Exploring Complexity

The Complexity Explorer course is a free course offered by the Santa Fe institute, providing a thorough presentation of the concept of Complexity. I just finished this course and thought I would post a link to my notes here. I also have two quick thoughts about the course.

  • I think it is interesting to note how I participated in this course, I engaged with the course content (readings, videos, tutorials) over 2 or 3 offerings of the course. This is an example of maybe one of the less talked about, but very useful attributes of Open Online Course. Learning about complexity and game theory is a hobby of mine – I’ve read several books, participated in several courses, however I simply don’t have enough time in my life, nor is the subject matter directly relevant to my work enough to make it a higher priority. (In the long-run, I feel that learning about complexity is important). Open-courses like these are invaluable to me. Without the open nature of this course, I wouldn’t really have the option to learn from this fantastic resource. Flexibility of access is a characteristic of open learning that doesn’t get much mention in critiques (at least not as much as the topic of drop-out rates, which I probably would have skewed).
  • Melanie (the course’s host) asks each of the guest speakers (Guest Speakers for each unit are one of the best features of Complexity Explorer) a series of set questions about their work with Complexity. One of the last questions is always What advice would you give to someone wanting to get involved in the field of Complexity? Several times (if not most of the time?) the guest speaker included in their answer the advice that such a person should specialize and base them self in a separate field first, before applying and researching concepts of complexity to that field. I thought this was great advice (like I would know…but seems like great advice) and I actually think this is useful advice for the field of educational technology, as well. To me, it just makes more sense that someone have an area of application before applying edtech practices- since, much like complexity, the questions and answers of application are so heavily reliant on subject matter.

The High Speed of EdTech

I can’t help but feel that the onus, at least right now, is on the field of educational technology to slow down and listen a bit more, if edtech hopes to enhance areas of study other than itself.


Having a finger in educational technology, in addition to other fields of practice (mainly language learning & cultural issues, in my case) creates an interesting view of the field of edtech itself. I often wonder, in fact, if it’s even a worthwhile field to refer to, separate from subject matter context. The thought of an exclusive edtech themed conference is kind of strange to me – when I was involved in the national language teacher’s association in Japan, edtech (in the form of CALL) was a special interest group of the organization, and this seemed about right. So many practical questions of technology (devices, platforms, methods…) use can only be answered by first asking: What subject are you communicating in?

MOOCs provide a good example of this. First came MOOCs. They emerged out of online learning affordances (basically what MOOCs are, online learning – but this is not a MOOC definition post). They were used initially in successful cases (it’s worth nothing and relevant that initial MOOC subject matter was almost solely educational technology related subjects). They generated interest. They became popular. They became even more popular. Influential people tried to use them is certain ways. MOOC became a buzzword. Educators mocked and shunned their popularity. Educators mocked and shunned their popular representations. People discussed and critiqued them, both in response to their essence and in response to the popular notion of them. They became tired, old cliches. They became memes. They needed to be rebranded. Now, they sit, hopefully, in familiar terms with educators, ready as another option, like other forms of instructional design.  And, all of this within a few years. You could even appropriately use months as a measurement. The progress has been nothing short of astounding, when looking at it from the outside. (It all reminds me of Homer progressing through the five stages of death anxiety.)

Like many fruits of edtech, when I bring up the subject of MOOCs with people in the language field, the strong majority are apprehensive of the concept. Either that or they’re still at the “Sooooo, what’s a MOOC?” stage. Or, they’re both. Based on the speed at which edtech ideas progress apart from context, it’s easy to understand why. From my experience, diving in to tech use for existing educational practice (institutionally and individually) is often intimidating and impractical. I’m guessing this is true for many other fields beside language learning.

Innovation won’t happen from hydroplaning across the surface of learning. Practitioners will need to take innovative ideas and mold them to suit content, and they’ll need the edtech specialists to bridge that gap with the same respect that Research and Practice needs bridging. But, what can we realistically expect when edtech pushes pedal to the metal, seemingly targeted to the high-volume user. This is my impression, looking at it from within and from without.

As a side note – an analogy that I started thinking about lately is how the field of linguistics relates to other such fields as language learning and literature. They both share the commonality of language, and you would think that linguistics would be a direct feed for either, but somehow this connections is not as strong one (or at least I) would think. Linguistic materials aren’t the easiest nor the most practice  oriented materials to engage with. Certainly linguistics is a distinct field, and maybe it’s just an undeveloped thought – but I feel there something there in the analogy between linguistics and edtech. It’s one I’ll be thinking about.

Learning to What Degree Automation Suits

There’s a nice little rant about driverless cars up at the Worthwhile Canadian Initiative (economic blog) today, not that I feel the same as the author about driverless cars (Me? Love highway driving; Hate city driving) but there are a couple of good discussion points coming out of it. One, as I mentioned in the comments of the post, is a bigger question about when technology progresses to a point when it detaches from any kind of ‘naturalness’. This is a question I’ve thought about often lately (which is probably why I see it in places like this driverless car rant) – but I also think is a transcendent question of our times. As some of the commenters note – there are similarities in comparing the progression from horse drawn carriage to automobile vs the progression from automobiles to driverless cars. However, there’s also the point of emergence. The change from horse to car (or any other previous progression) may be distinctly different from the car to driverless car because of significantly less reliance on physical restrictions such as ankle movements, arm movements, and hand-eye coordination. There’s a detachment involved with the driverless car.

Another point that the author brought up in the comments was the nice little line about First World Problems not necessarily being a put-down, but a bit of insight, or a category (as I take it) of problem that is more detail oriented or situation/personally specific. Driverless cars are a good platform for showing this – it’s easy to imagine people not liking them, it’s easy to imagine people loving them, both for reasons of detachment. It’s context specific, and it’s perhaps not the biggest concern for everyone, but might matter a lot for some.

This second point ties in with my first – an emerging skill in education (and the networked world) is learning to what degree automation suits yourself and in which situations, no matter how small the detail. Because small details matter and detachment from the physical world matters.

A Synchronous Definition

I’ve been writing something of late, and much of it hinges on the definition of the word synchronous, or better yet, how the word is used.

When we use technologies like skype, google hangouts, and even telephones, these are generally referred to as synchronous communication. They have synchronous abilities in them however they also have several asynchronous functions that can override the synchronous features. In skype, we can shut off video or audio and use chat that can even expand communication over a period of days or weeks. Ditto with Google Hangouts, except this is more integrated to all of google services, I guess. With telephones, we can hang-up on people, effectively ending our presence in a conversation. And, with all such asynchronously-enhanced-synchronous-communication, there are elements of body language, delay, facial expression, and accepted norms that do not translate from face-to-face synchronous into digital synchronous.

Something about the asynchronously-enhanced-synchronous-medium amplifies the spoken word – my language students have always commented about how much more challenging it is to use target language over a telephone than it is to use over a table.

This would appear to be a recent distinction, because individual access to real-time media has emerged only in the past few decades. Is it that the common vocabulary just hasn’t caught up with technology? Or, are there two kinds of variables at play here (a sync/asyn divide and an analog/digital divide)? Or, is it something else?

I tend to think that the asynchronous-enhanced-synchronous-communication isn’t actually synchronous communication, but rather approaching synchronous while still being asynchronous.

It may seem like a small matter, but such small things matter these days. Distinctions of kind are not distinctions of degree.

To Trade Pencils for Tablets

I came across this article earlier today, and while I agree with the spirit of the article, I can’t say that I’m that fond of the message.

The even gutsier educational leader is the advocate for technology that says “wait – all in good time”. There are a lot of phrases in this article (including the title of this blog post) that contribute to a tone of digital technology is our new-foundation, lets toss away the old.

Ken Eastwood sounds like an amazing educator, leader and insightful about technology, but for me foundational education doesn’t include such a large focus on current digital technology. Here are a few examples of what I see as the foundational skills that I can pass along to my own children.

The History of Technology – This is something I’ve recently started taking with my 6 year old about. Not framed in history lesson style facts, but making a point to talk about “the old days” (either during my lifetime, or earlier) and how people communicated and used technology. Then, guiding our conversation to comparing it to technology she’s familiar with, while looking at the similarities and differences.

Language – Technology often doesn’t replace, but adds to. It’s tough to find a technology, or a mode of communication now that isn’t based in language in some way, to some degree. Many are based in and built on mother tongue. Learning about language is important for kids as it is a technology they will use all their life. Learning a second/multiple language is also beneficial (foundational, for me as a parent) because it is easier done at a younger age, provides my child with useful skills, and it introduces and embeds an ‘outside perspective’ culturally and technologically that is a transferable skill.

Greetings – I’m tempted to say “manners” here, but such a topic often gets too unnecessarily formal. Greetings are an essential skill for kids to learn, and too many North American kids do not have this skill. It’s an important skill because it teaches children about the existence of others, it forces them to acknowledge others – and if we’re going to be a technology dominated world, in which this technology gives us individual control over networks and environments specific to the individual, then we need to ensure that people do not forget that their actions don’t actually only affect themselves. Greetings are ethical in a way that manners and using the correct soup spoon are not. Read Sturgeon’s More than Human for a great story that explains the role of ethics in being human and using asynchronous connectivity. Also, Why American Kids are Brats.

Reading – Books will never die simply for the fact that kids love children’s books. Time alone with a book is often a child’s first time spent alone, engaged in an activity that is under their own control, free to explore. They develop patience. Reading to kids, in books with extravagant and engaging static pictures, is great parent/child time – time where the parent is forced to be the dynamic element, not the technology.

Sandboxes – Not actual sandboxes, but activities where kids are free to explore the natural world. Have you ever watched a 3 year old play with containers in a bathtub or at the sink? This is them learning about physics, about how the world works. If we shift this focus to ipad swiping (or something equally human created) we’re teaching them technology use at the expense of learning about the world around. Save it for later – technology will change, gravity doesn’t (at least not in human time).

Cooking and Nutrition – Both of our kids are active in the kitchen and help out in preparing dinner and making things like bread and cookies. They love it, it’s a process of creation in a way that the final product is more than the sum of its parts way. We’re active in talking about what we eat, and choosing what we eat – neither of our kids had much sugar before the age of 3 (largely thanks to my wife’s efforts). We have no way of knowing how this will translate into eating habits when they are teenagers or older, but we do believe that it will at least make our kids think about what they eat – which is the main point in discussing and promoting healthy nutrition with them: make them cognizant about how they fuel their body, then they can make better decisions later.

Prescribed Word Order and the LMS

The usefulness of Learning Management Systems are lost on me. I know why institutions use them, at least I think I do – to fence-off content, to organize their own institutional processes, to guard the privacy of students, and perhaps to make it easier for non-tech teachers to use tech. They are used as LearnER Management Systems, endpoints in themselves rather than the starting points that would better serve learners, and because of this I feel that the bad outweighs the good that they provide. What they don’t do is much more glaring to me, especially because what they don’t do seems largely to go either unnoticed or ignored.

With all the chatter about Change in Education (This video, for example) and preparing students for the practical skills of the futuristic future, you would think that more people would be concerned that the use of LMSs falls short in preparing students for communication in digital spaces. As a separated process, they climatize students, and educators, for one single system of communication that’s likely not going to be the one single system that they use once they leave enrollment status, in the unlikely case that any graduate of any school would use only one single digital space. LMSs train participants for one single type of digital literacy, while delivering content. What LMSs don’t do is prepare students, and educators, to create their own learning environments and to seek out contexts that best suit them.

As an example, I’m learning a new (to me) LMS at work, because this is the LMS that the institution has chosen, because institutions have to choose an LMS. I ask “Can we do this?” and support answers me “Unfortunately, no. The LMS wasn’t designed with that feature.” Fair enough, we all have to work within restrictions of technology, except that the particular thing I want to do can be done very easily outside the walls of the LMS. This thing that I want to include in my course design is similar to a skill like setting up a blog – a skill which, in my opinion, is the exact type of thing that advocates of the “Everything is Changing and we have to keep up or we’re failing our students” tagline should be worried about. Instead, working within and thus learning an LMS is considered a foregone substitute for skills like learning how to establish an online presence, learning how to manage information abundance, learning how to discern credible information.

The more I think about it, the more I hope that LMSs are just a unique side effect of the transitional era the world of education is currently undergoing – a result of a large population of adult practitioners that have not grown up with current technology, and thus need a highly structured, psychological classroom to guide them through digital content delivery.

Digital Literacies involve new and unfamiliar environments for many people that have to use them, and for many people they lack a familiar context. LMSs provide this context by taking geographically based structure and imposing it in a digital environment. A few centuries ago, people studying English (a young language at the time) would impose the structure of Latin on to English. This promoted the idea that languages fit some sort of ideal structure or set of standards, where reality is that Latin and English are two different sets of technologies, with different affordances and obligations. With LMSs, many institutions are making a similar mistake – imposing the structure of one medium onto another.

“Clearly, ‘natural’ is very much a matter of geography.” – Guy Deutscher on the idea of a “natural” word order for language. His point is that the Word Order of any given sentence depends on where you are and what language you speak. It depends on geography, as he says, or context.

Learning in digital environments separates geography from context. Yet, the way LMSs are used seems to impose a context into the learning process – they prescribe word order in the grammar of digital communication, so to speak. It’s not a fluid context, it’s not a context that allows for learner control. It’s not a context that originates in the learner. It’s a context because many people need a context given to them…which would be fine, if the context were to ween itself out of the picture, thus creating less reliance on that context. But, LMSs don’t do this, they pack gravitational pull, they command and teach a particular perspective. Everything’s not Changing, apparently, everything’s just shifting context.