Thursday, 24 April 2014

Data Exhaust

At a recent educational technology conference in Phoenix Constance Steinkuehler mentioned the term 'data exhaust' in passing to describe the numbers pouring out of testing.  The idea of data as pollution has been with me for a while.  The statistics I've seen derived from data in education have often been farcical attempts at justifying questionable programming.  It's gotten to the point that when someone starts throwing charts and graphs up in a presentation I assume they are hiding something.

Constance's term 'Data exhaust' had me tumbling through metaphorical implications.  If the data we generate out of education is the exhaust, what are we doing when we turn the education system toward producing data exhaust for its own sake?  No student will ever face a standardized test in the working world, it's a completely unrealistic and limited way in which to measure learning let alone prepare students for the rest of their lives.  Using standardized testing to measure learning has us revving the education vehicle at high rpm in neutral; we're making a lot of smoke and not going anywhere.

Is data always useless?  Not at all, but the tendency to find patterns and turn data in statistics takes something already abstract and abstracts it even further.  That people then take these inferences and limited slices of information as gospel points to the crux of the crisis in American education.  We end up with what we think are facts when they are really fictions that use math of lend an air of credibility.

Even with statistics and data metrics off the table, the idea of looking at the data exhaust pouring out of education as a way of directing future action demonstrates staggering shortsightedness.  Education is not a data driven, linear or binary enterprise, it is a complex human one.  We are not producing expert test takers, we should be producing well rounded human beings that can thrive in a complex, competitive, data rich century.  No standardized test can measure that.

We pay less and
produce more by
focusing on pedagogy
If you took your poorly running car into a mechanic and they just kept revving the engine harder and harder while watching smoke billow out of the back you'd think something was wrong with them, yet that is how American education is tuning itself.  They then wonder why they aren't scoring well in world rankings.  If we want the education vehicle to take us somewhere we need to crack open the hood and take a look at the engine, but what is that engine?  What actually makes the engine of education run well?  It isn't fixating on the data exhaust.

Canada has performed very well in world education rankings.  We find ourselves able to keep up with some of the world's best education systems, like Finland, and we do it at a much lower cost per student than the US has managed to.  It looks like all that testing and data exhaust fixation costs a lot more than your students' well being, it's also hugely inefficient.

A well running education system focuses on pedagogy.  It is what fuels it, it is what makes the system serve its students using the best possible learning practices.  Pedagogy is a tricky concept, and it doesn't offer simplistic solutions that digital technology companies can app-up, but it does give everyone, no matter how much they may disagree on the details, a common goal.

There was a lot of talk about coming together and pulling in the same direction over the Common Curriculum at this conference.  We aren't all on the same page in Canada when it comes to processes or how the system should run, but pedagogy is on everyone's mind.  Best practices have to drive education.  Having standards isn't a bad thing, but when you're so fixated on the data exhaust you're producing that you forget fundamental pedagogical practice, you've lost sight of what education should be in the data smog you've created.

ASU/GSV Summit

I went to the strangest education conference of my career this past couple of days.  Wikispaces invited me down to attend and what a learning experience it was.  Surrounded by a struggling US education system that spends more and produces less than our own, I found it difficult to follow the circumstances they've invented for themselves.

Being a stranger in a strange land I wasn't necessarily trapped by the expectations of the other people in attendance, though I wasn't the only one questioning what I saw.  There seems to be a clear split in American education.  There are the Common Curriculum fans (check out that webpage, ride the hyperbole!), and then there are parents & teachers who are questioning the value of such a regimented, testing focused approach to learning.  Strangely, very few education technology companies seem to be questioning this approach, though they all appear quite interested in education.

The whole thing occurred on the surface of a conference that was more an educational technology trade show than an examination of sound pedagogical practice.  That politics and the business that feeds it drives the US education system rather than sound pedagogy became more apparent to me as the conference went on:

The only time I heard someone actually refer to pedagogical practice, best practices in teaching and learning, was when Michael Crow, the ASU president, gave a thoughtful talk on how we adapt to technology use in changing times.  Everything else was urging people to get on board with the common curriculum (and buy our system that caters to it).  That educational technology in the States is so focused on the politics of testing rather than best practices should concern every Canadian who adopts American technology in the classroom.

I've got a lot of notes and ideas I want to chase down from this experience.  In the next week or two I'll write to them after mulling it over.

In the meantime, here are some photos of beautiful Arizona in bloom...

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Hack The Future

Between questions of how student data is being used and technology monopolists pushing for standardization in edtech, I'm left with an uneasy feeling.  As we reach a tipping point in digital educational technology we simplify and standardize to the point where the people doing the teaching don't know or care what happens behind the curtain.  What is happening behind that curtain is being decided in closed rooms between multi-national corporations and governments.  The bait is a 'free' digital learning system for education.  The payoff is habituated users and data mining on a level unprecedented in history, and we're happy to sell our students and ourselves into it in order to get the freebies.

If this were all happening in the light of day I'd be a lot happier about it.  That it's happening behind closed doors and shouldn't be publicized is something that should concern everyone.

If you're not paying for it you're the product being sold.  Corporations may state that they do no evil but they aren't after what education is after, they are after profit.  That student information is being brokered well beyond the reach of educational institutions by these information merchants should be a cause of concern, but instead I see public educators increasingly branding themselves with corporate logos and shouting their evangelism from the social media rooftops.

Technology is exciting, and digital technology is such an intimate thing because it nestles up to our minds.  Our habit of elastically coupling with our technology suggests that digital-tech is going to become an intrinsic part of how we see ourselves.  People are already describing unplugging as feeling like an amputism, it's only going to become more entwined, especially as we begin to wear our digital selves.

I'm reminded of Kenneth Clark's unsettling end to what many consider to be the best documentary series ever created, Civilisation...

Start at 35:30 if the link doesn't take you right there.

That one of the most intelligent observers of human society was pondering this in the year I was born lurks in the back of my mind.  Machines that make decisions for us, many educators seem thrilled with this idea.  You may be all gungho over the latest shiny i-thing or googly-eyed over that app that will revolutionize your teaching, but the true costs of these things are a carefully kept secret.  At the very least, when we adopt a single digital ecosystem (no matter how free it is), we're selling our students (and our own) habitual technology use into a closed environment.

As educators it should be a goal to recognize tools in terms of what they can do rather than how easy they are and how well integrated they come.  And we should never be deciding on a tool that inserts itself into the learning process based on how little we're expected to learn about it.  Technology and the internet aren't Google, and tablets aren't Apple.  Computers aren't Microsoft.  Only by offering students access to all of these things and more are we approaching the teaching of technology in as complete and well rounded a way as possible.

Over the past ten years I've watched education stagger into digitization always hesitant to change old ways, and I've pushed as hard as I can to encourage that change.  Only by catching up to this revolution can we hope to prepare students for the strange world that awaits them.  Now that we're at a tipping point I'm watching what could be a powerful new fluency being boiled down into canned access to technology, always under a single brand.  Instead of teaching technology like it's becoming an intimate part of our lives (which it is), we pass it off with idiotic notions like 'digital native' that allow people who have no interest in learning technology to also off-load the responsibility of teaching our children about technology.  Into that ignorance vacuum corporations have crept, offering you an easy solution, and most people are more than happy to take it even if it means being walled in to a monopoly.

I wrote last on the idea of being a tech-ronin, a digital samurai without a master.  That works for me but I come from a time before data dictated who I am.   I'm worried about my students.  In a world where we've sold them into digital servitude as data sheep (call them digital natives if that makes you feel better), the only way out is to know the system well enough to circumvent it.  Instead of teaching a closed, monopoly limited mindset in technology that serves everyone except my students, I want them to develop a broad understanding of digital tools and how they work.  In a broad edtech learning environment my students will develop a meta-cognitive view of both technology and how they are represented by it.  In a time where we are increasingly defined by our data the only free people will be the ones who have a sense of themselves beyond their student record in the LMS.

My department logo has 'learn how to build the future' on it, but perhaps I need to make a change just to give my students a chance to self-realize beyond whatever data metric they are being sold into.
Rage against the machine

Saturday, 5 April 2014


The Google Apps for Education (GAFE) 'Summit' is this weekend.  I'm not there and I'm comfortable with that.  There is nothing in Google that I haven't been able to figure out on my own and I use Google extensively, they make good products.

Last week's Elearning Ontario Presentation
Last week I presented at elearning Ontario on how to create a diverse digital learning ecosystem.  You'd think that educators would want to get their hands on as wide a variety of tools as possible in order to not only provide the best possible digital learning support for their students but to also increase their own comfort zone in educational technology.  In the mad rush to digitize the vast majority of people want as little expertise to accompany it as possible, they would much rather find a closed ecosystem in which they can develop a false sense of mastery.

If you hyper focus on one thing you tend to get an inflated sense of your abilities.  I wouldn't trust a mechanic who can only work on Ford brakes or a teacher who can only work out of Pearson textbooks, I'd have to assume they've learned by rote rather than developed mastery.  I know it's hard work, but becoming fluent in digital tools requires some time, some curiosity and some humility and that's ok.

A colleague showed me this last year and it has been
on my mind ever since.
The idea that you get a qualification under a single brand and have somehow become a master of digital learning is misleading.  But the limits of evangelizing a single digital learning ecosystem go well beyond questionable professional practices around branding teachers with private company logos.  There is also the question of how these technologies are mining education for profit.  

If you live within a monopolistic education technology environment you can never be sure what they are doing with the data they are managing for you 'for free'.  That data is worth a lot of money.  Even if it's being stripped of names, the ethics of exchanging student marketing data for a 'free' digital learning environment has to be questioned.  In a monopolistic situation that questioning doesn't happen.  Only an open, fair digital learning environment allows us to demand higher standards from companies who are otherwise singularly focused on making money in any way that they can.

Wouldn't an opensource hardware model that allows us
to teach all technology platforms be a nice idea?  The Learnbook
Some links to consider:
"Google would not answer questions about whether its data-mining practices support the creation of profiles on student users.

Google also confirmed to Education Week that its general terms of service and privacy policy apply to student users of Apps for Education, a stance contrary to the company's earlier public statements."
OSAPAC has worked out a deal that doesn't sell off Ontario Students' data, but it's a secret,
and each board has to implement it themselves.  The mysteries of information in the information age...
Tweets on this weekend's GAFE summit in Kitchener/Waterloo... the koolaid tastes good.


  1. 1.
    (in feudal Japan) a wandering samurai who had no lord or master.