Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Things You Really Need to Learn

Guy Kawasaki last week wrote an item describing 'ten things you should learn this school year' in which readers were advised to learn how to write five sentence emails, create powerpoint slides, and survive boring meetings. It was, to my view, advice on how to be a business toady. My view is that people are worth more than that, that pleasing your boss should be the least of your concerns, and that genuine learning means something more than how to succeed in a business environment.

But what should you learn? Your school will try to teach you facts, which you'll need to pass the test but which are otherwise useless. In passing you may learn some useful skills, like literacy, which you should cultivate. But Guy Kawasaki is right in at least this: schools won't teach you the things you really need to learn in order to be successful, either in business (whether or not you choose to live life as a toady) or in life.

Here, then, is my list. This is, in my view, what you need to learn in order to be successful. Moreover, it is something you can start to learn this year, no matter what grade you're in, no matter how old you are. I could obviously write much more on each of these topics. But take this as a starting point, follow the suggestions, and learn the rest for yourself. And to educators, I ask, if you are not teaching these things in your classes, why are you not?

1. How to predict consequences

The most common utterance at the scene of a disaster is, "I never thought..." The fact is, most people are very bad at predicting consequences, and schools never seem to think to teach them how to improve.

The prediction of consequences is part science, part mathematics, and part visualization. It is essentially the ability to create a mental model imaging the sequence of events that would follow, "what would likely happen if...?"

The danger in such situations is focusing on what you want to happen rather than what might happen instead. When preparing to jump across a gap, for example, you may visualize yourself landing on the other side. This is good; it leads to successful jumping. But you need also to visualize not landing on the other side. What would happen then? Have you even contemplated the likely outcome of a 40 meter fall?

This is where the math and science come in. You need to compare the current situation with your past experience and calculate the probabilities of different outcomes. If, for example, you are looking at a 5 meter gap, you should be asking, "How many times have I successfully jumped 5 meters? How many times have I failed?" If you don't know, you should know enough to attempt a test jump over level ground.

People don't think ahead. But while you are in school, you should always be taking the opportunity to ask yourself, "what will happen next?" Watch situations and interactions unfold in the environment around you and try to predict the outcome. Write down or blog your predictions. With practice, you will become expert at predicting consequences.

Even more interestingly, over time, you will begin to observe patterns and generalities, things that make consequences even easier to predict. Things fall, for example. Glass breaks. People get mad when you insult them. Hot things will be dropped. Dogs sometimes bite. The bus (or train) is sometimes late. These sorts of generalizations - often known as 'common sense' - will help you avoid unexpected, and sometimes damaging, consequences.

2. How to read

Oddly, by this I do not mean 'literacy' in the traditional sense, but rather, how to look at some text and to understand, in a deep way, what is being asserted (this also applies to audio and video, but grounding yourself in text will transfer relatively easily, if incompletely, to other domains).

The four major types of writing are: description, argument, explanation and definition. I have written about these elsewhere. You should learn to recognize these different types of writing by learning to watch for indicators or keywords.

Then, you should learn how sentences are joined together to form these types of writing. For example, an argument will have two major parts, a premise and a conclusion. The conclusion is the point the author is trying to make, and it should be identified with an indicator (such as the words 'therefore', 'so', or 'consequently', for example).

A lot of writing is fill - wasted words intended to make the author look good, to distract your attention, or to simply fill more space. Being able to cut through the crap and get straight to what is actually being said, without being distracted, is an important skill.

Though your school will never teach you this, find a basic book on informal logic (it will have a title like 'critical thinking' or something like that). Look in the book for argument forms and indicator words (most of these books don't cover the other three types of writing) and practice spotting these words in text and in what the teacher says in class. Every day, focus on a specific indicator word and watch how it is used in practice.

3. How to distinguish truth from fiction

I have written extensively on this elsewhere, nonetheless, this remains an area schools to a large degree ignore. Sometimes I suspect it is because teachers feel their students must absorb knowledge uncritically; if they are questioning everything the teacher says they'll never learn!

The first thing to learn is to actually question what you are told, what you read, and what you see on television. Do not simply accept what you are told. Always ask, how can you know that this is true? What evidence would lead you to believe that it is false?

I have written several things to help you with this, including my Guide to the Logical Fallacies, and my article on How to Evaluate Websites. These principles are more widely applicable. For example, when your boss says something to you, apply the same test. You may be surprised at how much your boss says to you that is simply not true!

Every day, subject at least one piece of information (a newspaper column, a blog post, a classroom lecture) to thorough scrutiny. Analyze each sentence, analyze every word, and ask yourself what you are expected to believe and how you are expected to feel. Then ask whether you have sufficient reason to believe and feel this way, or whether you are being manipulated.

4. How to empathize

Most people live in their own world, and for the most part, that's OK. But it is important to at least recognize that there are other people, and that they live in their own world as well. This will save you from the error of assuming that everyone else is like you. And even more importantly, this will allow other people to become a surprising source of new knowledge and insight.

Part of this process involves seeing things through someone else's eyes. A person may be, quite literally, in a different place. They might not see what you see, and may have seen things you didn't see. Being able to understand how this change in perspective may change what they believe is important.

But even more significantly, you need to be able to imagine how other people feel. This mans that you have to create a mental model of the other person's thoughts and feelings in your own mind, and to place yourself in that model. This is best done by imagining that you are the other person, and then placing yourself into a situation.

Probably the best way to learn how to do this is to study drama (by that I don't mean studying Shakespeare, I mean learning how to act in plays). Sadly, schools don't include this as part of the core curriculum. So instead, you will need to study subjects like religion and psychology. Schools don't really include these either. So make sure you spend at least some time in different role-playing games (RPGs) every day and practice being someone else, with different beliefs and motivations.

When you are empathetic you will begin to seek out and understand ways that help bridge the gap between you and other people. Being polite and considerate, for example, will become more important to you. You will be able to feel someone's hurt if you are rude to them. In the same way, it will become more important to be honest, because you will begin to see how transparent your lies are, and how offensive it feels to be thought of as someone who is that easily fooled.

Empathy isn't some sort of bargain. It isn't the application of the Golden Rule. It is a genuine feeling in yourself that operates in synch with the other person, a way of accessing their inner mental states through the sympathetic operation of your own mental states. You are polite because you feel bad when you are rude; you are honest because you feel offended when you lie.

You need to learn how to have this feeling, but once you have it, you will understand how empty your life was before you had it.

5. How to be creative

Everybody can be creative, and if you look at your own life you will discover that you are already creative in numerous ways. Humans have a natural capacity to be creative - that's how our minds work - and with practice can become very good at it.

The trick is to understand how creativity works. Sometimes people think that creative ideas spring out of nothing (like the proverbial 'blank page' staring back at the writer) but creativity is in fact the result of using and manipulating your knowledge in certain ways.

Genuine creativity is almost always a response to something. This article, for example, was written in response to an article on the same subject that I thought was not well thought out. Creativity also arises in response to a specific problem: how to rescue a cat, how to cross a gap, how to hang laundry. So, in order to be creative, the first thing to do is to learn to look for problems to solve, things that merit a response, needs that need to be filled. This takes practice (try writing it down, or blogging it, every time you see a problem or need).

In addition, creativity involves a transfer of knowledge from one domain to another domain, and sometimes a manipulation of that knowledge. When you see a gap in real life, how did you cross a similar gap in an online game? Or, if you need to clean up battery acid, how did you get rid of excess acid in your stomach?

Creativity, in other words, often operates by metaphor, which means you need to learn how to find things in common between the current situation and other things you know. This is what is typically meant by 'thinking outside the box' - you want to go to outside the domain of the current problem. And the particular skill involved is pattern recognition. This skill is hard to learn, and requires a lot of practice, which is why creativity is hard.

But pattern recognition can be learned - it's what you are doing when you say one song is similar to another, or when you are taking photographs of, say, flowers or fishing boats. The arts very often involve finding patterns in things, which is why, this year, you should devote some time every day to an art - music, photography, video, drawing, painting or poetry.

6. How to communicate clearly

Communicating clearly is most of all a matter of knowing what you want to say, and then employing some simple tools in order to say it. Probably the hardest part of this is knowing what you want to say. But it is better to spend time being sure you understand what you mean than to write a bunch of stuff trying to make it more or less clear.

Knowing what to say is often a matter of structure. Professional writers employ a small set of fairly standard structures. For example, some writers prefer articles (or even whole books!) consisting of a list of points, like this article. Another structure, often called 'pyramid style', is employed by journalists - the entire story is told in the first paragraph, and each paragraph thereafter offers less and less important details.

Inside this overall structure, writers provide arguments, explanations, descriptions or definitions, sometimes in combination. Each of these has a distinctive structure. An argument, for example, will have a conclusion, a point the writer wants you to believe. The conclusion will be supported by a set of premises. Linking the premises and the conclusion will be a set of indicators. The word 'therefore', for example, points to the conclusion.

Learning to write clearly is a matter of learning about the tools, and then practice in their application. Probably the best way to learn how to structure your writing is to learn how to give speeches without notes. This will force you to employ a clear structure (one you can remember!) and to keep it straightforward. I have written more on this, and also, check out Keith Spicer's book, Winging It.

Additionally, master the tools the professionals use. Learn the structure of arguments, explanations, descriptions and definitions. Learn the indicator words used to help readers navigate those structures. Master basic grammar, so your sentences are unambiguous. Information on all of these can be found online.

Then practice your writing every day. A good way to practice is to join a student or volunteer newspaper - writing with a team, for an audience, against a deadline. It will force you to work more quickly, which is useful, because it is faster to write clearly than to write poorly. If no newspaper exists, create one, or start up a news blog.

7. How to Learn

Your brain consists of billions of neural cells that are connected to each other. To learn is essentially to form sets of those connections. Your brain is always learning, whether you are studying mathematics or staring at the sky, because these connections are always forming. The difference in what you learn lies in how you learn.

When you learn, you are trying to create patterns of connectivity in your brain. You are trying to connect neurons together, and to strengthen that connection. This is accomplished by repeating sets of behaviours or experiences. Learning is a matter of practice and repetition.

Thus, when learning anything - from '2+2=4' to the principles of quantuum mechanics - you need to repeat it over and over, in order to grow this neural connection. Sometimes people learn by repeating the words aloud - this form of rote learning was popular not so long ago. Taking notes when someone talks is also good, because you hear it once, and then repeat it when you write it down.

Think about learning how to throw a baseball. Someone can explain everything about it, and you can understand all of that, but you still have to throw the ball several thousand times before you get good at it. You have to grow your neural connections in just the same way you grow your muscles.

Some people think of learning as remembering sets of facts. It can be that, sometimes, but learning is more like recognition than remembering. Because you are trying to build networks of neural cells, it is better to learn a connected whole rather than unconnected parts, where the connected whole you are learning in one domain has the same pattern as a connected whole you already know in another domain. Learning in one domain, then, becomes a matter of recognizing that pattern.

Sometimes the patterns we use are very artificial, as in 'every good boy deserves fudge' (the sentence helps us remember musical notes). In other cases, and more usefully, the pattern is related to the laws of nature, logical or mathematical principles, the flow of history, how something works as a whole, or something like that. Drawing pictures often helps people find patterns (which is why mind-maps and concept maps are popular).

Indeed, you should view the study of mathematics, history, science and mechanics as the study of archetypes, basic patterns that you will recognize over and over. But this means that, when you study these disciplines, you should be asking, "what is the pattern" (and not merely "what are the facts"). And asking this question will actually make these disciplines easier to learn.

Learning to learn is the same as learning anything else. It takes practice. You should try to learn something every day - a random word in the dictionary, or a random Wikipedia entry. When learning this item, do not simply learn it in isolation, but look for patterns - does it fit into a pattern you already know? Is it a type of thing you have seen before? Embed this word or concept into your existing knowledge by using it in some way - write a blog post containing it, or draw a picture explaining it.

Think, always, about how you are learning and what you are learning at any given moment. Remember, you are always learning - which means you need to ask, what are you learning when you are watching television, going shopping, driving the car, playing baseball? What sorts of patterns are being created? What sorts of patterns are being reinforced? How can you take control of this process?

8. How to stay healthy

As a matter of practical consideration, the maintenance of your health involves two major components: minimizing exposure to disease or toxins, and maintenance of the physical body.

Minimizing exposure to disease and toxins is mostly a matter of cleanliness and order. Simple things - like keeping the wood alcohol in the garage, and not the kitchen cupboard - minimize the risk of accidental poisoning. Cleaning cooking surfaces and cooking food completely reduces the risk of bacterial contamination. Washing your hands regularly prevents transmission of human borne viruses and diseases.

In a similar manner, some of the hot-button issues in education today are essentially issues about how to warn against exposure to diseases and toxins. In a nutshell: if you have physical intercourse with another person you are facilitating the transmission of disease, so wear protection. Activities such as drinking, eating fatty foods, smoking, and taking drugs are essentially the introduction of toxins into your system, so do it in moderation, and where the toxins are significant, don't do it at all.

Personal maintenance is probably even more important, as the major threats to health are generally those related to physical deterioration. The subjects of proper nutrition and proper exercise should be learned and practiced. Even if you do not become a health freak (and who does?) it is nonetheless useful to know what foods and types of actions are beneficial, and to create a habit of eating good foods and practicing beneficial actions.

Every day, seek to be active in some way - cycle to work or school, walk a mile, play a sport, or exercise. In addition, every day, seek to eat at least one meal that is 'good for you', that consists of protein and minerals (like meat and vegetables, or soy and fruit). If your school is not facilitating proper exercise and nutrition, demand them! You can't learn anything if you're sick and hungry! Otherwise, seek to establish an alternative program of your own, to be employed at noonhours.

Finally, remember: you never have to justify protecting your own life and health. If you do not want to do something because you think it is unsafe, then it is your absolute right to refuse to do it. The consequences - any consequences - are better than giving in on this.

9. How to value yourself

It is perhaps cynical to say that society is a giant conspiracy to get you to feel badly about yourself, but it wouldn't be completely inaccurate either. Advertisers make you feel badly so you'll buy their product, politicians make you feel incapable so you'll depend on their policies and programs, even your friends and acquaintances may seek to make you doubt yourself in order to seek an edge in a competition.

You can have all the knowledge and skills in the world, but they are meaningless if you do not feel personally empowered to use them; it's like owning a Lamborghini and not having a driver's license. It looks shiny in the driveway, but you're not really getting any value out of it unless you take it out for a spin.

Valuing yourself is partially a matter of personal development, and partially a matter of choice. In order to value yourself, you need to feel you are worth valuing. In fact, you are worth valuing, but it often helps to prove it to yourself by attaining some objective, learning some skill, or earning some distinction. And in order to value yourself, you have to say "I am valuable."

This is an important point. How we think about ourselves is as much a matter of learning as anything else. If somebody tells you that you are worthless over and over, and if you do nothing to counteract that, then you will come to believe you are worthless, because that's how your neural connections will form. But if you repeat, and believe, and behave in such a way as to say to yourself over and over, I am valuable, then that's what you will come to believe.

What is it to value yourself? It's actually many things. For example, it's the belief that you are good enough to have an opinion, have a voice, and have a say, that your contributions do matter. It's the belief that you are capable, that you can learn to do new things and to be creative. It is your ability to be independent, and to not rely on some particular person or institution for personal well-being, and autonomous, capable of making your own decisions and living your live in your own way.

All of these things are yours by right. But they will never be given to you. You have to take them, by actually believing in yourself (no matter what anyone says) and by actually being autonomous.

Your school doesn't have a class in this (and may even be actively trying to undermine your autonomy and self-esteem; watch out for this). So you have to take charge of your own sense of self-worth.

Do it every day. Tell yourself that you are smart, you are cool, you are strong, you are good, and whatever else you want to be. Say it out loud, in the morning - hidden in the noise of the shower, if need be, but say it. Then, practice these attributes. Be smart by (say) solving a crossword puzzle. Be cool by making your own fashion statement. Be strong by doing something you said to yourself you were going to do. Be good by doing a good deed. And every time you do it, remind yourself that you have, in fact, done it.

10. How to live meaningfully

This is probably the hardest thing of all to learn, and the least taught.

Living meaningfully is actually a combination of several things. It is, in one sense, your dedication to some purpose or goal. But it is also your sense of appreciation and dedication to the here and now. And finally, it is the realization that your place in the world, your meaningfulness, is something you must create for yourself.

Too many people live for no reason at all. They seek to make more and more money, or they seek to make themselves famous, or to become powerful, and whether or not they attain these objectives, they find their lives empty and meaningless. This is because they have confused means and ends - money, fame and power are things people seek in order to do what is worth doing.

What is worth doing? That is up to you to decide. I have chosen to dedicate my life to helping people obtain an education. Others seek to cure diseases, to explore space, to worship God, to raise a family, to design cars, or to attain enlightenment.

If you don't decide what is worth doing, someone will decide for you, and at some point in your life you will realize that you haven't done what is worth doing at all. So spend some time, today, thinking about what is worth doing. You can change your mind tomorrow. But begin, at least, to guide yourself somewhere.

The second thing is sometimes thought of as 'living in the moment'. It is essentially an understanding that you control your thoughts. Your thoughts have no power over you; the only thing that matters at all is this present moment. If you think about something - some hope, some failure, some fear - that thought cannot hurt you, and you choose how much or how little to trust that thought.

Another aspect of this is the following: what you are doing right now is the thing that you most want to do. Now you may be thinking, "No way! I'd rather be on Malibu Beach!" But if you really wanted to be on Malibu Beach, you'd be there. The reason you are not is because you have chosen other priorities in your life - to your family, to your job, to your country.

When you realize you have the power to choose what you are doing, you realize you have the power to choose the consequences. Which means that consequences - even bad consequences - are for the most part a matter of choice.

That said, this understanding is very liberating. Think about it, as a reader - what it means is that what I most wanted to do with my time right now is to write this article so that you - yes, you - would read it. And even more amazingly, I know, as a writer, that the thing you most want to do right now, even more than you want to be in Malibu, is to read my words. It makes me want to write something meaningful - and it gives me a way to put meaning into my life.


Responding to: Leon Gettler, How to Haggle

In my view, haggling should be reserved for cases where the price makes a difference in whether or not you will buy the object.

If an item costs $5, and you would willingly pay $5 for it, either because it's worth that much to you, or because $5 is a trivial amount of money for you, then just pay the $5. The $1 you might save by haggling might mean a lot more to the vendor than to you. Your haggling will be perceived (correctly) as yet another attempt by someone with money to take advantage of someon without money.

But if an item costs $100, and you just aren't willing to spend that much money on it, say so. Be genuine - nothing is more obvious than fake haggling. When you approach it this way, haggling will be welcomed by the vendor as a chance to make a sale that might not otherwise have been made.

The point of haggling - despite how it is so often portrayed in the media and in guidebooks - isn't to get the best deal for yourself, it is to enter into a mutually beneficial agreement where both you and the vendor get something you would not otherwise have obtained.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Markets in Education

Responding to Doug Belshaw, who wrote:
Lawton (1992:87-88) who not only lists the ‘items of general agreement’ mentioned in ‘Markets’ in education - a bad thing? but considers six possible policies regarding the relationship between the state and education:
  1. Completely free education market - no state intervention
  2. Free market constrained and regulated by the state
  3. Wholly private school system subsidized or paid for by the state
  4. System where both state and private schools are in competition (mixed-economy, quasi-market)
  5. State system and private system complement each other (mixed-economy, planned)
  6. State system only - all independent schools abolished
For the reasons given above, number 1 is out of the question at present. Number 6 would seem to be out of the question as well as you cannot introduce a market into education and then prevent parents choosing to pay for their child’s education.
“Number 6 would seem to be out of the question as well as you cannot introduce a market into education and then prevent parents choosing to pay for their child’s education.”

This is empirically false. If you examine, for example, the Edmonton (Alberta, Canada) school system, where parent can select the school their children attend, you will see an example of this.

The same thing works in health. It is commonly, but falsely, argued that in a public health care system, people no longer have any choice (of doctor, of specialist, of clinic, etc.) But again, this is false. Were I sick right now, I could pick one of two hospitals or five walk-in clinics. Or I could call my family doctor (and again, I can choose my family doctor).

It is funny how ‘private’ and ‘corporate’ proponents have appropriated the terms ‘free’ and ‘choice’ - so much so that their appropriation is built right into the logic of your own work. Look, even, at the list of choices. What is this: “Completely free education market - no state intervention.” You mean, don’t you, “Completely corporate education market - no state intervention.”

But why don’t you say it? And why (subsequently) do you rule out as completely implausible a completely public education system? Without even an argument?


After typing this, I then looked at another of his posts, on equality, and attempted to post the following. But his system keeps saying to me, "Sorry, you can only post a new comment once every 15 seconds. Slow down cowboy." I have had an awful time with comments today. Needless to say, 20 minutes later it was still saying this. Anyhow, I tried to post this:

Doug Belshaw's other post

I'm not going to do a detailed analysis of this - I'm way to sick and irritable today to do that.

But - I would like you to ponder comparing this discussion with the following observation.

When I am asked by government officials how best to improve educational outcomes, I respond, without fail, as follows: feed the children.

Canada has 500,000 children on welfare right now, out of a population of 33 million, and welfare rates are at less than half the poverty line.

In study after study, it has been shown that there is a strong positive correlation between nutrition and educational outcomes. Since welfare children are undernourished, feeding them will improve educational outcomes.

This approach, of course, is neither a type of merit-based or need-based equality, at least so far as education is concerned, because it is not an educational solution. Moreover, this type of solution is not based on a concept of equality per se at all, though (presumably) equality would be its outcome.

But what is most interesting, is this: they won't do it.

They spend more money on studies, on computer equipment, on classrooms, on consultants, and so on... but they won't feed the students.

Why not?

Because the argument isn't about types of equality at all. The whole line of argument opposed to equality per se is a smokescreen.

Now - maybe you could force 'feed the children' into one of the two categories - arguing that children 'need' food, or arguing that proper nutrition is needed to provide educational 'opportunity'.

That this solution applies equally well to either approach, and that it is still rejected, in my mind says everything. It says to me, no matter ho much you accomodated the critics, they would still be opposed.

Because - fundamentally - children are poor, are not fed, and are not educated, at leas in part, because some people (and often the people responsible for feeding and educating them) do not want to feed and educate them.

Note, these are just observations, and not really recast to fit precisely into your argumentative framework (for which I apologize). But I nonetheless think these thoughts may give you something to think about.

OK, now while I was writing and trying to post that second post, Dog Belshaw responded to my first post. I can't respond (I tried) because the system still thinks fewer than 15 seconds have passed (a note to software developers: do not insert time-sensitive values into formfields in Apache-mod code. sheesh.)

Doug writes:

I can see how your first point is valid if, in fact, the situation in Edmonton system means that private schools are banned.

It is not necessary for private schools in Edmonton to actually be banned in order for the Edmonton example to be an example of how there chan be choice in a public school system. Parents can in fact choose what sort o education their children will receive, all within the public school system.

Doug continues:

The second point about health, however, doesn’t seem to follow. My argument was that the state cannot very well (in practice, not in theory) prevent parents from choosing to pay for their child’s education if they claim to give them ‘choice’. The analogy with health, as far as I see it, is that my wife has a choice of which hospital to give birth in but if she wishes can opt to ‘go private’. Without this latter option to reject the choices offered by the state it is not really ‘choice’ at all.

This is a bad argument. It's like saying that because parents cannot opt to sell their children into slavery they are being denied choice.

There are different types of choice. But the choice to pay or not pay is not the choice that corporatized-market proponents mean when they advocate choice. They are not saying, "Our private schools will give you exactly the same education, but in addition, you get to pay for it." Nobody, absolutely nobody, is lobbying for this.

When they say 'choice' what they want is for different (and presumably, better) programs, educational styles and pedagogies, sports programs, etc. And many other choices, including some less savory, varguely racist and classist motivations that are generally left unsaid.

Most of the choices - different programs, educational styles and pedagogies, sports programs - can be accomodated in a public system, as is demonstrated in Edmonton or elsewhere. What the private system (and only the private system) will buy in addition are those less savory elements of choice.

All this, of course, is lost under the weight of academic argument and bald-faced equivocation about the meaning of the word 'choice'.

I'm not saying Doug supports any of this - in fact, I am generally sympathetic to what I am reading in his posts. But I am bothered by the phrasing, by the arguments, by the contortions that avoid the truth - contortions needed, apparently, to be seen as properly academic.

Doug continues,
Perhaps I’ve been a bit sloppy with my use of terminology in the above. The ‘Completely free education market - no state intervention’ is pretty much word for word what Lawton states. ‘Free’ in this sense means ‘free from external constraints’ - but yes, I see the point about being captured by the discourse!
‘Free’ in this sense means ‘free from external constraints’? No it doesn't. It is still constrained by geography, the laws of physics, economics, the possibility of thermonuclear warfare, floods, attacks by locusts, kids with slingshots, and more, so much more.

'Free' in this sense means 'not governed by law'. But nobody argues (honestly) for that, because it would be utterly rejected. Being completely ungoverned by law would make the 'All-White Ku Klux Klan Kollege' a going concern. And many more completely unacceptable educational practices (including the above-mention selling of children into slavery, which is in fact what was done when there was no law).

And - in fact - there is no meaning of the word 'free' that actually corresponds to its use in this context. Except, of course, the use of 'free' to mean 'no payment' - but that adjective, of course, applies to the public system, not the corporate system.

Doug continues,

Finally, I don’t rule out as ‘completely implausible a completely public education system’.

Doug wrote, "Number 6 would seem to be out of the question as well." And I see no other reading of this sentence except to rule out as ‘completely implausible a completely public education system’.

I'm picky that way.

My point, which I perhaps should have made more explicit, was that given the marketization of education and the language of ‘choice’ it is extremely unlikely (at least in the UK) that any political party could return to the pre-ERA88 days.

That's kind of like saying, given slavery, we can never abolish slavery. And about as convincing.

Ethics and Codes

Responding to David Warlick - I tried to put this post into his comment system as well, but it's not even accepting the first two paragraphs.

I may comment more extensively elsewhere shortly, but I would like to offer the following thought: that the downloading and copying of songs might be ethical behaviour.

Certainly - as I argue in my essay, Copyright, Ethics and Theft - the morality of the publishers, who appropriate content from the public domain, and use their monopoly position to appropriate copyrights from artists for a fraction of their worth, is even more in question.

The issue is not nearly so clear cut as implied in your post. In some nations - my own, for example - copying content I have already purchased is legal. Is it therefore still unethical? No? Then what is the source of your claim that it is unethical in U.S. schools - is breaking a law automatically unethical? What about downloading from, which is based in Russia. The service is legal in Russia. Is it unethical to download from them?

See, this is the problem. People tend to regard these ethical questions as already settled. Just codify them, make people follow them, and all will be right with the world. But the questions are not even close to settled. Look at the codification in the ten commandments, "thou shalt not kill." Is it ethical to kill? But what if the law (the same law that makes downloading unethical) allows you to kill - in a war, as capital punishment, in self-defense? Is the commandment now, "Thou shalt not kill without the proper paperwork"?

I comment, in response to Charles Nelson, on my website: "when you are told what your ethics should be, you don't have to go through the trouble (and learning!) of deciding for yourself what is right and wrong. Part of the whole idea of empowering the learner is having them make just such judgements, to reach them on their own grounds, and to be able to defend them (beyond mere illiterate appeal to some predefined code) when challenged."

Again, what bothers me is the presumption that the issues are settled, and worse, that we - somehow - can settle them for students. That's why my original criticism in this discussion was to question the actual ethical precepts proposed. Is it true that we ought to seek permission before posting? Well, in the publishers' and propagandists' nirvana, maybe. But not in a world of open and free enquiry.

I have written extensively on how to evaluate web posts. My 1995 Guide to the Logical Fallacies is probably the most popular work I have ever written. So when you recommend, as one item in a code of ethics, that students actually commit one of the fallacies, I begin to wonder.

I have also written a more recent, and equally extensive, piece on how to evaluate web pages and web posts. Now I would ask, why would the code of ethics proposed touch on only one or two ways to evaluate websites, and ignore most of the rest? What makes questioning motives (which I consider a fallacy anyways) important, while following up sources, trusting your own experience, and the like, don't even make the list?

It is, indeed, because the discussion have been approached from the perspective that these ethical issues have already been decided, that the concept of a code is even plausible. As though the outcome, and even the domain, of ethical precepts, is currently known. Which is utterly ridiculous.

One wonders, for example, why the ethics of linking did not make the list at all. So, some questions. For example, is it ethical, as is done in this post, to cite two points of view, and to link to neither of them? Or, is it ethical, in a post to someone else's blog, for me to link to my own site no fewer than four times, as I have done in this comment?

Indeed, what are the ethics of the purpose of a blog? Is it ethical to use a blog in order to promote oneself, possibly in order to obtain more business? Is it ethical to shade your policies, linking only to those who link to you, say, in order to fulfill this objective (I am not accusing anyone of any specific practices here, and I haven't examined your linking policy at all, except for the one post mentioned above, so don't take this as an attack please).

But I will ask this, more specifically. Is it ethical to link preferentially to people with whom you are associated through a business? Must such actions be disclosed? When you link in the sidebar (knowing each link will be counted by Technorati, and used to rank blogs) only to bloggers who post through that business, and do not post a disclaimer about that association, is this ethical? When the same company promotes this same group as the edublogging A-List, is this ethical? Would altering your content because of this relationship be unethical - perhaps, say, steering away from copyright and patent issues because the company has a vested interest in trademarking commonly used terms?

It seems to me, that these would be points of ethics: that if you are paid to blog, you should say so. That if your blog is part of a business arrangement, you should say so. That if your business arrangement affects your opinion, you should say so. No? Now again, I am not accusing anybody of anything here. But it is fascinating that none of these sorts of issues arise in the proposed code of ethics. Why not?

One wonders - why would these be the topic of a code of ethics, and not an examination of the language of a sentence like this: "The consumers of your information product..." If you think of your work as an 'information product' and your readers as 'consumers' then you will have one view about downloading and citing and all the rest. But if you view your writing as 'contributions' and your readers as 'discussants' then the picture changes.

With every post, with every action, the question must be, "have I done the right thing," and not merely, "have I followed the code of ethics?" The mere existence of a code of ethics makes the latter, and not the former, much more likely. And when you stop asking what's right, entire realms of unethical behaviour, not even considered, suddenly become acceptable. Ethical, even.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Education, Technology and Myth

Responding to Norm Friesen, E-Learning Myth #2: Technology Drives Educational Change

In this post, various propositions have been collected under a single heading. Some of them I think are obviously false, some of them are obviously true, and some of them are not believed by anybody. So I need to look for precision in order to draw out the fallacy.

From the text:

It is often said or implied that technology or technological change impact education. They are seen as acting as a kind of "disruptive force," requiring the adaptation, transformation or sometimes even the elimination of educators and educational institutions alike. The assumptions behind such understandings are that technology drives educational change, and that there is generally a direct and one-way relationship between technical innovation and educational transition. In its most extreme form, this myth is encapsulated in so-called "laws" of progress and change: Moore's law (the annual doubling of computer processor speeds), Kurzweil's "law of accelerating returns," or Gladwell's epidemiologically-derived "tipping point." Although none of these are laws in the strict scientific or physical sense, their consequences for education, schools, the university, etc. are often seen as having the self-evident truth and certainty of natural edicts. "I don't question if e-learning will reach a tipping point," one author confesses, "but what I [find] myself pondering is when e-learning will reach a tipping point and become a social epidemic." (Neal e-learn 2004, emphases added; see also Bull, Bull, Garofalo & Harris, 2002; Gandel, Katz, & Metros, 2004; Educause, 2002). Here, the effects of technical change are inevitable and are not questioned; only the precise time of its full impact on education is open to debate.

I derive the following statements:
  • technology or technological change impact education
  • technology requires the adaptation, transformation or sometimes even the elimination of educators and educational institutions alike
  • technology drives educational change
  • there is generally a direct and one-way relationship between technical innovation and educational transition
  • "laws" of progress and change are often seen as having the self-evident truth and certainty of natural edicts
  • the effects of technical change are inevitable and are not questioned
From the text:
A similarly unquestioning but less explicit understanding of technology as a kind of "unmoved mover," decisively influencing education from the outside, is expressed in a range of research into the impact of technology in education. One example is research which understands technological innovations as being "disseminated" throughout a population (often the faculty at a university, as it happens; e.g. Mahony & Wozniak, 2005; Bull et al, 2002; Garofoli & Woodell, 2003; PT3 2002). This way of framing the research question has the effect of casting a technology as an externally determined "artifact," being absorbed by a passive population. This allows only for responses of "adoption" or "resistance" of varying intensity, and it has the further effect of labeling parts of the population according to their imputed willingness to adopt -as "early adopters" "mainstream" or (rather tendentiously or controversially) as "laggards."
I derive the following statements:
  • technology is a kind of "unmoved mover," decisively influencing education from the outside
  • technological innovations are "disseminated" throughout a population... as an externally determined "artifact," being absorbed by a passive population
The first question we need to look at is whether technology changes education. This is a conflation of two questions, whether it will change education, and whether it has changed education. I argue that both statements are true.

Clearly, it has changed education. This is especially clear when we push the definition of 'education'. by 'education', do we mean only 'the classroom'? This seems to be the implication when it is argued that "the classroom as a site of educational practice has not changed much over the past couple of hundred years." But it has changed, and it has changed in both ways implied by this equivocal statement:
  • the classroom of today is different from the classroom of the past, incorporating as it does a wide array of technology, including overhead or video displays, intercoms or other communications features, electricity for lighting and equipment... and so on.
  • the classroom of today is no longer the sole, or even primary site of educational practice, if 'educational practice' is intended to mean 'learning'; the rise of what we today call 'informal learning' is well documented, and may span the gamut from radio or telephone assisted distance learning, computer aided instruction, communities of practice, and more
(One frustration I have with the writing in this field today is the lack of precision. Almost every statement in this paragraph can be read several ways. This is typical, especially of academic writing, in the discipline of education.)

As to the question of whether it will change education, the question may be put by asking whether the two trends noted in the past are likely to continue, that is, is it likely that the classroom envioronment will continue to change, and is it likely that learning will happen in more, and more varied, places. Asked this way, continued change seems to be likely.
  • even today, new technologies, such as blogging, wikis, mobile phones and PDAs, social networks, tablet computers, educational games, and more, are changing the classroom environment both physically (for example, wireless signal availability) and pedagogically (for example, collaborative writing in a shared online environment)
  • the increased mobility of communications devices has suggested to many people the idea that learning will take place on an as needed basis, or will be available on demand, from any employment or life situation
In order to argue that technology does not change education, one has the unenviable task of showing that it both hasn't changed education, nor will it change education. From my perspective, to do so is to deny reality, to look at somethings and to say, "that's not there."

The more interesting position in this regard - but one that, I think, hasn't been argued here - is whether technology changes learning, that is, the process by which humans acquire (I don't mean 'acquire' literally; I use the word 'acquire' for lack of a clearer alternative) knowledge. Do the same processes create links between sets of human neural cells as caused these links, say, a century ago?

But even here, I would say that there is at least an argument that technology has produced change. If we agree that what we learn today is different from what we learned in the past, or if we allow that we have a different type (audio-visual, say, as opposed to textual) of learning from what we had in the past, then it is arguable that different types of neural connections would be created, which (presumably) means that different processes would cause those changes.

We could even ask, have the basic principles by which connections are created changed in the last century or so. This is almost like asking whether human chemistry and physiology have changed in that time, which seems unlikely, though with today's emergence of mood-altering drugs (both illegal and legal) I am less sure. It is also like asking whether basic 'logical' principles (I don't mean 'logical' literally; I use the word 'logical' for lack of a clearer alternative) have changed: does, say, hebbian associationism work the same today as a century ago? Are the mechanics of, and principles behind, Boltzman connectionism the same today as a century ago. Here I would say that they probably are (which explains, to me, why a philosopher such as Hume may remain relevant) though I would hasten to point out that their discovery per se is fairly recent.

I have not even addressed the manner in which non-educational technology has changed learning. How the car, for example, has led to the creation of the suburban megaschool. How printing has allowed us to de-emphasize memorization and rote. How the gun has required the presence of metal-detectors and armed guards in schools. How nuclear weapons created the need for 'duck and cover' exercises in the classroom. How affordable clothing has done away with the need for uniforms. How democracy created the need for civics classes. And so the list continues, perhaps without end...

So I conclude that technology changes education.

The second question is the question of how technology changes education. I have suggested numerous ways above, none of which are explicitly stated as a 'myth'. But examining the text, we see:
  • technology requires the adaptation, transformation or sometimes even the elimination of educators and educational institutions alike
  • "laws" of progress and change are often seen as having the self-evident truth and certainty of natural edicts
  • technological innovations are "disseminated" throughout a population... as an externally determined "artifact," being absorbed by a passive population
  • there is generally a direct and one-way relationship between technical innovation and educational transition
  • the effects of technical change are inevitable and are not questioned
In other words, the question of how technology changes education embraces two distinct questions:
  • what sorts of changes technology creates
  • what mechanism is followed by technology (or promoters of technology) in order to effect those changes
The statement of the myth suggests that:
  • educators must (should?) (will?) adapt
  • educators must be (should?) (will be?) transformed
  • educators must be (should?) (will be?) (may be?) eliminated
  • institutions must (should?) (will?) adapt
  • institutions must be (should?) (will be?) transformed
  • institutions must be (should?) (will be?) (may be?) eliminated
I have drawn this out in what may seem like an annoying fashion in order to emphasize that there are twenty distinct claims in this one sentence. This is important, because some of these statements are more obviously true than others. The statements break down into relatively straightforward classes: those that are descriptive (educators have adapted, educators may adapt), predictive (educators will adapt), and normative (educators should adapt, educators must adapt).

It seems clear both that educators have adapted and have been transformed. Consider, for example, just one dimension: qualifications. In 1850, teachers required little more than the ability to read and write (one of the things that struck me about Jane Eyre was the ease with with the protagonist became a tutor). Today they are expected to have a university education, including an education dedicated specifically to teaching, ion addition to certification by a professional body. Were these changes caused by technology? Arguably, for example by the proliferation of printed texts, improvements in classroom environments, discoveries in cognitive theory. Today's graduating teachers are now expected to be proficient in computer technology and versed in learning theory. A far cry from Jane Eyre, and in just a few generations!

Will teachers continue to adapt and be transformed, and should they? I will examine the question of whether the impact of technology is an improvement later, but for not, taking it as established that technology will change education, it seems reasonable that teachers will need to adapt and will be transformed by these changes. Again, we could look at qualifications (I like to use qualifications as an example, because it demonstrates how teachers adapt, but also, because they speak to the nature of the person doing the teaching, how they are transformed). We can not only reasonably predict that teachers will adapt and be transformed, we can make some reasonable projections as to what sort of changes will occur. Teachers will become more information-literate. They will be more versed in critical thinking and media literacy, they will become more specialized in learning how to learn. The practice of teaching will spread from dedicated professionals to an activity most people undertake as a part of their profession. 'Teachers' per se will become, as the old saying goes, 'guides by the side', becoming more like coaches and mentors than information delivery specialists. This will require more extensive qualification in psychology, and especially topics such as motivation and counselling.

Have teachers been eliminated, will they be, and should they be? This is, of course, a completely different set of questions. And it really depends on what is meant by the word 'eliminated'. Because (based on what was just written) it seems apparent that the number of people engaged in teaching will increase. However, this does not translate to an increase of teaching positions. Will positions need to be eliminated? This depends on whether society can continue to afford to maintain them, and whether there is a substantial demand for coaching and mentoring. Additionally, if technology enables more people to be able to continue learning longer, the size of the student population (properly so-called) may grow. However, as more and more students seek alternative forms of learning, the size of the student population may shrink.

From my perspective, it would be absurd to claim that teaching positions will be 'created' or 'eliminated' as a result of the impact of technology. It is a bit like asking whether positions of 'buggy driver' will be eliminated because of the car. Strictly speaking, the number of people employed in the field plummeted. But the number of people engaged in the analagous practice, 'driving', multiplied dramatically. Only a small percentage, however, continuned this practice professionally - bus drivers, truck drivers, taxi drivers, and the like. However, each individual tended to drive more people and product in a given period of time or on a per vehicle basis. And, probably, because vehicle transportation because relatively cheap, there were more people employed overall as 'drivers' than as 'buggy drivers'.

Considering the question of how technology effects these changes, I would suggest that this is an empirical question. Specifically, we need to ask, has technology moved through society gradually, or does it impact society all at once, or is some other method of propagation evident? Empirically, it appears that when a new technology is introduced, it diffuses, and that the nature of this diffusion is relatively predictable, at least, for those technologies that have become popular (obviously, technologies that have not become popular, such as the Betamax video format, do not diffuse through a population; moreover, there is a subclass of technologies, known as 'fads', that observe their own propagation pattern).

It is reasonable and rational to question the hypotheses that have been formed around observations of technology diffusion. For example, the theories that describe the 'innovators' and the 'early adopters' talk sometimes about a gap separating these early users and the mainstream user. Moreover, it is important to ask about the factors that may impact this rate of diffucion, such as social connectivity, or the cost of the technology, or the ease of use of the technology. But again, it is important to stress that these are empirical principles.

That said, it is my belief that the diffusion of technology can be likened by analogy to other sorts of diffusion, for example, of an idea through society (a 'meme'), or a disease through a population. This is the case if (as I suspect) diffusion depends not only on the technology itself but on communication between individuals who would adopt this technology. If so, then the mathematics describing the difficusion of technology will be the same as the mathematics underlying social network theory. Hence, it is possible not only to describe the rate at which a technology diffuses, it is possible to say why it diffuses at that rate, and it is possible to explain (and even predict) when a techn ology does not diffuse through society.

Given that we have established (or at least hypothesized) a pattern of technology adoption that has prevailed in the past, we next ask whether this pattern will continue in the future. This involves two specific predictions:
  • that technological innocations will continue to occur, and
  • that the same principles of diffusion will apply
Both of these predictions become more likely if it can be predicted that the same type of innovation will occur in the future as it has in the past. For example, if a power source was invented in the past, and diffused through society in a certian way, then new type of power source is more likely to diffuse in the same manner, the reasoning being that similar things will diffuse similarly (this, again, is a hypothesis that needs to be tested, but which seems evident to me, based on what I have seen).

Hence, we now encounter the question, head on, of whether "'laws' of progress and change are often seen as having the self-evident truth and certainty of natural edicts." It seems apparent that nobody considers, say, Moore's law to be as certain as, say, the second law of thermodynamics. Indeed, all people who have hypothesized about Moore's law have conjectured about a time when it will no longer apply, as genuine laws of physics will make further increments in processor speed and memory impossible.

The question, therefore, is whether the next increment of Moore's law, will occur as predicted. Can we continue to build faster processors and better memory for lower costs? Certainly, as time goes by, and as we approach the theoretical limits, the probability that another increment will be reached is reduced. That said, Moore's law is based on known physical properties of infornation storage devices, known engineering practices, and known principles of commodities and economics (for example, mass production is cheaper than the production of a single unit). Hence, it is the case that Moore's law is somewhat stronger than mere conjecture. It is more likely to be right than to be wrong.

Again, it is unlikely that anybody believes that Moore's law is a law of nature. That said, laws of nature lend support for the plausibility of Moore's law. hence, it is reasonable to assert - as most technologists do - that it is more likely to be true than false.

We are now also able to examine the question of whether "there is generally a direct and one-way relationship between technical innovation and educational transition." In other words, whether technology changes education, but education does not change technology. Is it true that education does not change technology? Is it true that people hold this to be true?

Education can change technology in two distinct ways (and here is that interminable vagueness again).
  • the consequence of education - that is, the specific things learned - can change how technology develops
  • educational theory, for example, pedagogical theory, can change educational technology
Again, these questions may be put in various modalities. Have these changes occured? Will these changes occur? Should these changes occur? These are very different questions.

It seems evident, for example, that education has changed technology, in both senses described above.

For example, as Homer Higgens describes in October Sky (originally titled Rocket Boys, I think), a change in the educational system, to emphasize science and technology, resulted in the later developments in the Apollo program. So the type of learning provided can (potentially) change subsequent technological developments (though that said, I would say that it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition).

And certainly, educational theory has informed technology. Otherwise, we could not have a discipline or class of technology known as 'educational technology'. Murray Goldberg, for example, developed WebCT as a set of 'course tools', and this development was informed by his classroom practice. This resulted in a system that is very different from Moodle, which developed with constructivist theory specifically in mind, and even more from ELGG, which is probably the closest thing we have today to a connectivist application.

To look at the issue more generally, we need to ask whether technological development is infleunced b y external factors more generally, or whether technological development occurs without regard to external factors. Looked at in this way, the question (once again) resolves to several different issues:
  • do external developents stimulate the invention of new technologies
  • do external developments inform or constrain the design of these technologies
  • do external developments impact the diffusion of technologies through society
When each question is asked in this manner, it becomes evident that the answer to each question is 'yes'. Indeed, it now becomes a question only of to what degree these external factors inform the invention, design and diffusion, and therefore, to what degree education informs these three factors.

The invention of a new technology can be informed through external factors through several means. For example:
  • principles or hypotheses demonstrated in other fields
  • a need stimulated by a development in another field
The design of a new technology is informed through external factors as well. For example:
  • physiology informs the ergonomics of a technology
  • psychology and related disciplines inform the usability of a new technology
  • economics and marketing describes the marketability of a new technology
  • art describes the aesthetic appeal of a new technology
And the same is no doubt true of education. Insofar as a technology is intended to teach, to inform, to communicate, or to perform any other function demanded by educational theory, disciplines such as communications theory, design, pedagogy, and more, will inform the design of that technology. We know this because these factors have informed the design of the technology in the past, and are likely to continue to inform the dcesign in the future.

The diffusion of technology is described by network theory, and is impacted both by the nature of communications channels and those features of the technology that increase (or decrease) its liklihood of being communicated (or propagated) from one person to the next. Cost and aesthetics are obvious parameters impacting this latter set of factors, while the speed, cost and bandwidth of communications channels, along with the density or nature of the network of connections, impacts the former.

It is therefore clear, and I would argue, completely established, that the impact of technology is not one-way, that a myriad of non-technological factors have led to the development of specific technologies, and indeed, to technology in general. Why did we want a printing press, a Winchester rifle, an atomic bomb, a PDA for kids? The answers to these questions lie, not in the explanation, 'because we could build them', but rather, in a variety of personal, social, and environmental factors, including education.

Should this be the case? Should technological development be informed by other disciplines? Should technological development in general, and the development of educational technology in particular, be informed by education, and in particular educational theory? I believe that nobody would argue the contrary, at least, to the extent that educational theory is believed to be true or accurately descriptive or predictive. If, in other words, there is a reluctance to instantiate educational theory in technology, or to allow it to inform technology, it is because there is doubt in the veracity of a particular theory, or of the field as a whole. And I would not go so far as to say such a scepticism is completely unwarranted.

The third question, and probably the question lying at the heart of the idea of the myth, is whether technology is beneficial to education, that is, whether changing educational theory, practitioners, or institutions, inresponse to technological change, is a good thing.

As usual, this embodies a set of questions, only some of which are articulated. For example, the suggestion that "the effects of technical change are inevitable and are not questioned" are embodied in this question, since (of course) if technological change is inevitable,
then this would constitute an argument for adapting to it. The questions embodied include:
  • Does the use of technology improve edcucation (improve learning)
  • Are there other (economic, cultural) reasons to adapt to technology
  • Is it necessary to adapt to technology as a force majeur?
Again, when the questions are drawn out, it appears that the answers to all of them are unambiguously 'yes'.

It seems to me, for example, that technology unquestionably improves learning (if not 'education' per se, as practiced in schools). Again, there are many ways technology could improve education (not just test scores or outcomes-based improivements).
  • technology has the potential to increase access to learning. Even though there remains a digital divide, it is much more likely that people without access to learning can access learning with technological support than without
  • technology has the postential to increase the applicability of learning. because technology can enable the delivery of learning in situ, it can result in learning in a specific context, with the result that learners are more motivated, and can apply learning tro practical situations
  • technology has the potential to increase choice and therefore to match the type of learning needed with the tgype of learning desired
In each of the above, I have stated only that technology has the 'potential' to have these effects. However, I believe it is unarguable that technology has had these effects. Long distance communication, for example, has allowed children on Australian sheep stations to atten d the school of the air. PDAs strapped to aircraft employees' wrists allows them to learn of new procedures exactly when and where they are needed. And the proliferation of informal learning communities - such as the digital photography and video sites I have been reviewing recently - enable much greater choice.

It seems apparent as well that there are other reasons to adapt to technology. In the discussion of Myth #1 we considered the changing nature of students - and whether this change can be tracked as an age-based demographic, or whether this change is tracked as a set of factors, such as socio-cultural standing, it seems undeniable that as technological change diffuses through society, the nature of the learner changes as well.

Insofar as education is at all "customer-focused" or "learner-centered", then, if the learner has changed in relevant ways, then thedelivery of education to those learners will need to change. Some people no doubt argue that education should not be "customer-focused" or "learner-centered". There is room for this argument, however, my belief is that it will not be successful in the long term, as education is essentially a practice whereby a change is induced in a learner, and hence, must necessarily include the properties of the learner in the design of its application. Others will argue that the ways in which the learner has changed are not relevant to the application of education. This seems exceptionally unlikely, however, here too an argument could be allowed.

Additionally, many people (in cluding John Daniel, Tony Bates, and myself) have offered economical arguments for the employment of technology in education. Certainly, I would be the first to agree that these arguments have not borne fruit, especially in the traditional context. However, there are important dimensions of the economical argument:
  • from the social point of view
  • from the institutional point of view
  • from the personal (or learner) point of view
It seems clear that, from an institutional point of view, the economic gains are questionable. This has been (in my view) primarily the result of attempting to continue existing practise using new technology. At worst, this has resulted in what may be called 'twin tracking', where both the technological and non-technological approach is adopted - offering the same class both online and in person, for example. This approach results in a net increase of costs. Additionally, as I argued in Learning Objects, the employment of a teacher-as-lecturer based delivery mechanism is not made significantly cheaper through the use of technology, since the most expensive component of this delivery format is the teacher.

From the point of view of the student, however, the economic benefits can be significant. The need to travel is reduced. It is possible to study at any hour, meaning that employment can be continued. Materials may be online, emaning that the cost of delivery may be reduced. In some cases, the quality of the (free online) material may be sufficient so as to eliminate the need for an instructor. Hence the cost to learn, say, digital video, can be reduced from tens of thousands of dollars to only a few hundred. This is an almost incomprehensible change in the affrordability of learning, and it it would be absurd to discount this factor.

From the point of view of society, if the total cost of learning could be construed to be comprised of the total cost to fund institutions plus the total cost to fund individuals, then arguable, the total cost of learning is reduced if individuals save more than institutions spend. This calculation is what prompts calls for the elimination of institutions and of teaching positions. It is arguable that the existence of these institutions itself defers, and even eliminates, any potential benefit technology may bring to society as a whole. Certainly, the economic argument, from the point of view of the learner, is undeniable. Howevger, it remains an open question whether we can afford to maintain current expenditures on educational institutions and whether and how educational institutions should adapt to technology.

Finally, we reach the question of whether technological change is inevitable. And, strictly speaking, nothing is inevitable. Even the continued applicability of laws of nature or the existence of the universe could be questioned. On a more mundane basis, the Sun could explode, we could enter into nuclear war, or a virus might wipe out society.

So the question is not whether the impact of technology on education is inevitable, but rather, whether the impact of technology on education is likely. And this, in turn, resolves into two questions:
  • whether technological development will continue
  • whether these developments will impact education
It seems clear, from the discussion above, that it is likely that technological development will continue. So the question is whether these developments will impact education. This depends, in my view, on whether future developments will improve learning, and whether they will contribute to other factors. It seems evident that both are the case.

If technology becomes cheaper and more mobile, it is clear that access will be increased. It will allow learning to become more applicable, and it will allow learners more choice. It seems clear that technology will become cheaper and more mobile, hence, we can expect benefits to learning.

The impact of other factors - such as culture and economics - are more difficult to determine. However, it seems reasonable to argue that if new technologies are developed, there will be economical and cultural changes. This, of course, is not inevitable. However, if there are not sufficient grounds for adoption (that is, if there are no economic or cultural advantages) then it is much less likely that a technology will diffuse through society. This is because a person's propensity to adopt a new technology is reduced if thedre is no advantage to adopting the technology.

Hence, it is more likely than not that technological development will remain a force majeur in society, at least for the immediate future (until the limits in Moore's law kick in). Consequently, as technology is likely to change, being prepared to use and adapt to new technology is reasonable.

So we return to the question, posited at the beginning of this discussion: what is the myth?

Is it that technology has no impact on education? Such a position is unreasonable, and therefore, saying that technology changes learning is not a myth.

Is it that technolgy determines educational change? This is true only if technology is self-determined, that is, if education has no influence on technology. However, technological development is influenced by a number of factors, and education is among those factors. This, I believe, is widely recognized (there is certainly no shortage of examples). So I would argue that people are not in fact arguing that technology determines educational change. And if nobody supports this view, then it is not a myth.

Is it that technological change is inevitable? This appears to be true, at least for the forseeable future. hence, saying that technological change is inevitable (and therefore, that it will continue to impact education) is not a myth.

The only real myth I can find is the supposition that a certain type of technology is inevitable. No technological development is inevitable, of course. It depends on the mathematics of its diffusion through society, which in turn depend on a myriad of factors, including connectivity, utility, cost and usability. But that said, it seems that very few people (other than their vendors) say that certain technologies are inevitable. Rather, the best we can point to are trends - such as smaller, cheaper, and faster - and hyopthesize based on those trends.

Technology Changes Everything

I am reading Norm Friesen's E-Learning Myth #2: Technology Drives Educational Change. I still want to tease out exactly what the myth is, but I want first to present an argument I made last year in Regina.

Technology changes everything:

I believe nothing more needs to be said to establish this point.

Saturday, August 26, 2006


Responding to David Armano:

Here's a thought experiment:

Joe writes a blog, and it reaches a cadre of 100 Republicans, each of whom dutifully links back on the blogroll.

Jill writes a blog, and it reaches a network of 100 people worldwide, from diverse points of view, each of whom has linked to her blog in an article that discusses her point of view.

Who is more influential?

According to the post above, they have equal influence. However, common sense suggests that Jill will have more influence than Joe, because her ideas will reach into different circles of people, different communities.

Influence is not a function of linkage. It never has been, Technorati notwithstanding. Influence is a function of four properties (and people who have read my work before will be very familiar with these properties):

1. Diversity - a person who communicates with a diverse audience will be more influential than a person who communicates with a unifo0rm audience.

2. Autonomy - a person who is free to speak his or her own mind, and is not merely parroting some 'official view', will have more influence.

3. Openness - a person who writes in multiple languages, or who can be read on multiple platforms, or who is not limited to a single communications channel, will have more influence.

4. Connectivity - a person you can communicate with, and who will listen to your point of view, will have more influence than a person who does not.

The basis for this list is found in my paper 'An Introduction to Connective Knowledge'.

Truth and Wikipedia

Responding to: Danah Boyd asks, "Why is Wikipedia not using transitivity and saying that i'm notable because of my knowledge in a specific domain? Why does it matter more that i'm on TV than why i'm on TV?"

The answer is: because it's not a transitive relation.

To put it rhetorically: would Danah Boyd be notable were she *not* on TV? It is much less likely.

Being on TV is part and parcel of being notable these days, and the reasons why somebody is on TV are more or less irrelevant.

After all - Paris Hilton is on TV, and has her Wikipedia article. The same with Simon Crowell. The same with William Hung.

Wikipedia's sensitivity to what constitutes the 'truth' is remarkable, and rather more sensitive that than of most observers. It is something that will take getting used to.

(p.s. I capitalize 'Danah Boyd' because I capitalize names. Same with E.E. Cummings. She is quite free to refer to herself in lower case, and if I quote her directly, I will not change her capitalization. But for here: my comment, my rules.)

The Incompetence of the Lord Government

Responding to Jacques Poitras:

If the Conservative policies have favoured universal programs recently, that's only an accident. Certainly, it would be odd to paint them with the 'universalist' lable. And in this case, it would probably be incorrect. Better to paint them with a lable that is probably more accurate (at least in intent): populist.

What Bernard Lord is trying to do is to read the mood of New Brunswick voters and then to deliver what they want. Or, more accurately, to look like he's delivering what they want, so long as it doesn't offend his well heeled patrons.

Auto insurance, for example, was the big issue in the last election. Insurance companies were gouging the public. Lord promised to regulate the companies. After being elected, he first ignored that promise, and then when the noise became loud enough, he brought in a watered-down version. This, in combination with voluntary premiums reductions, was enough to abate the criticism (New Brunswickers, it appears, are not able en masse to look at insurance rates in, say, Manitoba).

This year, oil companies (and especially Irving) are gouging New Brunswick drivers. Despite paying the same world price as other jurisdictions, and despite similar taxation rates, New Brunswick oil companies have charged much more than their counterparts in Ontario (and consistently more than their counterparts in regulated PEI). Lord brought in regulation, but in such a way that his patrons would not be impacted. Hence, while small wholesalers are squeezed out, Irving chugs along, untouched.

If we look at what Lord promises and what he does, it's a similar pattern. He wants to appear to be a populist. For example, after hearing requests for years, he has finally promised $250 million to refurbish schools. Critics will point out (correctly) that he has ignored this infrastructure for seven years. The $250 million will disappear after the election, just as his promised health care expenses disappeared after the last election. Why? His patrons disapprove of expenditures on health and education - they would much rather see these systems privatized. Well, Lord can't do that - but he can run them into the ground in the interim, in the hopes that enough New Brunswickers will plead for private services, anything, to replace the mess they must endure.

The real issue in this election - or, what would be the real issue, were the media not almost completely controlled by Lord's patrons - is the general incompetence of the Lord administration, its inability to do anything in the way of proactive governance of the province. This is why Lord attacks Graham on his qualifications. because, were the spotlight pointed the other way, Lord would be seen as incompetent.

Both the insurance and the gas price regulations were fiascos, for example. Not simply did they favour Lord's patrons, they were launched in a confused and unclear fashion, with changes and announcements being made at the last minute.

Even the current election was launched in this ad hoc style, with Lord being unable to pick a day and organize an election-launch rally on time.

Lord's planning process produced a document, the 'five in five' plan, giving his government the distinction of taking seven years to produce a five year plan.

The orimulsion fiasco has received only limited coverage in the press. For those who have forgotten, Lord's government committed $800 million to build an orimulsion plant without first having signed a contract for delivery with the only orimulsion producers in the world, the Venezuelans.

The Conservatives do not, in fact, have a long term plan for energy sustainability. So far as any observer can judge, the plan is to essentially have Irving import oil and gas from the world market.

Lord did attempt to obtain funding for a nuclear plant. However, he was unable to reach a deal with the federal government, and then blamed the federal government for the failure, despite the fact that no similar deal exists with any other province.

Lord, meanwhile, was a strong supporter of Harper's pre-election plan to address 'fiscal imbalance'. He should have checked the plan, however, since he apparently failed to realize that the plan would mean less money for New Breunswick, not more. It turns out that Ontario and New Brunswick have very different views on what constitutes fiscal imbalance.

Lord claims to have accomplished a lot. He boasted in a recent speech, for example, to have spent more money on roads than ever before. New Brunswickers would be wondering where this money went - he appears to have paved only a few kilometers of highway. Fredericton residents are familiar with the never-ending construction of the link to highway two. Moncton residents are still waiting for their new bridge to be connected to a major road. Dieppe residents are still waiting for a bridge. In seven years, Lord has not managed to connect the highway system with either Maine or Quebec.

Residents of New Brunswick are also wondering about Lord's health care management plan. Not simply the $25 million announced this month for a health care records system, again missing for the preceeding seven years. But also the closure of hospitals and the plan to develop 'regional specializations', busing patients from (say) Moncton to Saint John (or to Halifax) for treatment.

Lord doesn't understand privacy and accountability. He has had two ministers resign because of breaches of privacy. OK, this happens. But then he swiftly hires them back. It's this sort of recycling of people who are demonstrated to be incompetent that leaves a sour taste in people's mouths.

Let's also not forget that Bernard Lord's salary is topped up by $70,000 every year by the Conservative Party. For any other public official this would be a gross conflict of interest. For Lord, it's business as usual.

Speaking of resignations, how about Tanker Malley. Here is an MP who resigned because the Lord government was wrecking his riding's health care system and generally ignoring its development and tourism needs. Lord's first reaction was to fabricate a threat made by Malley in an attempt to promote a judge. What? Nobody believed this, of course, and Malley (another retread Tory) is now in good standing in the house.

Speaking of economic development and tourism, Lord has done nothing. There have been several cases where development has gone elsewhere - such as the hundreds of jobs Research in Motion decided to send to Nova Scotia - where the NB government was not in the game. Lord's government appears to respond when companies come calling, but do not proactively seek out the valuable and worthwhile development.

Another example of the populist do-nothing approach is the Petitcodiac River. Lord is quite comfortable making promises to let the river flow again, but his well-heeled supporters by 'Lake Petitcodiac' have managed to stall the breaching of the causeway for Lord's entire term of office. Lord's latest is that it's a federal responsibility.

This is a very common characteristic of the Lord government. It is passive. The feds have to come to him. It's not up to the government to initiate funding programs, or tourist programs, or development programs. Which means that the worthwhile programs - the ones that take some effort - escape, while the New Brunswick government ends up funding things that would be done anyways.

I could continue with this comment - there's no shoratge of examples, but you get the point. There is no need to fish for an issue in this election. The issue should, very clearly, be a question of competence. But no media outlet in this province is going to touch this. Because, on this issue, Lord is swept out of office.