Sunday, September 16, 2012

Questions from students at Vancouver Island University

I received a flurry of questions on some articles on my website yesterday, questions from students at Vancouver Island University. Rather than attempt to answer them individually, I'm grouping there here.

Sharing in a competitive environment

Breanne, Sonny and Marieke asked, "we wonder how as teachers around the province create content, do we set up a sharing network when there is a strong competitive nature, and enable all instructors to share?" Similarly, Ben, Tracy and Kim asked, "How do we change the culture of competition that is present in delivery of online content, to make it more of a collaborative and open process?"

I would have liked to have heard more about the competitive nature of teaching in this environment. It could perhaps have to do with teachers' being ranked or given performance pay according to student outcomes, or some other competitive measure. Perhaps it has to do with schools competing against each other for funding, as occurs under legislation like No Child Left Behind.

Or, it may have to do with competition between students, as suggested by studies that argue that this sort of competition produces higher test scores (but, it appears to me, lower retention rates). Or perhaps they are thinking of themselves as future academics promoting competing theories and seeking to fund competing research agendas.

Speaking generally, I think that a perspective that views everything as a competition is limited and mistaken. It is clear that in many cases, including the four scenarios just described, there are instances in which every person in a group working together will achieve greater outcomes than a person working with nobody else.This is the economic basis for corporate organization and division of labour, as well as the formation of societies and communities.

By the same token, I think that views opposing competition altogether are equally mistaken. Beyond the highly impractical matter of obtaining collaboration in all things, and the desire of people to pursue their own good in their own way, competition creates conditions under which different approaches and different hypotheses can be tested. Without competition there would be no evolution and no growth.

So the question is, in all four scenarios, not how we can eliminate competition and foster an attitude of collaboration, but rather, what degree of competition is appropriate in such scenarios, and how does the practice of sharing resources reconcile with that degree of competition.

I think that recasting our perspective on competition is important. Typically, competition is represented as competition against each other. We think of examples such as games or, in a jungle "red in tooth and claw," a battle to the death. But this is only one perspective of competition, a highly artificial one, and one that is limited in scope.

By far the greater range of competition, and (in my opinion) all forms of competition that realize greater economic benefits, are cases where the individuals competing compete not against each other but against some third party, ideally a non-human agent. In many sports, such as darts or archery, the battle, as they say, is "with yourself". In other endeavours, the competitors attempt to achieve some outcome in a hostile environment.

In this model of competition, it is not the diminishment of another that is the objective, but the augmentation of personal score. This is especially the case if the potential competition is not a single entity or team, as it is in artificial situations, but a large number of competitors, as is the case in more realistic environments. Though it may appear that you are in competition with the gas station across the street, you are in fact attempting to raise your own revenue, and this depends on the heath of the community as a whole. This is the basis of cluster theory, which attempts to convince businesses, even competing businesses, in a community to work together and build their strengths.

And this is the basis behind cooperative theories of education. The premise is that students can learn more individually while working together than they could working as individuals in competition with each other. Cooperation is not simply the absence of competition (which is why studies that use the Herfindahl index are fallacious). It is the employment of mechanisms that promote interactions among individuals to create an environment that supports greater achievement for everyone.

For a typically Canadian example, consider the case of clearing the snow on the outdoor rink. One individual could skate better than another if he is able to clear some snow and the other cannot. But he cannot clear the whole rink without exhausting himself. But if everybody cooperates to clear the whole rink, then everybody skates better, even the person who could clear a section of rink for himself. This may reduce his effectiveness against the other individuals in the rink, but will increase his effectiveness in the wider would of skating. Indeed, unless the entire rink is cleared, he will not be able to compete outside his own rink at all!

So the argument to be made is, even if a condition of competition exists, if we analyze the nature of the competition, we can show that individuals who share resources are more likely to be successful than those who do not share resources. Cultivating a practice of sharing increases the baseline, so everybody is capable of that much more, which is useful in every form of competition except a direct personal combat between two adversaries.

Indeed, even boxers train together, teams play exhibition games against each other, and all share their understanding of the game with the wider community, both to promote the game, and to encourage the development of new players.

Responsible Internet Use

Andrew and Behn ask, "How do we ensure that when we give students the ability to blog/post that they will do so in a mature and focused manner, most importantly the younger students?"

My first inclination is to ask, "what do you mean by responsible?" The word 'responsible' is one of those code-words that hides a whole range of preferred behaviours, from respecting copyright to keeping the language clean to refraining from bullying and hurtful behaviour to staying on topic, sitting up, and paying attention.

I further would want to ask, "what do you mean by responsible for young children?" When I ask this, I suggest that we need to be careful not to expect a level of behaviour that is unreasonable. We don't expect children to assemble in small groups, chat politely, and discuss the topics of the day in hushed and respectful tones while they're out on the playground. We expect rowdy, noisy, boisterous behaviour - and we even think this is good for them!

So that's my first reaction to the question. My second reaction is that people don't learn what they're told, they learn what they're shown. It has always struck me as ironic that politicians who live one day away from indictment for fraud or tax evasion or whatever speak piously about the crime rates of about cheating in our schools.

How many teachers tell their students to blog without giving them examples of what good (age-appropriate) blogging looks like? When I wrote about educational blogging, I advised that the best first step was to have potential future bloggers begin by reading other blogs. This is not simply because the best blogging is in response to something else (though it it), it's because people learn from examples of good practice.

If we don't show children examples of good blogging, they will learn from and emulate the Simpsons, Fox News, the Jerry Springer Show, and similar unhealthy examples. The last thing we want our students to do is to behave like adults! Teachers who want their students to blog should begin by blogging themselves, and to develop their blogging tastes by linking to and talking about the examples of good blogging they find in the world.

Finally, my third response to this question is to question the emphasis. While there are obviously limits we want to set - we don't want them to use their blogs to promote hatred (and violence in the Middle East), and we don't want them to use their blogs to share songs (and be sued for millions by the music industry) - it is unclear why we would make the focus on internet use 'responsible behaviour'.

To me it is far more relevant to think about how we can use blogs and the internet to promote creativity, to promote lively interaction, to promote fun and games, to promote following one's interests and engaging with the wider community. While behaving responsibly obviously forms a part of this, it is in the greater scheme of things a smallish part.

I think there's something wrong with an attitude that begins with a perspective along the lines of "how can we control this to prevent the bad" rather than one that begins "how can we support this to extend the good". Most of the bad could probably be dealt with if we would only set some good examples ourselves, and the rest can be dealt with on an as needed basis.

The whole process of setting expectations is essential - but it's so much more powerful when expressed in terms of what you can do, as opposed to being framed in terms of what you can't do. Good learning empowers; it doesn't needlessly constrain.

Cloud Computing and Learning Theory

Laura and Margot ask, "We're part of Vancouver Island University's graduate program in Online Teaching Development and are wondering how you see cloud computing shifting online learning models/theories."

I would begin by observing that the role of theory, properly so-called, is vastly overstated in education, and therefore would express the hope that cloud computing makes this a but clearer and more obvious.

The vast range of educational theories should by itself show us that something is amiss. In physics we might disagree about the nature of gravity, but nobody disputes whether it exists. In education, there would be schools of thought devoted to the idea that gravity is a sham and that we ought to be studying natural motion.

I don't think that the shift to cloud computing carries with it a substantial change in theoretical perspective in and of itslef, but I think it's a part of a wider change in perspective from education being a domain that studies how we teach others to a domain studying how we teach ourselves.

Because of information and communications technologies, the ways people teach and learn are becoming more visible, and hence, easier to study and emulate. As a consequence, not only can people learn for themselves, people can learn how to teach from others, with a result that the overall practice of teaching and learning are themselves changing in ways we can observe and study.

It may be premature to predict the the science of learning that will eventually result from such observations, but it seems clear that the scholarship that leads to such a science will change. Closed and tiny studies measuring incremental improvements in 'performance' as demonstrated in pre- and post-tests of a single mid-west American classroom will no longer form the basis for theory and practice.

Quite the contrary. Many of the innovations will come from outside traditional scholarship. For example, few (if any) scholars predicted the Khan Academy, and most would have railed against the possibility, much less the educational effectiveness, but the success and widespread popularity of the initiative helped spawn a new approach to online learning and threatens to overturn what scholars believed they knew about the field.

Educational theorists sometimes like to pretend that they are doctors and physicists and to study learning in fine-grained detail, but unlike doctors, they do not even know what they are studying, cannot agree on what counts as evidence, and have no generally accepted measure of what counts as 'improvement', much less 'good', in educational practice. And while doctors and physicists are at least willing to admit they are facing chaotic phenomena and to re-calibrate practice, educational theorists continue to play in the Newtonian world of objects and causes.

In the years to come, we will re-conceptualize the role of the educator, and step back from a perspective of education as a domain in its own right, with a set of competing paradigms, and reimagine learning as a cpomplex phenomenon lying at the intersection of disciplines such as health and nutrition, psychology, perception and memory, communications technology and social network theory.

Educators themselves will be professionals well educated in the above disciplines, functioning primarily in a support role (as do doctors and psychologists today) helping people manage their educational health and development in an information- and learning-rich environment. This isn't just a consequence of the move to cloud computing, but the move to cloud computing is a major part of this.

A Level Playing Field

Jane, Kevin and Michael ask, "How can we ensure that all students have the basic skills, equipment and competencies to use DL, bring all learners up to a level playing field... ie: software and hardware?

This is actually a multi-part question that has no answer.

It's multi-part in the sense that it asks about two very different things, about the "basic skills" and "competencies", first, and about "equipment", "software and hardware", second.

And it has no answer because there is nothing anyone can do to "ensure" that all students have these, particularly for a wide definition of "all". Our best efforts may leave some children unprepared and under-equipped. We need to ask not how we can guarantee an optimal outcome, but rather, what steps we can take to work toward that outcome. It's a small shift in perspective, but an important open, because it changes us from a perspective of managing and evaluating others, to a perspective of being change agents in our own right.

When we talk about the two parts, "skills" and "hardware", we need to ask a similar sort of question in each case: what counts as "basic", "adequate", "essential", and the like? These are both moving targets - especially when it comes to technology. What counted as "basic" just a couple years ago is considered "inadequate" today. Do your students have LTE wireless? Too slow! They must replace their iPhones today! (Just kidding)

I have taken a stab at what I think are the essential skills with my account of the critical literacies. These are not the same as your typical definitions of either critical thinking, literacy in general, or computer literacy. I've tried to aim at a level that lies below those, to take into account varying languages and forms of representation, communications technologies and paradigms, and the rest.

I think that the best mechanism for ensuring that students have these skills is to expose them to progressive environments where these skills are valued, can be obtained, are reinforced through practice, and have pragmatic outcomes - for example, in gaming and simulation environments.  I wrote a bit about this here and here in recent days.

As for the technology (and actually, as to the education in general), I think that we need to be looking at policies that range well beyond education in particular. It has to do with the goals of education.  Consider what Pasi Sahlberg has to say about the state of education in Finland:
Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity... In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.
 Ensuring children have access to technology means, in short, making it a priority. There is nothing particularly challenging about the concept, in the sense that we know how to do it and have a good sense of what it would cost. The challenge lies in the belief that somehow still prevails in some communities that education is a competition, and that you should reward the winners and drop support for the losers.

The Content on Websites

In a related question, Wendy asked, "We thought, though, that adults are more discerning when it comes to weeding through the vast amount of information on the internet, and youth tend to believe everything they see and read. Do you have any strategies to ensure that students evaluate the validity of content on the web?"

My first reaction to this question is that the bulk of misleading content on the web comes from adults, and that it is adults who are mostly misled by this content. 

I wrote an article a few years back, Principles for Evaluating Websites, which outlines the major ways people can evaluate online information for themselves.

Having said that, I think the most important thing is to be careful not to foster an attitude in children that they can or must believe everything they are told. This actually runs counter to some educational practices, where they are intended to absorb information uncritically, and where the only educational value lies in demonstrating how well they have remembered what they have been told.

Even if it is true that constructivist methodologies teach less efficiently (and I have my doubts abnout this) these methodologies have the advantage that they require students to build their own knowledge piece by painful piece. There is now a penalty for being misdirected, and that is that it will be more difficult to build on false information wrongly believed.

Placing students in environments where the more important skills are to solve problems, communicate with others and create solutions will reinforce in them the values of critical evaluation, inference from evidence and experience, and deductive reasoning.

Take computer programming, for example. You might be able to teach a person more quickly how to write a REST interface by giving them sample code and describing what to do - this is the 'worked examples' model. But these skills do not transfer to downloading and installing a security certificate - there's simply no conceptual overlap between the two. But if the REST assignment requires that students learn for themselves from examples and dialogue on the internet, they will not only learn REST interfaces, but also what to trust and what not to trust in online internet chatter about computer systems, which in turn will help them assess political discussion (say) more critically.

That's the thing with education. What we think is the 'outcome' of the process is never really the outcome.If you simply case whether or not they learn how to code REST interfaces, that's all they will learn. But if you want them to acquire a wider range of skills, you need to place them in a more challenging environment (and then encourage cooperation so they have a decent chance of success in that environment).

Innovative Tools

Suzi and Michelle asked, "What innovative eLearning tools do you consider leading the way in the next 5 years?"

I think Google's announcement thatmost campuses are not using Google cloud technologies, as well as their release of a course-building tool last week, point significantly to the direction of online learning in the future, particularly when you add to this things like Stanford's new platform, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and even my own gRSShopper application, are pointing the way. These are all variations on the theme of the personal learning environment (PLE), and I think that this - or something like this - is the wave of the future.

It is important to understand that a PLE might be nothing more than your browser. At its core, the PLE is a mechanism for accessing a wide variety of cloud environments, including, but not restricted to, the Google cloud. And add to that what will in the future be considered essential personalization aspects - your personal educational record, your portfolio, and other personal metadata. Here's my presentation on personal learning environments (plus some volcano footage). Enjoy.

It's hard to overestimate the impact of this new approach. Last weekend I spent all day Saturday studying security certificates for websites. In my email the other day I received an offer from Coursera to enrol in a course on programming for IOS platforms that I seriously considered joining (even though it would cost $40). I've been reviewing a huge pile of information from James O'Reilly on a simulation platform hosted on Steam called Garry's Mod. I taught myself webcasting and this hobby led me to an extensive examination of K-Pop.

Given the means, and given the ability to follow their own interests and passions, people will be able to give themselves a deep, invigorating custom education in pretty much whatever they want. This changes the very foundation of education, and is doing so at an increasingly rapid pace.

Implementing Online Learning

Justin, Jane and Jean ask, "How will brick and mortar schools in British Columbia successfully integrate the principles of online learning, given the obstacles of teacher training and the cost of equipment upgrade and management?"

When you put the question like that, my answer is, "very badly." When means (once again) we need to examine just what is being said in the question.

There are four parts to this question: what it is to 'successfully integrate', what the 'principles of online learning' are, what the 'obstacles of teacher training' and finally, the 'cost of equipment upgrade...'.

The first part contains within it a presumption that what is currently being done is more or less correct, and that online learning is something that will simply be added or 'integrated' into what is already being done. But in fact, I think it will replace what is already being done.

Let me demonstrate what I mean by analogy. Imagine that the great new technology wasn't computers, imagine it was 'field trips'. Suppose we decided for one reason that field trips should become an important part of education. Would we 'integrate' field trips into the class? Not really - you can't teach math while on a field trip, and you can't go on a field trip while you're teaching math - and efforts to combine the two will be strained an ineffective.

No, what would happen instead would be that field trips are gradually introduced. You might take an hour a week the first year, a day a week the second year, three days a week by year five, and have a 100% field trip-based education by the time you were done. Things like 'math class' and 'chem lab' would disappear and the much more effective methodology would replace them completely.

This is what I see happening with online education. I see it as gradually replacing traditional classes. Indeed, I see it as getting students out of those classes and into the community. This might happen only for a few hours at first, but over time, all traditional educational activities will be replaced with computer (and teacher) supported activities using computer technology to support participation in real world communities and activities.

So, next, what are the principles of online learning? I think it's a mistake to suppose that there are principles, properly so-called. I think that online learning encompasses a range of behaviours that are not governed by principles but are more like a skill or a profession. To learn online is to interact with an environment the way a surfer interacts with a wave or a doctor interacts with a patient.

The best way to obtain these skills is to practice. That is not to ignore theoretical background - even doctors have to study the books - but it means that the bulk of one's education is spent attempting to do the sort of things they are trying to learn to do, and beginning this process from a young age. So, say, when a kid says, "I want to be a firefighter," the result of this is that he actually spends some time in a fire hall learning how it's done. No, we don't send him into burning buildings, but he does learn how to put out fires using real fires.And where better to learn this than with firefighters?

Is teacher training an obstacle to this? I think that thinking of it as 'training' is an obstacle. I think that thinking of teachers as production workers or semi-skilled staff is an obstacle. I think that a lot of the 'training' teachers get - in, say, educational theory - is an obstacle. But I think that advanced and professional education for teachers is not an obstacle, but rather, a necessary condition for making this happen.

Which leads, finally, to the cost of equipment upgrades, which I addressed briefly above, but which I'll revisit briefly.

In matters concerning expenditures the problem for the most part is not that we do not have the money, but rather, that the proposed expenditure is not a priority.

In some cases, we literally do not have the money. Canada probably has the technical capacity to send an astronaut to Mars, but we don't have the financial resources (at least, I don't think we do - I could be wrong about this). But for most everything else we could do in society, the mosy is there, but is being spent on other things.

I will highlight just two expenditures to make the point: F-35 fighters, and the frigate construction program. Between the two of them expenditures total about $50 billion. We could give every man, woman and child an iPad for that money, and stock them full of educational content. We won't do that because we have determined that the marginal improvements in security these military acquisitions would produce are more important.

But that said, in the end, education is expensive. Providing an education is expensive. What we need to do, if we can, is to put the conditions in place where people are able to provide their own education. Yes, we need to put into place programs that ensure maximal equity. Yes, we need to ensure that teachers can respond to individual needs with professional responses. But in the end, the best and only way to address cost issues is to eliminate the cost, and to empower individuals.