Tag: education (page 1 of 3)

Friday festoonings

Check out these things I read and found interesting this week. Thanks to some positive feedback, I’ve carved out time for some commentary, and changed the way this link roundup is set out.

Let me know what you think! What did you find most interesting?


Maps Are Biased Against Animals

Critics may say that it is unreasonable to expect maps to reflect the communities or achievements of nonhumans. Maps are made by humans, for humans. When beavers start Googling directions to a neighbor’s dam, then their homes can be represented! For humans who use maps solely to navigate—something that nonhumans do without maps—man-made roads are indeed the only features that are relevant. Following a map that includes other information may inadvertently lead a human onto a trail made by and for deer.

But maps are not just tools to get from points A to B. They also relay new and learned information, document evolutionary changes, and inspire intrepid exploration. We operate on the assumption that our maps accurately reflect what a visitor would find if they traveled to a particular area. Maps have immense potential to illustrate the world around us, identifying all the important features of a given region. By that definition, the current maps that most humans use fall well short of being complete. Our definition of what is “important” is incredibly narrow.

Ryan Huling (WIRED)

Cartography is an incredibly powerful tool. We’ve known for a long time that “the map is not the territory” but perhaps this is another weapon in the fight against climate change and the decline in diversity of species?


Why Actually Principled People Are Difficult (Glenn Greenwald Edition)

Then you get people like Greenwald, Assange, Manning and Snowden. They are polarizing figures. They are loved or hated. They piss people off.

They piss people off precisely because they have principles they consider non-negotiable. They will not do the easy thing when it matters. They will not compromise on anything that really matters.

That’s breaking the actual social contract of “go along to get along”, “obey authority” and “don’t make people uncomfortable.” I recently talked to a senior activist who was uncomfortable even with the idea of yelling at powerful politicians. It struck them as close to violence.

So here’s the thing, people want men and women of principle to be like ordinary people.

They aren’t. They can’t be. If they were, they wouldn’t do what they do. Much of what you may not like about a Greenwald or Assange or Manning or Snowden is why they are what they are. Not just the principle, but the bravery verging on recklessness. The willingness to say exactly what they think, and do exactly what they believe is right even if others don’t.

Ian Welsh

Activists like Greta Thunberg and Edward Snowden are the closest we get to superheroes, to people who stand for the purest possible version of an idea. This is why we need them — and why we’re so disappointed when they turn out to be human after all.


Explicit education

Students’ not comprehending the value of engaging in certain ways is more likely to be a failure in our teaching than their willingness to learn (especially if we create a culture in which success becomes exclusively about marks and credentialization). The question we have to ask is if what we provide as ‘university’ goes beyond the value of what our students can engage with outside of our formal offer. 

Dave White

This is a great post by Dave, who I had the pleasure of collaborating with briefly during my stint at Jisc. I definitely agree that any organisation walks a dangerous path when it becomes overly-fixated on the ‘how’ instead of the ‘what’ and the ‘why’.


What Are Your Rules for Life? These 11 Expressions (from Ancient History) Might Help

The power of an epigram or one of these expressions is that they say a lot with a little. They help guide us through the complexity of life with their unswerving directness. Each person must, as the retired USMC general and former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, has said, “Know what you will stand for and, more important, what you won’t stand for.” “State your flat-ass rules and stick to them. They shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.”

Ryan Holiday

Of the 11 expressions here, I have to say that other than memento mori (“remember you will die”) I particularly like semper anticus (“always forward”) which I’m going to print out in a fancy font and stick on the wall of my home office.


Dark Horse Discord

In a hypothetical world, you could get a Discord (or whatever is next) link for your new job tomorrow – you read some wiki and meta info, sort yourself into your role you’d, and then are grouped with the people who you need to collaborate with on a need be basis. All wrapped in one platform. Maybe you have an HR complaint – drop it in #HR where you can’t read the messages but they can, so it’s a blind 1 way conversation. Maybe there is a #help channel, where you ping you write your problems and the bot pings people who have expertise based on keywords. There’s a lot of things you can do with this basic design.

Mule’s Musings

What is described in this post is a bit of a stretch, but I can see it: a world where work is organised a bit like how gamers organisers in chat channels. Something to keep an eye on, as the interplay between what’s ‘normal’ and what’s possible with communications technology changes and evolves.


The Edu-Decade That Was: Unfounded Optimism?

What made the last decade so difficult is how education institutions let corporations control the definitions so that a lot of “study and ethical practice” gets left out of the work. With the promise of ease of use, low-cost, increased student retention (or insert unreasonable-metric-claim here), etc. institutions are willing to buy into technology without regard to accessibility, scalability, equity and inclusion, data privacy or student safety, in hope of solving problem X that will then get to be checked off of an accreditation list. Or worse, with the hope of not having to invest in actual people and local infrastructure.

Geoff Cain (Brainstorm in progress)

It’s nice to see a list of some positives that came out of the last decades, and for microcredentials and badging to be on that list.


When Is a Bird a ‘Birb’? An Extremely Important Guide

First, let’s consider the canonized usages. The subreddit r/birbs defines a birb as any bird that’s “being funny, cute, or silly in some way.” Urban Dictionary has a more varied set of definitions, many of which allude to a generalized smallness. A video on the youtube channel Lucidchart offers its own expansive suggestions: All birds are birbs, a chunky bird is a borb, and a fluffed-up bird is a floof. Yet some tension remains: How can all birds be birbs if smallness or cuteness are in the equation? Clearly some birds get more recognition for an innate birbness.

Asher Elbein (Audubon magazine)

A fun article, but also an interesting one when it comes to ambiguity, affinity groups, and internet culture.


Why So Many Things Cost Exactly Zero

“Now, why would Gmail or Facebook pay us? Because what we’re giving them in return is not money but data. We’re giving them lots of data about where we go, what we eat, what we buy. We let them read the contents of our email and determine that we’re about to go on vacation or we’ve just had a baby or we’re upset with our friend or it’s a difficult time at work. All of these things are in our email that can be read by the platform, and then the platform’s going to use that to sell us stuff.”

Fiona Scott Morton (Yale business school) quoted by Peter coy (Bloomberg Businessweek)

Regular readers of Thought Shrapnel know all about surveillance capitalism, but it’s good to see these explainers making their way to the more mainstream business press.


Your online activity is now effectively a social ‘credit score’

The most famous social credit system in operation is that used by China’s government. It “monitors millions of individuals’ behavior (including social media and online shopping), determines how moral or immoral it is, and raises or lowers their “citizen score” accordingly,” reported Atlantic in 2018.

“Those with a high score are rewarded, while those with a low score are punished.” Now we know the same AI systems are used for predictive policing to round up Muslim Uighurs and other minorities into concentration camps under the guise of preventing extremism.

Violet Blue (Engadget)

Some (more prudish) people will write this article off because it discusses sex workers, porn, and gay rights. But the truth is that all kinds of censorship start with marginalised groups. To my mind, we’re already on a trajectory away from Silicon Valley and towards Chinese technology. Will we be able to separate the tech from the morality?


Panicking About Your Kids’ Phones? New Research Says Don’t

The researchers worry that the focus on keeping children away from screens is making it hard to have more productive conversations about topics like how to make phones more useful for low-income people, who tend to use them more, or how to protect the privacy of teenagers who share their lives online.

“Many of the people who are terrifying kids about screens, they have hit a vein of attention from society and they are going to ride that. But that is super bad for society,” said Andrew Przybylski, the director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute, who has published several studies on the topic.

Nathaniel Popper (The New York Times)

Kids and screentime is just the latest (extended) moral panic. Overuse of anything causes problems, smartphones, games consoles, and TV included. What we need to do is to help our children find balance in all of this, which can be difficult for the first generation of parents navigating all of this on the frontline.


Gorgeous header art via the latest Facebook alternative, planetary.social

Friday foggings

I’ve been travelling this week, so I’ve had plenty of time to read and digest a whole range of articles. In fact, because of the luxury of that extra time, I decided to write some comments about each link, as well as the usual quotation.

Let me know what you think about this approach. I may not have the bandwidth to do it every week, but if it’s useful, I’ll try and prioritise it. As ever, particularly interested in hearing from supporters!


Education and Men without Work (National Affairs) — “Unlike the Great Depression, however, today’s work crisis is not an unemployment crisis. Only a tiny fraction of workless American men nowadays are actually looking for employment. Instead we have witnessed a mass exodus of men from the workforce altogether. At this writing, nearly 7 million civilian non-institutionalized men between the ages of 25 and 54 are neither working nor looking for work — over four times as many as are formally unemployed.”

This article argues that the conventional wisdom, that men are out of work because of a lack of education, may be based on false assumptions. In fact, a major driver seems to be the number of men (more than 50% of working-age men, apparently) who live in child-free homes. What do these men end up doing with their time? Many of them are self-medicating with drugs and screens.


Fresh Cambridge Analytica leak ‘shows global manipulation is out of control’ (The Guardian) — “More than 100,000 documents relating to work in 68 countries that will lay bare the global infrastructure of an operation used to manipulate voters on “an industrial scale” are set to be released over the next months.”

Sadly, I think the response to these documents will be one of apathy. Due to the 24-hour news cycle and the stream of ‘news’ on social networks, the voting public grow tired of scandals and news stories that last for months and years.


Funding (Sussex Royals) — “The Sovereign Grant is the annual funding mechanism of the monarchy that covers the work of the Royal Family in support of HM The Queen including expenses to maintain official residences and workspaces. In this exchange, The Queen surrenders the revenue of the Crown Estate and in return, a portion of these public funds are granted to The Sovereign/The Queen for official expenditure.”

I don’t think I need to restate my opinions on the Royal Family, privilege, and hierarchies / coercive power relationships of all shapes and sizes. However, as someone pointed out on Mastodon, this page by ‘Harry and Meghan’ is quietly subversive.


How to sell good ideas (New Statesman) — “It is true that [Malcolm] Gladwell sometimes presses his stories too militantly into the service of an overarching idea, and, at least in his books, can jam together materials too disparate to cohere (Poole referred to his “relentless montage”). The New Yorker essay, which constrains his itinerant curiosity, is where he does his finest work (the best of these are collected in 2009’s What The Dog Saw). For the most part, the work of his many imitators attests to how hard it is to do what he does. You have to be able to write lucid, propulsive prose capable of introducing complex ideas within a magnetic field of narrative. You have to leave your desk and talk to people (he never stopped being a reporter). Above all, you need to acquire an extraordinary eye for the overlooked story, the deceptively trivial incident, the minor genius. Gladwell shares the late Jonathan Miller’s belief that “it is in the negligible that the considerable is to be found”.”

A friend took me to see Gladwell when he was in Newcastle-upon-Tyne touring with ‘What The Dog Saw’. Like the author of this article, I soon realised that Gladwell is selling something quite different to ‘science’ or ‘facts’. And so long as you’re OK with that, you can enjoy (as I do) his podcasts and books.


Just enough Internet: Why public service Internet should be a model of restraint (doteveryone) — “We have not yet done a good job of defining what good digital public service really looks like, of creating digital charters that match up to those of our great institutions, and it is these statements of values and ways of working – rather than any amount of shiny new technology – that will create essential building blocks for the public services of the future.”

While I attended the main MozFest weekend event, I missed the presentation and other events that happened earlier in the week. I definitely agree with the sentiment behind the transcript of this talk by Rachel Coldicutt. I’m just not sure it’s specific enough to be useful in practice.


Places to go in 2020 (Marginal Revolution) — “Here is the mostly dull NYT list. Here is my personal list of recommendations for you, noting I have not been to all of the below, but I am in contact with many travelers and paw through a good deal of information.”

This list by Tyler Cowen is really interesting. I haven’t been to any of the places on this list, but I now really want to visit Eastern Bali and Baku in Azerbaijan.


Reasons not to scoff at ghosts, visions and near-death experiences (Aeon) — “Sure, the dangers of gullibility are evident enough in the tragedies caused by religious fanatics, medical quacks and ruthless politicians. And, granted, spiritual worldviews are not good for everybody. Faith in the ultimate benevolence of the cosmos will strike many as hopelessly irrational. Yet, a century on from James’s pragmatic philosophy and psychology of transformative experiences, it might be time to restore a balanced perspective, to acknowledge the damage that has been caused by stigma, misdiagnoses and mis- or overmedication of individuals reporting ‘weird’ experiences. One can be personally skeptical of the ultimate validity of mystical beliefs and leave properly theological questions strictly aside, yet still investigate the salutary and prophylactic potential of these phenomena.”

I’d happily read a full-length book on this subject, as it’s a fascinating area. The tension between knowing that much/all of the phenomena is reducible to materiality and mechanics may explain what’s going on, but it doesn’t explain it away…


Surveillance Tech Is an Open Secret at CES 2020 (OneZero) — “Lowe offered one explanation for why these companies feel so comfortable marketing surveillance tech: He says that the genie can’t be put back in the bottle, so barring federal regulation that bans certain implementations, it’s increasingly likely that some company will fill the surveillance market. In other words, if Google isn’t going to work with the cops, Amazon will. And even if Amazon decides not to, smaller companies out of the spotlight still will.”

I suppose it should come as no surprise that, in this day and age, companies like Cyberlink, previously known for their PowerDVD software, have moved into the very profitable world of surveillance capitalism. What’s going to stop its inexorable rise? I can only think of government regulation (with teeth).


‘Techlash’ Hits College Campuses (New York Times) — “Some recent graduates are taking their technical skills to smaller social impact groups instead of the biggest firms. Ms. Dogru said that some of her peers are pursuing jobs at start-ups focused on health, education and privacy. Ms. Harbour said Berkeley offers a networking event called Tech for Good, where alumni from purpose-driven groups like Code for America and Khan Academy share career opportunities.”

I’m not sure this is currently as big a ‘movement’ as suggested in the article, but I’m glad the wind is blowing in this direction. As with other ethically-dubious industries, companies involved in surveillance capitalism will have to pay people extraordinarily well to put aside their moral scruples.


Tradition is Smarter Than You Are (The Scholar’s Stage) — “To extract resources from a population the state must be able to understand that population. The state needs to make the people and things it rules legible to agents of the government. Legibility means uniformity. States dream up uniform weights and measures, impress national languages and ID numbers on their people, and divvy the country up into land plots and administrative districts, all to make the realm legible to the powers that be. The problem is that not all important things can be made legible. Much of what makes a society successful is knowledge of the tacit sort: rarely articulated, messy, and from the outside looking in, purposeless. These are the first things lost in the quest for legibility. Traditions, small cultural differences, odd and distinctive lifeways… are all swept aside by a rationalizing state that preserves (or in many cases, imposes) only what it can be understood and manipulated from the 2,000 foot view. The result… are many of the greatest catastrophes of human history.”

One of the books that’s been on my ‘to-read’ list for a while is ‘Seeing Like a State’, written by James C. Scott and referenced in this article. I’m no believer in tradition for the sake of it but, I have to say, that a lot of the superstitions of my maternal grandmother, and a lot of the rituals that come with religion are often very practical in nature.


Image by Michael Schlegel (via kottke.org)

Friday fizzles

I head off on holiday tomorrow! Before I go, check out these highlights from this week’s reading and research:

  • “Things that were considered worthless are redeemed” (Ira David Socol) — “Empathy plus Making must be what education right now is about. We are at both a point of learning crisis and a point of moral crisis. We see today what happens — in the US, in the UK, in Brasil — when empathy is lost — and it is a frightening sight. We see today what happens — in graduates from our schools who do not know how to navigate their world — when the learning in our schools is irrelevant in content and/or delivery.”
  • Voice assistants are going to make our work lives better—and noisier (Quartz) — “Active noise cancellation and AI-powered sound settings could help to tackle these issues head on (or ear on). As the AI in noise cancellation headphones becomes better and better, we’ll potentially be able to enhance additional layers of desirable audio, while blocking out sounds that distract. Audio will adapt contextually, and we’ll be empowered to fully manage and control our soundscapes.
  • We Aren’t Here to Learn What We Already Know (LA Review of Books) — “A good question, in short, is an honest question, one that, like good theory, dances on the edge of what is knowable, what it is possible to speculate on, what is available to our immediate grasp of what we are reading, or what it is possible to say. A good question, that is, like good theory, might be quite unlovely to read, particularly in its earliest iterations. And sometimes it fails or has to be abandoned.”
  • The runner who makes elaborate artwork with his feet and a map (The Guardian) — “The tracking process is high-tech, but the whole thing starts with just a pen and paper. “When I was a kid everyone thought I’d be an artist when I grew up – I was always drawing things,” he said. He was a particular fan of the Etch-a-Sketch, which has something in common with his current work: both require creating images in an unbroken line.”
  • What I Do When it Feels Like My Work Isn’t Good Enough (James Clear) — “Release the desire to define yourself as good or bad. Release the attachment to any individual outcome. If you haven’t reached a particular point yet, there is no need to judge yourself because of it. You can’t make time go faster and you can’t change the number of repetitions you have put in before today. The only thing you can control is the next repetition.”
  • Online porn and our kids: It’s time for an uncomfortable conversation (The Irish Times) — “Now when we talk about sex, we need to talk about porn, respect, consent, sexuality, body image and boundaries. We don’t need to terrify them into believing watching porn will ruin their lives, destroy their relationships and warp their libidos, maybe, but we do need to talk about it.”
  • Drones will fly for days with new photovoltaic engine (Tech Xplore) — “[T]his finding builds on work… published in 2011, which found that the key to boosting solar cell efficiency was not by absorbing more photons (light) but emitting them. By adding a highly reflective mirror on the back of a photovoltaic cell, they broke efficiency records at the time and have continued to do so with subsequent research.
  • Twitter won’t ruin the world. But constraining democracy would (The Guardian) — “The problems of Twitter mobs and fake news are real. As are the issues raised by populism and anti-migrant hostility. But neither in technology nor in society will we solve any problem by beginning with the thought: “Oh no, we put power into the hands of people.” Retweeting won’t ruin the world. Constraining democracy may well do.
  • The Encryption Debate Is Over – Dead At The Hands Of Facebook (Forbes) — “Facebook’s model entirely bypasses the encryption debate by globalizing the current practice of compromising devices by building those encryption bypasses directly into the communications clients themselves and deploying what amounts to machine-based wiretaps to billions of users at once.”
  • Living in surplus (Seth Godin) — “When you live in surplus, you can choose to produce because of generosity and wonder, not because you’re drowning.”

Image from Dilbert. Shared to make the (hopefully self-evident) counterpoint that not everything of value has an economic value. There’s more to life than accumulation.

The smallest deed is better than the greatest intention

Thanks to John Burroughs for today’s title. For me, it’s an oblique reference to some of the situations I find myself in, both in my professional and personal life. After all, words are cheap and actions are difficult.

I’m going to take the unusual step of quoting someone who’s quoting me. In this case, it’s Stephen Downes picking up on a comment I made in the cc-openedu Google Group. I’d link directly to my comments, but for some reason a group about open education is… closed?

I’d like to echo a point David Kernohan made when I worked with him on the Jisc OER programme. He said: “OER is a supply-side term”. Let’s face it, there are very few educators specifically going out and looking for “Openly Licensed Resources”. What they actuallywant are resources that they can access for free (or at a low cost) and that they can legally use. We’ve invented OER as a term to describe that, but it may actually be unhelpfully ambiguous.

Shortly after posting that, I read this post from Sarah Lambert on the GO-GN (Global OER Graduate Network) blog. She says:

[W]hile we’re being all inclusive and expanding our “open” to encompass any collaborative digital practice, then our “open” seems to be getting less and less distinctive. To the point where it’s getting quite easily absorbed by the mainstream higher education digital learning (eLearning, Technology Enhanced Learning, ODL, call it what you will). Is it a win for higher education to absorb and assimilate “open” (and our gift labour) as the latest innovation feeding the hungry marketised university that Kate Bowles spoke so eloquently about? Is it a problem if not only the practice, but the research field of open education becomes inseparable with mainstream higher education digital learning research?

My gloss on this is that ‘open education’ may finally have moved into the area of productive ambiguity. I talked about this back in 2016 in a post on a blog I post to only very infrequently, so I might as well quote myself again:

Ideally, I’d like to see ‘open education’ move into the realm of what I term productive ambiguity. That is to say, we can do some workwith the idea and start growing the movement beyond small pockets here and there. I’m greatly inspired by Douglas Rushkoff’s new Team Human podcast at the moment, feeling that it’s justified the stance that I and others have taken for using technology to make us more human (e.g. setting up a co-operative) and against the reverse (e.g. blockchain).

That’s going to make a lot of people uncomfortable, and hopefully uncomfortable enough to start exploring new, even better areas. ‘Open Education’ now belongs, for better or for worse, to the majority. Whether that’s ‘Early majority’ or ‘Late majority’ on the innovation adoption lifecycle curve probably depends where in the world you live.

Diffusion of innovation curve
CC BY Pnautilus (Wikipedia)

Things change and things move on. The reason I used that xkcd cartoon about IRC at the top of this post is because there has been much (OK, some) talk about Mozilla ending its use of IRC.

While we still use it heavily, IRC is an ongoing source of abuse and harassment for many of our colleagues and getting connected to this now-obscure forum is an unnecessary technical barrier for anyone finding their way to Mozilla via the web. Available interfaces really haven’t kept up with modern expectations, spambots and harassment are endemic to the platform, and in light of that it’s no coincidence that people trying to get in touch with us from inside schools, colleges or corporate networks are finding that often as not IRC traffic isn’t allowed past institutional firewalls at all.

Cue much hand-wringing from the die-hards in the Mozilla community. Unfortunately, Slack, which originally had a bridge/gateway for IRC has pulled up the drawbridge on that front, so they could go with something like Mattermost, but given recently history I bet they go with Discord (or similar).

As Seth Godin points out in his most recent podcast episode, everyone wants be described as ‘supple’, nobody wants to be described as ‘brittle’. Yet, the actions we take suggest otherwise. We expect that just because the change we see in the world isn’t convenient, that we can somehow slow it down. Nope, you just have to roll with it, whether that’s changing technologies, or different approaches to organising ideas and people.


Also check out:

  • Do Experts Listen to Other Experts? (Marginal Revolution) —”very little is known about how experts influence each others’ opinions, and how that influence affects final evaluations.”
  • Why Symbols Aren’t Forever (Sapiens) — “The shifting status of cultural symbols reveals a lot about who we are and what we value.”
  • Balanced Anarchy or Open Society? (Kottke.org) — “Personal computing and the internet changed (and continues to change) the balance of power in the world so much and with such speed that we still can’t comprehend it.”

Educational institutions are at a crossroads of relevance

One of the things that attracted me to the world of Open Badges and digital credentialing back in 2011 was the question of relevance. As a Philosophy graduate, I’m absolutely down with the idea of a broad, balanced education, and learning as a means of human flourishing.

However, in a world where we measure schools, colleges, and universities through an economic lens, it’s inevitable that learners do so too. As I’ve said in presentations and to clients many times, I want my children to choose to go to university because it’s the right choice for them, not because they have to.

In an article in Forbes, Brandon Busteed notes that we’re on the verge of a huge change in Higher Education:

This shift will go down as the biggest disruption in higher education whereby colleges and universities will be disintermediated by employers and job seekers going direct. Higher education won’t be eliminated from the model; degrees and other credentials will remain valuable and desired, but for a growing number of young people they’ll be part of getting a job as opposed to college as its own discrete experience. This is already happening in the case of working adults and employers that offer college education as a benefit. But it will soon be true among traditional age students. Based on a Kaplan University Partners-QuestResearch study I led and which was released today, I predict as many as one-third of all traditional students in the next decade will “Go Pro Early” in work directly out of high school with the chance to earn a college degree as part of the package.

This is true to some degree in the UK as well, through Higher Apprenticeships. University study becomes a part-time deal with the ‘job’ paying for fees. It’s easy to see how this could quickly become a two-tier system for rich and poor.

A “job-first, college included model” could well become one of the biggest drivers of both increasing college completion rates in the U.S. and reducing the cost of college. In the examples of employers offering college degrees as benefits, a portion of the college expense will shift to the employer, who sees it as a valuable talent development and retention strategy with measurable return on investment benefits. This is further enhanced through bulk-rate tuition discounts offered by the higher educational institutions partnering with these employers. Students would still be eligible for federal financial aid, and they’d be making an income while going to college. To one degree or another, this model has the potential to make college more affordable for more people, while lowering or eliminating student loan debt and increasing college enrollments. It would certainly help bridge the career readiness gap that many of today’s college graduates encounter.

The ‘career readiness’ that Busteed discusses here is an interesting concept, and one that I think has been invented by employers who don’t want to foot the bill for training. Certainly, my parents’ generation weren’t supposed to be immediately ready for employment straight after their education — and, of course, they weren’t saddled with student debt, either.

Related, in my mind, is the way that we treat young people as data to be entered on a spreadsheet. This is managerialism at its worst. Back when I was a teacher and a form tutor, I remember how sorry I felt for the young people in my charge, who were effectively moved around a machine for ‘processing’ them.

Now, in an article for The Guardian, Jeremy Hannay tells it like it is for those who don’t have an insight into the Kafkaesque world of schools:

Let me clear up this edu-mess for you. It’s not Sats. It’s not workload. The elephant in the room is high-stakes accountability. And I’m calling bullshit. Our education system actively promotes holding schools, leaders and teachers at gunpoint for a very narrow set of test outcomes. This has long been proven to be one of the worst ways to bring about sustainable change. It is time to change this educational paradigm before we have no one left in the classroom except the children.

Just like our dog-eat-dog society in the UK could be much more collaborative, so our education system badly needs remodelling. We’ve deprofessionalised teaching, and introduced a managerial culture. Things could be different, as they are elsewhere in the world.

In such systems – and they do exist in some countries, such as Finland and Canada, and even in some brave schools in this country – development isn’t centred on inspection, but rather professional collaboration. These schools don’t perform regular observations and monitoring, or fire out over-prescriptive performance policies. Instead, they discuss and design pedagogy, engage in action research, and regularly perform activities such as learning and lesson study. Everyone understands that growing great educators involves moments of brilliance and moments of mayhem.

That’s the key: “moments of brilliance and moments of mayhem”. Ironically, bureaucratic, hierarchical systems cannot cope with amazing teachers, because they’re to some extent unpredictable. You can’t put them in a box (on a spreadsheet).

Actually, perhaps it’s not the hierarchy per se, but the power dynamics, as Richard D. Bartlett points out in this post.

Yes, when a hierarchical shape is applied to a human group, it tends to encourage coercive power dynamics. Usually the people at the top are given more importance than the rest. But the problem is the power, not the shape. 

What we’re doing is retro-fitting the worst forms of corporate power dynamics onto education and expecting everything to be fine. Newsflash: learning is different to work, and always will be.

Interestingly, Bartlett defines three different forms of power dynamics, which I think is enlightening:

Follett coined the terms “power-over” and “power-with” in 1924. Starhawk adds a third category “power-from-within”. These labels provide three useful lenses for analysing the power dynamics of an organisation. With apologies to the original authors, here’s my definitions:

  • power-from-within or empowerment — the creative force you feel when you’re making art, or speaking up for something you believe in
  • power-with or social power — influence, status, rank, or reputation that determines how much you are listened to in a group
  • power-over or coercion — power used by one person to control another

The problem with educational institutions, I feel, is that we’ve largely done away with empowerment and social power, and put all of our eggs in the basket of coercion.


Also check out:

  • Working collaboratively and learning cooperatively (Harold Jarche) — “Two types of behaviours are necessary in the network era workplace — collaboration and cooperation. Cooperation is not the same as collaboration, though they are complementary.”
  • Learning Alignment Model (Tom Barrett) – “It is not a step by step process to design learning, but more of a high-level thinking model to engage with that uncovers some interesting potential tensions in our classroom work.”
  • A Definition of Academic Innovation (Inside Higher Ed) – “What if academic innovation was built upon the research and theory of our field, incorporating social constructivist, constructionist and activity theory?”

The benefits of Artificial Intelligence

As an historian, I’m surprisingly bad at recalling facts and dates. However, I’d argue that the study of history is actually about the relationship between those facts and dates — which, let’s face it, so long as you’re in the right ballpark, you can always look up.

Understanding the relationship between things, I’d argue, is a demonstration of higher-order competence. This is described well by the SOLO Taxonomy, which I featured in my ebook on digital literacies:

SOLO Taxonomy

This is important, as it helps to explain two related concepts around which people often get confused: ‘artificial intelligence’ and ‘machine learning’. If you look at the diagram above, you can see that the ‘Extended Abstract’ of the SOLO taxonomy also includes the ‘Relational’ part. Similarly, the field of ‘artificial intelligence’ includes ‘machine learning’.

There are some examples of each in this WIRED article, but for the purposes of this post let’s just leave it there. Some of what I want to talk about here involves machine learning and some artificial intelligence. It’s all interesting and affects the future of tech in education and society.

If you’re a gamer, you’ll already be familiar with some of the benefits of AI. No longer are ‘CPU players’ dumb, but actually play a lot like human players. That means with no unfair advantages programmed in by the designers of the game, the AI can work out strategies to defeat opponents. The recent example of OpenAI Five beating the best players at a game called Dota 2, and then internet teams finding vulnerabilities in the system, is a fascinating battle of human versus machine:

“Beating OpenAI Five is a testament to human tenacity and skill. The human teams have been working together to get those wins. The way people win is to take advantage of every single weakness in Five—some coming from the few parts of Five that are scripted rather than learned—gradually build up resources, and most importantly, never engage Five in a fair fight.” OpenAI co-founder Greg Brockman told Motherboard.

Deepfakes, are created via “a technique for human image synthesis based on artificial intelligence… that can depict a person or persons saying things or performing actions that never occurred in reality”. There’s plenty of porn, of course, but also politically-motivated videos claiming that people said things they never did.

There’s benefits here, though, too. Recent AI research shows how, soon, it will be possible to replace any game character with one created from your own videos. In other words, you will be able to be in the game!

It only took a few short videos of each activity — fencing, dancing and tennis — to train the system. It was able to filter out other people and compensate for different camera angles. The research resembles Adobe’s “content-aware fill” that also uses AI to remove elements from video, like tourists or garbage cans. Other companies, like NVIDIA, have also built AI that can transform real-life video into virtual landscapes suitable for games.

It’s easy to be scared of all of this, fearful that it’s going to ravage our democratic institutions and cause a meltdown of civilisation. But, actually, the best way to ensure that it’s not used for those purposes is to try and understand it. To play with it. To experiment.

Algorithms have already been appointed to the boards of some companies and, if you think about it, there’s plenty of job roles where automated testing is entirely normal. I’m looking forward to a world where AI makes our lives a whole lot easier and friction-free.


Also check out:

  • AI generates non-stop stream of death metal (Engadget) — “The result isn’t entirely natural, if simply because it’s not limited by the constraints of the human body. There are no real pauses. However, it certainly sounds the part you’ll find plenty of hyper-fast drums, guitar thrashing and guttural growling.”
  • How AI Will Turn Us All Into Filmmakers (WIRED) “AI-assisted editing won’t make Oscar-­worthy auteurs out of us. But amateur visual storytelling will probably explode in complexity.”
  • Experts Weigh in on Merits of AI in Education (THE Journal) — “AI systems are perfect for analyzing students’ progress, providing more practice where needed and moving on to new material when students are ready,” she stated. “This allows time with instructors to focus on more complex learning, including 21st-century skills.”

Is the unbundling and rebundling of Higher Education actually a bad thing?

Until I received my doctorate and joined the Mozilla Foundation in 2012, I’d spent fully 27 years in formal education. Either as a student, a teacher, or a researcher, I was invested in the Way Things Currently Are®.

Over the past six years, I’ve come to realise that a lot of the scaremongering about education is exactly that — fears about what might happen, based on not a lot of evidence. Look around; there are lot of doom-mongers about.

It was surprising, therefore, to read a remarkably balanced article in EDUCAUSE Review. Laura Czerniewicz, Director of the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT), at the University of Cape Town, looks at the current state of play around the ‘unbundling’ and ‘rebundling’ of Higher Education.

Very simply, I’m using the term unbundling to mean the process of disaggregating educational provision into its component parts, very often with external actors. And I’m using the term rebundling to mean the reaggregation of those parts into new components and models. Both are happening in different parts of college and university education, and in different parts of the degree path, in every dimension and aspect—creating an extraordinarily complicated environment in an educational sector that is already in a state of disequilibrium.

Unbundling doesn’t simply happen. Aspects of the higher education experience disaggregate and fragment, and then they get re-created—rebundled—in different forms. And it’s the re-creating that is especially of interest.

Although it’s largely true that the increasing marketisation is a stimulus for the unbundling of Higher Education, I’m of the opinion that what we’re seeing has been accelerated primarily because of the internet. The end of capitalism wouldn’t necessarily remove the drive towards this unbundling and rebundling. In fact, I wonder what it would look like if it were solely non-profits, charities, and co-operatives doing this?

Czerniewicz identifies seven main aspects of Higher Education that are being unbundled:

  1. Curriculum
  2. Resources
  3. Flexible pathways
  4. Academic expertise
  5. Opportunities
    • Support
    • Credentials
    • Networks
  6. Graduateness (i.e. ‘the status of being a graduate’)
  7. Experience
    • Mode (e.g. online, blended)
    • Place

As a white male with a terminal degree sitting outside academia, I guess I have a great deal of privilege to check. That being said, I do (as ever) have some opinions about all of this.

As Czerniewicz points out, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with unbundling and rebundling. It’s potentially a form of creative destruction, followed by some Hegelian synthesis.

But I’d like to conclude on a hopeful note. Unbundling and rebundling can be part of the solution and can offer opportunities for reasonable and affordable access and education for all. Unbundling and rebundling are opening spaces, relationships, and opportunities that did not exist even five years ago. These processes can be harnessed and utilized for the good. We need to critically engage with these issues to ensure that the new possibilities of provision for teaching and learning can be fully exploited for democratic ends for all.

Goodness knows that, as a sector, Higher Education can do a much better job of the three main things I’d say we’d want of universities in 2018:

  • Developing well-rounded citizens ready to participate fully in democratic society.
  • Sending granular signals to the job market about the talents and competencies of individuals.
  • Enabling extremely flexible provision for those in work, or who want to take different learning pathways.

That’s not even to mention universities as places of academic freedom and resistance to forms of oppression (including the State).

I think the main reason I’m interested in all of this is mainly through the lens of new forms of credentialing. Czerniewicz writes:

Certification is an equity issue. For most people, getting verifiable accreditation and certification right is at the heart of why they are invested in higher education. Credentials may prove to be the real equalizers in the world of work, but they do raise critical questions about the function and the reputation of the higher education institution. They also raise questions about value, stigma, and legitimacy. A key question is, how can new forms of credentials increase access both to formal education and to working opportunities?

I agree. So the main reason I got involved in Open Badges was that I saw the inequity as a teacher. I want, by the time our eldest child reaches the age where he’s got the choice to go to university (2025), to be able to make an informed choice not to go — and still be OK. Credentialing is an arms race that I’ve done alright at, but which I don’t really want him to be involved in escalating.

So, to conclude, I’m actually all for the unbundling and rebundling of education. As Audrey Watters has commented many times before, it all depends who is doing the rebundling. Is it solely for a profit motive? Is it improving things for the individual? For society? Who gains? Who loses?

Ultimately, this isn’t something that be particularly ‘controlled’, only observed and critiqued. No-one is secretly controlling how this is playing out worldwide. That’s not to say, though, that we shouldn’t call out and resist the worst excesses (I’m looking at you, Facebook). There’s plenty of pedagogical process we can make as this all unfolds.

Source: Educause

Why badge endorsement is a game-changer

Since starting work with Moodle, I’ve been advocating for upgrading its Open Badges implementation to v2.0. It’s on the horizon, thankfully. The reason I’m particularly interested in this is endorsement, the value of which is explained in a post by Don Presant:

What’s so exciting about Endorsement, you may ask. Well, for one thing, it promises to resolve recurring questions about the “credibility of badges” by providing third party validation that can be formal (like accreditation) or informal (“fits our purpose”). Endorsement can also strengthen collaboration, increase portability and encourage the development of meaningful badge ecosystems.

I’ve known Don for a number of years and have been consistently impressed by combination of idealism and pragmatism. He provides a version of Open Badge Factory in Canada called ‘CanCred’ and, under these auspices, is working on a project around a Humanitarian Passport.

Endorsement of organisations is now being embedded into the DNA of HPass, the international humanitarian skills recognition network now in piloting, scheduled for public launch in early 2019. Organisations who can demonstrate audited compliance with the HPass Standards for Learning or Assessment Providers will become “HPass Approved” on the system, a form of accreditation that will be signposted with Endorsement metadata baked into their badges and a distinctive visual quality mark they can display on their badge images. This is an example of a formal “accreditation-like” endorsement, but HPass badges can also be endorsed informally by peer organisations.

The ultimate aim of alternative credentialing such as Open Badges is recognition, and I think that the ability to endorse badges is a big step forward towards that.

Source: Open Badge Factory

Charity is no substitute for justice

The always-brilliant Audrey Watters eviscerates the latest project from a white, male billionaire to ‘fix education’. Citing Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ plan to open a series of “Montessori-inspired preschools in underserved communities” where “the child will be the customer”, Audrey comments:

The assurance that “the child will be the customer” underscores the belief – shared by many in and out of education reform and education technology – that education is simply a transaction: an individual’s decision-making in a “marketplace of ideas.” (There is no community, no public responsibility, no larger civic impulse for early childhood education here. It’s all about privateschools offering private, individual benefits.)

As I’ve said on many occasions, everyone wakes up with cool ideas to change the world. The difference is that you or I would have to run it through many, many filters to get the funding to implement it. Those filters , hopefully, kill 99% of batshit-crazy ideas. Billionaires, in the other hand, can just speak and fund things into existence, no matter how damaging and I’ll thought-out the ideas behind them happen to be.

[Teaching] is a field in which a third of employeesalready qualify for government assistance. And now Jeff Bezos, a man whose own workers also rely on these same low-income programs, wants to step in – not as a taxpayer, oh no, but as a philanthropist. Honestly, he could have a more positive impact here by just giving those workers a raise. (Or, you know, by paying taxes.)

This is the thing. We can do more and better together than we can do apart. The ideas of the many, honed over years, lead to better outcomes than the few thinking alone.

For all the flaws in the public school system, it’s important to remember: there is no accountability in billionaires’ educational philanthropy.

And, as W. B. Yeats famously never said, charity is no substitute for justice.

Whatever your moral and political views, accountability is something that cuts across the divide. I should imagine there are some reading this who send their kids to private schools and don’t particularly see the problem with this. Isn’t it just another example of competition within ‘the market’?

The trouble with that kind of thinking, at least from my perspective, is twofold. First, it assumes that education is a private instead of a public good. Second, that it’s OK to withhold money from society and then use that to subsidise the education of the already-privileged.

Source: Hack Education

Fluency without conceptual understanding

I’ve been following Dan Meyer’s work on-and-off for over a decade now. He’s a Maths teacher by trade, but now working as Chief Academic Officer at Desmos after gaining his PhD from Stanford. He’s a smart guy, and a great blogger.

Dan’s particularly interested in how kids learn Maths (or ‘Math’ because he’s American) and is always particularly concerned to disprove/squash approaches that don’t work:

In the wake of Barbara Oakley’s op-ed in the New York Times arguing that we overemphasize conceptual understanding in math class, it’s become clear to me that our national conversation about math instruction is missing at least one crucial element: nobody knows what anybody means by “conceptual understanding.”

It’s worth reading the whole post (and the comment section), but I just wanted to pull out a couple of things which I think are useful:

A student who has procedural fluency but lacks conceptual understanding …

  • Can accurately subtract 2018-1999 using a standard algorithm, but doesn’t recognize that counting up would be more efficient.
  • Can accurately compute the area of a triangle, but doesn’t recognize how its formula was derived or how it can be extended to other shapes. (eg. trapezoids, parallelograms, etc.)
  • Can accurately calculate the discriminant of y = x2 + 2 to determine that it doesn’t have any real roots, but couldn’t draw a quick sketch of the parabola to figure that out more efficiently.

I find this all the time with my own kids, and also when I was teaching. For example, I knew that the students in my Year 7 History class could draw a line graph in Maths, but they didn’t seem to be able to do it in my classroom for some reason. In other words, they were ‘procedurally fluent’ in a particular domain.

Children are very good at giving the impression to adults that they understand and can do what they’re being told to do. Poke a little, and you come to realise that they don’t really understand what’s going on. That’s particularly true in History, where it’s easy to regurgitate facts and dates, without any empathy or historical understanding.

Another thing that Dan points out which I think we should all take to heart is that we should learn a bit of humility. He criticises both Barbara Oakley (op-ed in The New York Times) and Paul Morgan (author of an article with which he disagrees for not having what Nassim Nicholas Taleb would call ‘skin in the game‘:

If you’re going to engage with the ideas of a complex field, engage with its best. That’s good practice for all of us and it’s especially good practice for people who are commenting from outside the field like Oakley (trained in engineering) and Morgan (trained in education policy).

Everyone’s got opinions. The important thing is to listen to those who are talking sense.

Source: dy/dan