What is education’s responsibility to society? An open, futures course

The short version: JOIN!

George Siemens and I are hosting a two week futures-style Open Course starting April 15th on the SSHRC challenge “Truth under Fire in a Post-Fact World,” and the question of how education should respond. You can sign up by joining this mailing list. 🙂

The longer version: JOIN! (online or in August)

After years of doing digital strategy off the side of my desk, it is now – finally – in my actual job title. One of the first thing I got to do was help design a summer event that would allow us to think about education in a different way. We chose to do a futures inspired institute. This open course gives us a chance to try out the model and learn a little bit more about what’s possible before the institute this summer.

Ever since I helped edit Bonnie Stewart’s Masters thesis Techknowledge: Literate Practice And The Digital World in 1998, I’ve been compelled by the intersection of technology and knowledge. In the twenty years since I’ve been involved in any number of discussions about what we should do with this new technology we have, whether we call it the Internet, the digital, or the database. The affordances of these technologies mean that information has gone from a scarce resource to an abundant resource. Our ability to cast information out to and connect with our fellow humans is both amazing and terrifying. Surely this means that people who are in the business of ‘learning’ are going to have to change their approach. At least slightly.

And we’re in the business of education – though we don’t all necessarily agree what that is. I hope, at the very least, that education is about preparing people with what they need to live in our world. We’ve not always been fair about how we go about that, and I’m not suggesting that we’ve been without other intents, but mostly, almost all of the time, our education systems are about getting people ready.

Ready for what? Well… that depends on who you are. If you are thinking we’re getting people ready for future jobs, I will happily send you to Benjamin Doxdator’s blog post again, and then we can all agree that’s a red herring. ANY discussion about what education is FOR leads us either to platitudes like “for learning” or, more contentiously, to a dark place where people start to dig out their own personal perspectives on what a ‘good society’ would look like and how we can normativize our students to that vision. We aren’t going to agree.

Some people take a different approach to thinking about how these new technologies are going to change our schools. In the newly released Horizon Report – Teaching and Learning Edition, we see extended conversations about how Virtual and Augmented reality are going to impact education. There is talk about analytics, instructional design and adaptive learning. I mean, there are five pages devoted to our broader societal issues, but the real meat of the document relates to the technology and how it is impacting us.

What I’m interested in getting at, however, is how the technology – how the abundance of information and connection that results for that technology – is impacting OUR SOCIETY and what we, as educators, should be doing about it. This, to me, is the core of the digital strategy that I want to do. And, with this in mind, I am proposing a trial run. An open course that takes a first stab at a model that allows us to attack this deeply complex and, from my perspective, critical conversation regarding our education system. What does our education system need to do, not in some nebulous overarching sense, not ‘with that VR headset’, but to address ‘this particular societal issue’.

In the futures conversations I’ve facilitated (or participated in) the major obstacle is getting the trends part of the futures discussion done. In some cases you might not have the right people in the room, and trends you get might not be directed at your issue. You might have too many of the right people in the room, and all the time is spent debating how many angels can dance on the head of a VR headset. With this in mind, I’ve decided to try to build on someone else’s trends, and allow us to get right to the business of working with futures.

The work that I’m proposing to use belongs to Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. It is, necessarily, Canadian Flavoured. The work was done with Canada in mind and does not, sadly, have significant examples from the Global South…or the US, or Asia. I recognize this limitation. However, the work is excellent as it is, and forms a starting point that can hopefully be filled in by participants from other contexts.

The open course

Ten years ago I did a MOOC with George Siemens called ‘Ed Futures’. When I was thinking of hosting another short, open course, doing another event with George seemed like a nice bookend.

(Don’t tell George, but I’ve always considered him one of the smartest people in the field, and, as may be useful for the purposes of this course, we *rarely* agree regarding the field of education…so it’ll likely be lively.)

I used the word ‘host’ earlier deliberately. This course will not be taught by George or I. We are looking to host a conversation, and test out a model for futures discussions that will, hopefully, be an interesting way of looking at how we do strategy for education. This model was originally designed for the institute the Office of Open Learning is looking to host in the summer, but with the COVID19 situation, any group activity planned for the summer is uncertain. I think this online attempt, moreover, will give us a chance at broader input from more disparate sources. That can’t help but give us a better strategic view by the time it’s all over.

There are still many details about how we hope this will work that are up in the air at this point. Broadly speaking, we’ll work from the SSHRC societal challenge in a futures-ish kinda way. I have some ideas about how this can be done in a distributed way, but I’ll leave that for the next blog post. Suffice it to say that participants will be encouraged to follow a futures model in order to help inform us all regarding the different ways that we, as educators, can adapt our policies, approaches and practices for a world where facts are increasingly difficult to pin down.

We need to strategize for an education system that can solve – or at least address – our societal problems. Join us in April: let’s see if we can start a conversation that can help do that.

Thinking about what education was for… 3800 year ago.

As any long suffering reader of this blog will be aware, I have a bit of a thing for the history of education. What I’ve always been curious about are what concepts of ‘what it means to learn’ and ‘what education is for’ are baked deep into our cultural understanding of formal education. I believe that there are bits and pieces dragging around behind our notions of school that profoundly impact and sometimes inhibit what we can do with the giant normativizing system so many of us care about.

First, a little background

My latest point of curiosity has been the schools (they’re called eduba) in Mesopotamia, let’s say between 2500BCE and 500 BCE. There are lots of reasons to love this time period. For one, we are talking about the part of the world that the Greeks probably stole the most from (unless you want to argue Minoan or Egyptian civilization… but, as I’m currently obsessed with Mesopotamian history, I’m going to go ahead and believe what I want).

This period and location is amazing to think about because of how they wrote things down. Sumerian Cuneiform is one of the oldest written languages on record. The internet might even tell you it’s the oldest one we know of, but let’s not fight. It’s really damn old. This is what it looks like

Cuneiform – 2400BCE. It changed over time.

And what makes it so cool is that cuneiform was mostly written in clay. It’s mostly written on clay tablets. What happens to papyrus when the vagaries of time trample it and burn it? It burns. What happens to clay when it gets burnt? IT GETS HARDER. Upshot of it is, we have lots and lots of it.

I have been listening to a series of excellent lectures about Mesopotamia by Professor Amanda H. Podany on The Great Courses (through Audible) and I’ve been totally captivated by it. I have been particularly interested in the places where its been made clear that we know PILES of stuff about how they actually taught students in this time period. Because of the tablets. Also because ‘school literature’ was a writing genre. Most about how terrible it was to go to school and how much students were hit by their teachers.

Getting to the education bit

Now, Nippur was a city smack dab in the middle of Mesopotamia. And we’re going to zero in on one house (House F in fact) in the middle of this ancient city. Most of what is written in this next part comes from Eleanor Robson’s article about “The Tablet House”. While most of the houses that have been excavated in Nippur contain a variety of different tablets, the mixture of tablets in House F were a little different. There were way more tablets designed for teaching people how to write than there were tablets about how many beer they had bought.

So. We have what most experts think is a schoolhouse, from 1740BCE, that is still full of many of the materials that were used by the students who actually studied in it. Researchers have broadly separated the education practices of learners from this period into two categories – beginner and advanced. A beginner would learn how to hold a stylus, how to make the necessary shapes, and then what order of shapes respond to what words. And advanced student memorized and practiced writing a variety of old stories, hymns and other cultural pieces. All carved into clay tablets. Thousands upon thousands of which have survived. The following, for instance, is one researcher’s perspective on the order of elementary education.

The all time classic for advanced students would be stories of Gilgamesh (though if i’m right, House F would be before the story of Gilgamesh had been pulled together into one tale). I do not wish to point you to Gilgamesh, though it might just be my favourite story, instead, I will point you to the fight between the Hoe and the Plough It’s all kinds of awesome.

“7-19 The Hoe having engaged in a dispute with the Plough, the Hoe addressed the Plough: “Plough, you draw furrows — what does your furrowing matter to me? You break clods — what does your clod-breaking matter to me? When water overflows you cannot dam it up. You cannot fill baskets with earth. You cannot spread out clay to make bricks. You cannot lay foundations or build a house. You cannot strengthen an old wall’s base. You cannot put a roof on a good man’s house. Plough, you cannot straighten the town squares. Plough, you draw furrows — what does your furrowing matter to me? You make clods — what does your clod-making matter to me?” – linked above.

What is education for

No matter if you think that Ancient Egyptian pre-dates Sumerian by a hundred years or not, knowing ancient egyptian was not a great deal of help if you were trying to learn Sumerian. At first, Sumerian was written by using pictograms of things to represent sounds. But, eventually, those pictograms became collections of lines made by a flat stick into a lump of clay. In a world without horses, or carts, or printing machines, or computers… how do you go about standardizing which squishy lines mean fish and which ones mean tree?

Note the tidy writing on the far left and the total mess a new student was doing on the right. (also from Eleanor Robson’s article)

Through a process of enforcement that is not clear to me, someone, somewhere started creating lexical lists. Basically lists of words that you need to be able to memorize. There are thousands of them that survive from all over Mesopotamia. The process of standardization required by the first person to do this is staggering. But they managed. And so, we have the elementary education described above. Here’s the list of words. First memorize the trees. Now the animals. Now the stars. This is what they mean. Memorize those scribe-to-be, and other scribes, all over the world [sic] will be able to know what you wrote here.

At the advanced level, they were memorizing the stories that shaped their culture. This post is getting long – there are lots of reasons why its useful to do that. Maybe telling stories was part of being a scribe. Maybe it was just meant as long form practice. Maybe they sold them.

It turns out that this school house had little chests baked into the floor in the corners that researchers believed were where you put broken pieces tablet so they could be soaked and turned back into clay. The writing materials were cheap. The more versions of the standard ‘list of words to remember’ the better. They were standard after all. Repetition makes for good memory. Practice makes perfect.

Standardization and memorization, though, seem to be critical goals for the education system from Nippur in 1740BCE. There are lexical lists actually baked into the walls in that school in Nippur (or so I have come to understand). It’s a lexical list. No one needs to update it. Clay is cheap(ish).

I can totally understand why they taught this way. Lexical words so we could communicate. The 24 stories listed in the Robson article, because each was a cultural touchstone. standardize and memorize. Everyone who graduates gets to be a scribe. One job. Two skills. (please note the exaggeration for emphasis)

Two thousand years of schools being like that is a pretty big percentage of the time that we’ve had schools. It wouldn’t be terribly surprising to hear that we were still influenced by it.

Future Challenges Institute

Since my last post I’ve gotten most of the way through writing a book (i hope), gotten accepted to a PhD program, and have started a new position at the University of Windsor’s Office of Open Learning. I am now the Learning Specialist: Digital Learning Strategy and Special Projects. So far – I’ve been having a pile of fun in this role. One of the first things I was asked to do is put together a model for a summer education event. This I have done working with my colleagues here at the Office in Windsor.

The Future Challenges Institute is going to be held on the 11th and 12th of August in Windsor Ontario Canada. You are most welcome to come.

Futures thinking, if you’ve never gotten the chance to try it, is kind of like the opposite of a traditional academic approach. It’s in no way meant to replace it, but rather give a group of people an opportunity to look at the challenges they are facing from a new perspective. Instead of looking at all the research that has been done by your excellent colleagues, you take a look at what trends seem to be happening and ask yourself what would happen if those trends became pervasive. Here’s an example of a part of that process from a session I ran ten years (omg ten years?!?) ago. Also, a nice introduction by Fast Company.

As I started the research for this process, I was fortunate to come across the excellent futures work that has been done by SSHRC. If you’re not familiar with them, they are the research/granting agency in Canada that supports the social sciences and the humanities. In looking through their work we realised we could build on the work that they’ve done by looking at their societal challenges through the lens of education.

We are looking for up to 60 interested people to come work with us so we can think about what responsibility education has to address the challenges facing our society today. The four tracks we’ve decided to tackle are:

  • The Emerging Asocial Society
  • Working in the Digital Economy
  • Truth Under Fire in a Post-Fact World
  • Building Better Lives Across the Gender Spectrum

You’ll note that these challenges aren’t ‘challenges in education’ but rather things that education contributes to, in one way or another.

I’ll post more on this as we get closer to the event, but for now I just want to invite you all to put us in your calendar. 🙂

You can check things out at futurechallenges.ca

Imagine if we didn’t know how to use books – notes on a digital practices framework

How do we solve for – “but we need to train everyone to teach with the internet?” It’s a problem.

No really. We’ve got a bunch of yahoos wandering around telling people that all we need to do is code and we’ll be fine. That actually has nothing to do with the actual real problem we have. We have this massive knowledge making engine that we aren’t in any way prepared to teach anyone how to use. Not morally. Not ethically. Not practically. Imagine if we didn’t know how to use books… THAT’S WHERE WE ARE. This is a vision on how you might think about training hundreds/thousands of people to learn how to use books… if books were the internet.

This image is a draft of a model i had designed for preparing an education system for the internet. As you see it here it has had some input from folks like Lawrie Phipps but it hasn’t gone through any kind of review process. The idea is that some people are never going to make it all the way to being ready to teach with or on the internet. At least not in the short term. I offer it as a draft for feedback.

I’ve talked a bit about the 20/60/20 model of change. The idea is that the top 20% of any group will be game for anything, they are your early adopters, always willing to try the next best thing. The bottom 20% of a group will hate everything and spend most of their time either subtly slowly things down or in open rebellion. The middle 60% are the people who have the potential to be won or lost depending on how good your plan is. They are the core of your group, the practical folks who will take on new things if they make sense, if they see that they have time. They are always the people we want to encourage. If they buy into your project… you’re a winner.

There are three streams to this model that eventually leads towards people being able to function as good online learning facilitators. The top stream is about all the sunshine and light about working with others on the internet. It’s advantages and pitfalls, ways in which to promote prosocial discourse. The middle stream is about pragmatics. The how’s of doing things, it starts out with simple guidelines and moves forward the technical realities of licensing, content production and tech using. The bottom stream is about the self. How to keep yourself safe, how to have a healthy relationship with the internet from a personal perspective.

Level 1 – Awareness
This model is an attempt to set some standards for things that everyone should be aware of. This is a non-negotiable, you can’t opt out of this conversation, you must participate to this level kind of thing. There are any number of reasons why some people wouldn’t want to participate passed the first literacy level. There are people, certainly, who are just ornery and hate anything that isn’t what they currently see as normal. Lets leave those people aside.

There are many marginalized people, who have been stalked, attacked or otherwise had very negative experiences on the web. There are people with legitimate fears of what their interactions on the internet could turn out to look like. There are others with religious reasons for not collaborating in one fashion or another. I don’t think that we should force those people to go beyond the level of awareness.

Every teacher (and anyone else responsible for a child) should be aware of the dangers of private, obfuscated or otherwise dark communities online. There are an abundance of folks out there who are directly targeting young people in an attempt to radicalize them for one reason or another. Whether its groups that target misinformation against common searches or discussion forums that misrepresent cultural groups, there are a lot of dangerous places on the internet. Everyone should understand this.

This level responds to best practice. The people who never make it past awareness will not be able to necessarily understand the complexity of digital practices and therefore should have a list of dos and don’ts that they can refer to that needed have interpretation. “Don’t let kids use reddit” Does that mean that no one should use it? No. Just that if you haven’t put the time in to understand your own digital practices and those of others, you should stay on the safe side.

If training people is something that you are going to do, I would suggest that the development of these best practices should be at the top of your list. Keeping learners safe is as much about explaining the simple dangers as anything else. Make a postcard of info, steal it from the internet, and paste it next to every computer.

Level 2 – Learning
As we move past awareness to learning online, you’ll notice we’ve left our bottom 20% behind. I don’t think it makes sense to try and bring every person to this point. There are people just before retirement who may be uninterested (though, I should add, many of the best digital practices people I’ve met have been near the end of their career) and for a myriad of other reasons… we shall leave the resistors behind.

This level is going to respond well to some complicated challenges that allow participants to see the power of digital practices to influence and improve their learning experience. I say complicated activities and not complex ones, here, because for the tentative, early success is important. When I’ve given overly open ended projects to people new to working on the internet, they can often flounder. Too much abundance of content too quickly. Try for projects where multiple but not indefinite outcomes are possible. Gradual release of responsibility is key to ensure that you can ensure the best possible first experiences.

This is also where the deprogramming should start. People are going to be coming to these activities expecting to hear about a new app or to get ‘training’ on how to use a particular piece of software. They’re going to be looking for ‘take-aways’ that they can use in their own lives that will make the time spent worthwhile. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t throw in a couple of those (some people will never make it passed level 2) but you should make it clear that this is an early spot on the journey. This is less about a few tricks that can make your life easier, and more about a shift to understanding how knowledge actually works now.

As people make their first claims to identity (twitter/blog/discussion space?) it’s important to build on the early identity and safety discussions from level 1. I make particular note here to straight, white, heterosexual males. The internet can be a dangerous place to other people in ways that it simply isn’t to you. Including people into the internet discussion requires full disclosure on the trainer/guide’s part. If you don’t have a good grasp on what those dangers are, do some reading and call in a friend.

Learning on the internet… that sense that you can find the things that you need if you know how to search for them properly, takes time and authentic activities. It also takes a growing understanding that ‘the thing’ you are looking for is not actually one thing. With access to so many perspectives, ‘the thing’ can be elusive. The learner’s key skills shift away from certainty and towards decision making between various options. It also takes reflexive activities. You need to give people a chance to find, the opportunity to ask others they don’t know, and then the time to have successes and failures.

There are certainly some technical pieces that should be introduced at this point I suppose… A good example is the usage of citation services. Zotero allows you to keep track of the things you find and has the advantage, if you’re going to do any academic writing, of formatting your pages into proper citations. More importantly, however, it’s a way of keeping track of the stuff you’ve found that you might need later and applying a little bit of structure to it. A good, simple technical piece that allows the work done at this stage to be useful later.

Level 3 Interacting and making
Things start to get messy here as learners should be introduced to both the complex end of working on the internet AND some of the complicated PITA that is associated with being a producer as well as a consumer of content. People are going to gravitate with their predilections (technical knowledge or complex application) but i think a good balance here is important.

So much of the ‘learning how’ technical pieces, however, are actually about realizing that things are possible. If you’re using a wordpress blog to claim your digital identity space, develop ideas or track your research, a quick look behind the curtain will show you what you can add to your wordpress setup. Basically, if you can think of it (and its possible) someone has probably made a plugin that will allow you to do it. The ‘technical’ part here is more about understanding the conceptual way the internet is made and how you can use that to your advantage. We aren’t, most of us, coding our way to solutions anymore, it’s not really necessary.

Some of the technical pieces here are also about what the technology can’t do. With all the yacking about Artificial intelligence and machine learning right now, it’s important that we demystify its usage in the learning process. Much of the research around AI’s advantages speak to improvement in student’s memory retention or adoption of repetitive skills. I mean, those are useful, but they may not be goals that you have for the learning process. Analytics and the rights of students is a critical topic that simply can’t be overlooked.

At this point we’re also hoping that people are able to connect with social groups and being able to discern whether or not the space they are looking to work is a healthy one or not. Some folks would suggest that reddit is best avoided, but some of those spaces can be the best places to meet like minded people. Its the analysis of the space and its safety/fit that’s the critical literacy at this point.

That kind of active participation where people are not only using the internet to ask questions but also giving back is not for everyone. The suggested participation here is about 60%… that may be high. You have to take your profession pretty seriously to be willing to contribute, and the contribution experience is not positive and supportive for all people alike.

Level 4 – Teaching
Once we’ve made our way through the literacies, we get to the point of preparing to actually organize a learning experience online. There are a number of shifts that occur when we get to this point, but perhaps the most important one is that people are not going to be working with self-selecting folks in your fun community looking to learn together. I mean… they might be, it’s just not likely to happen as much as you’d like. While it would be awesome if we were all able to teach in environments where our learners were ecstatic to learn what we have to teach them, the truth of the matter is a different thing entirely.

There are many folks who would argue that teaching online (well) requires more effort than teaching face 2 face. There are certainly different pitfalls, and starting is much harder online than it is face 2 face. Everyone’s teaching journey is going to be a different one and, as indicated in the percentages in the chart, I don’t really expect the majority of people to get there.

If we see the preparation for teaching online to include the key factors of personal identity management and wellness, a keen understanding of the collaborative power of abundance and community networks and a relatively good understanding of the complicated pieces involved in the tech… I think we’re doing a reasonable job preparing folks for the road ahead.

At the end of the day teaching online, like any teaching, is a personal journey. You can learn from others, adopt skills and literacies through study and observation, but we are all going to be different teachers in the end. Experience can be the only long term guide.

What does success look like? card-playing edition

My only memories of my grandfather on my mother’s side are probably not really my own memories at all. I know he was universally beloved. A kind, hardworking man who’d had the first of his 11 children at 50 years old; he owned a farm in northern New Brunswick and lived to the ripe old age of 91 years. I was 7 when he died.

When I was young, maybe 4 or 5, I used to play cards with him in the kitchen of the ‘new’ farmstead (long since gone). One of those stories, and the one I remember best, is the one where I caught him cheating at Crazy Eights. I was, I am told, terribly appalled by the transgression. My 4-year-old fury, the story goes, was quite possibly the funniest thing my gentle, kind grandfather had ever seen.

And when I try and think about it, I can’t imagine that he was actually cheating in any real attempt to win. I have the vague memory of leaving the old house convinced that I was an excellent card player.

He must have been letting me win. And he was cheating.

Flash forward 40 or so years and my 10 year old returned from summer camp this year with a slightly worn deck of cards in her pocket. I had purchased this deck for her in the vague hope that she’d want to play with me. You see… I never really lost that love of card playing. That little boy who was taught to play cards by his grandfather wandered the beach every summer afterward looking to play cards with anyone either too polite to say no or too old to be able to get away in time. I bought my daughter the deck hoping that the kids and I could get ‘card playing’ into our repertoire so that we’d have something else fun to do on our wanders around Ontario.

And now, here she is, stalking me with a deck of cards in her hand. All I can see is Matante* Carmelle and Matante Janinne shaking their heads at the cottage in the summer as I asked them to play dame-de-pic. So the 10 year old sits me down and explains her new card game to me. She shows me her new shuffling skills… clearly her time at camp was not wasted. She’s got this evil, card shark grin on her face that I don’t really recognize… a new look for an almost 11 year-old girl.

We play. I win.

Is that really what success looks like?

As I sit here this summer trying to collect my thoughts about how our practices in education don’t actually match our goals, I’m left a little embarrassed I worked so hard to beat a 10 year old. The oft-repeated, and silently bemoaned, mantra that I repeat to my kids all the time is “What goal do you have for that job? What does success look like?”

I sit here in my basement a little bemused at how i could have missed success by so much.

If you made it through the story above, my goal for the card game was obvious… I want her to keep playing. While I suppose it’s possible that playing a 10 year old with every cut-throat piece of skill you’ve learned in 40 years of card playing is ‘encouraging’…it’s not terribly likely.

I did complement her on shuffling, and did engage her in card-based fun conversations, but, as soon as the shuffle dropped, I fell back to the zero sum winning-means-winning approach that my own 10 year old self took on at the beach so many years ago.

It’s not like I didn’t have a good model to work from. My grandfather clearly had his goals sorted when he was sitting on that little corner table with me so many years ago. He wanted to play with his grandson. There are only so many games shared between 80-somethings and a 4 year old, and this was the place he chose for us. And we played. And, when he got bored, he cheated a little… probably to help me win.

Instead, my daughter learned that the reason for playing IS winning, which she promptly demonstrated by using the same cut-throat mentality I had taught her when she played with her mother an hour later. And she beat her mother.

While I do think that learning how to win can be a super useful skill – it lacks context. Her mother wasn’t trying to win… she just wanted to spend time with her daughter.

How then, do we define success in learning?

I succeeded, I guess, in teaching my girl success in the simplest sense of the way a game can be played: stay on top of the game. Ignore social cues in order to maintain top competition readiness. See success in a strict mathematical sense.

This is the danger, I think, of ever thinking of the learning process as games-based. As the superficial sense of ‘winning’ is so easy to see, so easy to measure, it’s easy for us to slide into our habits and wash away the complexity that lives underneath. There is not likely going to be any advantage to my daughter thinking of cards as a game to enter with the sole purpose being ‘winning’. I mean, I guess she could be a professional card sharper or something, but I’m not sure that that’s a future I would hope for.

Not really my goal.

My goal was to have something for us to do together while we were out enjoying weekend rides out into the country. Something to share. Learning how to work together, to weave competitiveness with social awareness. To see games as a way to become better acquainted with someone, rather than to express dominance. Hard things to measure. My sense is that it’s the kind of thing we can only model. The best teachers I can think of were curious, and giving, and socially aware of the people around them.

Thinking education

The blog post previous to this one was a history of how the desire to use assessment for gatekeeping, for bureaucratic advantage and to encourage student effort lead to our current state of mathematical obsessiveness with grades. Where we saw success as a number that, however artificially created, is the true sense in which we see learning. And, by extension, how we move our learning to objective, extrinsic motivators for reasons that, strictly speaking, have nothing to do with learning.

I’m left thinking about how I can do better with my own kids in encouraging intrinsic motivation. I want them to want to play cards with me because we have fun together when we do it.

It’s the same kind of intrinsic motivation that I want from the education system. So much of our system is defined and constrained by how we measure success. So often we default to the easy measurement, to the convenient measurement, and lose our way altogether. It may be that the way we model learning as teachers is the only real learning that happens in the classroom. I should pay more attention to my grandpa.

note: Matante is an acadian slurring of ‘ma tante’ (my aunt). For the first 8 years of my life, I thought the word ‘aunt’ was ‘matante’ instead of ‘tante’

Connecting assessment goals to our education practices – a historical perspective

Through a weird set of circumstances, it seems that i have the summer to focus on writing. I’ve spent the past three weeks working my way through the piles of writing I’ve done over the last 14 years and one of the key themes that I’ve found is the disconnect between our goals for education and our practices. The choice of assessment as a place to start this journey is an incidental one, but it’s been really interesting. I’ve dived into the history of assessment in our field and thought it might be fun (for me at least) to track some of the things I’ve found.

Inevitably I ran into some trouble around what I actually meant by assessment or, as the conversation developed, what i meant by grading. There is a confusing history to this conversation, and I’m not sure I’ve been able to track all of it, but I’ll do my best to lay out what I’ve found and trust that someone will fill in the blanks that I’ve missed.

When i hear about AI improving the ‘success’ of students I’m left with the question “improving what exactly?” Are we making them better at compliance? Is game based education making students more creative? It’s just a question of what our goals are. Here are my notes.

Grading for what exactly?

For the purposes of this discussion, let me suggest that one way of seeing ‘grading’ is as a form of assessment that makes a scaled judgement of the performance of a student against an arbitrary standard. I might give you a pass, or an A or a 72% or call you an ‘Inferiores boni‘ or whatever else you can come up with that has as scale of winners and losers. I say ‘arbitrary standard’ because, as every teacher secretly knows, you have to make up a grading rubric. You can call it valid or verified or rigorous but one way or the other someone is still making it up.

Another basic premise that I would posit is that grading is an extrinsic motivator. It is the way that we as arbiters of the education system motivate students about what they should learn, when they should learn and, inevitably, what it means to have learned. I got an A. I learned. As an extension of this I agree with Grant and Green when they say

[extrinsic motivators] improve performance in “algorithmic,” or repetitious, tasks but are less effective or even counterproductive at “heuristic” tasks that require creativity, concentration, or intuition.

Grading is good at ‘encouraging people’ to do complicated tasks that are often represented by memorization, obedience and linear thinking. If those are our actual goals. If our goals are complex and include things like creativity… we’re looking to support intrinsic motivation. Grades don’t support intrinsic motivation.

Assessment as gate keeping (pass/fail)

We have a long history in education of thinking about assessment as a method of quality control or gate keeping people from a particular field. We see it now in things like the MCAT & LMCC (for medicine in CAD) and Red Seal examinations for The Trades. They are also a good mechanism for maintaining the status quo. You might argue that having a group of people in a field maintaining the status quo is a good thing, and maybe it is, but it tends to slide its way towards keeping out people with new ideas or who come from different backgrounds.

You can step all the way back to the first universities at Paris to see (you passed/you didn’t pass). A student was nominated by his Master to do the examination, to be able to prove, in a public discourse that they were prepared ‘to lecture’. They were judged by a committee of Masters which included a representative of the Pope and a representative of the city of Paris and if they succeeded, they were granted the ‘licence to teach’. Wilbrink

According to Mary Lovette Smallwood, there are records of this being done at Harvard in the 17th century leading to the development of the four tier system at Yale in 1785 – optimi, secondi optimi, inferiores boni, and pejores. We’ve moved, in a sense, from pass/fail to awesome pass, pass, kinda pass and not really passed.

A word on the Smallwood thesis. If you think no one will ever read your PhD thesis… take heart, that one is cited EVERYWHERE.

So, if your goal is to make sure that people who become ‘certified’ are the same as the people already certified, i can see how this works. I can also see the problems… onward.

Catechetical assessment

Another thread of assessment I found in the archives is the call and repeat model. It dominated medieval classrooms and, in some cases, still does today. I say a thing, you repeat that thing, I judge whether or not you said the thing I did. There are any number of reasons for taking a catechetical approach to learning. I’m going to use Charlemagne’s 789 edict (Admonitio generalis) as my example. It set forth some goals for the training of priests and regular folks about how their religion actually worked.

Charlemagne was a bit of a literalist. He was desperately concerned that Priests were mispronouncing their benedictions. He was, in effect, worried that people were going to hell because God couldn’t understand bad Latin. The Correctio was a series of quizzes designed to train priests in the basics of what they needed to know to keep people out of hell. (Rhinj)

Basically… there were verifiable things that needed to be figured out. I, as maybe the bishop, would ask you the questions… you would answer. Then you would return to your monastary/parish and setup a school where you transferred these lessons to other people. We all know what’s true. You just have to remember it. I have no way to prove it, but it stands to reason that our idea of school is heavily impacted by this… hence all the catechetical approaches still existing in our school system.

The thing I like about this example is that the goal that Charlemagne has was very clear. His practices were perfectly lined up to them. Believe this. Now remember it. Now tell other people the exact same thing.

William Farish and the birth of individual grading

There is certainly a point at which we moved from ‘yeah, you got the general idea’ to ‘you got 72%’. There are a number of people who would like us to believe that William Farish is the person who is responsible for the innovation. Some of them would even go so far as to say that he did it because he thought he could process more students and make more money. It took me a while to track down how this story developed… but here goes

2000/2005 Hartmann writes about William Farish founding grading so he could make more money from his students. This is oft cited, but it took me forever to find what he was citing. It describes Farish as the evil founder of grading. It seems that Hartmann was quoting Postman.
1992 Neil PostmanIn point of fact, the first instance of grading students’ papers occurred at Cambridge University in 1792 at the suggestion of a tutor named William Farish.” Please note that all the extra ‘Farish hated his students’ stuff is not present and seems to have been… colourized… by Hartmann.
1967 Hoskin Postman is citing Hoskin and for the rest of the story I’ll turn it over to Christopher Stray’s excellent article

Hilken (1967, p. 40) stated that as moderator in 1792 Farish had introduced the practice of assigning marks to individual questions. The source Hoskin himself relied on (Hilken, 1967) was a short history of engineering at Cambridge written by the then secretary to the faculty. Of the sources Hilken gives for his account of William Farish only one makes any reference to marks. This is Farish’s obituary in the Christian Observer: ‘He was the means of introducing into the University of Cambridge the system of classifying the candidates for a degree according to the number of marks obtained at their examination’
(Anon, 1837, p. 675; copy, with other sources on Farish in Magdalene College Old Library, M5 29).

So. Farish kind of introduced grading to Cambridge. But the story that is all over the net about being the grandfather of grading is mostly nonsense.

Grading and assessment as individual process

Whether our friend Farish is the actual founder, 1792 is close enough to the time where this started to happen. We have other instances,

  • Joan Cele as the initiator of the grade system of education (grades 1-8) and exams created to judge when you’ve passed to the next grade (Wilbrink)
  • ‘sub omni canone’ (outside the canon) from the Jesuits, and the idea of grading of this kind being imported from the chinese bureaucratic testing. (Schubert)
  • Class point systems and the ‘nota asini’ (ass’s mark) for students who didn’t get enough points. (Wilbrink)
  • Prizes awarded like with the Mathematical Tripos competition at Cambridge, where the winner got a life-time annuity. (late 18th century)

There have been lots of innovation and encouragements. They are, for the most part, directed at trying to get lots of people to ‘work’. They intend to measure the compliance of our students. Is our goal about compliance? Or, as it says in basically every strategic plan in education in the world, are we trying to support independent, creative citizens?

My last thoughts are with Hoskins and systems of control and a mathematised model of reality.

Hoskin (1979) emphasised the importance of such a change, as a significant moment in the development of the fine tuned marking system. In Hoskin’s neo-Foucauldian narrative this even becomes a crucial one in the emergence of a modern system of control, of ‘normatising individuation’. It was ‘a most momentous step, perhaps the major step towards a mathematised model of reality. … The science of the individual was now feasible. … The blunt weapon of banding yielded to the precision tool of the mark’ (Hoskin, 1979, p. 144). (from Stray)

Are we happy with the ‘mathematised model of reality’ that lives at the root of what we call Artificial intelligence? Does it serve our goals?

Works referenced

Die Erfindung der Zensuren. (2014, October 3). Retrieved July 2, 2019, from https://www.fr.de/wissen/erfindung-zensuren-11257151.html
van Rhijn, C. (n.d.). ‘Et hoc considerat episcopus, ut ipsi presbyteri non sint idiothae’: Carolingian local correctio and an unknown priests’ exam from the early ninth century, 19. Download
VYKOUKAL, E. (1913). Les Examens Du Clerge Paroissial a L’epoque Carolingienne. Revue d’Histoire Ecclésiastique; Louvain, 14(1), 81–96. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1302398694/citation/8A2526F0B2D94D9EPQ/1 Download
Hoskin, K. (1979). The Examination, Disciplinary Power and Rational Schooling. History of Education, 8(2), 21–135. https://doi.org/10.1080/0046760790080205
Smallwood, M. L. (1935). An historical study of examinations and grading systems in early American universities a critical study of the original records of Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, Mount Holyoke, and Michigan from their founding to 1900,. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=OMgjAAAAMAAJ
Stray, C. (2001). The Shift from Oral to Written Examination: Cambridge and Oxford 1700–1900. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 8(1), 33–50. https://doi.org/10.1080/09695940120033243 Download
Postman, N. (n.d.). 1: The Judgment of Thamus, 6. Download
Grant, D., & Green, W. B. (2013). Grades as incentives. Empirical Economics, 44(3), 1563–1592. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00181-012-0578-0 Download
Wilbrink, B. (1997). Assessment in Historical Perspective. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 23(1), 31–48. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0191-491X(97)00003-5

Who is going to help build a pro-social web?

Last year, I was standing in a high school auditorium talking to parents about the internet. A parent told a story about seeing her kids watch a mean-spirited youtube video. She didn’t know how to approach her children to address it. She talked about standing there, excluded, while her children laughed along with the video.

She asked me, “what am I supposed to do about the internet?”

Good question. What am I supposed to do about the what the internet is doing to me? There was a terrible sense of helplessness in the way she spoke about the web. She saw it as something done TO her.

That mom was worried that she wasn’t allowed to parent her children anymore. I tried, in a rambling 10 minute response, to give her permission to parent her kids… even if it’s on the internet.

Later that week, in a discussion before a radio interview, I ended up in a similar conversation about how to parent kids’ access to the internet. The interviewer mentioned their child’s access to the internet was limited to one hour a night, and that the two of them were friends on Instagram. Without really thinking, I asked “You mean on the Instagram account you know about?”

I left that meeting thinking of all the things that a teenager could get into in an hour on the internet. In 2005, the concerns that I would have heard would have mostly been access to pornography and the potential of stalkers. As social sites became more and more prevalent, concerns in 2012 would evolved to include things like bullying in online spaces. A slightly savvier internet user would have suggested that things like Reddit were a danger.

The internet in 2019 has a whole other load of problems. There are very deep algorithms that are tracking that child in the hour they are online, slowly crafting their desires towards some random purchase. The intensity of the attention economy has many of us – kids or no – convinced that we need to craft a personal image to an increasingly refined degree. The prevalence of digital devices has kids in constant emotional flux in their relationships with each other as they can change and shift on a minute by minute basis… often in the middle of the night. There are trolls, professional and otherwise, who are ready to attack for LOLS at any time. And, maybe most dangerous, there are extremists (White Nationalists come to mind) who are actively recruiting young people into some very troubling ideology.

Plus, lets face it, they are constantly inundated by careless, petty micro-aggressions by half the adult population in their own participation in online spaces.

And… there is no way to keep children from the internet. There is no conceivable process that keeps any kid from the amazing potential of the internet. Guitar lessons on youtube. Wikipedia answers to fact-based questions. Recipes. Music… oh my god the music. Almost anything you could ever want to know or do is something that can be found on the internet.

Kids are going to use the internet. Humans are going to use the internet. We are going to learn all the lessons that the internet has to teach. We learn the pettiness. The aggression. That way people dismiss the feelings of famous people by insulting them.


The internet is fundamentally participatory. The internet grows, all internet platforms grow, on the addition of content. Every time you post on facebook, or send a picture into the ether, you’ve contributed to the conversation that is shaping our future. Every comment. Every like. It shapes what everyone else understands. Internet companies make money (often from ads, sometimes from your data) when you participate in them.

And yet, on a weekly basis, I hear otherwise intelligent, caring, socially responsible people saying that they ‘don’t do the internet’ or ‘won’t go on social media’ because its a cesspool (which it definitely sometimes is). And every time one of those people stops connecting online – every time they stop offering a sensible answer or fact check an erroneous story – every time one of those people walks away, the story that we read on the internet gets a little worse.

I mean. I get it. I know lots of smart people who have quit facebook (or twitter, or instagram or whatever) because they don’t want to give away their data or because they are attacked, or because it affects their mental health in negative ways. Every story is different. Those are good reasons to do that. But. If we all turn away from the internet, who is going to be writing the story of our culture moving forward?

You can see where i’m going with this.

You need to help build a pro-social web. Every time you are fair to someone you disagree with on the internet, you leave a good connection behind you. You create a participatory node that represents your values. Every time you fact check something before you post it, you’re creating a reliable lesson that can be learned by someone else. Every time you participate, in a conscious, deliberate way, you are putting another stone into the foundation that supports the values you believe in.

The last three years have shown us the tremendous impact that a cynical, extremist and data-driven web can have on our culture. Look at what it’s done to our poor friends in the UK (good luck over there). So many of these damaging, divisive culture wars are the creation of companies (and governments) with an agenda that has nothing to do with the well-being of our society.

Please participate. Do it well. Put your values on the internet. Our society is literally being shaped by the internet right now, and will be for the foreseeable future. We are all watching the web we’re building. The web is us. Help build a good one.

Please help build a pro-social web.

Open Pedagogy – A three day seminar at Digital Pedagogy Lab

Last week I had the privilege of hosting a three day seminar on open pedagogy as part of DPL Toronto. I’ve had some students ask for a number of the materials spoken of or referred to in the session so I figured I would just outline the whole thing. And, of course, it means I’ll be able to find all my notes the next time i get a chance to do an intensive course. 🙂 I probably wont remember every piece that i did… but this should cover most of the session.

I had five 2 1/2 hour sessions over three days – two day one, two day two and one on the third day. The participants got breakout sessions on day two and two rockstar keynotes from Rajiv Jhangiani and Jess Mitchell. I had sent out a very short questionnaire that basically told me that I had a very diverse group and they were hoping for some practice and some theory.

As we were working in a beautiful historic building (The Gladstone Hotel) I decided to do the entire session analogue. No digital activities. No projector. I didn’t tell students they couldn’t use devices… i just didn’t use them. I had 7 students at each of two tables and the following materials to work with.

    In my bag…

  • One stack of 500 A4 plain white paper
  • Five pairs of scissors
  • One ball of yarn (donated by the excellent Martha Burtis)
  • three scotch tape dispensers
  • One printed copy of two articles
  • My laptop for notes and potential searching
  • Two boxes of 24 colour pencils stolen from my daughter
  • Fun paper clips
  • Alphabet stamp set with one copy of each letter A through Z and an ink pad
  • other gimmicky stuff i didn’t use

Day One – The Day of Happiness
I opened the first day by explaining to the participants that our first day was going to be THE DAY OF HAPPINESS. All our thoughts about open pedagogy were going to be positive ones, and we were going to build up our understanding of what it could be through a variety of activities. I wrote “Wall of Sadness” on a piece of paper and taped it on a wall. Every time a student came up with an objection or a problem during that whole first day, they were to write/draw it on a piece of paper, cut it out and tape it on the wall of sadness. All issues on the wall of sadness could wait until the Day of Sadness (Day 2).

This totally worked. It kept our conversation moving on day one and allowed us to build together and still respect divergent opinions

Activity 1 – Differentiating between complicated and complex
One of the pre-reading I had the students do was an introduction to Lean Six Sigma. I always start my sessions by differentiating between complicated and complex (based on Dave Snowden’s distinction) and I wanted to present OER as a complicated problem (the process of getting to content) and open pedagogy as a complex problem (supporting self-determination in students etc…). By the time the session actually arrived, I had decided that opening up a conversation as big as lean six sigma was going to distract from the central mission, so I designed a simple activity to demonstrate what a complicated process problem looks like.

I gave the first group of 7 students the 26 alphabet letters and the ink stamp as well as one piece of paper each. Giving them no time to think about it, I asked them to use the letters and ink stamp to put their names on their sheets as fast as they could. I then asked the second group to study Group One’s approach and told them i would give them 2 minutes to come up with a plan to do it faster. Much hilarity ensued. Group One finished in 1:38, I gave Group Two 2 minutes to come up with a better process and then they got their names down on their pieces of paper in 1:01.

We circled around after the trash talking quieted and I laid out my definition of a complicated problem. It’s complicated if we have a clear idea of what success looks like (names on papers) and we can measure what success looks like (in this case ‘doing it faster’). A large part of the ‘resources’ conversation in OER is this kind of problem. Cheaper access to books. More people using books. Nice measurable problems that can be fixed. That’s great… but I was hoping to exclude this kind of thing from our definition of open pedagogy for the duration of the seminar. No offence to OER… it just wasn’t what i was hoping to talk about.

We used those named papers to keep ‘open notes’ throughout the two days. People left them in front of them and passed them back and forth during sharing time.

Activity 2 – group reading
This is an activity I stole from Bonnie Stewart. She likes to take an article into class and assign different paragraphs to different students. Each person is responsible for their section of the article and then comes back to the class representing their section. It’s a good way to bring research articles into class and making sure people read them without taking up too much time.

My first reading piece was Open Education in the 60’s and 70s by Christina Hendricks. It contains a number of excerpts from Open Education writers in the 60s and 70s and some commentary by Christina. I gave sections of the article to different groups in the class and asked them to use the scissors to cut the article into smaller pieces until each participant had one section. The process went ‘silent reflection’ then ‘explain to your partner’ then ‘explain to your table’. At the end of this process they were to take ‘ideas of open pedagogy’ found in the article and tape them on the “open pedagogy wall”.

The goal for this activity was to get beyond the idea of a ‘definition of open pedagogy’ and move to an understanding of it as a complex idea. None of us needed to agree on what open pedagogy was exactly, we needed to understand it as a long standing discussion that often includes words like ‘self-determined learning’, ‘student autonomy’ etc… It also allowed me to avoid conversation around the newness of the term open as it relates to pedagogy. This mostly worked, and i noticed students going back to the wall again and again over the next two days.

Insert story – I basically told my history of open story where I make a strong separation between open as in ‘open source’ and open as in ‘widening participation and open pedagogy’.

Activity 3 – Education practices mapping.
I’ve described this activity here
The purpose of this was twofold. One – to create a map of all the practices in the classroom so that we could use it as a reference during our project making activities. We didn’t really need it – the group was more than willing to talk to each other without the added supports. The second reason for doing the activity was my continued effort to make more room for introverts in my teaching. The activity gives plenty of ‘think by yourself’ time about what practices you have and how they fit on the digital/analogue and individual/collaborative continuums. This, I hope, allows for that contemplation time that I am told makes group conversations more effective for introverts. It also allows very quiet people to participate in a group activity without having to speak.

Activity 4 – Project building
The rest of the afternoon was devoted to project building. The idea was for everyone to think about a project that they would like to work on during the rest of the 4 classes and we could build our conversations around that. They came up with one – three ideas each and we devoted another part of the wall to taking those ideas and taping them up. We managed to find similarities between the projects (mostly) and get students into four working groups to discuss approaches to their projects for the rest of the afternoon. I got one person to volunteer to be the leader (for the afternoon only) of each group and off they went. This pretty much worked as described… The groups talked about challenges they had at their institutions or ideas that they had been working on.

Day Two – The Day of Sadness
People were really excited about the day of sadness. They came in with mock frowns and many jokes were made.

Activity 5
I started the morning with another group article read. This time we read Not Ready to Let Go: A Study of Resistance to Grading Contracts The article describes the various points of resistance that students had to grading contracts in three classes. I used the idea of grading contracts as a form of open pedagogy. I chose a random set of definitions for open pedagogy and wrote each of the eight on a separate piece of paper and put it on the wall. I had the students cross reference the forms of the resistance that the student exhibited to contract grading and had them look for the open pedagogy themes they reflected.

Eg… many students recorded in the article suggested that they weren’t qualified to make choices in their own grading contract. They weren’t the teacher. How could they know? Wasn’t that the teacher’s job? The class participant who read that section of the paper suggested that this is a reaction that will happen when you give ‘choice’ to students. Open pedagogy is all about choice. That will lead to resistance. At each point we discussed different kinds of resistance students could exhibit and what might be done to work around that.
This activity took two hours. The conversation was of a very high quality. It allowed us to cover most of the things accumulated on the wall of sadness from the day before and talk about how to mitigate many of these challenges. It also made it clear that, for many problems in education, there are no easy, guaranteed solutions

Insert story – history of education, monasticism, scholasticism and humanism
With only half an hour left, I wasn’t able to return to the projects discussion from the day before. The morning conversation was excellent, but it did mess up my timing. I decided I would cover some of the ‘isn’t this just active learning’ kinds of conversations that had made it to the wall of sadness. I situated the history of education (self-admitted as an oversimplification) as a battle between people who believe education is about informing people and those that think education is about helping people build their own knowledge. Objectivism vs Constructivism. Monasticism/scholasticism vs humanism. We didn’t really pick a side (though in an open pedagogy class, we clearly leaned towards constructivism and humanism) but admitted that there were circumstances when either was appropriate. I also included some notes about not ‘copying’ pedagogy. Different people are good at different things. Your own teaching style has to come from you…

Activity 6 – split afternoon
My class split in half for the first part of the afternoon. Half of the group prepared for activity 7 (detailed below) and the other half chose to go and work on their projects from the day before. They only had an hour. As for the group that stayed with me, we made placemats with each of the 8 themes of open pedagogy from the earlier piece and talked about each and what they might mean.

Activity 7 – Open Pedagogy meets the inclusion track
I had the rare privilege of working with Amy Collier on the next activity. Amy had reached out a few weeks earlier and suggested that it would be a good idea to bring the inclusion track (which she was running) and my Open Pedagogy track together. We had a number of different ideas on how that would go, but we settled on having eight tables each with a placemat with a quality of open on it (choice, self-determination, etc…). My open participants would host a table by introducing the open quality and then an inclusion discussion would follow amongst the participants of both tracks at each of 8 tables. All we really had to do was get out of the way, Amy’s students were excellent, and my students had spent 2 hours talking about the problems with open during the Spidell and Thelin discussion in the morning. They had 5 rounds of conversations at different tables (ten minutes each). Couldn’t have really asked for a better outcome for this one. We really shouldn’t ever talk about open without talking about inclusion.

Day 3 – Bringing it all back home
Morning discussion – explaining open pedagogy
We started day three by going back over the conversations at the tables the day before. All the students reported rich discussions but many also reported some discomfort in having had to explain open pedagogy to the other track. We all eventually agreed that it was a good practice session for trying to explain open pedagogy to people at their home institutions. I would like to say that I had planned the perfect training sessions for their open advocacy… but that’s not entirely true. I had a vague thought about it, but I certainly didn’t plan it to be as good as it turned out. Amy probably did though 🙂

Final activity – four slides
The last activity of the three days was a four slide pitch. The idea was to pick one person at your home institution who you wanted to convince about one part of open pedagogy. I basically had them fold one piece of A4 paper into four and draw one slide on each square. Some students just popped open their laptops and worked in powerpoint, and others drew on the paper. Some people picked an administrator, some their students and some made general info pieces for public use.

Our final discussion about our four slide projects really brought into focus some of the key themes of the week.

  • Open pedagogy needn’t be the same thing for everyone
  • Your learning situation is never going to be 100% open
  • Change towards open can/should/must be incremental
  • Open pedagogy is often harder for everyone
  • Inclusion is very big concern for open
  • Open pedagogy is worth the effort

I had a really fantastic group to work with and learn from for three days. It was super fun. Thanks to Sean for the invite!

The impact of conformity in education

In 2009 I was fortunate enough to be part of a conversation that led to “preparing for the post-digital era”. This week we all got asked to do a ten years later reflection, and, as I’m at an NSF funded retreat (at Biosphere 2!) talking about equity in STEM education, i thought it made sense to try and use the postdigital as a tool to interrogate equity and education.

Let’s start here. Social media isn’t a jerk.

I wish I could send a smack-upside-the-head to ten-years-ago-dave. When things like Twitter were still places of positive connection and occasional porn sites jumping your hashtag, we had this idea that the connection between people was somehow going to be different. We told everyone to join twitter if they wanted to be smarter, better, taller! 10-years-ago-dave didn’t understand that it was inevitable that the rest of the human experience was going to impact those spaces. Twitter was full of people in 2009 and full of more people now in 2019.

Here’s the thing… it’s not like we didn’t know the world was full of jerks. If you’d asked 2009-dave if there were jerks everywhere, he would have nodded sagely. This is why I can’t believe that he didn’t see 2014-twitter as an inevitable outcome. In 2014 the jerks found twitter. Or, at least, they found out how to use twitter in a way that allowed them to show they were jerks. They yelled at people. They abused people. People were harmed. It is still happening. They have made the internet very unsafe for many people. They were mean to people because they were different. They attacked people who weren’t totally dedicated to the privilege of the jerks. People seem to do that from a desire for power and attention. They also do it to find a sense of belonging with others who share a desire for power and attention. That desire didn’t materialize in 2014.

In my work I always say that technology reinforces pedagogy. The technology here amplifies the jerk… it doesn’t make the jerk. More importantly, the technology ISN’T the jerk. And when we see ‘social media’ as a thing, in and of itself, rather than a just a way people platform themselves – no different than the speaker platform at hide park – we miss the solutions. Our technologies are good ways to find a jerk, but the solution to that is to deal with the jerk, not the technology.

So. Social media is not a thing that needs to be fixed. People connecting with people is a thing. Jerks are a thing. Jerks are not a digital problem. Jerks are a real-world problem that has been around for a long time. We need to get past the digital and fix our real-world jerk problem. And, as we go along, we have to think about how our systems help create those jerks.

Part two – we actually can negotiate a new social contract

A thousand years ago, steel encased thugs with sharpened crowbars (swords) were wandering around the countryside in Europe punching cows. I’m not joking. They were jerks. They were literally punching cows, as well as stealing people’s stuff and, all too often, killing random, innocent people. The church, not usually the benevolent actor in medieval history tales, had an idea. They created the Peace and Truce of God movement. Local clergy would make a pile of all the saints relics they could find and try and get knights together to swear to this new social contract. Saints relics were the brand that enforced that change. The peace of god was an attempt to try and protect people (clergy were particularly singled out as people who needed protection) but it extended to property and livestock. The truce of god was an attempt to have days that violence was off limits. Sundays. Holidays.

Technology (horse + sword + armor + castle) had create a societal problem that needed to be addressed. A thousand years later you can see the impact of the PTG in our culture. They actually looked at something that was a side effect of a technology and went out and renegotiated a social contract to get it done. It actually worked. It took 2 or 3 hundred years… but it you look at what words like polite, or proper actually came to mean in that society, lots of it can be traced back to that original (admittedly self-interested) work by the church.

The church is no longer the societal institution threatened by free-roving jerks who’ve slipped the bonds of the old social contract. Democracy is, to what extent we have it.

And we need a pro-social web dammit. And we need to make it.

I honestly think that our education system can be that brand that allows us to make this change. Our education system, however, is often kind of a jerk. That education system is a systemic structure that teaches us to believe in power over people.

Deciding what knowledge someone needs is an exercise is having power over someone. Assessment, particularly, is grounded in power structures. Learning as its been traditionally perceived by our culture is a sorting process. Whether it is the way in which we separate the ‘expert’ and the novice through degree granting methods or the bell curve which either secretly of overtly lives under our % system, it is the way by which we apply different class markers to people. It is a ‘we-making’ process and it is, like all we-making processes, a ‘them-making’ process. We are literate. We have a PhD. We are the teacher. We are an A student. All of these things exclude the people who are not part of the ‘we’ belonging.

Those expectation are… not equitable. They privilege a certain background. They privilege a certain kind of thinking… or knowing. In a sense, our education system is a training ground for the privileges of conformity. A conformity that is certainly easier for many, and a conformity that is totally inaccessible to many. It teaches people that conformity to power is what belonging looks like.

So lets go back to our social media jerk. Jerks go online to exercise their power by attacking people for not conforming to their sense of belonging. The louder they yell… the more they run in a pack… the more they attract people to their conformity group and the more firmly they exclude the them that don’t conform. This is the system of power that our schools represent.

I’m not saying that our schools necessarily make jerks… what I’m saying is that the ways on which knowing is negotiated in our schools supports this way of negotiating truth. If you have power, you can be right. If you have power, you can decide who’s right. Also… there are things that are RIGHT and learning things about the world is about trying to find the right answer.

We need our schools to replicate models of inclusivity and equity that are not about the imposition of conformity. That means that we accept people the way they come in the door, and we help them come up with answers that belong to them.

Do different technologies have different affordances that allow jerks to be more jerk-like? Sure. But that post-digital lens asks us to look beyond the “twitter is a cesspool” argument. When we identify the technology and not the people beyond we missed the systemic cultural practices that are helping to shape the people who are the bad actors on those platforms.

Some questions to use when discussing why we shouldn’t replace humans with AI (artificial intelligence) for learning

I struggle to have good conversations about my concerns about Artificial intelligence as a learning tool.

I ended up in an excellent chat with my colleague Lawrie Phipps discussing the last 10 years of the Post-Digital conversation and ended up in a bit of a rant about AI tutors. Like many I have had a vague sense of discomfort around thinking of AI as something that replaces humans in the ways in which we validate what it means to know in our society. I don’t particularly care ‘exactly’ what a person knows, no one, in any profession or field of knowledge is going to be able to ‘remember’ every facet of a particular issue… or being able to balance all its subtleties. We are all imperfect knowers. But what it means to know, on the other hand, what we can look at as ‘the quality that makes you someone who knows about that’ that lives at the foundation of what it means to be human… and every generation gets to involve itself in defining it for their era.

There are many different angles to approaching this discussion. These questions, and the thought that follow, are my attempt to provide some structure to thinking about the impact of AI on our learning culture.

  • What does it mean to know?
  • How does a learner know what they want to know?
  • What’s AI really?
  • Who decides what a learner needs to learn when AI is only perceiving the learner?
  • What does it mean when AI perceives what it means to know in a field?
  • What are the implications if AI perceives both the learner and what it means to know?

Why “what it means to know?” matters
It is my belief that deep at the bottom of most debates around how we should do education is a lack of clarity about what it actually means to ‘learn’ something or, more to the point, to ‘know’ something. Educators and philosophers have been arguing this point for millennia, and I will not try and rehash the whole thing here, but suffice it to say that our current education models are a little conflicted about it. All of our design and most of our assessments are created in an effort to help people know things… and yet there is no clear agreement in education on what learning actually is. It’s complex, which is the problem. Learning totally depends on what the learning is intended for. I may be only average at parallel parking, and don’t really remember any of the bits of information i was taught many moons ago when i learned… but i can mostly park… so i ‘know how’. Would i pass a test on it? Probably not… but i didn’t hit any cars, so i ‘know how’. I’m clear about what my goal is and therefore the judgement, for me, is fine. The guy behind me last week who didn’t like the fact i didn’t signal properly to parallel park is POSITIVE that i don’t know how to park. He told me so. Do I know how?

What does it mean to learn in all situations? I don’t know. What i believe is that each time you enter into a learning situation you have to ask yourself (and ideally get students to ask themselves) “what does it means for them to ‘know'”?

Are you going to talk about the ‘real’ AI?
Anytime an educator gets involved in a discussion about AI with a computer scientist, you can be pretty much be guaranteed that the sentence “that’s not REALLY AI” is going to follow. From Wikipedia,

Computer science defines AI research as the study of “intelligent agents”: any device that perceives its environment and takes actions that maximize its chance of successfully achieving its goals.

Using this simplistic definition, then, Artificial intelligence

  1. perceives the learner
  2. perceives knowledge in a field
  3. perceives the learner and knowledge in a field

and takes action based on this to help the learner successfully achieve their goal.

AI and students knowing what to ask
On multiple, painful, occasions I have asked students what they wanted to learn in my class. I have tried to follow the great androgogists by having students define for themselves in a learning contract what they want to learn at the beginning of a course. I have mostly failed… I now wait until we’ve got a good 8 hours behind us before i enter into any of these kinds of discussions. I then set aside a long time for those things to be renegotiated the deeper a learner gets into a given field of knowing. You don’t know what you don’t know… and if you don’t know, you can’t ask good questions about what to know.

So. Students come to classes (often) because they don’t know something and have some desire to know it. We, as providers of education services, ostensibly have some plan for how they are going to come to know that thing. Learners coming to a classroom often

  1. don’t know what they need to know
  2. want to know things that aren’t knowable
  3. think they know things that are actually wrong
  4. want to know things that there are multiple reasonable answers to
  5. know actual things that are useful
  6. don’t really want to know some things
  7. and… and… and…

And each one of those students comes to your class with a different set of these qualities. What is a learner’s goal when they start the learning process? I don’t know. No one does.

AI perceives the learner
So. What does this mean for AI? If AI is following the input from a student and deciding what to give them next… how is it supposed to respond to this much complexity in the learner? It does it by simplifying it. And, I would argue, there are some very concerning implications to that.

I can understand how AI can perceive a learner and adapt to giving them a particular resource based on their responses. They can use the responses of other people who’ve been in the same situation to help give reasonable recommendations. 72% of people who answered this question incorrectly improved when given this resource. Of those that remained, some were helped by this other resource… etc…

But in this case, and i can’t emphasize this enough, someone behind the algorithm has DECIDED what the correct answers are. If we’re solving for a quadratic equation, i’m less concerned about this, but if we’re training people to be good managers, I become very concerned about it. What’s a good manager? It totally, totally depends. It’s going to be different for different people. Helping people come to know in a complex knowledge space is a combination of their experience, them exploring other people’s experience and mentorship. Imagine a teacher asking an algorithm how to teach properly. Who’s answers to that question is the teacher going to get?

AI perceives knowledge in a field
Lets say that I want to make dovetail box joints.

From a simple perspective making this join is easy

  1. draw on the flat side of the board
  2. cut that out
  3. put that board on the edge of the other board
  4. cut that and they fit together.

That is a straight up answer to the question “how do I make a dovetail joint?”, that probably doesn’t leave you able to actually make a dovetail joint. So lets imagine an AI system that rifles through every youtube video with the word ‘dovetail’ in it, can exclude all the videos about birds that come back from that search and can actually see and understand every technique used in those videos. Now, lets assume that it judges the value of those videos based on likes, total views, and positive comments in the comments that refer to ‘quality of instruction’. (I have built a very smart algorithm here)

My algorithm is going to come up with a list of ‘must dos’ that are related to the creation of dovetails. Those must dos will be a little slanted to carpenters who are appealing or entertaining. It will also lean towards carpenters who show the easiest way to do something (not necessarily the best way). Once people know about the algorithm, of course, those people who want more hits and attention will start to adjust their approaches to make them more likely to be found and used as exemplar resources by the algorithm. And… you can see one field slowly drifting towards the simplistic and the easy and away from craft. You could imagine any other kinds of drift based on an algorithm with different values.

Now… that’s me talking about carpentry. Imagine the same scenario when we are talking about ethics… or social presence. It gets a bit more concerning. Algorithms will privilege some forms of ‘knowing’ over others, and the person writing that algorithm is going to get to decide what it means to know… not precisely, like in the former example, but through their values. If they value knowledge that is popular, then knowledge slowly drifts towards knowledge that is popular.

AI is sensing the learner and knowledge in the field
Lets put those two things together and imagine a perfect machine that both senses the learner and senses knowledge in a field. How does the feedback loop between students who may not know what they want and an algorithm that privileges ‘likeable knowledge’ over other kinds of knowing, going to impact what students are going to learn? How is it going to impact what it MEANS to know?

One last question.
What is the increased value of having an algorithm process youtube videos instead of you actually watching them?