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Strengths and schooling

In a recent short post Seth Godin talks about amplifying your strengths rather than focusing on your weaknesses:

People don’t hire you, buy from you or recommend you because you’re indifferently average and well rounded.

Seth Godin

He’s talking about things from a business standpoint, but as a parent and former teacher, I can’t help but think about developing strengths from a learning and developmental point of view.

These things seem obvious to me:

  1. There is a baseline that societies can and should expect most people to achieve.
  2. People are born with different innate interests and tendencies.
  3. The context and environment in which people are raised affects what they find interesting.

As a result, it appears to me that following a broad and balanced curriculum up to a certain baseline would seem like the best approach for educational institutions. Beyond that, it makes sense for people to specialise based on their interests.

People develop at varying rates in different areas due to the three points listed above. That’s why I think we should allow young people to mix between year groups for different subjects, using an approach some people call “stage, not age”.

Imagine if we truly allowed people to follow their interests? Wouldn’t the ability to do so motivate young people more than the current system? Right now, educational authorities’ focus on exam results leads to the narrowing of curricula and the limiting of options.

It’s fashionable to say that we have a industrial education system for a post-industrial economy. That’s confusing means with ends. My argument would instead be that we have an education system focused mainly on the priorities of politicians and employers. What would a more community-centered vision for education look like?

Writing in 1971, Ivan Illich discussed in Deschooling Society the importance of learners finding others who share their interests so they can learn together and solve problems:

Creative, exploratory learning requires peers currently puzzled about the same terms or problems. Large universities make the futile attempt to match them by multiplying their courses, and they generally fail since they are bound to curriculum, course structure, and bureaucratic administration. In schools, including universities, most resources are spent to purchase the time and motivation of a limited number of people to take up predetermined problems in a ritually defined setting. The most radical alternative to school would be a network or service which gave each man the same opportunity to share his current concern with others motivated by the same concern.

Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society

Now that we have the internet, of course, the ability to find like-minded people is easier than ever before. Nevertheless, there is something immensely powerful about working within a shared geographical context.

This is why I return time and again to Chapter 8 of Keri Facer’s 2011 book Learning Futures, where she outlines what the ‘future-building school’ of the future might look like. I love the way that it manages to respect the specialist pedagogical skills available through schools, with the latent knowledge and talent available through communities:

Although half of the children’s time is scheduled in advance with master classes, tutorials or group learning programmes, one-fifth of their time, even from the youngest age, is dedicated to working on their own projects. The remainder is dedicated to collaborative and community projects where children seek out areas they want to work on together – whether this is exploring a new form of material that has just been developed in one of the labs upstairs, or in solving the problems of a particular group of local residents. Conversations with mentors at the beginning of each week allow the children to discuss their progress and their plans and to manage the different demands of projects and learning programmes. In these conversations, each child’s resource map comes into play. This rich map of their experiences, progress, interests and aspirations, as well as the resources that they have to draw upon at home, in the community and in their family, acts as a basis for identifying both where additional support might be needed and where the child and their family may have particular strengths and interests to share with collaborators or the wider school.

Keri Facer, Learning Futures: Education, Technology and Social Change

Given that the pandemic has put the lie to parents needing to travel to work every day, I think mass remote working in future could lead to this kind of situation happening in the next decade. We just need the will to change the system.


This post is Day 32 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

How to easily share educational resources via bittorrent

MoodleNet isn’t exactly my first foray into the world of Open Educational Resource (OER) sharing. I can’t believe that it’s now 17 years since I was, as a fresh-faced teacher, first involved in a European project around using bittorrent to share educational resources.

I feel like the global pandemic has helped sharpen our collective minds as open educators and edtech enthusiasts. It’s certainly made me realise that we should be using torrents to share resources. After all, the more people are ‘seeding’, the less it puts strain on the bandwidth at any one location!

The great thing about bittorrent is that it’s a mature decentralised technology. There’s lots of ways of achieving the same ends, but I want to show perhaps the quickest and easiest way of getting openly-licensed educational content added to a torrent that you can then share with others.

How does bittorrent work?

You don’t need to understand how it works to use it, any more than you need to know how encryption works to shop or bank online. But in case you’re interested…

Setup

Make sure you’ve got some openly-licensed content. If you don’t have any of your own to share, you can find some at OER Commons or via this list.

Also, you will need a bittorrent app, like Transmission (alternatives here)

Uploading

Create a free account at the Internet Archive. Here’s a direct link to the signup page.

Internet Archive (archive.org)

Go to the upload page:

Uploading files to archive.org

Press the green button to get to this page:

Drag-and-drop files to archive.org

Fill in the required fields to provide more information about the files to be uploaded. Then press the blue button to continue:

Enter metadata to archive.org

Downloading

Once the files have been uploaded, you (and everyone else on the web) will see a screen similar to this one. There’s some additional processing to take place, but you should be able to see ‘torrent’ in the right-hand sidebar:

Internet Archive page

If you click to download the torrent, you should see something like this. While you may download the torrent to your computer, you can also just choose to open it directly in your bittorrent app:

Download torrent from archive.org

The torrent is added to the bittorrent app. As you can see, the Internet Archive has auto-converted my original upload into other formats. You can choose to download all files (default) or choose some to skip:

Add torrent to Transmission

Here is the torrent about to start downloading to your machine. If you leave the bittorrent app running, you provide an additional node to ‘seed’ the files to others!

Downloading torrent

Conclusion

As you can see from the above, creating a torrent from files you already have (or can find!) is pretty straightforward.

The huge value of doing this via the Internet Archive is that they will always be seeding your torrent. This means there will never be a time when someone tries to download your torrent and there’s no seeds.


What could I do to improve this quick guide? Do you have any questions? Ask in the comments below!

Reframing the ‘Progressive’ vs. ‘Traditionalist’ Debate in Education [DML Central]

It’s been a while, but my 38th post for DML Central has just been published. It’s my attempt to get beyond the reductionist ‘traditional’ vs. ‘progressive’ debate that currently plagues educational discourse.

An excerpt:

Ultimately, I see a lot of educators as pragmatists and carrying out a role in accordance with a “Social Efficiency” curriculum ideology. Most of the “flamewars” and unhelpful debate I’ve seen takes place between Scholar Academics and Learner Centered educators arguing over the nature of knowledge, so I’m looking forward to the day when we each understand that not everyone becomes an educator for the same reason as us.

Click here to read the article in full.

(Note: I’ve closed comments here to encourage you to comment on the original article!)

Digital myths, digital pedagogy, and complexity

I’m currently doing some research with Sarah Horrocks from London CLC for their parent organisation, the Education Development Trust. As part of this work, I’m looking at all kinds of things related to technology-enhanced teacher professional development.

Happily, it’s given me an excuse to go through some of the work that Prof. Steve Higgins, my former thesis supervisor at Durham University, has published since I graduated from my Ed.D. in 2012. There’s some of his work in particular that really resonated with me and I wanted to share in a way that I could easily reference in future.


In a presentation to the British Council in 2013 entitled Technology trends for language teaching: looking back and to the future, Higgins presents six ‘myths’ relating to digital technologies and educational institutions:

  1. The ‘Future Facing’ Fallacy – “New technologies are being developed all the time, the past history of the impact of technology is irrelevant to what we have now or will be available tomorrow.
  2. The ‘Different Learners’ Myth – “Today’s children are digital natives and the ‘net generation –they learn differently from older people”.
  3. A Confusion of ‘Information’and ‘Knowledge’ – “Learning has changed now we have access to knowledge through the internet, today’s children don’t need to know stuff, they just need to know where to find it.”
  4. The ‘Motivation Mistake’ – “Students are motivated by technology so they must learn better when they use it.”
  5. The ‘Mount Everest’ Fallacy – “We must use technology because it is there!”
  6. The ‘More is Better’ Mythology – “If some technology is a good thing, then more must be better.

The insightful part, is I think, when Higgins applies Rogers’ (1995) work around the diffusion of innovations:

  • Innovators & early adopters choose digital technology to do something differently – as a solution to a problem.
  • When adopted by the majority, focus is on the technology, but not as a solution.
  • The laggards use the technology to replicate what they were already doing without ICT

In a 2014 presentation to The Future of Learning, Knowledge and Skills (TULOS) entitled Technology and learning: from the past to the future, Higgins expands on this:

It is rare for further studies to be conducted once a technology has become fully embedded in educational settings as interest tends to focus on the new and emerging, so the question of overall impact remains elusive.

If this is the situation, there may, of course, be different explanations. We know, for example, that it is difficult to scale-up innovation without a dilution of effect with expansion (Cronbach et al. 1980; Raudenbush, 2008). It may also be that early adopters (Rogers, 2003; Chan et al. 2006) tend to be tackling particular pedagogical issues in the early stages, but then the focus shifts to the adoption of the particular technology, without it being chosen as a solution to a specific teaching and learning issue (Rogers’‘early’ and ‘late majority’). At this point the technology may be the same, but the pedagogical aims and intentions are different, and this may explain a reduction in effectiveness.

The focus should be on pedagogy, not technology:

Overall, I think designing for effective use of digital technologies is complex. It is not just a case of trying a new piece of technology out and seeing what happens. We need to build on what is already know about effective teaching and learning… We also need to think about what the technology can do better than what already happens in schools. It is not as though there is a wealth of spare time for teachers and learners at any stage of education. In practice the introduction of technology will replace something that is already there for all kinds of reasons, the technology supported activity will squeeze some thing out of the existing ecology, so we should have good grounds for thinking that a new approach will be educationally better than what has gone before or we should design activities for situations where teachers and learners believe improvement is needed. Tackling such challenges will mean that technology will provide a solution to a problem and not just appear as an answer to a question that perhaps no-one has asked.

My gloss on this is that everything is ambiguous, and that attempts to completely remove this ambiguity and/or abstract away from a particular context are doomed to failure.

One approach that Higgins introduces in a presentation (no date), entitled SynergyNet: Exploring the potential of a multi-touch classroom for teaching and learning, is CSCL. I don’t think I’d heard of this before:

Computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) is a pedagogical approach where in learning takes place via social interaction using a computer or through the Internet. This kind of learning is characterized by the sharing and construction of knowledge among participants using technology as their primary means of communication or as a common resource. CSCL can be implemented in online and classroom learning environments and can take place synchronously or asynchronously. (Wikipedia)

The particular image that grabbed me from Higgins’ presentation was this one:

CSCL

This reminds me of the TPACK approach, but more focused on the kind of work that I do from home most weeks:

One of the most common approaches to CSCL is collaborative writing. Though the final product can be anything from a research paper, a Wikipedia entry, or a short story, the process of planning and writing together encourages students to express their ideas and develop a group understanding of the subject matter. Tools like blogs, interactive whiteboards, and custom spaces that combine free writing with communication tools can be used to share work, form ideas, and write synchronously. (Wikipedia)

CSCL activities seem like exactly the kind of things we should be encouraging to prepare both teachers and young people for the future:

Technology-mediated discourse refers to debates, discussions, and other social learning techniques involving the examination of a theme using technology. For example, wikis are a way to encourage discussion among learners, but other common tools include mind maps, survey systems, and simple message boards. Like collaborative writing, technology-mediated discourse allows participants that may be separated by time and distance to engage in conversations and build knowledge together. (Wikipedia)

Going through Higgins’ work reminds me how much I miss doing this kind of research!


Note: I wrote an academic paper with Steve Higgins that was peer-reviewed via my social network rather than in a journal. It’s published on my website and Digital literacy, digital natives, and the continuum of ambiguity. I’ve also got a (very) occasional blog where I discuss this kind of stuff at ambiguiti.es.


Photo by Daniel von Appen

7 approaches to educational technology integration

I’m working with Victoria College, a school in Jersey, at the moment. They’re new to digital strategy, so I’ve been sharing some models that can be useful when thinking in this regard.

1. The OODA loop

OODA loop (CC BY Patrick Edwin Moran)

Much more generally applicable than just to educational technology integration, and pioneered in the military, the OODA loop is useful when thinking about where to get started.

What I particularly like is that it starts with observation, and places great emphasis on context and feedback.

2. The SOLO taxonomy

SOLO taxonomy

SOLO stands for Structure of Observed Learning Outcome and focuses on five levels of understanding, from ‘pre-structural’ through to ‘extended abstract’. I reference this model in my book, The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies, which is where the above diagram comes from.

The idea is that competence is scaffolded and goes from understanding some aspects, through to the relation between them, and finally, applying that knowledge to a new domain.

3. The SAMR model

SAMR model

Although I’ve seen some recent pushback, I still think that the SAMR model is a useful frame to use for educational technology integration. The idea is that we move beyond technology that merely substitutes for previous analogue examples.

What I like about this model is that it takes minimal explanation, and can serve as an aspirational goal for both individual educators, and whole establishments. This is another diagram from my book.

4. The TPACK framework

TPACK framework

TPACK stands for Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge. At its heart, it’s a Venn diagram, showing the overlap between technology, pedagogy, and content, but, again, I like the use of ‘context’ wrapping around the whole thing.

This framework is useful when explaining the importance of technology as an integrated part of a wider institutional/organisational strategy. The overlaps between each circle are also handy for identifying different streams of work.

5. Kolb’s experiential learning cycle

Kolb's Experiential Learning Cycle

While I think we can agree that Kolb’s ‘learning styles’ theory was off-the-mark, his experiential learning cycle is definitely worth exploring further in terms of educational technology integration.

As with other models, there’s a balance between doing and reflection, but — and this is where there’s a clear link to the SOLO taxonomy — Kolb’s emphasises the importance of ‘abstract conceptualisation’.

6. Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development

ZPD

The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is a very simple approach to scaffolding learning. It sits between what the learner current cannot do and what they can do unaided. In other words, the ZPD is where maximal learning is happening.

Again, this is a simple approach which most educators should already know about. My father used to talk about it all the time when I was younger and he was doing his postgraduate studies! It’s useful for thinking about scaffolding staff/student digital skills.

7. The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies

The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my own work, the product of the years of work that went into my doctoral thesis. It’s a synthesis of what came out of a meta-analysis of digital literacy approaches and frameworks.

There’s eight skillsets (the top row) and eight mindsets (bottom row). In my book and TEDx talk, I explain the importance of co-creating definitions of digital literacies, and placing emphasis on context. In terms of educational technology integration, I think the ‘mindsets’ are often skipped over.


I’m well aware that there are other approaches out there, and no doubt some I’ve never heard of. That being said, these are the models I currently find most helpful when working with clients. What have I missed?

Image by Paolo Carrolo

Why It’s Time to Let Go of ‘Meritocracy’ [DML Central]

My latest post for DML Central was published yesterday. Entitled Why It’s Time to Let Go of ‘Meritocracy’, it’s an attempt to explain why a belief in something most people see as unproblematic can actually lead to unforeseen issues.

A sample:

Building an education system around ‘meritocracy’ as it is commonly used post-Thatcher may be a function of those in power being so privileged that they are not in a position to see their own privilege. Those who have never witnessed people having to work three jobs to keep their family afloat may not understand why parents can’t do more to coach their children through an entrance examination.

Click here to read the post in full.

I’ve closed comments here so that you can add yours to the original post. I’d be keen to hear your thoughts!

Discipline in the field of edtech

I’m always wary on the rare occasions I’m in any form of disagreement with Audrey Watters. It usually shows I haven’t read enough or perhaps have grasped the wrong end of the stick. However, in Disciplining Education Technology, to me she asserts something that I certainly don’t feel is true:

Education technology is already a discipline; education technology is already disciplinary. That is its history; that is its design; that is its function.

Perhaps this perspective is a function of my geographical location. The edtech sector is tiny in the UK, and the closest that educational institutions seem to get to ‘edtech’ is employing learning technologists and technicians. Again, I may be wrong about this; it may be just invisible to me. However, it seems to me that if edtech is indeed already a discipline, it’s almost entirely US-focused.

Martin Weller, also UK-based, gives reasons (my emphasis) for embracing the idea of a ‘discipline’ of edtech:

  1. “[I]t allows us to bring in a range of perspectives. One of the criticisms of ed tech is that people come in from one discipline and are unaware of fundamental work in a related one. So the Ed Tech discipline might well have components from psychology, sociology, education, computer science, statistics, etc. This would help establish a canonical body of texts that you could assume most people in ed tech are familiar with.”
  2. “As well as establishing a set of common content, Ed Tech can establish good principles and process in terms of evaluating evidence.”
  3. [I]t creates a body against which criticism can push. When a subject becomes a discipline, then it is not long before you get a version of it prefaced by the word “Critical”. Critical Educational Technology sounds fine to me, and could sit alongside Practical Educational Technology to the mutual benefit of both.”

An additional point I’d add is that formalisation and scaffolding creates career paths for people, rather than them having to reside in the spaces between other disciplines. Look at the field of Design. There are schools within the discipline, there are career paths, but there are also consultants and freelancers who are seen as part of the bigger picture 

As a UK-based consultant who sees edtech as my ikigai, you’re often seen as ‘outsider’ unless you’re in Higher Education or work for a vendor. Work in schools and colleges is also often looked down upon. Bringing everyone together and establishing norms, processes, procedures, and ‘canonical knowledge, could  make it easier for people to move in and out of various organisations and institutions. It would certainly make funding easier.

Of course, the $64,000 question is who gets to decide what constitutes the discipline? I’d hate to see that discussion locked up in expensive academic conferences sponsored by vendors, and/or happening in paywalled academic journals. Perhaps paradoxically, open educators are exactly the kinds of people in the best position to push for a discipline of edtech.

I’m definitely in alignment with Audrey when she talks of the importance of a ‘radical blasphemy’ against the establishment of orthodoxy. My concern is that, currently, this orthodoxy isn’t explicit. What we’ve got is an implicit  orthodoxy predicated on vague notions of terms such as ‘edtech’ and ‘open education’. As I’ve already argued, I think we can move towards more productively-ambiguous notions, whilst avoiding the pitfalls of edtech as (what Richard Rorty would term) a ‘dead metaphor’.

Perhaps the crux of the problem is with the word ‘discipline’. It certainly has negative connotations, and focuses on control. Given that ‘field’ is a near-synonym, I’d suggest that perhaps we use that instead? I’d very happy introducing myself to people by saying that I “work in the field of edtech”.

Perhaps we need an unconference…

The problem with ‘grit’

If you’re an educator, parent, or in any way interested in the development of young people, it’s been impossible to escape the term ‘Grit’ in the past few years. The Wikipedia article for Grit defines it in the following way:

Grit in psychology is a positive, non-cognitive trait based on an individual’s passion for a particular long-term goal or end state, coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve their respective objective. This perseverance of effort promotes the overcoming of obstacles or challenges that lie within a gritty individual’s path to accomplishment, and serves as a driving force in achievement realization.

The article goes on to mention the origin of the term:

The construct dates back at least to Galton, and the ideals of persistence and tenacity have been understood as a virtue at least since Aristotle.

Finally, and tellingly:

Although the last decade has seen a noticeable increase in research focused on achievement-oriented traits, strong effects of Grit on important outcomes such as terminal school grades have not been found.

So why is this such a buzzword at the moment? I’d argue that it’s an advanced form of victim-blaming.


Almost all of the research cited by proponents of Grit was carried out by Angela Duckworth. As this post by Iowa State University points out, “an analysis of 88 independent studies representing nearly 67,000 people shows that grit is really no different than conscientiousness.”

However, Grit is far from a neutral term, and no mere synonym. It has been appropriated by those on the political right with books such as Paul Tough’s How children succeed : grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character effectively saying poor kids just need to try harder. This is obviously incredibly problematic, and the reason I see Grit as a form of victim-blaming. The attitude from proponents of Grit seems to be that poverty is a self-education problem.

Fascinatingly, a recent Washington Post article digs further than just the etymology of the term to discover why the term was popularised:

My longitudinal analysis shows that the conversation originated in the late 19thcentury, and was never focused on “at-risk” children. Instead, grit was understood as an antidote to the ease and comfort of wealth, which produced spoiled children who lacked the vigor of their ancestors. The remedy was to toughen them up. While some families took this cause seriously (elite boarding schools in the early 20th century proudly advertised their Spartan living conditions), the easiest way to impart grit was through literature. The celebrated Horatio Alger books were written and sold as instructive tools to teach middle and upper class children about the virtues that came from struggling against hardship.

Now, of course, society is all too quick to embrace the grit narrative and apply it to poor and minority children. The irony is that these kids were traditionally seen as already having grit! It was the louche upper classes who needed a kick up the backside.

The clincher for me, and the final nail in Grit’s coffin, is that the data supplied as ‘evidence’ for the importance of Grit is fundamentally flawed. Returning to the first article:

The most well-known data source on grit is based on West Point cadets who complete basic training at the United States Military Academy. According to one paper describing these cadets, those with above-average levels of grit are 99 percent more likely to finish the training than cadets with average levels of grit. However, Credé says the original data were misinterpreted. His analysis shows the increase in likelihood is really closer to 3 percent, rather than 99 percent.

“It’s a really basic error and the weird thing is that no one else has ever picked it up. People just read the work and said, ‘It’s this massive increase in people’s performance and how likely they are to succeed.’ But no one had ever looked at the numbers before,” Credé said.

Given that schools (in the US at least) are now measuring ‘Grit’ and ‘Joy’ levels in their cohorts, I think it’s time to push back on such blunt instrument. Let’s stop poorly-researched, damaging buzzterms being used as a stick with which to beat the under-privileged.

Image CC BY Daniel X. O’Neil

Caring doesn’t scale, and scaling doesn’t care

Last night I had a really enjoyable dinner and thought-provoking conversation with Sirkku Nikamaa, her husband Mark, and Dr Mike Martin. We talked about many and varied things, including social reproduction, elite performance, and the current state of the English education system.

On my way home, I saw that my former Mozilla colleague Geoffrey MacDougall had tweeted a question which led to a short exchange:

Both the conversation over dinner and the subsequent Twitter conversation reminded me of a short video clip that Graham Brown-Martin shared featuring Prof. Keri Facer:

The problems we face in trying to change the education system are at least threefold:

  1. Parents want the best for their kids and they often believe this is through gaining credentials that are the results of high-stakes testing.
  2. Politicians want to impose their worldview on the next generation of the electorate through the education system.
  3. The filters we use (e.g. elite university admissions) to separate out people into social roles are extremely narrow and confining.

I was struck that I didn’t really have an answer to Geoffrey’s question about teaching subjects and skills that I usually equate with a private school education. Nor did I have a response to Mike’s question about how to scale something like the Oxbridge tutorial system.

At the end of the day, it’s difficult to scale almost anything that makes a really profound impact on people’s lives. I’m the person I am today because of supportive parents who are my biggest fans, because of a really interesting History teacher I had growing up, an inspiring university lecturer, a former boss who believed in me. The list goes on.

The purpose of this post isn’t to provide answers, but to point out that I’ve now come across a number of people who have had an elite education who are genuinely interested in how others can receive the same. The problem is, of course, that caring doesn’t scale, and scale doesn’t care.

Image CC BY-NC Macroscopic Solutions


The title of this post comes from an O’Reilly article. It’s unrelated, unless you’re a developer.

Open Badges location extension

I’m delighted that, thanks to some help from Kerri Lemoie, the Open Badges extension for geolocation that I proposed is now available for use. It was simple enough to do the initial coding following the following the example using JSON-LD but Kerri (and Nate Otto)

Details of how Open Badges extensions work can be found in this post I wrote for DMLcentral. It explains how version 1.1 of the specification allows for great things through extensions.

At the time of writing, the following extensions are now available:

  • Apply Link — provides a URL allowing potential badge earners to apply for an opportunity specified by a badge issuer.
  • Endorsement — allows a third party to publicly acknowledge the value of a badge designed, assessed, and issued by a particular issuer.
  • Location — allows for the addition of the geographic coordinates associated with a badge.
  • Accessibility — allows for the addition of content for people with disabilities.
  • Original Creator — provides a way to track the origin of a badge when one organisation creates it for another.

I’m really pleased with all of this and delighted that the Open Badges ecosystem has a bright future!

Image CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers


If you’re interested in designing badge systems and think I might be able to help, please do get in touch via my consultancy, Dynamic Skillset. I have reduced rates for third sector organisations such as charities, non-profits and educational institutions.

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