Imagine you were around when cars first came on the scene. You were a person of vision and influence. You could see that these machines would change the world. And so you assembled other visionary and influential people and together you formulated the automobile industry code of ethics. At their initial meeting, the group coalesced around the idea that automobiles should be developed, deployed, and used with an ethical purpose and based on respect for fundamental rights, taking into account societal values and ethical principles of beneficence, non-maleficence human autonomy, justice, and explainability. The group agreed to come back in a year and develop an ethical and legal framework for automobiles.
All told, I have probably spent 20 full person-years in college and university classrooms. I’ve taught courses in sociology, public policy, information science, design, philosophy, and geography. I’ve taught studios, labs, lectures, workshops, and seminars. I’ve taught in small liberal arts colleges and public and private R1 universities. If you commission me to teach or design a course, I bring to the task a lot more than just my experience and “domain expertise” and (hopefully) wisdom. I bring to the task a whole lot of STUFF. An attic and garage and toolbox full of STUFF. Time was that stuff was in filing cabinets, notebooks, and stack of paper in my university and home offices. Now it’s mostly on the hard drive of my computer or stored in the cloud.
That stuff is the palette from which I can paint a course.
I’ve got syllabi and draft syllabi, bibliographies, annotations of readings, outlines of readings, PDFs of readings, diagrams of the argument logic of books and articles, lecture notes, scripts for videos, exams and problem sets, solutions to problems, catalogs of learning outcomes and course and program objectives. I have instructions for assignments, examples of student work on those assignments, and rubrics for evaluating that work. I have descriptions of classroom activities, examples of important concepts, and agendas for class sessions. And I have slide decks, countless slide decks, multiple versions of slide decks, decks of slides removed from other decks of slides. And I have stuff that’s out there on the net. YouTube videos I’ve made and videos of others that I’ve curated. And Sound Cloud files. And bookmarks in my browsers that are more or less (mostly less) well organized according to a system that sort of looks like what I teach and sort of looks like what I write about and sort of looks like the institutions I’ve worked for. And then there are the courses I’ve put on my institutions’ learning management systems (LMS); most of the material there is the stuff I’ve already mentioned but sometimes the LMS copy of something is the only one I have. And the question banks I’ve developed, hundreds of problems and solutions inside of courses on Canvas or Blackboard that are basically unretrievable. And I have course evaluations that occasionally have good ideas for subsequent iterations of courses and smart ideas that I’ve committed to paper when proposing new courses or applying for course development funding of one kind or another.
It’s a giant trove of stuff. To go through it all would probably take as long as it took to develop it in the first place. To find particular things can take even longer – the thing you want is always the last thing you find.
When you commission me to teach that course, all of this stuff is the raw material from which I will, in theory, compose a new masterpiece. Except probably not really all of it because the primary mode of organization of this material is, for all practical purposes, “the pile.” Even when it’s filed alphabetically in drawers or arranged in hierarchical directories on my computer, most of it is out of sight and even further out of mind. You hire me for the breadth and depth of my palette, but what you get is pretty much constrained by my ability to remember where things are and actually find them once I do. And that ability does not correlate with how smart I am about other things. Call it recency or availability bias or just poor housekeeping, most of my stuff is not really available and I spend a lot of time reinventing the wheel.
Now that kind of reinvention is not always a bad thing. Sometimes the essay your re-write, in tears, perhaps, after losing an entire draft is better than the original. But it is always time consuming and the result is often no better than before and thus represents a missed opportunity to iterate and improve. “What is to be done?”
Analogy: Bibliographic Software
Long ago accomplished scholars were keepers of troves of index cards. They read books and articles and scoured archives and processed interview transcripts and committed each tidbit to an index card along with keywords and citations. The workflow of scholarship was arranging and rearranging index cards into sections and chapters and books. Among other functions, this practice allowed the scholar to rigorously cite their sources.
Modern scholars are apt to have bibliographic software like EndNote, Mendeley, or Zotero to fulfill this function (along with eliminating the tedious task of writing footnotes and typing up bibliographies). It’s not unusual, in fact, for a scholar’s bibliographic database to contain a record of every article, book, and website they have every consulted. Over the course of a career they might catalog tens of thousands of references.
Teachers should have a similar tool, but not just for references.
What If There Were a….
What if there were a platform – be it digital technology or just a disciplined way of doing things – that afforded me a synoptic (def. “affording a general view of a whole”) view of my stuff along with any conceivable subset or slice or abstraction of my stuff (show me every problem I ever wrote that has anything to do with learning outcome #distribution or show me all of my slide decks on APIs or which course syllabi include Foucault’s Discipline and Punish?).
Moreover, what if there were a platform that would allow me to create a draft syllabus by tagging items in a bibliographic database or the rough draft of a lecture by tagging annotations and/or slides? What if problem solutions automatically knew about related problems or good review material to recommend to a student who’d found the problem challenging? What if learning outcomes knew what class activities or lecture sections they appeared in? What if problems knew that students who had trouble with this problem also had trouble with this other problem? What if slides knew about alternative examples of the concepts they described? What if sample problems were as easy to embed in a slide as in a homework problem set as in an exam? What if a code notebook example could be tagged for inclusion in a slide deck? What if lecture notes and slide decks and videos were synced and cued to one another? What if any pedagogical artifact that I’d be willing to share with a colleague were accessible to them without me having to be involved?
These are a few of the affordances I imagine for a pedagogical information system worthy of the 21st century.
Traditional colleges and universities that traffic in “education” with a capital E should at least be aware that this phenomenon makes their business look a little bit like the one that specifically does NOT teach you things that represent employability.
from the TechCrunch blog…
It’s easy to forget that these are early days for the Internet. We still have different ideas on what it is or how it should work. The web is governed by an iterative improvement process that moves faster than any other invention in human history. Ed tech is no exception.
I’d like to direct your attention to an interesting phenomenon: since 2012, most ed-tech companies have quietly rewritten their product promise from unbridled learning for learning’s sake to a path to a job or career goal — website copy now essentially says “jobs, jobs, careers, jobs.”
That transition may be related to another 2012 development: the rise of accelerated learning programs (ALPs), including General Assembly and Dev Bootcamp. ALPs explicitly measure student employment outcomes, including placement rate and average salary, and they work. The ALP phenomenon has helped influence this product pivot in the ed-tech sector. When one of my students gets a job, I get a giant bear hug and the credit for getting them there, and other educational tools are sidelined.
It’s not a coincidence that 2012 brought both the beginning of the end of the MOOC and the start of the ALP: the zeitgeist had latched on to the connection between jobs and education. Postsecondary education has been off-balance from decades of seismic change, and 2012 kicked off three back-to-back State of the Union addresses pushing universities to reduce student debt and take accountability for student employment outcomes.
This chronology sets the stage for an interesting future. Postsecondary students have unambiguously stated their priorities: jobs, jobs, careers, jobs. But the incumbent university system is hesitant to adopt this new focus as paramount. Silicon Valley has cottoned on to this imbalance, and has its eye on the postsecondary education market — worth a half-trillion dollars every year. Read on for a sneak preview of the next few years, and an exploration of trends surrounding the 2012 transition. But first: a historical primer on college.
Inside Higher Ed August 19, 2013
By Scott Jaschik
At first glance, “Feminism and Technology” sounds like another massive open online open course. The course will involve video components, and will be available online to anyone, with no charge. There are paths to credit, and it’s fine for students to take the course without seeking credit. An international student body is expected.
But don’t look for this course in any MOOC catalog. “Feminism and Technology” is trying to take a few MOOC elements, but then to change them in ways consistent with feminist pedagogy to create a distributed open collaborative course or DOCC (pronounced “dock”).
Pretty good coverage of the “iphone keeps track of where you’ve been” story in today’s NYT “Inquiries Grow Over Apple’s Data Collection Practices” and in David Pogue’s column yesterday (“Your iPhone Is Tracking You. So What?“). Not surprisingly, devices that have GPS capability (or even just cell tower triangulation capability) write the information down. Given how cheap and plentiful memory is, not surprising that they do so in ink.
This raises a generic issue: evanescent data (information that is detected, perhaps “acted” upon, and then discarded) will become increasingly rare. We should not be surprised that our machines rarely allow information to evaporate and it is important to note that this is not the same as saying that any particular big brother (or sister) is watching. Like their human counterparts, a machine that can “pay attention” is likely to remember — if my iPhone always know where it is, why wouldn’t it remember where it’s been?
It’s the opposite of provenience that matters — not where the information came from but where it might go to. Behavior always leaves traces — what varies is the degree to which the trace can be tied to its “author” and how easy or difficult it is to collect the traces and observe or extract patterns they may contain. These reports suggest that the data has always been there, but was relatively difficult to access. It’s only recently that, ironically, due to the work of the computer scientists who “outed” Apple, that there is an easy way to get at the information.
Setting aside the issue of nefarious intentions, we are reminded of the time-space work of the human geographers such as Nigel Thrift and Tommy Carlstein who did small scale studies of the space-time movements of people in local communities in the 1980s and since. And, too, we are reminded of the 2008 controversy stirred up when some scientists studying social networks used anonymized cell phone data on 100,000 users in an unnamed country.
Of course, the tracking of one’s device is not the same as the tracking of oneself. We can imagine iPhones that travel the world like that garden gnome in Amelie and people being proud not just of their own travels but where there phone has been.