Interchangeable People

It is difficult to talk, think, or write about anything these past few days that isn’t directly involved with the disturbing events in the USA right now. It’s also difficult to know what to say, as a non-American. This is just one small thought I’ve had recently.

When people talk about other people in categorical terms, such as “the left” “the right” “SJWs” “Conservatives”, the individuals being referred to become interchangeable.

There are times when it’s necessary to do this, like when referring to someone as a “refugee”, however unless steps are taken to balance this categorization with a personal lens, the result is that people are belittled.

Some modern educational approaches have fallen into this trap. Online and massive teaching methods tend to treat students as interchangeable (even when delivered in blended and non-massive contexts – it’s just the mindset that some teachers teach with). These approaches, unbalanced with the power of intimacy and individualization that current technologies afford, have done damage to the field of education and those course participants.

The EdTech Mindset Problem

Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the article linked, but the quote in this blog post raises a few questions that I think lead to clear responses.

For several years, I’ve felt that the field of EdTech was becoming or has been detached from the rest of education, detached from the “other” disciplines that it’s meant to serve. In EdTech discourse, the question of context rarely comes up. It is uncommon to see an EdTech discussion framed in terms of “What is being studied? How do our technology choices relate to the subject matter?”

There’s an extensive knowledge base created by the EdTech community, worthwhile professional orgs and publications, but they tend to relate to edtech itself – even when they do dive deeper below the social surface. Is it worth it for any specific discipline to dive into that knowledge knowing that none of it has considered their content? Isn’t it easier and more effective to build their own knowledge on how to deliver their subject matter, originating with subject matter in mind?

It’s up to EdTech to reach out into other disciplines, to bridge the connection more extensively by producing knowledge based on subject matter. Otherwise, it’s just edtech for the sake of EdTech.

Technology for Friction

From Evgeny Morozov’s “To Save Everything, Click Here“, a description of a certain type of technology that aims to create friction:

tech seen as 1

tech seen as 2

This seems to me a blueprint for education. EdTech spends a lot of effort on making technology seamless, easy to use, and never technology for the sake of itself. What if educators tried using edtech more for itself, to create friction and perplexity? I wonder if such a strategy cold become mainstream.

Dewey was big on perplexity:

We may recapitulate by saying that the origin of thinking is some perplexity, confusion, or doubt. Thinking is not a case of spontaneous combustion; it does not occur just on ” general principles.” There is something specific which occasions and evokes it.

Why bother using technology to create perplexity?  Many of our habits are established though technology (machines, and devices) – Through habit, we become our machines (Says Wendy Chun). Perhaps a little friction caused by these habit forming machines may encourage thinking and reflection about such habits, which often lie under the touch-screen surface of daily life.

 

 

Learner Benefits

One of the things I’ve learned from reading Ursula Franklin is the important role that infrastructure has with technology and on society:

Since the time of the Industrial Revolution the growth and development of tech has required as a necessary prerequisite a support relationship from governments and public institutions that did not exist in earlier times.

She goes on to talk about the divisible and indivisible benefits of infrastructure, and how infrastructure technology has shifted its role over time from indivisible benefits to divisible ones. With tech company infrastructures, they’ve taken it a step further and bundled benefits:

Another way apps hijack you is by taking your reasons for visiting the app (to perform a task) and make them inseparable from the app’s business reasons (maximizing how much we consume once we’re there).

(I urge you to read the entire post, it is great: https://medium.com/@tristanharris/how-technology-hijacks-peoples-minds-from-a-magician-and-google-s-design-ethicist-56d62ef5edf3#.yxx3qvjuk)

Presumably tech companies bundle the benefits because people aren’t as hooked in to their product and they are to their government. (You can’t take your tax dollar elsewhere)

Educational institutions are not tech companies, but they do have departments that need to make infrastructure decisions that will create certain benefits. To what degree these choices will benefit learners might be considered in terms of divisible or indivisible benefits. Learners can benefit foremost from infrastructure decisions, or they can be bundled in as an after-thought, expected to be the ones to adapt.

Predicting Education

Predictions for technology and education are always popular. Over the break, someone sent me a link to this post on the topic:

https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2015/12/27/predictions-dumb-and-otherwise-a
bout-technology-in-schools-in-2025/

I’ve always felt uneasy about predictive lists in education, and about such topics like the future of education. They seem like half-thoughts: predictions for what will happen, but few conclusions for what that means for practice today.

With predictions, I’m always left wanting for more discussion about the here and now, and the immediate past, rather than the future. Let’s make the future.

The article above works when it does look at the now, with statements like this: “…more and more tablets are in teacher and student hands.”

And this line, which I couldn’t agree with more: “…it is the teacher who is the key player in learning not the silicon chip…”

Teachers are the bridge between learner and structure/content. In small classes and in mega-multi-user-environments. Tech in education is used so well when teachers use it simply to get to know their students better.

Distance as Center

I just finished a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. It’s a book from the early 1980s that takes a television specific look at how technology and media influence North American society. The book may be a bit dated in that TV is no longer the apex of mass communication that it was 30 years ago, although from several other perspectives many of the ideas in the book transfer well to other technology and media contexts. I love these types of books – books on tech that are just a few decades old – because they present ideas about the effects of tech and media on a simpler backdrop.

The book ends (the last 2 chapters) with some strong ideas, one of which is that education curriculum is bending toward the particular affordances of television. A related point that Postman makes is that because television is so prevalent in everyday life (he states that teenagers watch 16,000 hrs of TV by High School graduation) schools have simply forgotten to question television’s character.
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Looking back at this claim from 2015, we can easily see the limitations of mere television broadcasting. And we now know that it is much better to unquestioningly prepare our educational systems for a “21st century world” in which digital technology, asynchronous communication, and social learning are the real tech and media powerhouses that the next generation will inherit. Right?
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No, not right.
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Despite being written in 1985 and focusing specifically on television, the 2nd last paragraph of the book provides a timeless quote:
 
“…it is an acknowledged task of the schools to assist the young in learning how to interpret the symbols of their culture. That this task should now require that they learn how to distance themselves from their forms of information is not so bizarre an enterprise that we cannot hope for its inclusion in the curriculum; even hope that it will be placed at the center of education.”
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Growers and Mere Harvesters

A garden is one of the most common metaphors in learning and education. It’s a good one, but there are many distinctions that often don’t get sorted out at the level of metaphor, or given enough consideration to. Are gardens meant to emphasize the growth of a plant under the right conditions? Or, are they meant to show intentional maintenance of organized learning, as compared to growth in the wild?

Educational metaphors using plants-things always seem to miss the mark with me, as they tend to romanticize the growth, while ignoring the importance of restrictions.

Earlier today while reading about the economic plight of East Timor, this line jumped out at me:

“People in East Timor are not growers; they are mere harvesters of coffee.”

The idea is that, in terms of their economy which relies on the coffee beans trade, the country’s farmers are nowhere near intentional enough in how they cultivate their crop. To a large degree, they simply pick from what grows in the wild.

Education runs this danger because learning permeates our lives much like breathing does. Educational settings that rely on everyday learning as the backdrop and be all of design – highly and merely social, connective, and low guidance courses – set themselves up as harvesters, simply picking from interaction that happens to take place.