Tag Archives: bavalove

Wrong about the LMS

As Jim has noted, we are working on an article on the theme of innovation lost and how it might be regained. One section of the piece as it stands is a fairly full-throated attack on the Learning Management System. Jim pulls out one of the critiques in his most recent post, we have drafted others. But to my mind, the saddest ill-effects of the LMS on higher education are all the missed learning opportunities. We live in an era where it is widely believed that we face an epochal challenge to guide our students into an information age of immense complexity, promise, and peril. We expect our students to spend countless hours working on computers. Yet we push their hands-on online engagement into a virtual environment that does nothing to equip them with practical and transferable web skills. Nor are they engaging the world-wide web in a spirit of critical inquiry. They are in a system, they are being managed.

Anyhow, that’s some of what we have been bashing around. But all of that has changed. I haven’t talked this over with Jim or our editor yet. But we are going to have to cut all that anti-LMS stuff out of the article. Here’s why.

Most of the promised innovation we can expect in the coming years boils down to enhanced capacity to monitor our student activity, to mine data on these managed interactions. It’s a big part of the rationale that insists we keep online learning inside managed environments.

I recently heard a short episode of the science podcast Radiolab entitled Brown Box. In it, reporter Mac McLelland goes to work at Amalgamated Product Giant Shipping Worldwide Inc. one of the mega-warehouses that feed internet retailing. If you are wondering what a fully-rendered data-driven workplace looks like, these people have made remarkable progress in that direction:

Plenty of things can hurt my goals. The programs for our scanners are designed with the assumption that we disposable employees don’t know what we’re doing. Find a Rob Zombie Voodoo Doll in the blue section of the Rockies sector in the third bin of the A-level in row Z42, my scanner tells me. But if I punch into my scanner that it’s not there, I have to prove it by scanning every single other item in the bin, though I swear on my life there’s no Rob Zombie Voodoo Doll in this pile of 30 individually wrapped and bar-coded batteries that take me quite a while to beep one by one. It could be five minutes before I can move on to, and make it to, and find, my next item. That lapse is supposed to be mere seconds.

This week, we newbies need to make 75 percent of our total picking-volume targets. If we don’t, we get “counseled.” If the people in here who’ve been around longer than a few weeks don’t make their 100 percent, they get counseled. Why aren’t you making your targets? the supervisors will ask. You really need to make your targets.

…The days blend into each other. But it’s near the end of my third day that I get written up. I sent two of some product down the conveyor line when my scanner was only asking for one; the product was boxed in twos, so I should’ve opened the box and separated them, but I didn’t notice because I was in a hurry. With an hour left in the day, I’ve already picked 800 items. Despite moving fast enough to get sloppy, my scanner tells me that means I’m fulfilling only 52 percent of my goal. A supervisor who is a genuinely nice person comes by with a clipboard listing my numbers. Like the rest of the supervisors, she tries to create a friendly work environment and doesn’t want to enforce the policies that make this job so unpleasant. But her hands are tied. She needs this job, too, so she has no choice but to tell me something I have never been told in 19 years of school or at any of some dozen workplaces.”You’re doing really bad,” she says.

I’ll admit that I did start crying a little. Not at work, thankfully, since that’s evidently frowned upon, but later, when I explained to someone over Skype that it hurts, oh, how my body hurts after failing to make my goals despite speed-walking or flat-out jogging and pausing every 20 or 30 seconds to reach on my tiptoes or bend or drop to the floor for 10.5 hours, and isn’t it awful that they fired Brian because he had a baby, and, in fact, when I was hired I signed off on something acknowledging that anyone who leaves without at least a week’s notice—whether because they’re a journalist who will just walk off or because they miss a day for having a baby and are terminated—has their hours paid out not at their hired rate but at the legal minimum. Which in this state, like in lots of states, is about $7 an hour. Thank God that I (unlike Brian, probably) didn’t need to pay for opting into Amalgamated’s “limited” health insurance program. Because in my 10.5-hour day I’ll make about $60 after taxes.

At some point, listening to this episode, I realized I had my perspective aligned completely wrong. Here I was thinking that by confining teaching and learning within a managed and artificial space, we were neglecting to provide an opportunity to develop the skills and critical thinking needed to thrive in an increasingly digitized world.

What I realize now is that by directing our students to adapt to a world in which they can exercise no control over their environment, where every click and eyeball twitch is monitored and analyzed by inscrutable algorithms, we are in fact preparing them for the real world of work (and society) that they will be living in. The Learning Management System is in fact a near-perfect training ground for the life that awaits them.

Sorry Jim, but we’ve got a lot of re-writing to do. And I promise from this point forward to leave my romantic dreams of freedom and creativity in the dusty poetry books where they belong, and to perform my KPI-defined role beyond the mandatory portion of my maximum efficiency targets.

The web has solidified against us

Jim Groom has a Bavalicious post with musings on where the web went wrong in higher ed, and I highly recommend you read it, as well as some very informed and thoughtful responses in the comments. I am posting an expanded version of my own comment here.

Pat Lockley suggests a less sinister rationale for the existence of the Learning Management System, essentially that it serves as a space for people uncomfortable with what he terms the “extrovertweb” of open platforms.

There’s something to that, there is no question that fear and anxiety play a huge role in discomfort with the open web in higher ed. But his point, perhaps because Jim frames the discussion in an exploration of the historic roots of the open web, took me back to the very first wiki we started at UBC. It was an instance of UseMod, a flavour of the original wikis created by Ward Cunningham. No passwords, no IDs required, almost no structure of any kind. It was deliriously anarchic. Pat’s notion of an introverted web reminded of an amazing piece of anonymous writing that appeared on that wiki one day:

Why Wiki?

I like writing. But sometimes, a la Peter DeVries, I can’t stand the paperwork. After a few hours of writing, I start to notice the fibre of the paper and remember that once upon a time, the page was a nothing but solid, living wood. Then my pen gets heavy, as if stuck in sap, carving gnarled, knotted language into an uncooperative medium. The page transforms into one gigantic block, though not the kind of block used for building houses for stuffed animals or castles for imaginary friends. It’s not a fun block, writer’s block, because it lets you build only by its absence, never by its presence.

Word processors don’t make a difference. Don’t believe me? Try ‘em. You will. The problem with word processors is that they are simply paper projected onto a screen. When we type a Word document, it is usually with the intention of printing it onto paper at some point. The Block gets in there, scans itself, downloads your document. E-Blocks. Watch out. Carving words into a screen is only slightly easier than carving them in blood on your arm.

So I wiki. Why? Because it doesn’t matter. Sure, people might read it, but it is electronic, unreliable, ethereal. It is something I don’t entirely understand. But what I like, what I really enjoy about wiki writing, is that paper never gets the chance to solidify against me.

Something about that notion of the wiki space resisting “solidification” resonated very deeply with me. And that it was posted in a place that was itself so fluid and free just seemed almost poetically perfect.

“Why wiki?” was just one of the expressions I came across regularly on that platform that spoke to new and liberating possibilities. Another anonymous page outlined the profound implications of the wiki space, making “teaching and learning collaborative not only as a process but as the product as well” and “teachers out of the students and conversely students out of the teachers”, so powerful that it “will force educators to reinvent” what they do. With the benefit of historical hindsight, maybe not so powerful as that.

Because of the wide-open nature of that original wiki space, I estimate that two-thirds of the activity was from outside UBC, and about half of that had little to do with formal education. Yet I never once had to remove writing that was hateful, pornographic, or illegal.  I was personally delighted to be thinking I was doing some small thing to foster an information commons, although I had to disguise what was happening to some extent from university people who were disturbed by that possibility. I vividly recall when I had to defend the stated orientation of the site from an anonymous contributor who thought it was too explicitly defined as a UBC space. Damn, I was loving my job that day.

It’s hard to express how excited I was by the possibilities of the open web by these expressions. I had helped to create a space, but it was very much out of my control and as a result amazing and unpredictable things were constantly happening. I’m still chasing that buzz. As with many addictions, the buzz seems progressively less intense and intoxicating. And one must endure increasingly difficult and at times humiliating circumstance to catch it.

What’s the opposite of Abject?

murphybestwaytocomplain
“The best way to complain is to make things” shared CC by Mark Jensen

I feel fortunate to the point of absurdity to be in a job I enjoy so much, but still feel uncomfortable with the title “Director of Innovation”. I deflect some of the manifest weirdness by recasting my role as one of a “Re-Director”. But in truth, I feel almost as uneasy with “innovation”, a word deployed in so many bizarre and frequently unpalatable ways.

And when I reflect on our little corner of education technology over the past decade or so, I keep being reminded of an old zinger: “America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without knowing civilization.” Seems like when it comes to the truly transformative uses of open and collaborative technologies, higher education went from ignorant dismissal straight to jumping onto what Mike Caulfield describes as “churnware hyped as innovation” without really giving the best stuff a fair shake.

But in all honesty, I feel almost as optimistic today for the potential to make a positive difference as I did in the euphoric days first encountering blogs, wikis, RSS and open culture. A lot of the good vibes coalesced while I was catching up on the media in and around Minding the Future / Open VA this week. I’ll try to capture some of what I find so encouraging in a few snippets and links (which will not come close to capturing all the ferment), and hope that something like clarity will follow. Synthesis is unlikely to visit me today.

Audrey Watters offers a succinct and inspiring mission I can get behind:

Resistance. Community. Open networks. Open content. Sharing. A place — on- or offline — that isn’t dictated by market forces. Local expertise. Local support. Leveraging technology to connect local learners and local expertise to the rest of the world. Care about students. Human connections. Wonder. Intellectual serendipity. But mostly resistance. A stronger and louder vision of what a more just and progressive and accessible future of higher education and technology should look like. It’s actually pretty easy to forecast the nightmare scenario of a higher education apocalypse. It’s easy to see signs of it in the headlines. The greater challenge, I’d argue, is to have a bolder and louder vision of higher ed’s future.

In response, Mike Caulfield expresses something that really resonated with me. “I feel it in my own work, which has shifted in the past three years from arguing against a status quo to arguing for an alternate vision of the future. I like the shift.” Being a naturally pessimistic fellow, I struggle with this shift. But there is no question that I feel healthier and more useful when I am arguing for (and working toward) an alternative future, even knowing evil will prevail. (Er… may prevail.)  And there certainly is something fun to argue for, and much work to be done.

Where do I want to direct my efforts? Like a few other people, I had flashes when reading this passage from Jon Udell (shame he couldn’t make it to Open VA in person). Among other things, he reinforces my faith in seemingly “retro” ideas like open online collaboration and publishing, and open standards:

There’s a reason I keep finding novel uses for these trailing-edge technologies. I see them not as closed products and services, but rather as toolkits that invite their users to adapt and extend them. In Democratizing Innovation, Eric von Hippel calls such things “user innovation toolkits” — products or services that, while being used for their intended purposes, also enable their users to express unanticipated intents and find ways to realize them.

Thanks to the philosophical foundations of the Internet — open standards, collaborative design, layered architecture — its technologies typically qualify as user innovation toolkits. That wasn’t true, though, for the Internet era’s first wave of educational technologies. That’s why my friends in that field led a rebellion against learning management systems and sought out their own innovation toolkits: BlueHost, del.icio.us, MediaWiki, WordPress.

My hunch is that those instincts will serve them well in the MOOC era. Educational technologists who thrive will do so by adroitly blending local culture with the global platforms. They’ll package their own offerings for reuse, they’ll find ways to compose hybrid services powered by a diverse mix of human and digital resources, and they’ll route around damage that blocks these outcomes.

It will come as no surprise to Bava Freaks that these words resonated with Jim Groom. And although he draws an astute connection between this ethos and the ongoing ever-mutating wonder that is ds106 in that post, his merry band of ed tech adventurers are more explicitly building “innovation toolkits” in their Domain of One’s Own and Reclaim Hosting. (And just as I was about to hit the [Publish] button, I see Jim has posted this talk delivered while inexplicably hiding from a blazing Carribean sun.) There are a number of budding projects here at TRU that have benefited directly and immensely from Reclaim Hosting, and I look forward to sharing some of this Kamloops flavour as it comes to a boil. I offer gratitude and admiration to everyone involved, especially Tim Owens, who I increasingly suspect of possessing supernatural powers.

I could go on about the ongoing inspiration I draw from others in the Open VA universe: Giulia, Tom, David, Gardner, Martha, Kin and Scottlo among them… But in the interests of brevity and  serving my own selfish interests I’ll reserve my final shout-out for the venerable CogDog, who not only shared an abundantly human vision at Open VA, but offers up a proposal for building innovation toolkits for higher education — essentially a new focus for the work he has been doing so well for years.

I propose to build a suite of tool kits as extensions of the ones I have used or built for the ds106 open digital storytelling class but making them extensible for other subjects and organizations who would like to operate in a more “web-like” manner, using a distributed model where participants may create, publish in many places, ideally some are ones they manage.

By all means read the whole thing. I can testify that when Alan Levine says he is open to the contributions of others, he means it.

Not least of what energizes me about Alan’s work is his willingness to work with us at TRU as a testbed for his ideas and his code.

This post only begins to cover all the stuff that has me feeling the opposite of Abject these days, but maybe it begins to capture why we may be close to reclaiming innovation. Maybe I’ll need a new blog name soon.

abject antonyms