a very different power model where the teacher has in the dominant role. This is the same kind of hierarchical relationship governments and corporations are based on, and at its heart relies on the consumer being passive. The problem is that society as a whole has moved away from this power model and the owner now steers the ship. Our new owner society is a very different place and education is a service that is engaged by owners. If you’re an owner and you’re putting your future in someone elses hands you expect to participate, you expect to be actively engaged because essentially this is you shaping your future. This shift has occurred because the future is not something you can simply buy off the shelf, you have to invest in the process so you expect to feel included, satisfied and engaged. You want to own it.

Ownership of an education is not contained in an object, it is not the degree at the end. It is the learning process that you are invested in and it is only through doing that it can be truly owned. There is responsibility required to engage with the institution, the community of learners, teachers and environment to enable that process to happen. It is not the simple model being sold by tech companies and publishers where we simply fill our brain with content – this is the passive consumer model and we have to move beyond this. Consumption of content is not learning and providing content is not an education. Participating, acting, applying and working with content, ideas, peers and teachers is what an education is.

For the whole education sector we need to understand that education is about developing a relationship. It is about developing an environment where a community can flourish and enabling teachers and learners to participate in the process. We need to be actively engaged and involved with our students and they have to reciprocate that participation. We have to change the power model so that institutions and owners feel as equals and can clearly understand their obligations to one another.

So how do we move forward?

This is the really difficult part because there is a very convincing truth being sold by those with a vested interest that the entire education system – it seems to apply on a global scale – is broken. Despite the fact that all the people selling this truth went through the same system and benefited, they now see fit to preach that everything is broken and needs to be replaced. The thing is, that kind of language sounds very consumerist – throw it away and buy a new one – and we are shifting away from that passive model to this active owner model. An owner knows that more often than not it makes sense to fix something, to mend and repair the cause of the problem rather than just remediate the surface.

So why is the education system broken? Well, what I would say is that it isn’t broken to the extent to which it is being marketed by the press and those with a vested interest. Instead I would use the analogy of a car with a flat tire, not a seized engine. This analogy is a good one because you don’t buy a new car because the tire is flat, you pull over and repair it. The flat tire is not something you can ride through, you have to fix it, because it significantly impacts the ride and performance and pretty soon you risk doing some real damage to the vehicle (and possibly the passengers too!). I suppose where the analogy falls down is that the solution is far more complex than simply swapping one tire for another. The problem is fixable, it’s just a lot of work because what is needed is true innovation.

We need to sit back and act as responsible owners, weigh up what is feasible and move forward with a new model that balances risk and reward. The educational system may seem to be broken, but it can be repaired. So much of the system is good – the staff, the students, the environments, the content – what needs to change is how they perform and work together. What we need is a tune-up, a spring clean, an opportunity to sort through the current context and find a path that optimises the learning experience. The kind of ideas process discussed in Jesse Stommel’s piece Online Learning: A User’s Guide to Forking Education, otherwise we’ll end up with

“Education rendered into a dull 2-dimensional carbon copy, scanned, faxed, encoded and then made human-readable, an utter lack of intellectual bravery”

The problem is that there is another solution on the table. This is the one outlined in Audrey Watters’ Click Here to Save Education: Evgeny Morozov and Ed-Tech Solutionism where she outlines the cross over of Morozov’s book with the current state of educational technology.

The book identifies two main ideologies — “Internet-centrism” and “technological solutionism” — that permeate the tech industry, its PR wing the tech blogosphere, and increasingly government policy and thus our public and our private lives. “Internet-centrism” connects to Morozov’s earlier arguments in The Net Delusion and describes the tendency to see “the Internet”… as a new yet unchanging, autonomous, and inevitable socio-technological development and a master framework for how all institutions will supposedly operate moving forward. “Technological solutionism” is the related tendency to identify simple answers — in all domains, not just the tech sector — “before the questions have been fully asked” or the problems fully articulated.

Take, for example: “the Internet has changed everything about how we teach and learn.” Thus, “education is broken.” And from there, “technology will fix it.”

I really identified with the points made around data because that is what is at the heart of the tech solutions, but also the heart of political policy that drives their adoption and has created a commercial environment ripe for investment. Morozov’s quote here resonates deeply:

Somehow, all that matters in the numeric imagination, are how well American students score on standardized test scores — as if that is a measurement that could ever capture the complexity of an individual’s learning, let alone an entire nation’s education system.

In this changing society what is needed are innovations and solutions that deal with relationships, but what we are being sold to by commercial interests in not participation because that’s something that is hard to achieve and not particularly profitable in the short-term. Technology companies are going out of their way to engage with education, but they are bringing a way of doing business and investing that is not coherent with education. Education is a slow burn, a long-term investment that may take 20 years to fully manifest. This is not the kind of environment that venture capital is used to investing – so they don’t offer it. This way of thinking is reflected in a recent article moocs vs. innovative learning experiences. The current state of education is caught up in the “commodification and privatization of education” and the fact the ‘solutions’ being sold are largely based on to the “passive didactic pedagogies”. Rather than innovate in areas where technology and practice can “emphasize individual control and co-operative learning” that respond to the Owner we are stuck with expensive and problematic efforts that are keen to maintain the passive consumer model. This is what you should expect from industries and cultures that have thrived the old models, but it won’t work any more because society has moved on.

The promise of a Sugatra Mitra’s ‘classroom in the cloud’ is ridiculous because it fails to look deeper at what education institutions like schools and universities actually provide to a society. They offer a defined and safe place, a community and an environment to learn. Our current society can only function because of these systems – to put it far too simply – what is the alternative child care facilities for those 13 years of a child’s life? Who accredits the doctor performing that you put your life in – Coursera, EdX or iTunesU? It also removes the relationship with the teacher – which is really the core of learning. If content delivery was what education boils down to then we’d all be geniuses because libraries have been around for centuries. No education is more than that: it’s the messy, hard to measure, qualitative, opinionated, personal and fuzzy stuff that’s really hard to make a buck out of.

I want to end this blog on the line that really started this train of thought and kickstarted the development of my ideas. To me it clearly defines the problem, which is often more important than finding the solution. It is summed up perfectly in this tweet from Audrey Watters:

The big shift isn’t that content is digital. It’s that learning culture is participatory.
– @AngelaMaiers



Thanks to @Jessifer, @audreywatters & @evgenymorozov for your great thought-provoking words

The Current State: Educational Technology

2012 was a pretty big year in the EdTech world with MOOCs, mobile and HTML5 dominating most of the word count. While most of those words have been about the technology itself I’ve been really pleased to see a lot of discussion on the deeper issues at play – looking beyond the technology, towards its impact and usage. I’ve been pleased to voice my opinions and have been really astonished at some of the interactions they have spurned. My number one blog post, Sit down, we need to talk about the LMS, stirred a few comments but a much larger conversation across multiple blogs, twitter and yammer. I have really appreciated and got a lot out of these conversations and they’ve all helped inform these views. So what follows are my opinions of the current state of EdTech.

Beyond Enhancement & Hype

There is a lot of hot air around education and technology at the moment- and the reality is thats all it is, hot air. The SAMR model provides a perfect lens for looking at the implementation of technology. After spending some time with the model and reflecting on the current raft of technologies – I have to say we have barely moved past the enhancement stage. Most MOOCs rarely go beyond substitution and roll out the traditional lecture and multiple choice assessment model. Most mobile solutions just substitute a desktop eLearning program for one that runs on a mobile with little thought put to the potential affordances of the device. Despite HTML5 being so highly lauded it rarely brings with it anything not possible beyond the XHTML specification except the video tag. It’s kind of sad. For all this bright and shiny new technology all we’ve really managed to achieve is… replication of the current model with a tiny amount of augmentation. So if we want to move this area forward we have to start pushing the technology towards it’s potential. We have to start actually using technology to transform and create opportunities and meaningful changes to practice and methodology.

Combination of the SAMR model with the Gartner Hype Cycle

Combining the SAMR model with the Gartner Hype Cycle as suggested by @FrancisKneebone

You’re all probably familiar with the Gartner hype cycle – “the graphic representation of the maturity, adoption and social application of specific technologies”. If I was to put EdTech on the graph somewhere right now in February 2013 it would be at the very pit of the “trough of disillusionment”. In the diagram above I’ve tried to to illustrate the my view of the current state by combining the SAMR and Hype Cycle. The technological solutions that we put our faith in have failed to meet expectations and have quickly become unfashionable. The LMS has dropped off the page despite it underwriting most institutions online presense and being the foundation of technological progress so far. While we can wallow in the downturn the fact is that the next phase – the Slope of Enlightenment – is just around the corner. The climate is right to move forward, beyond the hype and beyond simple enhancement. Its time for transformation.

To move forward this is my recipe:

Shiny, Shiny

We need to move away from this obsession with the new. For those in the EdTech field this is increasingly important because there is a complete loss of credibility for our profession if every time the next bit of tech comes out that it’s lauded as the solution to all of our problems. It’s not, and it never will be. This way of thinking just perpetuates an unsustainable and wasteful process that only rewards vendors and half baked products. If everytime the Horizon report comes out and we race to follow what’s laid out in its hallowed pages we become trend followers not trend setters. We buy into the vapid nature of fashion rather than substance. As institutions we should be pushing beyond the shiny new toys and start setting the trends that vendors follow, not sheepishly bowing to whatever half baked feature they’ll add to their product. Yes it ticks the box for those who religiously follow the trends, but the reality is they add little to the user experience. In fact more often than not vendors whittle away at whatever good there was in the product as it gets more and more bloated, more and more locked down and less and less useful and easy to use.

Technology Beyond the Tool

I am a big proponent of the thinking that “technology as just a tool”, but I’ve been forced to rethink that a assumption. I still think at it’s heart technology is a tool – but it is not a static object – it has a direct relationship and influence on the user and vice versa. The relationship between User and Technology is permeable and porous, both influence and accentuate the other. The digital technology we use today lacks the physical or a haptic feedback mechanism of an analogue tool, so a hammer can provide immediate physical feedback but a Facebook like cannot. Technology also provides feedback and influence in a psychological sense – the feeling if pride in our work, or connection. We have to understand this relationship and the fact that the user influences the technology just as much as the technology influences the user.

Start with People

From which ever side of the profession you come – education or technology – you have to start thinking in a people first way. We have to start thinking about the User/Learner/Student/Teacher Experience and it needs to be put at the heart of every decision. We need to think about their feelings, skills, knowledge and actions rather than specifications, features and products. We should start with verbs – because the success of any technology depends completely on the verbage and how we choose to use it.

Reuse & Recycle

Do not buy into the vendor push to re-do all your content. In fact don’t talk to a vendor that has no ability to import, repurpose, copy or transform your existing content into something new. For too long we’ve put content into silos – databases, file formats and hardware – where we can no longer access, edit or reshape it. In an age where content is digital this is bullshit – it’s zeros and ones, not iron and stone. We have to stop this cycle of new tech = all new content because it’s stupid. We have to make it stop. We need to build upon the shoulder of giants and advance our content strategy rather than rewrite it. We have to make our content flow like water and take the shape of whatever container we choose. If we continue to lock everything down and silo it off we’ve lost one of the most important assets we have as institutions.

Shared Problems Need Shared Solutions

The big issue with EdTech at the moment is the lack of real solutions. The vendors and the products they are peddling are carry overs and do little more that enhance and keep the status quo. They don’t move very far down the SAMR line, and they barely get close to the real transformation that is possible (and needed). The fact is that there is no solution on the market that can provide the technical transformation required in the education sector. And it’s a shared problem across sectors and industries – from news, to broadcast and publishing. So lets work this out together rather than paying someone else to silo off yet another years content.

You may get the sense that all these points are connected – and you’re right they are. At its heart EdTech needs to address all these points and allow them to feed and play off each other. They are not a simple cause and effect process – they are about changing the environment we work and operate in. To achieve this we need to converse, share and discuss where we’re going and how we think we should get there. This is my view – share yours!  Start by commenting on this poste 🙂 I don’t prescribe to having all the answers – in fact I don’t think I’ve offered any – rather I’ve chosen to define what I see as the problem. Lets foster a discussion to work through what the answers (emphasis on the plurality) might be!

I do want to expand on why this transformation is important to me a little more – in general it’s about the education sectors response to the revolution.  I feel like I have a couple more of these posts to get off my chest so I want to cover that in a post all on its own and go into a bit more depth about the education sector and my opinion on the “revolution” – not the revolution everyone keeps saying we’re going through right now, I’m talking about the one thats already happened.

Create enough suspense to stay tuned? Does it work as a cliffhanger….? Anyway another post coming up soon!

NB: I want to give credit to Francis Kneebone for putting forward the idea of combining the SAMR and Hype cycle diagrams that ive included in this post. I had a go at spiffing up the diagram (which you can share) but that idea is all his and you should direct all praise or criticism to him 🙂 Personally I think there is a kernel of genius in there that really sparked this post, so I want to give him kudos for that alone!

Gnomes, Online Learning and other Mythical Tales

I have a pathological need to define terms and phrases properly. I am driven by a need for clarity – which might have something to do with my Myers-Briggs personality Type. I feel that without clarity we consistently miss the mark and waste time, money and resources. So when it comes to the current debate around education and technology I don’t feel we are making any ground because we’re debating the wrong things because their is no clarity in what we are actually debating – or more importantly NEED to be debated.

There is one phrase above all else that frustrates me and it is often at the core of educational technology and its online learning.

Online learning is an oxymoron and to explain this I need to deconstruct the phase a little. Lets start by looking at Online.

Online is a mechanism. It’s infrastructure but not an identifiable thing in itself. It is the network of fibre and copper wires, servers, protocols, sites, pages, code and digital communications. It is certainly not a method to do something, rather the direction or way that it travels. It’s an enabling technology for you to do something, but its not the action itself.

And learning? Well learning is the result of an action or process but it’s not the process itself, it is the identifiable cognitive outcome. It’s the personal accomplishment of gaining skill, knowledge, insight and understanding.

So we have a mechanism and an outcome… And …. that’s what we’re debating? That’s where we are putting all this money, time and effort? Into a thing that’s not really a thing, and an outcome that is hard to measure and which is deeply personal and individualised?

Pardon me, but did we forget the actual process in all of this? Where is the education? I’d like to have a debate… But it’s a little one sided when you’ve skipped the meaty bit. South Park always has a knack for finding a gem of insight and this whole thing reminds me of the Underpants Gnomes. Their plan for corporate domination was outlined as

Phase 1: Steal Underpants.
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Profit

This seems to be the same as the plan offered by online learning:

Phase 1: Online Technology
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Learning

Simple huh?

We are stuck with incorrect definitions and phrases and therefore investing in the wrong things because we haven’t actually defined the problem properly. Online isn’t the business – it’s just one of the ways it gets done.

And that’s another phrase that needs to be sent to the scrap heap – “everything will be done online”. Well that’s nice but that’s actually missing the point – technology is only suited to certain tasks. Shoehorning tasks and actions not suited is as illogical as it is inevitable (Silicon Valley has made a habit out of it). It’s like a nail vs a screw – they require different actions to complete a task and therefore require different tools. It’s never Hammer vs Screwdriver – you pick the right one for the task that you’re doing, and we need to remember that online is just one of the options in education.

This whole online thing is loopy. Back when we did distance education through print resources it wasn’t called Postal Learning or Printed Learning, was it it? So what’s changed? We’re still doing distance education aren’t we? I accept that we may indeed need to reclaim the phrase distance education or even supplant it with something new. I would much rather we debate that and create a new phrase that makes more sense of the blended, flexible and multi-technological approach we actually use today rather than dump it into “Online Learning”.

Online Learning is a terrible phrase but what’s worse is how it distracts us from the actual process of education. We’re investing in a false solutions – it’s not in the technology, it’s in how we use it. Where stuck talking and investing in mechanisms rather than processes. We need to actually start focussing on people as the most important technology. The connections, interactions and environments we create are what differentiate us as educational institutions…. not being online. We can’t make people learn – but we can create an environment and develop authentic and challenging tasks, responses and interactions that make education engaging which will improve learning outcomes.

So can we ditch Online Learning and cast it out on the mythical scrap heap?