Friday, May 30, 2014

The Long Game

Via Bryan Alexander I found this post by Audrey Watters, The Future of Ed Tech is a Reclamation Project.  I thought it started out promising.   Indeed, in the very first section, there was a paragraph I really liked.

But I’m going to will myself to craft a story for you today about education in 2030 that resists that dystopian narrative. I want to project a story for the future where learning technologies support and foster learner control and learner agency. (My emphasis.)  It’s a story where students are the subjects not objects when it comes to education and education technology.

And then in the next section there is introduced the Manilla Envelope concept that each of our parents kept for us, with various markers of our progress in school.  I have my own manilla envelope on the bookshelf in my office, so I was keeping step with what she was saying.  But then the rest of piece was about the technology itself with no circling back on learner control and learner agency.  Watters was implicitly making the case that a digital version of the manilla envelope would do the job.  It wouldn't.  So I ultimately found the piece disappointing.

Not wanting to leave it there, and because I thought there were some documents in my manilla folder that demonstrated my lack of control and agency as a learner that were from such a young age that I don't feel embarrassed sharing the one below, I thought it might be a good launch point to get at the type of piece I wish Watters had written.

Let me deliver the punchline first.  Fostering learner control and learner agency will be difficult.  It will not happen en passant simply by implementing a good technological approach.  It will require careful attention to learning blockages and then gentle encouragement for the learner to practice sufficiently and in the right way to overcome those blockages.

Now my little story to get things rolling.  The document below is a report card from pre-school for me. During the period covered I was 4 years old.  I would turn 5 that January and would start first grade the following September.  I may have been the youngest kid in that group.  I was surely the biggest and the klutziest.  There is a certain psychology that goes along with being the biggest and the youngest.  (I suspect it's a fairly unusual combination.)  I hope this specific example will clue the reader in that each kid with a learning blockage has a unique psychology that pertains to those specific issues, though there are common elements in the sense of shame that results when the blockage becomes prominent.

My klutziness manifested everywhere, not just at nursery school.  For example, at around the time of the report I got my finger slammed in the car door as we were getting ready for the ride home from school.  So the klutziness was a general problem.  The specific problem documented in the report is that lunch was served on one floor of the school and students had to carry the lunch on a tray to another floor where it was eaten.  I was unable to do this.  (I don't really remember, but I believe every other kid could do this.)  So I got one-on-one help to practice carrying the tray up the stairs.  Likewise, in other areas that required fine motor coordination, I also got some special assistance.  I don't believe I caught up to the other kids in the group.  That would take a few years still.  But I did make progress and, as the report indicates, the progress was noticeable to me.

All these years later looking at this document, I wonder how the coaching on the fine motor stuff impacted my future intellectual development, an area where at the time of the report there was no blockage.  Did the lesson generalize - if you found yourself lacking proficiency in some area could you practice enough to get reasonably good at it, with that being true pretty much irrespective of the area where the poor performance manifests?  I don't know, but if it did generalize then in retrospect I'm remarkably lucky to have learned that lesson at such an early age.

Consider the alternative where a kid develops reasonably well till say the age of 10 but then hits a block.  And suppose the blockage is not quite so obvious as spilling the food on the tray was, so the teacher doesn't pick up on it for a while, and then maybe simply labels the kid as less talented in that area.  It seems quite possible that the kid will become quite frustrated and end up concluding that the blockage is permanent.  At that time it will be a point of shame and the kid might very well put all effort into hiding the problem rather than into practicing enough to eliminate it.

* * * * *

Recently there seems to be a lot of fascination with the work of the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, such as this post from the Tomorrow's Professor Listserv, Mindsets Toward Learning.  To put things as bluntly as possible so as to tie into Watters piece, Dweck divides learners into those with a fixed (intelligence) mindset and those with a growth (in intelligence) mindset.  The growth mindset should be associated with learner control and learner agency.  The operative questions are first these.   How does one change somebody from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset and, then, how does learning technology help in doing this?  Then, tying this to my little example, how does one do this knowing that those with a fixed mindset have hit a block and have been stuck, perhaps for some time?

I don't want to champion Dweck, whom I have not read, over other psychologists, with Maslow still my personal favorite.  I suspect the message will be similar across various psychologists though their methods of analysis and particular questions may vary.  Ken Bain, who is an historian by training not a psychologist, but who has spent much of his career in support of good college teaching, writes about surface learners versus deep learners in What the Best College Students Do.  This dichotomy lines up with Dweck's in a straightforward way.  I did not think Bain's book great and his method of doing focused interviews with people who ended up highly successful has elements of cherry picking, in my view.  But it does serve as a table setter in asking how to get more students to behave like the best students as well as to ask whether we can tell one from the other before they have graduated from college.

Let me turn to personal experience and what I know about how the technology might help.  These are three nuggets, hardly a full picture, but as much as I've garnered since I got involved with ed tech in the middle 1990s.  First is on the idea of intelligent automated feedback.  At the time we used Mallard software for this.  Now I do something similar in exercises I've designed in Excel.  I'm not talking about the quizzes in the LMS, which are mainly multiple choice with one question disconnected from the next.  Those lack the intelligence in design.  In addition to the intelligent design the software I'm referring to has a judgmental-non-judgmental aspect.  It gives feedback to the students.  It identifies their current answer as right or wrong, and perhaps gives additional information as well.  But there is nothing personal in the software making these judgments.

Students learning something new will stumble from time to time.  We have to allow that, encourage it,  and express some confidence that it is an intermediate step towards a better understanding.  Human assessment of student work is judgmental.  A student who has supplied the wrong answer has failed when there is human assessment.  A few students are mature enough to accept failure as an intermediate step.  Many are not and are impatient for the good grade.  Then the human assessment can be the source of a block.  The intelligent automated assessment is better.

A second idea is that in discussing their misunderstandings, which requires opening up and showing a vulnerable side, students are more comfortable talking with other students than they are doing so in front of older authority figures (the instructors).  So, especially in large classes, the use of undergraduate peer mentors who conduct online office hours, particularly during the evening when the students are apt to be doing homework, can be a real boon.  Alas, our universities are so into the graduate student/TA model that this use of undergraduate peer mentors didn't take off, in spite of the reported benefit in those limited instances where it was used.

A third idea is to extend writing across the curriculum ideas into courses that traditionally have not had a writing component and do so with regular student writing online, weekly blogging for example.  If students are to open up with the instructor, that will take a period of warming up.  Some may never get comfortable in the face to face setting to do so.  Over time this is achievable through weekly writing, if the instructor does his part.  This entails providing feedback to the students that is specific to what they have crafted, intelligent in suggesting possibilities where an idea can be extended or multiple ideas can be connected, and yet with as little judgment otherwise as possible.  The WAC philosophy focuses on feedback and what makes for effective feedback.  The technology helps in this especially when the writing and the feedback are done in the open, so one student can see the type of feedback that another student is getting.  Students want the feedback to be fair.  The technology helps in assuring that the instructor is trying hard to provide that and in getting the students to perceive this is so.  It also helps the students benchmark their writing with other students instead of comparing their writing to the writing of the instructor.

* * * * *

My title, The Long Game, is lifted from the TV show Homeland.  It is an expression that the female lead, Carrie, a CIA operative, uses in reference to Al Qaeda's strategy of planting a turned American soldier, Brody, the male lead of the show, who is a sleeper only to rise in the fullness of time and then take retaliation against his targets.  It is a strategy that requires patience, and constant adaptation to the situation on the ground as it plays out, but with the long run objectives always in mind.

This post is meant as encouragement to educational technologists to play the long game, which to me requires a real marriage of the learning issues to the technology capabilities.  I've been at this stuff for nearly twenty years and mainly I don't see other ed tech folks doing that. Let me speculate as to why.

I believe most people in the field have their own blockages with learning.  They want to appear as professionals, so the instructors they support will have respect for them.   They can readily demonstrate their expertise when talking about the technology itself.  But in discussing the psychology of learning they will be at best amateurs and possibly show their ignorance of the learning issues from time to time.  My personal advantage here is that I was an amateur for all of it, the technology and the psychology.  My expertise is in economic theory, the kind with a lot of math. What I know about the technology and the learning issues comes from personal exploration. What I fear most about educational technologists is that they have no path for an amateur approach to the learning issues because: (a) they don't teach undergraduate students, (b) they don't get the instructors they support to verbalize enough on the learning issues the instructors see, and (c) they don't perceive that (a) and (b) are limitations for their own development.

So Watters provides us with a pure technology vision, the digital version of the manilla envelope, coupled with a domain of their own, all done on the open Internet.  On the one hand it is perfectly understandable that Watters does this, because her talk is cast as an alternative to MOOC mania, which itself is a pure technology vision.  But one wrong turn doesn't deserve another.  Neither is playing the long game.  I should also note that within a limited domain of study MOOCs might be quite a good thing.  It is the inductive thinking that they are good and effective in every domain of study that so bothers me, and I suppose also bothers Watters.  Likewise, reclaiming the Internet is a noble idea, one I personally embrace as I prefer to use the browser to specific applications where I can.  (Excel is my Achilles heel on this.  Google spreadsheets doesn't cut it for me.)  But lets not confound noble ideas, in their purity, with empowering learner agency, which often won't happen at all and when it does will require a hodgepodge of different approaches depending on the nature of the specific learner's issues.

Let us change our rhetoric and move away from pure technology visions to a more complex view that embraces learning blockages as commonplace, with unblocking the goal, though movement down that path will be arduous.  That's the way to play the long game. 

No comments: