Sunday, 28 September 2014

Anti-Edtech or Anti-Distraction?

Is technology in the classroom a distraction or a tool for improving learning?  The results of vastly improved student learning from technology haven't materialized, yet we continue to throw money at educational technology hoping that it will help.

A wise internet jedi recently shared an article in which a new media professor is putting an end to digital distraction in a class in which he teaches about digital distraction.  A better person to explain the assumptions we make about digital technology you'd be hard pressed to find.  He had a couple of quotes that really punched assumptions about edtech use in the face.

"Multi-taskers often think they are like gym rats, bulking up their ability to juggle tasks, when in fact they are like alcoholics, degrading their abilities through over-consumption."


"Multi-tasking is cognitively exhausting; when we do it by choice, being asked to stop can come as a welcome change."


The concept of multitasking has long been championed by the rise of the digital native crowd.  It's something we poor immigrants to this brave new world simply can't do like they can, except it isn't.  If you want to follow the science rather than the marketing, you'll find that multi-tasking is indeed a myth.  If you want to do something well, you focus on it.  That might seem like simple common sense, but you'll find a lot of digital education evangelists pushing for it anyway.

For the Luddites that want to attack computers themselves for this dilemma, he had this:

"programming, a famously arduous cognitive task, will acquaint you with stories of people falling into code-flow so deep they lose track of time, forgetting to eat or sleep. Computers are not inherent sources of distraction — they can in fact be powerful engines of focus — but latter-day versions have been designed to be, because attention is the substance which makes the whole consumer internet go."

As a philosophically minded technologist I straddle this uneasy divide between the tech-hater and the fan-boy/girl, and I like neither.  Where I see computer technology as a tool to use, many others either vilify or champion it from an emotional angle.  I struggle mightily in class to get students to stop this emotional love/hate relationship with computers that many model on the adults in their lives, but it's a simple truth when Shirky says our computers are now designed to be distractions.  If you're only going to be a user, you're going to be a loser.

Clay Shirky goes on to describe the intellect as the rider atop an elephant of emotions, desires and urges.  The rider may direct the elephant occasionally, but when the two are in conflict the elephant will usually win.  This is what happens when you put a distraction engine like the modern internet in front of a child whose rider is still working out how to direct the elephant (not that many adults are better).  No wonder I find it a continual frustration to direct students... and I'm teaching computers designed to distract!

The engagement game we play in education nowadays is based on this battle with software designed to distract.  As Shirky says, we're bringing whiteboard markers to a gun fight, and losing badly.  When we decide to get in sync with the modern world we are actually downgrading education in order to play the distraction game in the same split attention, broken thinking world that has people driving into each other.

Educational IT should be the leading edge, designed to vary student access to digital technology in order to promote pedagogy at every step.  What it shouldn't be is what it is, a hand-me-down variety of the very software and hardware that is causing the problem in the first place.  This realization puts concepts like BYOD, tech-branded education and open internet access in a very awkward place if you want to champion learning over engagement, though I get the sense that engagement has infected educational management much as it has everything else.


This infected thinking, the kind that has monetized the internet and made a generation of software engineers billionaires, demands constant human attention.  When everything touched by technological integration gets infected with the idea of deep psychological engagement, people in the world become little more than variables in an economic equation.

Education is now just another enabler in a digital distraction  end game that is infecting society as a whole.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Big Digital Magic

I'm really enjoying teaching English again, especially the university bound group I've got.  I don't have to worry about explaining why they are there as I do in many computer-tech classes.  The students come complete with their own resilience and competitive nature.  When you're not reduced to hand holding all the time you can get into concepts deeply and quickly.

An opening unit from the text is "Fire of the Human Spirit".  In it we look over Mandela's inauguration Speech, a Susan Aglukark song and a June Callwood essay amongst other media, all of it pointing at the concept of FotHS.


After a few examples and some discussion we set up a wikispace where students each found a song that they believe described FotHS.  They each made a wikipage on which they provided a link to the song, the lyrics, and a personal analysis of why this song exemplifies FotHS.

Because this class comes ready to play I tend to approach it as though I'm a participant in a hot group; I like to bring gifts to the group.  In this case I knew that I could export the content out of the wikispace relatively easily.  Since that text consisted only of the lyrics and student written analysis I thought it might be interesting to look at what we'd created from a group vocabulary usage point of view.  What words found in the lyrics of 28 songs and accompanying student analysis point to our concept of Fire of the Human Spirit?

Exporting the wiki is a one click process.  Once I had the text I had to do some magic to combine all the HTML pages into a single document.  Wikispaces also exports to text but it takes the html coding with it, which made a mess.  Google-docs didn't seem to have the mojo I needed to combine multiple documents into a single one, but the Phantom Foxit PDF creator I had did.  Once I had a pdf with all the text from twenty eight wikipages imported together I dumped it into the text window in Wordle and voila:




Katy Perry single-handedly got 'oh' in there!  Looking at verb usage is interesting.  Fire of the Human Spirit seems to demand action!  The nouns are also enlightening when creating constellations of meaning around this concept.  We're going to use this class produced conglomeration of ideas to develop thesis around the concept next week.

As an aside, several English teachers turned their noses up at what we were doing.  Apparently it's widely believed that you can't learn English in a digital context.  I beg to differ.  If we're going to turn to media to teach English, I'd much rather it be personalized, self created media like this.  The students themselves were surprised at how much depth something this simple offered.  That they created it as a class seemed to produce a sense of satisfaction.

Here is a FotHS 2.0 with some common words removed to emphasize specific vocabulary:

Gaming Everything

Via NBCnews: the glory of the hardcore video gamer.  Not
 the kind of thing that's ever going to challenge the Olympics

for public attention I think.
I've had a lot of trouble playing video games lately.  My problem seems to be around that idea of scripted experience.  If I'm playing a video game I'm working through a narrative someone else created.  I enjoy narratives but what irks me about video games is they pretend to have an element of choice in them when in fact they don't.  They suggest that they are the next evolution in entertainment but the interactivity they offer is so limited that it's really just a hidden script that you follow under the illusion of choice.  Gamification in general seeks to use this illusion to hook people into otherwise tedious situations.

The first step away from video gaming occurred when I found I couldn't get into single player games anymore.  Even the good ones with epic narratives felt banal.  I went to multi-player games for several years hoping that the human element would create choice, but I find that these too are scripted, and worse, they force players into scripted responses to the point where you can't tell the players from the bots.  When a game is so restrictive that it makes the people in it act like machines it's not a game I care to play.

There is a particular situation in which we're happy to turn people into bots if the illusion of engagement is preserved.  That situation also happens to be seen as quite tedious by many of its participants.  Education is eager to digitize if it ensures engagement, even if that engagement mimics the dimensionless engagement found in online activity.  Standardized testing feeds this thinking, producing learning outcomes that are easily quantifiable as data even as they fail to demonstrate learning.  Deep contextual human activities (like learning) are lost in simplistic digital data.

Doubt is cast on an individual teachers' ability to teach a subject.  Consistency is demanded in modern education as a result of this doubt and the slippery nature of digital information encourages this by eroding the space between classrooms and lessons.  This is shown as some kind of great step forward in terms of fairness, but what it really does is reduce teaching (as it has done with many other human activities) to a vapid exchange of information, incidentally, what digital machines do best. 

We fill in templates, teach centralized material and are encouraged to sync how we teach it.  Proof of success is found in standardized test scores.  There is little interest in assessing teaching or learning in any other way.

This digital infection also carries the parasitic idea of gamification, usually championed by video game evangelists who believe that the structure of gaming can overcome every obstacle.  Teachers are encouraged to design student success through scripted outcomes, pretty much like a video game does.  If the game you're playing is designed to have you eventually win, it isn't much of a challenge, and certainly isn't something you can be proud of, but then modern learning isn't about challenge, it's about engagement.  The idea of gamification makes me uneasy for this very reason.  When we gamify situations that aren't games I'm afraid that we pollute complex situations with the implied success found in most gaming outcomes.  If education is supposed to prepare students for the world beyond school, this isn't going to do it.


When you're gaming everything, you've lost the ability to
immerse yourself in anything.
If you offer open ended, 'real' experience many digital natives shy away from a situation where the rules can't be gamed for advantage.  The hacking mindset implies that the system is more important than the content.  Perhaps that is why I can't play video games anymore.  It's hard to get lost in a narrative when you're constantly looking at ways to subvert the delivery method.

Wilful suspension of disbelief is lost in the digital age.  This is the root of the pessimism and disengagement you see in many students.  When education becomes another process you hack to guaranty your own success, it becomes increasingly impossible to do anything useful with it.

This grew out of Scripted Lives which itself grew out of Unscripted Moments.  I'm pulling at a lot of threads here.  I've been a fan of RPGs since I got into D&D when I was 10.  I love sports and would describe myself as a serious gamer.  I've spent most of my life learning digital technology, so I'd hardly call myself a tech-hater either, but watching digital technology and gamification aiming for society wide acceptance has made me very uneasy.

Scripted Lives

I've been mulling this over on the motorcycle side of things, but the idea runs throughout modern digital life, so I'm going to open it up further here.



Being a computer technology teacher I have a passing acquaintance with software.  I'd even say I'm pretty handy with it, but I don't really like where it's going since it has become an integrated part of modern life.

Since we started carrying networked computers around with us we have become scripted creatures.  Our devices wake us up, tell us what we're doing, and how to get where we're going.  They remove doubts and make memory redundant.  We no longer guess at unknown information, or watch media by accident.  We live in a walled garden of playlists and information at our fingertips, surprises seldom happen.  Technology gives us access to information and media, as well as allowing us to communicate, but it changes how we do it; the medium is indeed the message.
Turing tests have computers imitating people in order to
demonstrate intelligence.  Ironically, it's pretty much the
opposite nowadays.  Instead of bringing machines up to
human intelligence, we're watching human intelligence
lower itself to a simpler standard.

When we connect to The Network we are operating within a script, quite literally, all the time.  Software scripts dictate what we see, how we see it, and how we express ourselves. Complex human relationships are being reduced to scripted simplicity dictated by technological limitations rather than the full range of human ability.  This restriction has begun to redefine what people are capable of doing.

I struggle to find non-scripted moments when software isn't dictating my responses.  You'd think this only happens when you make a choice to connect on a device, but it happens constantly in the world of action.  I can't stop my car in heavy snow as quickly because a computer steps in to keep the wheels spinning, even when I'm making a conscious choice to lock them.  Scripts are written for the largest possible population.  We're all being held to the outcomes of average thinking.

As Kenneth Clark states in Civilisation:
35:36: The obvious: "...our increasing reliance on machines. They have really ceased to be tools and have begun to give us directions..."
... and that was his angle on things in 1969.  Things have come a long way since.  Our brave new world of technology is levelling everyone off.  Individual ability doesn't matter when we are all just variables in an equation.

Students experience education, entertainment and interpersonal relationships through a digital lens whose singular intent is that of continued engagement.  When your world is housed within a simplistic digital process designed to constantly get your attention you have a lot of trouble dealing with your irrelevance in the real world.


When prompted into unscripted situations where I am asking them to critically analyze a piece of media, students long for a Google search to tell them what to think.  When given a opportunity to express themselves many students will leap into the same template to organize other people's material they copy off the internet.  When given a stochastic engineering problem with no clear, linear resolution they freeze up and long to return to scripted experience.

Technology is such an enabler, but it's also limited by its capabilities.  If friendship is now understood through the lens of social media then it isn't what it once was, it's less with more people.  More isn't necessarily better even though we're told that it is more efficient.  If communication with a student is primarily through screens then teaching isn't what it once was, it's more information with less learning.  Both friendship and teaching pre-date digital communication and have deep, nuanced social histories, but we are happy to simplify them into oblivion for convenience and the illusion of efficiency.

If you ever find yourself struggling against invisible limitations, fighting to express yourself but finding it increasingly difficult, you're up against this reductive technology.  That freedom of choice you feel when you put aside the digital and reclaim your full range of sense and capability is intoxicating.  It supercharges your mind and allows you to retain your humanity.  That I see so few people having those moments is a real cause for concern.


My son and I searching the tidal pools at Pacific Rim National Park on the edge of the world.  Carefully selected technology (a motorbike - so no digital distractions and out in the world) got us there, and then we put it all down and got lost in the world with no scripts telling us how to interact with it.  When was the last time you were unplugged?

This was such a complicated idea it spawned a number of others, including these thoughts of gamification.
The wise Skillen of the internet also shared this article on distraction prevention by a new media professor, which led to thoughts on distraction.