Education and Design

Last year I enrolled in a Digital Media program at the UofC. I am always looking to upgrade my skills and knowledge informally, but decided to take a more formal plunge with my design skills (or lack of them) because of a strong belief I’ve developed in the growing relationship between design and education.

Recently I’ve been able to understand and articulate how I understand this relationship a bit more (although not completely, yet).

Over the past few years I’ve noticed design people talking about the fragmentation of their industry – design comes in so many different forms now (graphic, UX, UI, etc etc), and one of the points that design industry workers seem to be making when they bring this point up is that employers do not need to keep creating job positions based on all of these different divisions between these design areas. They need to hire people who are capable of recognizing these divisions and completing their tasks accordingly. People also need to develop accordingly.

And this makes sense to me. A project generally requires a grand vision of what that project will end up as. This isn’t always easy, or time efficient, to communicate. Why bother with a graphic designer AND a design writer and a UX designer, when one person can do that job. The more people involved, the more chances that miscommunication will occur.

This is what I’ve seen happen in education. Institutions are trying to adapt to digital environments, but they’re getting bogged down not only in the number of jobs they’re needing to create, but in the lack of knowledge about design mechanics and timelines. Online course are difficult to plan, for example, because the planners don’t speak the same language as the designers.

Ok, but why is design even important to education?

First of all, what I’ve recently realized is that the natural bridge between the larger industry of design and the larger industry of education is located between Information Design and Instructional Design. On the big poster that maps out all the fragmentations of design (or, of education) these two are right beside each other.

The other point to make is that education, more specifically online learning or digital environments (where I work), now includes an incredible amount of nuance in communication. I think you see this point made many places. We talk of digital literacies not literacy now, and even the definition of the word literacy has changed in the course of my lifetime, I would argue.

In this world where the digital message surrounds us, unlike how the printed word merely directs us, I would also say that we can now start to talk more specifically about rhetorics. Not the sense of rhetoric that is inherently negative, not the way that the word is thrown around to describe a politician dodging an important question. Rather, rhetoric in the way that Richard Lanham describes in The Electronic Word – as a way to be able to say what you want to say effectively. Design speaks to the rhetoric of a given literacy, the quality of our ability to communicate a thought with respect to that form of communication.

Educators don’t know which literacies students are going to bring with them into our classrooms. It’s increasingly difficult and unrealistic for institutions to expect learners to build their literacies specific for that particular institution. Educators need vast literacies and strong rhetorics to make edtech decisions and to create clear, effective, and apt instruction. In the least, educators are models for learners (especially so for language and culture, where I also work), making explicit the ways in which they adapt their own communication within the teacher/learner relationship.

The design skills that anyone may or may not have will be a determining factor in the ability to communicate in a digital environment, and thus determine such things like quality of courses, course design, teacher and institution communication, and for learners it will determine the quality of participation in an online class and even the degree of access to that information/instruction.

An Elementary School Teacher Telling Students that Wikipedia is a Bad Website

I’m hoping to get some advice from anyone who happens to read this. Just as the title states, my daughter’s 4th grade teacher told her class last week that Wikipedia is a bad website, that the information on there is mostly wrong, and that they should not use it.

More specifically, the students were doing an in class exercise on computers – they were supposed to look up something they were interested in, and write about it. One of my daughter’s friends searched for “Morse Code” and navigated to a wikipedia page on the subject. The teacher saw, and gave the speech about how wikipedia sites are bad and strongly suggested they use google or other websites instead.

I’m not sure how to handle this, what to do or if I should do anything. We’re pretty active in teaching our daughter at home (based on past experiences with the school here, I realized we need to talk on most of her education herself), and I work in technology and digital literacy so I have no problem teaching her about such things (we got her a tablet about half a year ago, and I slowly introduce her to various websites and digilit concepts – wikipedia was one of the fist we added). What I do worry about is what else is her teacher telling her?

Or am I seeing this wrong? I realize that maybe I’m out to lunch on this one. Is Wikipedia seen as a bad website now? I use it often throughout the week, in professional settings, though not usually as a final resource in itself – like any other source of information, it needs to be verified when the situation calls for it, right?

Are these the types of opinions teachers should be telling kids at this age? Shouldn’t they rather be teaching them to discern information more objectively?

The edtech “Ban/Not Ban” Discussion is Misleading

The underlying origin of any edtech “ban/not-ban devices” question out there is the gap between what is taught in elementary and middle school, and what is expected that secondary and post secondary learners ought to know. The gap being the digital literacy skills that many people feel should be taught at a young age, similar to reading skills, study skills, and even cultural norms like “how to behave in a classroom” and the ever-vague “socialization”.

If one believes this, that elementary kids need to learn digital literacy skills, then this is a question of what needs to be included in education goals and curriculum. There is not much worth in bringing it into the ban/not-ban question, which is a useless question to ask or answer.

A flat ban on devices ignores technology’s impact (let alone many learners’ access to content and preferred literacy), and conversely a mandate that teachers must use devices because it is “best” is technology infatuation that prioritizes digital literacy as a class goal over whatever the subject matter is. Both are wrongheaded, and both fail to consider the situation.

An educator designing their course needs to look at each activity/lesson and decide whether to include modern technology or not. It may be that one day devices are useful for that activity, the next they are a distraction. Devices are often superfluous, when technologies like pen, paper, desks, and spoken word are more suitable. If educators want to teach learners “self-regulation” then they should practice and model it in their class design.

(Furthermore, and I say this because I don’t see it enough, the first question to ask when deciding about technology/device use is “What is the content?”)

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.

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.



Education Analytics

Taking a break from preparations for the oncoming and inevitable infrastructure wars of the 2020s, I was reading about Big Data and Education today. I love the question quoted below, in which the they question what it means to ‘learn’.

Big data-driven platforms such as learning analytics aim to ‘optimize learning’ but is it always clear what is meant by ‘learning’ by the organizations and actors that build, promote and evaluate them?

The article goes on to quote some educational science data, cognitive science, neuroscience, etc. Read the entire article here, it’s a great article for provoking questions about learning analytics, at least for novices like me.

The flipside to the answer though is to question what is meant by ‘education’. The article, like most I read, tends to use ‘learning’ and ‘education’ as interchangeable terms. What do Big Data driven platforms mean by ‘education’?

An aspect of ‘education’ distinguishing it from the concept of ‘learning’ is the intentional decision of what to learn about. Whether this is done by a government, society, industry, institution, culture,or an individual, in education there’s some choice involved about the subject matter surrounding the learning. In this case, if we were to “optimize learning” does that include optimizing that choice? In other words, will big data help me (or whoever is making that choice) make better choices about what to learn about?

I hope any learning analytics system wouldn’t be designed to help me gloss over the natural variation by which I decide to learn about things. Let’s not kill curiosity.








Tech Blind Spots

enabling platform


There’s something to be said about the decision of where to spend large amounts of money on infrastructure and on (as Andrew Keen states in the quote above) ‘public projects’. There would be even more to say on who should makes these decisions.

Education in recent years has had it’s own balancing issues between What vs the How. This quote from John Seely Brown:

What do we mean by “social learning”? Perhaps the simplest way to explain this concept is to note that social learning is based on the premise that our understanding of content is socially constructed through conversations about that content and through grounded interactions, especially with others, around problems or actions. The focus is not so much on what we are learning but on how we are learning.

What society decides to make matters for what it will become, and what individuals decide to learn matters for who they will become.

Everyone working in EdTech knows that you’re never never ever supposed to choose technology for technology’s sake – I read stuff, I wonder how large the blind spots are in our culture’s technology infatuation.