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.

Language Natives – It’s Complicated

I recently read “It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens” by Danah Boyd, a book I sought out because I have two children of my own who will become teenagers a lot earlier than I want and will be prepared to deal with. The book is excellent, Boyd succeeds in providing exploration and explanation of the subject from the teenager perspective. This perspective creates understanding more than critique. I recommend it, even if you don’t have kids.

In one of the final chapters, she tackles the concepts of digital natives and digital immigrants. These two terms were popular a decade ago, but haven’t really stuck around since the initial meaning for these concepts haven’t really held up. From the book:

It has become popular in public discourse to promote the idea that natives have singular technical powers and skills. The suggestion that many take from Barlow’s proclamation is that adults should fear children’s supposedly natural born knowledge.

Boyd spends time dispelling but also exploring this idea, and almost shifts the discussion from natives and immigrants to a discussion of literacy. Which I wish she would have. Another quote brings up language and language learning, only to focus back on the native vs immigrant divide:

He [Rushkoff] metaphorically describes the differences in linguistic development between older immigrants and children who grow up in a society who’s dominant language is different than their parents native tongue. He uses the concepts of immigrants and natives to celebrate children’s’ development in the digital age.

The word ‘literacy’ has probably evolved in meaning during my lifetime, and this is where the real distinction lies when we think of how children develop in the digital age – there’s a certain degree or culture of digital literacy that many youth are born into. However, similar to how children learn language incidentally, ‘literacy’ is something that must be learned intentionally. Even still, ‘being literate’ says nothing about the degree to which that literate person can use language.

People learn mother tongues in daily life, starting from before birth. But does this mean for these ‘language natives’ that literacy development will take care of itself? No, because not everyone can write like a novelist or a journalist, and not everyone can give speeches like a sports team coach. People need to learn these skills. The same could be said for digital literacy.

It’s probably true that the concept of digital natives doesn’t offer very much. Digital literates and degrees/specializations of digital literacy might be a better concept to explore.

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.
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?
No, not right.
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.”

Our Real World of Technology

By chance, Ursula Franklin’s book The Real World of Technology happened to fall into my grasp recently. In the book, she builds on observations about technology as practice and experience (hence the “Real World”), bringing and keeping context at the forefront of discussion.

Buried in one of the final four chapters that were added in 1999 to the original collection of lectures from ten years earlier, is a discussion on what she calls “the evolving destructuring by asynchronicity” of society (p.151). In the discussion she warns about the increasing prevalence of asynchronous activity in our lives, linking the synchronous/asynchronous divide to the concepts of organism and mechanism. A dominantly asynchronous society has more to do with being a mechanism rather than an organism, she suggests.

To touch on her discussion a bit more, technology is born from the world around us. Some of the first instances of technology came from the acts of recording the cycles and patterns of the moon, the stars, and the seasons in the sun. From these first stone etchings grew newer and newer asynchronous technologies – oral mnemonic devices, papyrus, paper, the printing press, radio, tv, electronic text, Smart phones, and now Smart-wristwatches that adequately impress onlookers. Each asynchronous development changed the established patterns and cycles that originated from nature, but these established patterns still existed as a base, or as the background, on which asynchronous technology developed.

Society has come to a point, thinks Franklin, where the prevalence of asynchronous activity is so dominant over synchronous activity that there is little reciprocity left between the two. Our human social world is becoming detached from the real-time context where it began and has always dwelled. These origins of technology also comprise the basis of our human identity, a common knowledge that unites us under the concept of ‘civilization’ as we know it. Without this external context, humanity is less like a living organism and more like a machine – ‘being’ is reduced to our transactions in and of an asynchronous world.

If there is only structure that is human, it seems to me what Franklin is trying to say, then we have no context. Humans become the phonemes of a dead language.

Compared to Franklin, my own narrative of the prevalence of asynchronicity has been a bit more optimistic, and perhaps a bit more naïve: Long ago, at some rather extended point, humans developed spoken language. This was and still is synchronous communication. Also long ago, humans looked at world around them (sun, moon, stars, etc) and recorded their activity. The technology of etchings on stone was about as asynchronous as it can get, if that makes sense – the recordings used minimally varied and simplistic symbols, they deteriorated easily, and they were not very transportable over distance. Since then, humans have been developing technologies that were either faster or that could travel over distance easier.

With the development of digital technology, the spectrum between these two extreme technologies – spoken language and etchings on stone – has been filling in much more rapidly, especially at the end towards the synchronous where we are approaching it closer and closer with very rapid and very durable, but still asynchronous technology. This spectrum of communication technology now provides humanity with a (nearly) full set of interaction options, or tools, removing the restraints of technology access and discarding idea of technology progress, for the better. I may choose to listen to Radio, for example, because Radio is not inherently better than the newer technologies of TV or YouTube, it just holds different communication obligations.

I like to think that the big picture here is not that asynchronous patterns replace other asynchronous patterns, but that the collection of asynchronous technology over time, with all of its varieties of communication frequency and durability, which is now fast filling in, gives humans more choice and autonomy over how we interact. It is not really a shift that we have been experiencing, but a liberation of technology progress. I still generally believe this narrative, however my thoughts are now tempered by this chance reading of Franklin’s ideas, also for the better.

The worries of Franklin are realized when the world is much more suited for technology progress over the progress of humanity. Evident in some newly forming foundational educational goals is the omission of our past. 21st Century Skill slogans like “prepare our children for their world, not ours” is a path that originates from today, a day defined by our asynchronous prowess. In attempting to recognize the multitude of options that future generations have the luxury of exploring, these options are unnecessarily limited when society answers the WHAT questions with the HOW of practice.

When we prioritize preparing our future generations, dominantly and from a young age, for the world of asynchronous technology we are feeding an environment that is structured for the development and well-being of technology rather than the development and well-being of humans. (p71, p84) This is what I imagine it means to be infatuated by technology.

If we want to keep our context relevant, at the forefront and in our foundations then it is not enough to not ignore the “real world,” our synchronous, non-human environment needs to be part of educational prescriptive technology. This is what Ursula Franklin seemed to understand in her own practice, in how she lived her life. People like her, writing at the dawn of the digital age but before the social media boom, provide a remarkable and rare perspective that can help our often much too short-sighted world today. They remind us that the human heartbeat is a pattern as much a part of nature and as recognizable as the sun, the moon, and the stars.

Note: A longer, alternate version of this article is at –