Friday, August 06, 2010

The Geometry of Innocence

When idealism meets reality, what happens? My experience is that history repeats, but in a different, parallel universe.

There has been a tension in learning technology as long as I can remember, between the individual and the computer on the one hand and social interactions between individuals that the technology facilitates on the other. I first encountered the "thinking of the discipline" on this tension when I and my co-authors wrote the paper on the SCALE Efficiency Projects, back in 1998. SCALE was funded by the Sloan grant program for online learning and our philosophy came very much from them, as interpreted by Burks Oakley. But there was no prior Sloan writing on using technology to achieve efficiency. I discovered examples of such writing via NLII, which if I recall correctly (my memory is weak here) had a library of white papers housed on the Educom Web site.

Many years later, with the Sloan grant so far in the background that it no longer appeared in the rear-view mirror, the universes collided again. The occasion was the appearance of a paper by Massy and Zemsky called Thwarted Innovation, which many took issue with, including several members of the Sloan-C listserv. (I participated in that list and am still a member.) Somebody decided it would be useful and interesting to invite Bill Massy onto the list to discuss and debate the issues. He agreed. For a while there was an interesting discussion though some of it seemed to me like two ships passing in the night. Then there was a blowup, as comments got personal, which seemed to conclude the discussion. On the substance, however, I thought we weren't done. So I wrote this post to the Sloan-C listserv back in fall 2004, to resuscitate the conversation. I received a handful of emails from well regarded people on the list thanking me for this post, as it did provide some synthesis. But no further discussion of the topic ensued as a consequence. (This bothered me and was one of the reasons I started blogging the following winter. If my posting wasn't going to generate discussion, why restrict the eyeballs that might read what I had to say to just the Sloan list?)

Now these themes seem to be emerging again, with locus the Educause Review issue that has recently appeared and its theme on Openness. My attention turned immediately to the piece by Brian Lamb and Jim Groom, Never Mind the Edupunks; or The Great Web 2.0 Swindle. Lamb and Groom are two of the brighter lights in the Ed Tech constellation. They tell a cautionary tale, alerting us to the risks of proprietary but open software. As an alternative they propose creating a safe zone: online, open, and for education only, no commercial interests represented and therefore a self-sustaining space entirely funded by education. Implicit in this view of Ed Tech is a playground designer's mentality to design. It is sufficient to put in a jungle gym, swings, a seesaw, and lots of space for the kids to run around. Let's leave the games the kids are to play to the children themselves. They can invent that on their own. Our job is to ensure they have good facilities to play in.

There are too many heroes in this domain to list here, but we offer a shout-out to the jaw-dropping CUNY Academic Commons (, which seamlessly integrates the open-source WordPress, MediaWiki, and BuddyPress platforms into an appealing and highly sustainable environment. The power placed into the hands of the users reflects the stated intent of Luke Waltzer, administrator of the CUNY platform Blogs@Baruch, "to gradually integrate into the school's general education curriculum the deep, critical examination of how digital tools are changing the way we think and live."19

I don't think the playground designer way, I suppose because I'm an economist. I think of the technology environment in much the same way that I conceive of an incentive scheme, something aimed to influence behavior in a certain way. I'm currently reading Nudge, a book I might use in a course I hope to teach next spring. A good part of the reason why that book was written was to develop an acceptable paternalism, one that leaves free choice with the individual but nonetheless encourages a certain types of behavior. Surely we in Ed Tech are paternalistic. There are behaviors that we'd like to see in the teachers and students we support and other behaviors we'd prefer to proscribe. Just as surely it is safer for us to zero in on the technology and take the playground designer approach. But being safer doesn't mean it's right. Overt paternalism might open us up to criticism. But it would make it clearer what we're really after and whether we've achieved our goals.

There is another serious reason to focus on the behavior specifically. There may be multiple ways to achieve a nudge (e.g., social interactions need not be technology mediated), hence good nudges (least intrusive, lowest cost) and bad nudges (heavy handed, very costly). It may also be the case that if one hasn't worked through the full chain of causality, then the outcome one gets might be quite different from the one that was intended (e.g., using the LMS to push PowerPoints at students instead of to extend in-class discussion online). Does the Open Education safe haven make for a good nudge? How can we know that?

And then I've got my own personal reason for wanting to take an other than playground design approach. I'm turning into my dad. He came of age during the Great Depression and though while I was growing up our family was comfortable financially, he remained a cheapskate on certain things - for example he'd buy the store brand paper towels, the kind that would melt in your hands while you were using them rather than one of the name brands. In his view, store brand was good enough. Save the cash for something else more important, for example giving a bequest so the grandchildren would have their college education paid for. My sense is to be a cheapskate with the technology. It needs to work, no doubt. It doesn't need to be perfect. This is a view I got exposed to as a Sloan grantee. I still believe it.

In my EQ column about the LMS, I made the point that ROI is linked to the behavioral issues. So CIO types, if not Ed Techers, should have some interest in the resulting behavior as they attempt to see what type of ROI they are getting from whatever online learning environments they do support. My guess, however, is that many CIOs, especially those with a heavy IT background, don't have a clue as to what type of behavior they'd like to see. Who will help to educate them on this?

Inspired by Atul Gawande's The Bell Curve, what I'd like to see is an ongoing and institutional-level embrace of teaching and learning as experiment - there is something new to try each time a class is offered. The experiment need not be radical, but it must follow in a sensible way by what has come before, borrowing from the experience of others and one's own prior experience, and there needs to be a new experiment the next time around. We have had something like a pure behavioral approach to this goal in the form of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL), which has captured the minds of a few early adopters but has not diffused broadly at all. SOTL places a rather high bar for the instructor to leap over. And SOTL seems such a solitary activity; other instructors interested in it likely share no disciplinary affinity. So to see broad-based experimentation with teaching and learning we need something more do-able. And we need a nudge, quite possibly several nudges.

I can't really say whether the online, open, for education only safe zone would be an ideal nudge, the irresistible force, if you will. I do have considerable experience, however, with that immovable object, faculty inertia. Truthfully, it's not completely immovable. Encouraging a regime of modest experiments is possible, at least for some faculty. Is that the best we can hope for with the best possible interventions? I don't know. I wish it were more. And I wish we'd agree that is the goal.

Ed Techers, many of whom are apt to be innovators or early adopters themselves, certainly Lamb and Groom are in that category, aspire for a technology environment that appeals to their own aesthetic demands, driven by their own learning needs. They can be playground designers because surely they'd have a grand time in a playground of their own making.

But there are pessimists in the crowd and they'd be miserable no matter what the environment and there are optimists too who, as we know, only need the possibility of a pony.

* * * * *

Post to Sloan-C listserv, fall 2004

We are just starting the fall semester here and it has been more than a week since there has been a post on this thread. Perhaps it is time to resume. I am in the middle of reading Bill's book, "Honoring the Trust.....," having just finished the chapter on Technology's misunderstood potential. For those who don't know me, we had a big Sloan grant for "On Campus ALN" called the SCALE project. It ran from 1995 - 2000. My goal is to contrast the Massy view, as I understand it, with the Sloan approach. I will then conclude with the question: do these distinctions matter and should we emphasize them or should we live happily together under the umbrella e-Learning?

Here are my organizing questions:
1. What is the innovation?
2. What are main sources of productivity enhancement?
3. What is the "correct" way to diffuse the approach?

I hope I don't offend here. It is not my goal. So please do correct/modify the responses to make this more accurate. With that disclaimer, I will write "Bill's view" and "Frank's view" to describe my understanding of the two positions.

1. What is the innovation?

Bill's View: The technology, of course. Most broadly, this is the Internet. It is also email, Course management systems, streaming media, java applets - any Web based or computer based application that can be used for teaching and learning.

Frank's View: The technology is secondary. Off the shelf software will do. (When we tried to get Frank to fund software development projects, and we did try, the answer was invariably, no. This is not Sloan's way. Contrast this with what Mellon is doing. They are putting lots of $$$ into open source software.) More important is to focus on the social organization of the class. I recall reading something by Frank early on where each student was viewed as a node on a network and all nodes were important. Students were contributors of knowledge as well as receivers of information. The technology enabled this type of social organization to communicate "asynchronously" and thereby accommodate work and lifestyle patterns of the students. To the extent that technology enabled the social organization and the asynchronous communication, it was obviously critical. But the improvements beyond that were really secondary.

Comments: On the teaching and learning per se, I believe these views are opposed. Frank has made a point that there is insufficient infrastructure on advising, pointing students to appropriate offerings, etc., and on this dimension there may be more agreement.

2. What are the primary sources of productivity enhancement? (On this one I think the two views are most compatible and this is more a matter of perspective.)

Bill's view: Let the technology do what it does well - this is pure capital for labor substitution - and in particular get students introduced to the subject via technology based presentations and assessments. Assign the instructional labor, research oriented faculty in Honoring the Trust... to more in depth interactions with students after the students having gotten through the introduction to the material and proven their mastery of the introductory content. There is substantial waste in the current lecture mode approach in that instructors spend a lot of time presenting introductory material and students are not well incented to be prepared for class.

Frank's view: The issue is primarily pedagogy, which given the answer to the first question means taking approaches to make the communication within the social network effective and meaningful. An example might help here. Burks Oakley was a featured speaker at a faculty summer institute I ran in May and he was very highly evaluated by those in attendance. Burks spent some time talking about how students in an ALN course come in expecting to behave passively (hit reply and then type "ditto" in a discussion thread) and that they have to be coached into becoming active contributors in the course. (Burks suggested requiring the students to enter a descriptive phrase into the Subject line even when they were responding and requiring them to make a novel contribution in the body of the message and to let them know they'd be evaluated as doing such.)

Comments: The LON-CAPA approach at Michigan State has received funding from Frank but is pretty squarely in the capital-for-labor approach to instruction. Likewise for Mallard here. Bill certainly talks about "active learning" so he might very well say "of course" to Burks' approach, but Bill emphasizes faculty-student interaction occurring when the student has gone further down the learning curve and is more ready to appreciate the faculty member's expertise while Burks' approach emphasizes early faculty intervention with the students because getting their full participation is critical.

3. What is the correct way to diffuse the approach?

Bill's view: Learning Objects are extremely important (they are needed for the capital-for-labor substitution that is critical for the productivity enhancement) and hence there must be a large up front investment to get things to work so that there is an ample stock of learning objects from which to proceed.

Frank's view: Up front development should be modest. (I believe we used to quote figures of around $15K - $20K per course.) There is much more benefit in following the old Nike approach, "Just Do It" and improve the course through repeated teaching than to do massive development up front.

Comments: Bill's view seems more in tune with Carol Twigg's Pew program in course redesign in that the focus seems first and foremost on the high enrollment introductory courses. We have 20 - 30 such courses on our campus that are "super large" (enrollments in excess of 800 per semester) and about 1600 other undergraduate courses. Frank's view seems to focus on the other 1600. At a conference earlier this month at Parkland college I heard a representative of the Sakai project take the Bill view in reference to the British Open University approach and that there is much efficiency to be had to have a "master course" that is very well designed and that all instructors teach out of and by extension of this logic there is benefit to share learning objects across campuses when there is a common curriculum. Perhaps true, but does that mean that we are going to go through a deliberate consolidation of those other 1600 courses so they are suitable for the Bill approach? If not, then Frank's approach seems more realistic and learning object sharing of ephemeral value.

Conclusion: I've drawn these distinctions to try to explain why it seems we have been talking past each other in this thread. There are differences. I don't think the question of whether e-Learning succeeded is the right one to ask. Better, I believe, is to address the question at the beginning: should we make a point of highlighting these differences in discussions with outsiders: The Chronicle, our Provosts and CIOs, our faculty and students, taxpayers, etc.? Or should we be one all inclusive tent of e-Learning?

Lanny Arvan
Assistant CIO for Educational Technology University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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