Sunday, March 24, 2013

Introductory Post to Open Education

I have a few fundamental beliefs about education and learning:
  • The purposes of learning are:
    • To empower individual self-understanding and self-expression
    • To facilitate understanding of context through social interaction
    • To prepare the citizen for active and positive participation in civil society
    • To improve human understanding across personal, family, cultural, ethnic, linguistic, religious, national, and political divides.
    • To have fun.
  • "Education" is a double-pronged term
    • It can connote that long process imposed upon persons from childhood, using selective learning as a tool to encourage conformity, to fit the individual for productive contribution to society in the form of work (so that s/he does not become a burden), and to corral youth and young adults in dedicated spaces so that adults can go about the business of productive work.
    • It can also connote that which is both a privilege and an entitlement to all human beings, a lifelong journey through a set of structures and/or anti-structures moderated by committed more-informed others whom the learner ultimately joins as part of a learned and learning community. It is a non-linear, open-ended pathway to the benefits of learning outlined above.
My purposes for participating in the OU open course, Open Education grow out of the experiences I described in my preliminary blog post and from the models of learning and education I have outlined above.

They are:
  • To continue testing, adjusting, and adding nuance and clarity to my beliefs about learning and education through engagement with course materials and coursemates;
  • To understand the meaning, nature, modalities, characteristics, benefits and drawbacks of open education and see what's there:
    • Are there new modes of learning that may encourage the second connotation of education to strengthen and the first connotation to recede?
    • Are there new assumptions about learning that may inspire youth and adults seeking education, while at the same time helping them find productive roles in society -- roles that they themselves help define?
    • Are there new sources of learning that may help heal the tattered relationship between learners and teachers by resituating both as fellow travelers in a shared pursuit, thereby laying low the power imbalance that so distorts the matter of learning how to think?
  • To continue to deconstruct my own assumptions about what kind of education, the second connotation, makes for the widest and best quality of participation in civil society (which is a myth, but I use the term for rhetorical purposes);
  • To learn how to lengthen, deepen, and add more branches to my own learning journey;
  • To continue building the learning network I began developing when I participated in the EDCmooc;
  •  To peer into the future and see what shape learning and education may take there.
Those are a lot of goals, and I expect that I will accomplish them in varying degrees. But I also expect that, as I interact and engage with all of you, I will develop new goals and learn things that are at present beyond my mental horizons.

And also
  • To have fun.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Preliminary and Autobiographical Introductory Post for #H817open Open Education at the Open University

This introduction is supposed to be brief, but I find I can't explain my interest in Open Education without describing my own educational journey. So this is a (belated) introduction to my (also belated) self-introduction to the OU Open Education course. I hope readers will bear with me.
I joke often that teaching in my family is a genetic disorder. My mother is an educator, my father is a retired professor. My brother is a professor. My grandmother was a teacher and my grandfather was a minister of the Christian faith, a kind of teacher. My great-grandfather was a teacher and superintendent of schools in Atlanta (his wife an activist for women's suffrage), and three of their five children were educators at various levels. My aunt is a retired educator. My great-great-grandmother was an educator. The calling goes back generation upon generation.
So it's not surprising that a fundamental assumption in my family is that a sound, liberal education is a prerequisite for good citizenship and the foundation of the good society, as well as an avenue to a career. For this reason, the profession of educator is considered among the noblest of callings.
But my parents also considered my education to be my own responsibility, and so they left my academic performance as a matter between my teachers and me. No helicopter parents were they. My attention tended to other interests, and I was a B student from elementary through high school and my first year of college.
Then I transferred to the University of Alabama. Studying at Alabama exhilarated me. The professors engaged sincerely with students, infused their teaching with an attitude of mentorship and openness to young learners' ideas, and provided compelling training in critical thinking. I learned to tune into my insights, and developed confidence that I was entitled to express them.
(And, also, the (American) football team was nothing to be ashamed of.)
The professor-student relationship was for me the primary educational relationship at UA. It wasn't until I entered the vibrant learning community at the University of Georgia's Department of History that I came to know the satisfaction of socially-engaged learning.
I also began learning my craft as an educator at UGA. But at Cornell University I learned really to connect with students, to encourage them to think, and to help them hone their self-expression skills. At the same time, I pursued the final and most demanding stage in my own formal education. I came away from my six years at Cornell with excellent training, and I am grateful for it. But I also came away with a growing uneasiness about traditional higher education - its modes and assumptions as well as its consumers.
I was rattled by a suspicion that, while a great many students wanted to get an education, not all of them wanted to learn. I couldn't understand why many undergraduates at Cornell, who had every privilege in learning that a young scholar could ask for, refused to use the sumptuous libraries, donned stony silence in class discussions, balked at tackling reading materials, and exerted a great deal of energy arguing that they were entitled to As because they had always gotten them. Grades consumed them, and they consumed grades. This behavior wasn't unique, of course, to Cornell. I looked back and acknowledged a pattern.
And I did not relish the career prospects before me: a nomadic existence, bitter competition for few tenure track jobs, publish-or-perish realities, interdepartmental backbiting, territorial and firewalled scholarship, administrative duties, heavy courseloads, overcrowded classes, and grading and grading and grading.
Something was not right in my chosen profession.
And then the United States, with the stunning sanction of majority public opinion, blithely charged into war with Iraq. And that event, for me, made one conclusion inescapable: traditional education in the US was failing. And there was going to be hell to pay.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Post-Traumatic Metaphor of Disorder? The Great Recession and metaphors of Internet as destructive force #edcmooc

Rebecca Johnston's content analysis of editorials that mention Internet in the title, from which she draws the conclusion that destruction is the dominant metaphor around which we're structuring the conceptual Internet  raises some interesting questions about the way we'll talk and feel about the Internet, to whatever extent "it" remains a static entity, in the future.

But for me, it first raises questions about the role of contingency in how metaphors are affixed to concepts in a society. I can't get out of my mind the time frame within which Johnston focused her search: the three month period of September 2008 to November 2008. What was the context in which those editorials, in which those metaphoric representations of the Internet, were written?

This chart gives us a starting point.

UK real house prices 1975-2010
Quite a tumble in house prices was taking place in the UK - as well as,. we know, throughout Europe, the US, and many other parts of the globe.

What else happened?

A few highlights from Wikipedia's Timeline of the Great Recession will make my point.

  • Late September - Ireland slides into recession.
  • Early October - Asia officially joins the recession when Singapore, dependent upon exports for economic health, reports its economy has shrunk 5.7% in the 2nd quarter followed by a harrowing 6.3% in the 3rd.
  • Late October
    • the IMF bails out Iceland to the tune of 1.7 million pounds.
    • 500,000 UK mortgage-holders find themselves under water (a metaphor worth discussing) on their homes, and another 700,000 stand upon the precipice.
  • Mid-November 2008
    • Germany joins the recession. Boom.
    • Italy officially joins the recession.
    • Hong Kong officially joins the recession.
    • Well, let's just come right out and say it - the entire Eurozone is now officially a member of The Recession Club.
  • Late November 2008
    • Japan slips into recession. BOOM.
    • Canada and Sweden follow.
And, for the record, just outside of Johnston's time frame lies 1 December 2008, the day that the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research announced that the United States had been in recession for a year. It would have been an enormous BOOM! if we all hadn't already known it.

But we did.

And that's part of the point. It wasn't that September through November 2008 were any more painful than the three months that preceded or the three that followed. The 3rd quarter just happened to be when all the numbers came rolling out, telling us in no uncertain terms where we stood. It was a stomach-in-the-throat moment. It may not have been the 3-month period in which the most suffering occurred (or perhaps it was), but it was the 3-month period when those of us who use the Internet a lot were bombarded with number after number after number indicating the supreme devastation that had been wreaked by the financial collapse that happened a year earlier.

Raise your hand if you heard anyone say that one feature of this financial collapse was the speed with which transactions now take place via the Internet. Raise your hand if you heard anyone say that the Internet had woven us together in such a way that if one of us went down, we'd all surely follow - that we had, in essence, become altogether too big to fail. Raise your hand if you know someone who went underwater on a mortgage they set up over the Internet. Raise your hand if you know anyone who found out their retirement fund was gone while checking their portfolio on the Internet *raising my hand*. Raise your hand if you heard an economist say the concentration of certain types of knowledge (financial algorithms) and the concomitant diffusion of other types of knowledge (ken - the knowledge of people who are neighbors and family in a close-knit community) played a role in allowing the forces fueling the pre-crash bubble (if you believe there was a bubble - and if you don't, please see chart above) to build so fast. (By now, if you're not raising your hand, you obviously don't listen to Russ Roberts's show.)

I'm not saying that people thought the Internet necessarily caused the financial collapse. But I do think a great many people had a sense that the Internet represented the type of world we lived in (and still live in) - a world where destructive forces can build in seeming silence and then, without warning, descend upon us, bringing economic giants like Japan, the UK, and the US to their knees, put reasonably well-off people out on the streets, and shutter factories and towns that had been booming mere months earlier. There was at that time, I think, a deep, nearly unconscious association between the Internet, which was, after all, the source from which many of us were getting the information about what had happened, and the economic desolation we could now express quantitatively, and with gut-wrenching numbers for anyone who cared to think too hard about it. And certainly, there was an overspreading sense of the destructive potential of the new world we'd created.

It's the Internet as dark matter. The deep and boundless unknown. The invisible web of wires and cables that bind us together. The system of 1s and 0s that renders anonymous those of us with the serendipity, skills, and susceptibility of ethic to cash in while others crash and burn. The novel entity that mesmerized us while the ground beneath our desks crumbled.

Johnston is interested in what the metaphor does to how we think about in the future. But I'm a historian. What draws my attention is causation - what led to the metaphor. What accidental alignments of concepts, forces, events, and emotions shape the manner in which we think about all of those things - what contingencies create the metaphors that we then build upon. Those interweaving pathways of thought and way and mind and feeling are at the very heart of culture's forging. 

The pairing up of the concept of the Internet with notions of destruction in the 3rd quarter of 2008 is no historical accident. And Johnston's question grows even more potent: that alignment having been created, how will it shape our notions of the Internet and its relationship to our selves and the digital communities it makes possible?


Sunday, February 10, 2013

Looking to the Future, cont'd #edcmooc

Corning & Microsoft Ads, cont'd
(Communication, cont'd)
In the Corning ad, communication was largely non-spoken: we see people's lips moving and perhaps hear faint voices above the music, which dominates the film (not surprisingly, as it is a media-rich world being portrayed), and the ad leaves the impression that the subjects carry on most off-site activities in silence. Instead, they share information via their devices, even when standing next to each other (like the doctors, transferring sonogram information, and the teacher looking on as the students experiment with the color display).
In the Microsoft ad, communication is front and center - the varieties of ways people can connect with each other is a primary focus of the ad. We see the mom posting an "I miss you" heart on the kitchen wall from her shuttle ride; we are introduced to computerized cards with the capacity to keep people in touch through video, messaging, and voice; we find collaborators seamlessly connecting through video conferencing in which they can even manipulate each other's computers; and we witness face-to-face collaborators sharing information with the computerized cards. A note on landscape design proposal instantly prompts additional research and revision, mere hours before the presentation. A handwritten note from daughter to mother initiates motherly guidance of the daughter as she chooses what to make for the bake sale (even though poor old dad is present in the kitchen and could have helped with more than just the clean-up - this is a utopian world in which mothers and daughters are more connected than ever and fathers are still left out.)
Are these utopian or a dystopian visions to you? In what way(s)?
Viewing the Corning ad, I found myself caught up in the excitement of the novelty and simplicity and power of the glass devices. I felt a sense that a utopia was unfolding before my eyes. Looking back, though, I perceive something a little creepy about this super clean, silent world where learning is effortless and life is constant, technology-effectuated reward, with no self-discipline or delay of gratification necessary for kids to learn the skills they need to survive in life. I was reminded a little of the movie Wall-E, in which complacent humans settle into their traveling lounge chairs while the robots and machines wait upon them, providing refreshment and entertainment that keeps the humans' senses dulled. Nothing beyond compliance is demanded of the humans, who have obviously deteriorated functionally - they are bloated, weak, and misshapen. Likewise, how are the brains of humans affected by high-frequency and duration engagement with glass screens? Does the presence of the screen become a lifelong necessity, given the slower, typically less colorful nature of unmediated reality? What chemical changes occur in the brain? What epigenetic phenomena might be going on? I spent a long time reading last night about the effects of prolonged exposure to light in the blue and white florescent range of the spectrum, and it's not pretty, study after study shows.
Like the Corning ad, the Microsoft ad also aims at a utopian vision. In some ways, it is more successful than the Corning ad in portraying a utopia we can relate to and believe in. A closer look also evokes uneasiness, however. The extent to which technology decides what will occupy our attention at any given moment is a bit unsettling. The building is outlined and captioned for the landscape designer, the kitchen wall tells the daughter when to think about the bake sale, and the collaborator's attention is drawn to one of many possible solutions - a cheaper pump. Without further investigation, he adopts this recommendation, eliminating the possibility that he might devise a truly ingenious, more scalable solution for controlling costs.
2nd set
Sight
(From our instructors) "Sight explores how the ubiquity of data and the increasingly blurry line between the digital and the material might play out in the sphere of human relationships. The focus on the emerging social and educational use of game-based "badging" is particularly interesting. What is going on here, and how do you interpret the ending? How does this vision align and contrast with the ones in the first two films?"
First, I notice that "badging" seems to draw the subject's attention away from personal relationships in general, even in the presence of a real, live human. It doesn't facilitate the completion of every day tasks. In fact it does the opposite - we see the actor throw away an entire cucumber of one imperfect cut.
I also find that the perception of life as a series of levels to be earned seems to have a self-contradictory effect on the main character's interaction with and feelings about the woman: when she a says she's about to make it to level five on Marathon Master, her stock goes up because she's the kind of girl who's into games ("cool girl"), but he also checks his own stats in the game and remembers that he has completed all levels. Yes! So there's clearly an element of competition here, also reflected in the prominently-displayed set of accomplishments at his apartment. At the same time, the present is very present: his reveling in his accomplishments and giving the girl "cool girl" props for being a gamer is a humorous reflection on men's stereotypical modes of interacting with women they might date. His out-of-hand invalidation of her experience of having her "Sight" crash is a less humorous one. The technological future, it appears here, is still a man's world, as will later be confirmed.
(My own question) Is gamification a useful way to conduct education? Learning is active, hands-on, and just-in-time, in-context, we see in the film, and learners seem quite motivated by the earning of badges, etc. In this film, we only see adult learners in an every day context, mastering existing skills rather than learning brand new ones, so we don't get to think about gamification in K-12 education. Still, while we are struck by the extent to which the subjects must be distracted by the mastery apps, we can also see some educational value in gamification.
Clearly, nevertheless, this film represents a dystopian vision of our technological future. Viewers suffer a sense of discomfort throughout the film, confronted with the artificiality of both the "Sight"-created life experience and the "Sight"-mediated human interactions.
The ending clearly suggests that technology specialists' knowledge gives them power in a technology-drenched environment, and this notion should be nothing new to most of us. The notion is alluded to earlier in the film when the woman asks the protagonist about rumors that the company "imprints" and "manipulates" people's "Sight". In the final scene, the protagonist is clearly revising his date's perceptions in order to achieve a more favorable outcome. (A more favorable outcome of the date itself? Or of the level he's working on in the dating app? We didn't see him manipulating the input data of the cucumber. Is he a cheater, merely power-hungry, or just rejection-shy? Is this about how technology can facilitate the expression of baser, but already existing, human tendencies, or is it about the capability of technological knowledge and game-thinking to corrupt otherwise decent people?)
My spouse is a network systems analyst, and I have seen firsthand some of the ways his specialized knowledge affords him access to quite genuine power over his coworkers and employers, should be choose to use it. He's a highly principled fellow, though, and betraying the trust his employer must unavoidably place in him is beyond his ethical horizons. I shudder to think about what others less ethical than he may be up to. We've already seen the destructive power that specialized knowledge can have when weilded carelessly and unethically, as in in the Great Recession of 2007 (not to say knowledge-concentration is the only cause of that complex event).
The Microsoft and Corning ads clearly aim for a less ambiguously utopian vision, while Sight challenges those utopian visions. Some elements of Sight, however, are ironically less disturbing than features of the ads. For one thing, we see people putting more, rather than less, effort into mastering daily activities. On the other hand, we also see technology making choices for technology users about where to focus their attentions.
To be cont'd with responses to the remaining films.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Education and Technology: Looking to the Future #edcmooc

The next several blog posts will be responses to the materials in the Coursera MOOC I am taking, Education and Digital Culture. Over the last two weeks other members of the course have been very active in sharing their responses to the films and reading materials via group forum participation, tweeting, blogging, and other digital formats, a requirement for the course. I've had time to respond to a couple of those participants, but I haven't yet jumped in myself, due to some unexpected events at home and work.
In any event, I'm ready to jump in now. At least for this post, my thoughts are fairly raw responses to the the films and the questions posed about them. I welcome any additions, objections, clarifications and the like.
The focus of Week One was utopian and dystopian thinking about the technological future. Our resources and discussions drew us into a deep consideration of idea of technological determinism and its pitfalls. I think it is safe to say that all the films for Week Two, focused on looking ahead, all betray at least a hint of technological determinism, if not more.
One manifestation of technological determinism that I find most interesting, both in my own life and in the films we watched this week is computering devices' strong influence over where we focus our attention. Most of the time, we think of computers' propensity to distract, even to foster a state of chronic distraction. But developing technology and the visions of the future presented in many of the films feature some powerful tools for and instances of the guiding of our attention by computering devices. I'll comment more on this theme below.
First set of videos: Corning Glass and Microsoft Ads
Questions for consideration:
* How is education being visualised here? what is being learned and taught?
In the Corning ad, the educational experience is pointedly tactile and experiential. The aim seems to be to inspire students with a sense of wonder about what they're seeing - but the actors' wonder becomes seamlessly blended with our own wonder as an audience of would-be, someday consumers of this touchable, computerized glass. Would real children living in a world with that glad really be quite so inspired, and happy? Ultimately, this is a commercial, and therefore about consumption, not education.
That's not to say that education is not important to the good folks at Corning. Certainly, there's value in the presence of a physically durable yet functionally flexible device that is presumably inexpensive enough for all the kids (at the obviously private school) to have one that they can take home and back to class with them. Also, the teacher's ability to use images to structure and organize the information being taught (physics > light > color) could enhance learning, particularly for visually-oriented students, and one imagines that the material she presents comes in pre-packaged modules, cutting down on the time she spends preparing for class and increasing the amount of time she can spend experiencing scientific wonders with her students.
Yet, as much as Corning would like us to think that it has created a solution applicable to every subject in every school, the scope and variety of what can be learned using the strong, smart glass seems inherently limited. Where is the functionality needed to address the increasingly complex mathematical concepts students must master at younger and younger ages, for example? How does Corning Glass educationware enhance that subject? Where is the writing? I imagine a touchscreen keyboard could be made to appear, but how much focus upon one's own ideas can one master while working on a glass screen through which every other movement in the classroom can be viewed?  The word processing screen has become a window. And after looking at that same piece of glass, albeit ever changing, since early morning, will students be ready to settle down with it for reading?
In the Microsoft ad, education revolves around problem-solving. While the child in the ad must to learn traditional problem-solving (though perhaps only to gratify us oldtimers, and though rewarded by the antics of a polar bear), the grown-ups have tools at hand to help them prevent problems (by providing them with information before they know they need it), identify potential problems (by running an algorithm that points to a possible source of trouble in the landscaping design proposal), solve problems (again, by algorithm, but also by collecting recipes for the mom and child and letting the dad check his inventory of food).
The Microsoft ad also emphasizes communication as an avenue for learning, The subjects learn things by having ready access to each other. They also have a quick access to networked information.  So in Microsoft's vision, education is about just-in-time information access.
* What is being learned?
In the Microsoft ad, the landscape architect is honing her skill at making an outdoor living space more beautiful and environmentally responsible, as well as where to find the next day's meeting; her concierge has learned what she looks like, what her preferences are, and the precise time of her arrival; her daughter is also learning simple division.
To be continued.