Are we there yet? the notyetness of emerging technologies practice and research in online learning

Looking rear view mirror
Looking backwards and forwards CC-BY-NC

Any parent will recognise the plaintive question “Are we there yet?” asked by children impatient for the journey to be over, the holiday to start. In using technology in learning and education, hopefully we will never really get there but experience fun in our experiments and learn from our experiences. We may find that there are better and worse journeys, decisions that opened up opportunities and others that closed them down.

Amy Collier and Jen Ross have come up with the intriguing concept of notyetness, based on George Veletsianos’ assertion that emerging technologies are ‘not yet fully researched” and “not yet fully understood” in online learning. Amy flags up the enabling characteristics of emergence that can flow from notyetness

creating space for emergence to take us to new and unpredictable places, to help us better understand the problems we are trying to solve.

She gives three examples of projects with notyetness that have touched me personally in the last year: Domain of One’s Own , Fedwiki Happening, and Rhizo14.  I am currently reinventing my web site with the wonderful help of Tim Owens at Reclaim Hosting, I have two fedwiki happenings under my belt and I was a participant and researched (with Jenny Mackness) Rhizo14. This morning, I watched the livestream of Sheila MacNeill’s keynote to #OER15, where one of the themes was the different shades of open that might be tried in the drive to mainstream Open Educational Practice. Sheila seemed to be recommending a pragmatic approach to mainstreaming of OEP, and this chimed with Lisa Chamberlain’s identification of Facebook Groups as a kind of not-yetness

The ideas of not-yetness at an MIT or Stanford are so far beyond the realm of my little community college that they would intimidate or even shut down emerging technology discussion for all but a few of the most technologically-edgy of faculty at my school.

But Facebook, good ol’ Facebook, almost the grandpa of social media now, is a kind of “not-yetness” on my campus. (Not to mention it has a nearly flat-line learning curve which is important for a 10 week quarter). The idea of opening a class to social media of any kind is not-yetness here. The use of Facebook groups is not-yetness here. The connectedness of letting outsiders participate with students in a class via Facebook is very not-yetness here.

I should declare that I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook: it’s great to keep in touch with my far-flung family but I have concerns about Facebook privacy aspects and its use of data. I taught a first year undergraduate module 2009-2013 where most of the students were Facebook users, making it possible for them to conduct small group investigations into privacy and data use (meaning Facebook membership was not compulsory and there was no Facebook interaction with tutors). So I feel sympathy with Lisa’s pragmatic approach but also a little uneasy.  There are quite a few reasons not to use Facebook in formal education: the creepy treehouse effect, Selwyn(2009)’s recommendation to leave Facebook as a backstage space for students, and the implications of mandating students of a space that is managed externally to the college or university. 

In thinking further, I also recognised an interesting link between the notyetness of both emerging technologies online learning practice and research into that practice. Ferguson(2012) identifies three different interest groups for learning analytics – governments, educational institutions and teachers/learners. When learners interact via Facebook, the major interest groups for the data are Facebook and the customers to whom they sell advertising.  Although, Facebook makes some anonymised interaction data available through apps like Netvizz, their track record for research is questionable. Selwyn’s 2009 study found that only 4% of student interactions related to their studies and so students who elected not to participate in an optional Facebook social space were not too disadvantaged but moving significant  elements of learner interaction to Facebook seems different somehow.

There is already a trend of outsourcing some educational services to private companies, and it’s easy to see that ‘free’ services can be attractive but Facebook isn’t Reclaim Hosting whose strapline is “Take Control of your Digital Identity”.  What will we see in the rearview mirror if there is a substantial move of study-related interaction to Facebook groups?

Ferguson, R. (2012). Learning analytics: drivers, developments and challenges. International Journal of Technology Enhanced Learning, 4(5/6), 304–317. Retrieved from http://oro.open.ac.uk/36374/1/IJTEL40501_Ferguson Jan 2013.pdf

Selwyn, N. (2009). Faceworking: exploring students’ education-related use of Facebook, 34(2), 157–174. doi:10.1080/17439880902923622 also currently available at http://blogs.ubc.ca/hoglund/files/2011/05/facebook.pdf

Binaries, Polarisation and Privacy

White Noise by Scott Joseph CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
White Noise by Scott Joseph CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In my writing, reading and thinking during the last year or so, some of the recurring themes are ethics, learning, diversity, popularity and polarisation in Internet culture.  Encouraged by my experience at the smallest federated wiki, I am trying different ways of writing, experimenting with partially-formed ideas, linking with and building on what others have written.  I have always blogged in this way but the experience of federated wiki has encouraged me to work in smallish chunks of writing that I can link to others’ smallish chunks without any overarching plan of where I am going.

This post is a bit different from my fedwiki writing. I want to set down some different ideas that seem connected to me because I suspect that I can come back to them later and make different connections, with your help.  I did this in an earlier post that is still ripe for connections for me.  If this post generates anything like the richness of the earlier post’s comment stream, it will be productive labour.

In some ways, we are moving away from limiting old binaries and dualisms like real/virtual, global/local in our exploration of (digital) communication and culture.

Polarisation in public discourse online is a theme that has preoccupied me, and some cogs in my thinking shifted a little when I read this excellent article by David A. Banks, Very Serious Populists.

Just like its government equivalent, voting on social networks is also a nice way to give the illusion that anything and anyone can succeed on merit while actually maintaining the status quo through sociotechnical structures. Tech entrepreneurs deploy voting to show allegiance to their fantasy of a color-blind and genderless meritocracy, predicated on what PJ Rey has shown to be an outdated and debunked notion that the Internet allows us to transcend race, class, and gender by entering a space of pure information. Popular posts are good, the logic goes, because only the best makes it to the front page.

David’s critique of voting on social networks argues powerfully that the ‘binaries’ of up-voting and down-voting are inadequate for dealing with ambiguity and divisive topics. They are a tool for polarisation not a means of going beyond it, and as David suggests the status quo of domination of spaces by white males is maintained, and even reinforced by sociotechnical aspects such as ‘voting’. The idea that someone’s popularity lends additional weight to what they have to say is interesting and deserves to be unpicked.

Another ‘binary’ that has attracted much attention is public/ private – which probably never was and certainly is no longer a binary – and deeply embedded in power relations.   danah boyd’s work has revealed that young people can regard online privacy as a strategy, more to do with who’s there rather than the features of the space itself.

We are all finding our way in the complex private/public spaces we increasingly inhabit and so it’s important to reflect, acknowledge our successes and mistakes and think of how we might do things differently.

In a powerful post, based on recent events and her own frightening experiences, Audrey Watters drew our attention to the nasty practice of doxxing, posting online someone’s personal information (such as social security number or home address). Audrey highlighted the network aspects of doxxing.

After all, doxxing relies on these sorts of large networks. Doxxing relies on amplification.

So even if we are reposting something already ‘made public’, we can be increasing the risks of the doxxed person being subjected to threats and nuisances by others. We can become part of that network of harm.  In the example that Audrey gives, both the original poster and the re-poster may well have seen themselves as on the side of the angels in their wish to defend student privacy.

And for me that links back to polarisation, it may be that we are at most danger of being drawn into networks of harm when we are hell bent on supporting a good cause.

The other thing that is puzzling me is whether or not the binary nature of much of our online participation like/not like, friend/not friend, follow/ not follow, click/not click, upvote/downvote, block/ not block might be seeping into our culture,as well as the platforms on which we enact it.  These are hard clickable binaries trying to capture a world where dualisms can get in the way of understanding complex contexts. I am not suggesting an essentialist view that our use of ‘likes’, etc. will cause polarisation of views but wondering what the impacts of ‘binary participation’ may be in different communication contexts. It’s not just about our choice to click/like but also about how that is used by the algorithms that serve up our feeds, shaping our view of what others say and do.

I would love to hear your thoughts or your links to other writers.

A Dialogue for Shaping Educational Technology

This post was triggered in part by Stephen Downes’ response to Audrey Watters post, and in part by my experiences at and discussions around fedwiki ( Link to reflections).  For me, doing fedwiki has allowed me to try out ideas in the company of other ideas from and with people who think like me sometimes but also sometimes very differently, and that’s the joy of it. Sometimes we are influenced by a post and might build on it, sometimes we read and then ignore a post, and sometimes we just miss stuff.

Stephen Downes and Audrey Watters posts both touched on building educational technology.  I could think about what building means at fedwiki – there are people, guided by the inimitable Ward Cunningham building/ making code. At the fedwiki happening Mike Caulfield shepherds us and curates us as we mine ideas, explore what fedwiki can do – another sort of building of found ideas that (sometimes) collide and spark with each other.  Some of that is adapting information couched in a technical dialect into language that non-technical users could understand.

Considering the role of the ‘user’ in ‘innovation’ is not new, it’s just not as loud as the hurrah that surrounds ideas like ‘disruptive innovation’.   A rich body of work in Science and Technology Studies has built and accelerated in the 1980s but traced back to the 1960s and before.  If you wanted to read just one paper, my recommendation would be Stewart & Williams (2005).

James Fleck gave us a non-linear model that combined innovation and diffusion approach to technology that he called ‘innofusion’ by incorporating feedback into the innovation process. Fleck (1988) emphasised the reflexive relationship between innovation and use; and Williams & Edge (1996) portrayed the contingent evolution of innovation as a ‘garden of forking paths’, both cited in Wiegel, V. (2011)Hippel and Katz (2002) gave some good examples of how technology companies engaged users in innovation in the late 20th/ early 21st century and some ideas on how they could use toolkits to surface innovations from users.

Thinking about what building means in the context of educational technology led me to recall the onion model of computing that I studied on my Masters in IT in the late 1980s.

onionmachine architecture
Example of Onion model, similar to one I studied

 

I wondered in which layer building ‘counts’ in that model.  Are the hardware engineers the real builders and the programmers who write the applications not real builders?  Of course not, and if I thought that layer models were a good representation of what is going on then I could add a lot more layers to that model.

Web 2.0 seemed to bring the opportunity of valuing users’ contributions to content and features but there are prices (in terms of loss of ownership and privacy of your data)  to pay for the sharing and contributing that users do on ‘free’ platforms.  It is often said that on Facebook, you are the product not the customer.  Educators, like others have engaged in glorious creativity with the plethora of ‘free’ web applications available.  However, those who contribute their creative works to an online service may find that the service has disappeared overnight or transformed into something radically different, and less usable for their purposes.  Watters(2014) highlights the strong connections between technology innovation and education by highlighting examples of student work that evolved later into mass market products eg Marc Andreessen’s development of the Mosaic web browser.

As Audrey Watters and others have pointed out, disruptive innovation plays into the myth that the old is destroyed.  In the case of educational technology, the new technology that the entrepreneur has developed is often portrayed as fixing ‘broken education’.

Another way of looking at a possible future is of shifting the financial resources of a public education system from people-rich services like teaching to the tech industry where the services may be worse not better, and the people whose employment has shifted from the public to the private sector are poorly paid and constrained from doing what they can do better than ‘Teaching Machines’.  The history of Atos Healthcare’s contract with the Department for Work and Pensions makes for chilling reading from another sector.

It may be that fiasco stemmed mainly from political ideology but the separation of context from technology innovation is also important. Hippel and Katz (2002) identified the role of language in joint user/development innovation and that has come up at Fedwiki.

So I am proposing that building technology is more than the heroic story of invention that it is sometimes made out to be,. There can be a joint enterprise of getting technology that improves education through the experiences of learners, teachers and others who support them.

Dialogue about building and innovation in educational technology is already happening – I am curious to know how we can extend and enrich is – and (this is the really challenging part) enable practitioners of learning to shape the technology that can improve education and learning.

Please point me to rich dialogue spaces, share your ideas, and generally engage with these ideas and others.

 

References

Hippel, E. Von, & Katz, R. (2002). Shifting innovation to users via toolkits. Management Science, 48(7), 821–833

Stewart, J., & Williams, R. (2005). The Wrong Trousers ? Beyond the Design Fallacy: Social Learning and the User. In H. Rohracher (Ed.), User involvement in innovation processes. Strategies and limitations from a socio-technical perspective (pp. 39–71). Munich: Profil-Verlag.

Wiegel, V. (2011). Tracing innovation: an activity theoretical approach. In European Conference of Information Systems. AIS.

Williams, R., & Edge, D. (1996). The social shaping of technology. In Research Policy (pp. 856–899). Institute of Physics Publishing.

Reflection on #fedwiki: Two Tales of Two Forks

Reflection of Fedwiki Happening

If you have read my last two posts Dazzled by diversity and Layers of meaning at #Fedwikihappening, you will know that I was one of the privileged people who took part in a Fedwiki Happening, led by Mike Caulfield, and inspired/ supported / birthed by Ward Cunningham.  It has been an amazing experience.  I reflected before the happening (from reading about fedwiki), I reflected during it as I played and puzzled and learned (about what I could do and what I didn’t know). I am reflecting now, and I am sure will still be reflecting in the months to come so please don’t taken anything written here as other than provisional.

The first thing to say is that I have learned more about some very interesting topics posted, edited and linked by happening participants.  Here’s a flavour – if you track across the versions of the page, you can picture the development of the ideas http://frances.uk.fedwikihappening.net/maha.uk.fedwikihappening.net/illuminating-a-path/catherine.uk.fedwikihappening.net/illuminating-a-path/journal.hapgood.net/illuminating-a-path/kate.au.fedwikihappening.net/illuminating-a-path.

I would like to reflect further on the enticing possibilities of intimate and rich collaborative writing with Fedwiki but in this post I’ll share my concerns about the uncertainty that newbies may experience.

In one of the daily newsletters, Mike shared a published exchange between students (not his class) where the punch line was ” <name> DO UR OWN PAGE”.  The moral that Mike (quite rightly) drew out of this was that much of students’ experiences of wiki  was more like a lego bricks placed side by side rather than true collaboration where their bricks made a magnificent structure.  Well of course that is true, but I am a Brit and I couldn’t help thinking about that underdog student.  What if they were frustrated by their lack of understanding of the wiki technology, and that student who edited their page was really painful outside class, and was now trying to squash them in the wiki.   So I can imagine that in Mike’s classes where he knows and listens to students, and gives them lots of support and opportunities to vent that could be solved but out in the wild, learners could think they have to put up or shut up – so they turn off.

I like diagrams so I decided to invent a development process for a post, offer two interpretations, share it at #fedwiki and see what people say.  Here is what I have just posted at #fedwiki – please don’t take it too seriously.

Two Tales of Two Forks

Accidental or Deliberate Forks - open to interpretation
Accidental or Deliberate Forks – open to interpretation

Note: This is not based on the history of a particular post but is sparked by some observations of forking at fedwikihappening.  No doubt the tales contain inaccuracies but are intended to open up discussion of the social and technical practices around forking.  These tales are two different interpretations of the development of the post shown in the diagram.

  1. A tale of accidental forking of ideas

Shilpa posted about bug-eyed monsters on Monday morning.  Siobhan noticed the post as she was very interested in bug-eyed monsters and immediately tweeted Shilpa (whom she knew from the Bug-Eyed Monster Society) to let her know she was forking her post and adding to it.

On Tuesday morning Rajesh noticed Siobhan’s edit of the post .  He forked it and contacted his mate Tom via Twitter as they had a mutual interest in bug-eyed monsters.  They tweeted back and forth, then met for coffee on Wednesday morning.  On Wednesday afternoon, Tom forked the post and made substantial edits.  Tom and Rajesh felt that they had really built on the original ideas from Shilpa and Siobhan.

Meanwhile Shilpa saw Siobhan’s post (as she but not Rajesh was in her neighbourhood), forked it and added to it, letting Siobhan know what she had done, and Siobhan responded by forking and editing on Wednesday morning.  On Wednesday afternoon, Shilpa checked the Conversation Club, rather than her usual approach of Recent Changes in her neighbourhood.  She was really surprised that the new and improved version seemed to be missing Siobhan’s and her recent additions.  Kurt scratched his head.

  1. A tale of independent development of ideas ( and a little bit of angst)

Shilpa posted about bug-eyed monsters on Monday morning.  Siobhan noticed the post as she was very interested in bug-eyed monsters and immediately tweeted Shilpa (whom she knew from the Bug-Eyed Monster Society) to let her know she was forking her post and adding to it.

On Tuesday morning Rajesh noticed Siobhan’s edit of the post .  He forked it and contacted his mate Tom via Twitter as they had a mutual interest in bug-eyed monsters.  They had already decided not to join the Bug-Eyed Monster Society as they really disagreed with their hypotheses on the reasons for the bugginess of the monsters’ eyes.  They tweeted back and forth, then met for coffee on Wednesday morning.  On Wednesday afternoon, Tom forked the post and made substantial edits to correct what they saw as the mistakes that Shilpa and Siobhan had made.

Meanwhile Shilpa saw Siobhan’s post (as she but not Rajesh was in her neighbourhood), forked it and added to it, letting Siobhan know what she had done, and Siobhan responded by forking and editing.

On Wednesday afternoon, Shilpa checked the Conversation Club, rather than her usual approach of Recent Changes in her neighbourhood.  She was really surprised that the newest version of the post was so radically different from the one she had been working.  She wondered what to do next.  Kurt sighed.

Some observations

We could write another version of this tale where Kurt invited Shilpa, Siobhan, Rajesh and Tom to a Google Hangout , and they came up with ideas on how to restructure the post into a series of linked posts  that displayed the alternative theories on bug-eyed monsters.  But, but, but … Kurt was an old hand, the others were new and were still learning about forking, journal and the implicaions of neighbourhoods.  Also, the technology is quite new, operating across servers in different continents and time zones.  In a context where there is socio-technical unpredictability, maybe we need Repair Strategies.

Comments

I would love comments, here or at #fedwiki on Twitter or on the post at #fedwiki itself.  I will try to collate what I have learned and repost at all three places.