Archive for the ‘Human Values’ category

Valuing tech vs. valuing learning

August 19, 2008

When will the computer finally recede into the ubiquitous background as promised by Don Norman a decade ago? Instead, educational reform is grasping at technology as the innovation, bringing technology front and center, as you have pointed out here. But how do we expect students even younger than yours Sam, such as inner city high school students, to switch to an online pedagogy and self-educate with discipline?

It is the individual that chooses to self-educate – the tech are tools, not the stuff of learning itself. I’m not as sanguine about the role of interactive tech per se in the classroom, even though two heavy hitters in innovation (Clay Christensen) and organizational learning (John Seely Brown, blogged here) have recently weighed in with tech-oriented reform promises.

Christensen says “For virtual learning to have this transformative impact, however, it must be implemented in the correct way. The theory of disruptive innovation shows us a way forward.”

A disruptive innovation transforms an industry not by competing against the existing paradigm and serving existing customers, but by targeting those who have no other option and are not being served — people we call non-consumers.

Little by little, disruptive innovations predictably improve. At some point, they become good enough to handle more complicated problems — and then they take over and supplant the old way of doing things.

The key is that instead of simply cramming computers in the back of classrooms as a tool of instruction as we have done in the past, we need to allow computer-based learning to take root in places where the alternative to computer-based learning is no learning at all. Only then will computer-based learning have a true impact in transforming education.

There are a few problems with Clay’s innovation theory as applied to education. I am a big fan of Innovator’s Dilemma, and have written up RPV as serious business theory in “real” articles, not blogs. But my issue with disruptive innovation in education – is that the problem is NOT with students, or school systems as such. It is socio-economic, cultural, and systemic – a complex system, not a market of users or consumers. Disrutpive innovation owes something to the concept of early adopters predicting the trend. But in education, the early adopters are the self-educators who workaround the system. We can pick up and use anything, but that doesn’t mean other students should use the tech tools I did to self-educate. Example: Long before the Internets, after exhausting the simple lessons in 5th grade, I would ask to leave the class and sit in the hallway and read the Britannicas.

And which students get to fail while the system tries to “go disruptive” and falls even further behind in the tyranny of state school district measures? A couple of years worth of classes before they get it right? Christensen’s innovation theory says large incumbent firms are literally unable to innovate in this way. But has he ever seen charter schools in real “urban” districts? These attempts at innovation lead to outsourcing (like to Sylvan), which does no good, and leaves “no learning behind” for others to bring forward as an innovation.

Take a look at Dayton, Ohio. Patricia started one of the Gates schools (she’s not teaching there or anywhere in a system anymore). The program was primarily problem-based, no issue with that. But self-motivated, self-direct learning kids excel at this already, regardless of technology.  The charter schools in Dayton are (not to put too fine a point on it) total failures. The Gates program? Mixed – the self-motivated always do well, the others make teachers do twice the work they normally do, which is already a lot more than you can imagine.  “It won’t change until society values education” Patricia says “It’s so much government cheese.”

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Happy Birthday, Marshall McLuhan

July 21, 2008

July 21. It would be great to have you back with us again. I’d love to know what you would say of the Google dialogues we’re having on Transformation.

Herbert Marshall McLuhan, C.C. (July 21, 1911December 31, 1980) was a Canadian educator, philosopher, and scholar — a professor of English literature, a literary critic, a rhetorician, and a communications theorist. McLuhan’s work is viewed as one of the cornerstones of the study of media theory. McLuhan is known for coining the expressions “the medium is the message” and the “global village.”

Last year on his birthday, a group of us got together in Toronto to celebrate and marched a local parade to the Coach House. We watched a little-known video of McLuhan speaking at a Ryerson College conference, I believe interviewed by a Professor Gillies. He was talking about the need for and design of the University of Canada North, (which then did not happen.) This year, a friend reminded me he had just seen a blurb in the paper.

And who out there, other than McLuhan scholars, is using the Tetrad for media analysis?

Feeling dumber? Maybe it’s just Google-think.

July 13, 2008

Maybe it’s in the secret sauce?  In the last month, I’ve heard several commentaries on the notion that sustained use of Google is affecting our thinking processes. As if Google were the “bad television” of the 21st century, the meme apparently suggesting overuse of Google searching is dumbing us down because of our passive/receptive way of literally consuming information.

The Atlantic’s recent article Is Google Making Us Stupid? (July/August issue) is the most immediate and critical reading for interested information seekers. Google, Nicholas Carr suggests, has perhaps caused a permanent alteration of our information and reading behaviors, not just searching, but browsing, reading texts, researching, and sensemaking. We (many of us) now skim the surface, jump around from link to link, and cannot attend to an entire article online, let alone an entire book offline (remember, they are still available in printed form). He cites a few examples of Very Smart Persons exhibiting these symptoms. Perhaps he’s right.

My wife Patricia, being an artist, was on the leading edge of this wave. She was concerned that Google was interfering with her imagination, which is the source and font of all wonder for the creative life. She was searching Google in her dreams. And she reports that she finds herself doing similar behaviors, of relentless surfing and wandering the Net, losing total track of time. But she insists its a positive modification of mental life, if it is indeed permanent (she says “it’s the network, you’re able to see all the interconnections of things you never could before, you learn what’s behind everything.”) Something like, that anyway. Maybe she’s right – a couple of years ago she was on about Tristram Shandy being the first hypertext novel, and how that really heralded post-modern thinking. So maybe people were trying to think like Google makes us way back in 1759.

And just recently at the ELPUB conference in Toronto, in an offline conversation, John Senders (what, no Wikipedia article?), one of the founders of the field of human factors (from at least 1942), was observing basically the same thing (the “television is bad for you part”) about Google.  His observation was in effect that Google was changing the way children were learning and interacting with knowledge. Rather than trial and error, observation, finding out for themselves, etc., young children would (and do) just search and rely on whatever they locate online. His main concern was for the eventual (or even current) dumbing down of the future generations as they developed intellectually though their chief years of learning by relying on the common information appliance. He wanted to pursue the issue as a social science experiment, which is a good idea. Maybe John is right as well.

Carr’s article cites Larry Page’s statement to the effect that Google is creating a type of Internet AI, that we are all smarter when we tap into the world’s published information whenever we have a question or problem. I cite Carr’s concern that follows, that perhaps “easy access” is not the highest human or social value associated with information seeking.

“Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.” Last year, Page told a convention of scientists that Google is “really trying to build artificial intelligence and to do it on a large scale.”… Still, their easy assumption that we’d all “be better off” if our brains were supplemented, or even replaced, by an artificial intelligence is unsettling. It suggests a belief that intelligence is the output of a mechanical process, a series of discrete steps that can be isolated, measured, and optimized. In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.

Carr also cites the UK’s JISC/CIBER program, a 5 year + study on online information behavior in UK education and society. I also found this provocative publication just in time to cite and interpret for the current Redesign Research study of eBooks user experience at the University of Toronto Libraries. CIBER essentially suggests the Google Generation is trending toward a style of thinking and working characterized by endless skimming, jumping around, and scavenging rather than thinking for oneself.

“It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.”

Maybe they are right as well. What do you think? Are we becoming Borg’d? Do you feel your link to the Matrix yet? Have you read a NOVEL lately? I will post my responses (agreements, disagreements, expansions) in a later post.

Learning – A disruptive innovation of self

June 20, 2008

You’d think we would have learned by now. Over the last 50 years we have seen our best thinkers decry the state of institutional education in the Western world (yes, we usually hear this framed as a US “National” issue, but really, the socially conformist view of education is Western if not global.) There are as many perspectives on the educational-industrial complex as there are commentators. One that comes to mind is George Carlin’s famous and distinctly non-funny observations about “our” educational system (blogged very neatly here at On Education and eLearning.) I respect Carlin’s insights on culture and social issues because comedy is a way of telling truth that cannot be censored, and that people actually get. And since George died just last week, I’d like to honor his contributions to critical thinking – he awakened perhaps millions of people in the disruptive innovation and oral tradition of comedic truth-telling.

Deeply literate (and less popular), critics of our educational systems – who have promoted a better way – include Ivan Illich, Rollo May, Neil Postman, Paolo Freire, William Irwin Thompson, Jean Houston. To some extent the host of 20th century’s greatest thinkers from Einstein to Feynman have weighed in on the sorry state of learning. My wife Patricia and I advocate Slow Learning, informed by these thinkers. Slow Learning encourages individuals to envision their desired future learning destination and then follow a real world learning plan, working with those already in the communities where you hope to later thrive.

We must allow ourselves to understand that we are truly on our own, the system is not there for us. Learning is a choice we must take into our own lives, and sustain it continually. Russ Ackoff says so.

Russell Ackoff and Daniel Greenberg on Change This: “Education should be a lifelong enterprise, a process enhanced by an environment that supports to the greatest extent possible the attempt of people to “find themselves” throughout their lives”For too long, we have educated people for a world that no longer exists, extinguishing their creativity and instilling values antithetical to those of a free, 21st century democracy. The principal objective of education as currently provided is to ensure the maintenance and preservation of the status quo—to produce members of society who will not want to challenge any fundamental aspects of the way things are. Traditional education focuses on teaching, not learning. It incorrectly assumes that for every ounce of teaching, there is an ounce of learning by those who are taught. Being taught is, to a very large extent, boring and much of its content is seen as irrelevant. It is the teacher, not the student, who learns most in a traditional classroom.

Ackoff can be credited for first defining the hierarchy of knowing (1989) in the somewhat Kabbalistic series of: Data – Information – Knowledge – Understanding – Wisdom. His 2008 book Turning Learning Right Side Up asks a series of transforming questions:

Must schools be the way they are? Do classrooms make sense anymore? What should we teach? What should individuals contribute to their own education? What if students did the teaching and teachers did the learning? Is it possible to eliminate old-fashioned distinctions between subjects and between the arts and sciences? What would the ideal lifelong education look like: at the K-12 level, at universities and colleges, in the workplace, and beyond? How do you educate for a world that doesn’t yet exist?

These are powerful questions, indeed. I have oberved the programs of institutional education fall further and further into mediocrity, and see university education driven by economic instrumentalism. The only choice we can make in the here and now, for our own learning paths, is to make our own choices. Educate yourself and your children.

Flash: Money buys happiness!

June 3, 2008

Who says? According to a Harvard/UBC study published in Science, so that’s about as authoritative as possible. How so? The title Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness, tells you something about it.

In an HBS interview, co-author Michael Norton explains:

“Intentional activities—practices in which people actively and effortfully choose to engage—may represent a promising route to lasting happiness. Supporting this premise, our work demonstrates that how people choose to spend their money is at least as important as how much money they make.”

The crisp abstract does not read like a new-age nostrum

Although much research has examined the effect of income on happiness, we suggest that how people spend their money may be at least as important as how much money they earn. Specifically, we hypothesized that spending money on other people may have a more positive impact on happiness than spending money on oneself. Providing converging evidence for this hypothesis, we found that spending more of one’s income on others predicted greater happiness both cross-sectionally (in a nationally representative survey study) and longitudinally (in a field study of windfall spending). Finally, participants who were randomly assigned to spend money on others experienced greater happiness than those assigned to spend money on themselves.

While they did not generalize beyond the economic proposition of personal income > spending on others, the theory certainly extends to giving one’s time and personal commitment to others.  It is so obvious we overlook it on an everyday basis, unless the giving has become part of our lives and being.By then we don’t think of it’s tie to happiness, as it should be. Would this not fall apart out of sheer irony if we did for others to selfishly satisfy a desire for personal happiness? Happiness is an outcome of good works and a life lived in full. As Marcus Aurelius said:

“The happiness and unhappiness of the rational, social animal depends not on what he feels but on what he does; just as his virtue and vice consist not in feeling but in doing.”

It was/is so with my parents, who (literally) tithed to the Episcopal church all their adult lives, and they volunteered full-time in retirement and gave most of the rest of what little they had to their community, to community theater, the United Way. The Christian outlook and central spiritual act involves loving your neighbor, reinforced by just about all the parables. (It turns out they were actually right about most things!)

Joseph Weizenbaum – A humane vision for technology

March 11, 2008

Joe Weizenbaum died at age 85 last week in Berlin, and a few obscure technology news services have published the story. MIT posted its lauds for their alumnus in a press release yesterday, but his passing has not lit up the news wires.  As with many issues in the 21st century, it’s up to the blogs to inform and comment.  A creator of computer languages and artificial intelligence systems and theories, Weizenbaum was probably known for inventing one of the first AI systems (1962), the ELIZA program. ELIZA was an interactive dialogue  process based on Rogerian non-directive psychotherapy (“So you are saying you are angry? Tell me more …”)  While may seem like a crude approach by 2008 standards, this was nearly 50 years ago.  As with many scientific leaders from his generation (who personally experienced WWII and the Great Depression), he grew skeptical of technological accomplishments and became a passionate advocate for humane applications of technology.

In 1988 he was awarded the Norbert Weiner prize for professional and social responsibility by CPSR, the professional society that sponsors the Participatory Design conferences. Terry Winograd presented his remarks with the prize award, with words as timely today as then, compared his moral vision with that of Wiener’s:

Both fought with a passion against the destructive madness of high technology at the service of war. Both wrote highly influential books about the problems of humanity and technology, moving beyond discussion of the machinery to a broad consideration of human actions, values, and ethical responsibilities. Weizenbaum’s Computer Power and Human Reason stands alongside Wiener’s books on science and society as a powerful reminder that wisdom and technical mastery are not the same, and that we confuse them at our peril.

Other humane visionaries known for their advancements of technology have passed away recently, and we are called by the deep humanity in our field  to keep their hope and vision alive in our own public and professional lives. Jm Gray and Jef Raskin come to mind. And the viral popularity of Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture (given a push by Oprah and the Web) has awakened an international audience to the power of a personal vision for taking a stand to create a better world.

And, does Facebook Track you in your Sleep?

December 5, 2007

Following up from the discussion about Facebook’s Beacon, Corrente’s on the case with a quickie analysis of those Terms that I mentioned below.  I was afraid my friends’ relationships with Facebook could not end well –

I bet the social network analysts handling domestic surveillance are really enthusiastic about this! AP:

Facebook has confirmed findings of a CA security researcher that the social-networking site’s Beacon ad service is more intrusive and stealthy than previously acknowledged, an admission that contradicts statements made previously by Facebook executives and representatives.

Stefan Berteau, senior research engineer at CA’s Threat Research Group, wrote in a note about Beacon’s until-then unknown ability to monitor logged-off users’ activities and send the data back to Facebook.

Users aren’t informed that data on their activities at these sites is flowing back to Facebook, nor given the option to block that information from being transmitted, according to Berteau.

So what do ethical designers take away from this “user experience?”