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Instructional Technology: The Acceleration of Nonsense

Elon University / Pew Internet and American Life project has posted an "Experts Survey" called Prediction on Formal Education. Experts were asked to respond to the following proposal:

Enabled by information technologies, the pace of learning in the next decade will increasingly be set by student choices. In ten years, most students will spend at least part of their “school days” in virtual classes, grouped online with others who share their interests, mastery, and skills.

57% of experts were deemed to agree with the statement while 18% disagreed (75% total). 9% challenged the statement and 17% of experts responded correctly by not responding (26% total). This means that...

75% of the experts surveyed got it wrong, while only 26% got it right.

Of course, making a statement like the one I just made is argumentative. But this tone seems fair since the proposal put in front of experts is simply unworthy, even if this was not recognizeed by the experts themselves. Let's just predict that there'll be more predictions, then our chances of being right are improved.

This phrase enabled by information technologies is a common underlying theme of much educational jargon. Something called the pace of learning is enabled by information technologies? Information technology does not enable learning, or the pace of learning. People do. Being enabled by information technology does not suddenly mean there are more choices available. Does some vague notion of a virtual class equate to the notion that some kind of meaningful sharing will occur? Maybe - maybe not. The statement can only be challenged or not responded to.

None of this is to say that the Internet has no value in education. Of course, it does. None of this is to say that we can't improve our methods of using it in education. We can. But some vague notion of an "information technology" simply cannot provide a meaningful foundation to build on. A crayon, pen, pencil, paper, notebook, blackboard, chalk, and so on, are all information technologies. And all of these are contained in more virulent forms of technology called curriculum, instruction, and evaluation - the technological trinity of educational bureaucracy. Further implied in this statement is the false notion that somehow information technologies, by virtue of only their presence in an environment, foster a democratization of choice at the student level so that the student is in a sense given some semblance of self-organization. This is an illusion, or perhaps by now, since we seem to hear it so often, a hallucination or neurosis.

In scanning the responses made in the survey and number of biases become apparent. As one example, it's pretty easy to tell who comes from the corporate world and has something to sell even though it is not mentioned directly. At the same time, the requirements of the survey likely limit the expert reponses to a paragraph and are more focused on trying to get the expert to agree, disagree or challenge the statement. This is another reason why the experts not responding or challenging the statement got it right.

At that point, we will truly move from "teaching" environments to "learning" environments, where students have more control over when, how, and with whom they learn. Master teachers will copyright their courses and lectures, and multimedia versions of those will become "best sellers."

Really. In this truly moving will students have some control over what they are learning? Or is the what the express domain of the best seller? Why is there no mention that maybe, just maybe, students will come up with better material than the master teacher? The underlying implications here are all old school thought wrapped in the facade of truly moving.

I agree, but am saddened to think that human interaction will be decreased in this part of the growth and development process.

Then, please, don't agree and don't be sad. This sounds like a resignation.

My students think that "library" is part of a web address, as in "" They go to the online library to read things, but they miss out on serendipitous, mind-expanding browsing through book shelves. If it isn't on the first page or two of Google, it doesn't exist.

Good common sense.

There will be more choice, but education will still be in classrooms. However, the nature of knowledge and authority are changing rapidly.

More choice, but it sounds like not many options. Obviously if classrooms are still the containment field, then the nature of knowledge and authority are not changing that dramatically. But that's our choice.

Kids will always be the most creative users of technology.

Trite nonsense. Obviously some students do creative things with technology - so do some adults. This imaginary generation gap is really a gap in the mind of the person who thinks there is a gap.

For many, learning is really about the absorption of content, not the making of meaning. For that to change, we need a change in the culture of teaching and learning, not just the technological means. And that will happen slowly, not quickly. Perhaps that's not entirely a bad thing. The student-as-consumer analogy is flawed: students often learn, not because they want to, but because they are made to. If learning becomes choice-driven, what's to prevent many from making the choice to do less, learn less, tune out?

Now here's something that stands beyond the confines of the proposal and correctly focuses on something beyond technology. Yet, "And that will happen slowly, not quickly" is a mistake - it may not happen at all. There is no indication that the "culture of teaching and learning" has the ability to change. Classrooms today and those of one-hundred years ago remain strikingly similar. And perhaps the "choice to do less" is precisely the right choice in the face of some of the things we impose on them. Are we to assume that everything we want to teach a student is the right choice, or what they should be learning?

I will always remain a champion of active learning, of overthrowing the authoritarian classroom. But many, when left to their own devices, ignoring even the guides on the side, sandbagging in collaborative groups, gaming the system, are lapsing into higher and higher levels of ignorance, to the point where they have lost the critical thinking abilities to penetrate the logical fallacies and leaps of politicians, to where they fall prey to fascist manipulators of public opinion and become part of an ignorant mob. This is dangerous for sustaining a free society. How can it be that by challenging the authoritarian nature of traditional classrooms, we leave our students more vulnerable to authoritarian demagogues in other venues? Is this the classic case of the Boomer Hippie parents raising kids who rebel by becoming authoritarian goose-steppers? Perhaps too much loosely structured learning creates a reversal... like McLuhan's media reversals.

Nicely said.

Based on my experiences with teaching in virtual teams, students will not take to "the mastery of their own education." Most students today, in fact, don't much value learning, but only the degree that they can put on their resume. Left to their own devices most students would do significantly less academic work.

I suspect this is true and it is a credit to the students. The routines of education and the version of learning we impose on them are maybe not worth valuing as much as we think. If students are only interested in padding their resumes, then does this not admit a dramatic failure on our part? Maybe they are just trying to recover their loses? And perhaps doing significantly less academic work is not such a bad thing at all.

I'm not sure what value creating a list of predictions has. Perhaps they are best left for an author creating compelling and engaging views of the future and provides us with the pleasant experience of reading a well-written novel. The range of predictions presented in this survey fall under the banner of "Imagining The Internet." Why? What is there to imagine about the Internet? If past performance is not an indicator of future results, then perhaps we can be optimistic about education. If past performance is an indicator of future results, then perhaps we need something else altogether.

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Thanks goes to you for shaping this space for creative thought and discussion. This space of yours is partly responsible for me becoming more proactive in my community. I have recently been in contact with an 'alternative school' here in Charlottetown about the possibility of guiding the children into the world of improv.

My idea is to play "yes" games with them and tie it into creative writing. We may even tie it into mountain biking (talk about trusting your mond and body).

Once you learn to say yes, the possibilities are endless.

Thank you Brian.

Chris, Jeremy, Cynthia, Rob,

I just wanted to thank you all for the wonderful contributions you made here and will always look forward to more. The stories and insights you have shared stimulated a lot of thought and reflection in me and you have helped guide, clarify and expand my thinking.

Greatly appreciated.

These series of comments also remind me just how powerful our personal stories and narratives are. How we use them to shape much of our understanding and meaning-making.

Because memory is what it is, the first thing we tend to "remember" is that time passes. In going back, we recognize that we've survived the passage of time - and if we survive what we remember, then it's likely we'll survive the present. Memory is a form of hope.

- Timothy Findley

Hi Rob,

Although your name does not appear at the head of this comment, I definitely know it's you:-)

What a wonderful phrase - space shaper. Not too distant from experience designer I think. The idea of space is also closely connected to the word I tend to use - environment - learning environment - a space where we try to create and coordinate the various kinds of conditions we are trying to encourage.

I like the insight about setting up the conditions for conversation. And since I have a very good understanding of how you think, I suspect that this setting up is both inclusive and invitational from a design perspective. It would be interesting to hear you describe your underlying design principles for what you do.

You've got my attention re Christopher Alexander and I look forward to your posting spree:-)

Hi Jeremy,

Very interesting extensions indeed. I remember reading James Burke's ideas about the pinball effect and was intrigued in how one single point/idea, whatever, can quickly become the basis for an expanding web of associations and relationships. It leads to the possibility that anything can be connected to anything else in fundamentally important ways if we embrace a kind of pattern seeking and recognition in our thinking and experiences.

I refer to Burke because three of your insights immediately took me there: a) they aimed for depth instead of breadth by covering very few topics; b) seeding it with controversial or interesting questions; and c) we could follow rabbit trails and find examples (personal or otherwise) that were only loosely related. And also your conclusions: a) I still think about that course every week; b) I learned more about natural resource management...; c) helped us understand what was important.

There is also a wonderful connection between Restak's ideas about the brain and one of David Suzuki's insights.

These are definitely high quality experiences. I think we don't do enough to allow, even foster, the accidental in education. The accidental is a gateway to discovery, an opportunity for pattern recognition, and a way to develop understanding and meaning. Recent environmental events around the world clearly show us that the accidental is a fact of life, one that needs to be embraced.

The promotion of the accidental is something I have taken some heat over in the past. For example, Connected Intelligence does not impose or pre-dispose people to pre-determined forms of knowledge (of course, some of that is there out of necessity). There is no pre-condition for covering certain bodies of knowledge, subject disciplines, and so on. However, what I found quite interesting, is that very frequently, these bodies of knowledge would remerge in exciting ways - in primary experiential ways which could then be supported or clarified by the static forms of knowledge. Most importantly, students and teachers started talking about them by way of their own personal experiences rather than by way of the balckboard.

There is something about the brain here too that brings to mind Brainscapes, Maybe his ideas about the brain's plasticity are more to the point. I am often disheartened at the amount of attention the brain is given in certain kinds of instructional methods in the absence of larger experiences and contexts. Restak, to my thinking, captures this point nicely.

I think this idea of accidental or collateral learning that you mention is a critical design parameter, and a key to part what an inclusive design can mean for education.

Hi Cynthia,
It's always so nice to hear stories like yours and Chris'. I especially like the ways in which you were invited into designing the place(s) of learning.

It brought to my a recent entry in which I briefly revisited the idea of the object vs. source of design. The idea that the learner (not necessarily the students) is ultimately the source of design for learning, I believe, is a fundamental and guiding design initiative that is often misunderstood and sometimes maligned. Too often we think of design as if it was something specific to computers. In education, we often see the word design used to refer to such things as curriculum design or instructional design. This, too, is an extremely limited and needlessly narrow working definition of design.

The other thing I see in your description are references to people, places and things. In other words, this new found freedom and inspiration in your experience had something to do with greater accessibility to different people, different places, and different things. Contrast this with sitting in a lecture theatre which is ultimately driven my an imposed curriculum and narrow sense of instruction, if it can even be called that.

I remember making this shift in my own thinking and practices. The two projects I mentioned in the laast comment capture most of it. I decided not only did whatever design I used as an educator had to, by default, be inclusive in a fundamental way, I also had to shift away from being a talking head for knowledge, skills and attitudes and move to deliberately expanding the scope of people, places and things in the educational experience. The underlying assumptions of my own design process had changed.

For example, one thing I was always encourage my students to think/do is instead of running off to the library and looking is some book for information about a question they were pursuing, find out who you can talk to, where you can go to, what kinds of tangible objects can be used. In the beginning this was quite foreign to them, so I helped by showing them ways they could do this by making first contacts with people we didn't know, creating trips to places that had something to offer, and collecting things that were relevant.

The underying shift is that students then are sources of primary information (i.e. - information that they themselves have created), rather than just being receivers of information (we didn't ignore this, it just came later on in the process). This means that students can in fact create knowledge - be sources of it. And a classroom doing this can be viewed as a source of knowledge creation, and a school, and an educational system, etc.

This results in a fundamental change in education in that a school can be seen as a source of knowledge creation, a source of cultural development, a source of social aid, and so on. Then education becomes a system that can proactively engage itself in issues locally, regionally, nationally and globally. The traditional stuff, that is, education systems as mass communication and imposed information dissemination, still had a place, but it was no longer the source of design since the underlying assumptions were no longer consistent with it.

Hi Chris,
I like your phrase "What happens is the facade is changed, but it's out of alignment..." A long time ago, I used to give a presentation on educational change that focused on the idea of redecorate vs. rennovate. Much of our time is spent redecorating, or to your point, changing the facade.

What I described here that what was really being changed was the language we use to describe things, yet that language was clearly a distant relative of what was really happening. Administrators, especially those that felt they had some kind of vision, were particularly immersed in this propaganda. It seemed that the ability to craft words and phrases that grabbed people's attention was an end unto itself. This, to my thinking, is precisely why the survey mentioned in this entry is futile. It simply doesn't help.

Rennovation challenged the underlying foundation of it all. In the case of education, I proposed that the foundation that required rennovation was the very assumptions embedded in curriculum, instruction and evaluation, as well as the nonsensical rigidity we impose on the time (i.e. - schedules) and place (i.e. - classrooms inhabited by specific kinds of subject specific teachers). The problem here becomes, not a lack of ideas, but fear - plain and simple. There is a clear and present (ugh - corny phrase) fear of disrupting the system from within, especially on the part of those who have secured a position in administration. Why? I think it's because it is more comfortable to talk about it than to actually do it.

The strategy of designing the experience is precisely what we need more of. It doesn't mean, as you nicely described, that the teacher/professor is giving in willy nilly to the random desire of his/her students. People that think this suffer from an obsession with dualistic thinking. I have had two major projects, back in my educator days, in which I did precisely that. The first was The Virtual Community Project in which a class of grade seven and eight students and I quite literally collaborated with the students on the learning model, design, implementation and evaluation of a large project. The beginnings of this project occured when I stood up in front of the class and said, "I have no idea what to teach you." Once the laughing stopped and they realized I was serious. They knew me well enough to know there was a lot to teach them, but I was refusing to teach it. There was a completely new source of motivation in the classroom. And we, among other things, also developed a shared understanding and realization of what decision-making was.

The second was Connected Intelligence in which I had the opportunity to extend and refine these ideas across an entire education system. The design parameters of Connected Intelligence are inclusive, that is, Connected Intelligence cannot occur without a a very real collaboration across all participants on the very fundamentals of learning, education, curriculum, instruction, evaluation, and so on.

Until we invite students into the design process itself, and by design I mean the underlying structure of what happens in education, we are simply spinning our wheels by the way of language. Your professor, to my thinking, intuitively knew this and there are many teachers out there that know this. The problem is, they are needlessly confined by archaic and primitive systems that are mechanistic and self-referential - and all of this is often wrapped in the pleasant illusion of technological innovation.

We are such creatures of habit.

I am working with a corporate client - we have spent months talking with them about conversation and we have delivered a great tool for them to converse on. But they are so far incapable of going beyond a message board.

I am now 4 years into teaching online at UPEI and by week 3, the class usually is on fire and can't stop going deeper.

Same tool - different result. What's the difference? I think that in my class my roles as the space manager is to set up the conditions for conversation. In the early stages I am all over the place and I behave in an engaging manner. In the cooperate site we have not go the president to open up and to be a space shaper.

Christopher Alexander, the architect behind the Pattern Language, makes the point that space is a driver of energy. This is different from a tool which has a cartesian leverage.

I am thinking that the Alexander idea about the power of space i is where we may find more answers to how to change the relationships in learning. This weekend I am planning to go on an Alexander posting spree

Great learning stories, Chris and Cyn. Both reminded me of the best three courses I've taken in my life. Although we didn't get to help design them, the common thread for both was that they aimed for depth instead of breadth by covering very few topics.

The first one was in my last year of high school -- it was considered a sort of throwaway socials course called World Issues 12. There was the usual crammed curriculum for it, covering dozens of topics in many countries throughout different time periods, but Mr. Fisher pretty much decided to discard the whole thing to focus on two units, each lasting a couple of months. One was the political spectrum (which a surprising number of Canadian adults obviously don't understand) and the second was quality of life indicators. The latter consisted of some instruction and films, but it was mostly a group research project that gave us the latitude to learn what we wanted about how people in the world defined their quality of life. For months. I still think of that course every week.

The other two courses were in university, and they were both seminar courses involving no formal lectures. We basically had to do some short readings before every class and discuss them. Both let us choose themes that interested us more than others. The profs basically just facilitated, steering the discussion where necessary and seeding it with controversial or interesting questions when things slowed down. I learned more about natural resource menagement and native studies in those two courses than I did in all the rest of my courses combined.

The interesting thing about these experiences is how much accidental or collateral learning took place. We could follow rabbit trails and find examples (personal or otherwise) that were only loosely related, but helped us understand what was important.

I like the last note about students choosing not to learn if they're given the choice. I agree with you that this is a credit to the students, at least if we're expecting them to seek out something resembling the curriculum they follow now. In reality, I think they'll probably choose to learn a fair bit, but most likely almost nothing from the old curriculum. Watch any kid grab onto one of their real interests like a pit bull -- they have no problem learning about something they care about.

As far as learning the other things (maybe not very interesting, but somewhat necessary for most people to function in society), I'm leaning toward the theory that those things get covered in the process of really engaging in almost any topic a person cares about. I liked Rob's example of his son dropping out of school but having no trouble with literacy and math, even though he basically created his own artistic path:


I had a similar experience to Christopher 24 years ago when I was in my second year of university. I had enrolled in a new program and our little class of 12 became the course developers.

Canadian Studies was new to the University of Prince Edward Island, and the profs were desperate to find out where we, the students, wanted to go with the program. We did the same thing as your group, and set things up in an authoritarian-style class structure, only to find out the profs had already gone through that exercise. we were encouraged to "think big", "think outside the box" we did.

We all concluded that, if we were going to 'study' Canada, then we were going to have to SEE Canada, and we proposed that our profs find a way to take us to the different parts of Canada so we could 'experience' the geography, culture and people.

To our surprise, they did. And the first Canadian Studies class of UPEI traveled from the most populated to the most remote areas of our country, taking in and experiencing as much as we could.

This example is one of the many educational adventures I will always draw upon as my actual learning experiences. I learned more on those trips than I ever did sitting in a lecture theatre. And a big part of why is that I had a hand in the way I learned. My profs back at UPEI were a little ahead of their time.

Hi Brian, glad you decided to offer the ability to post comments...

You wrote:
Really. In this truly moving will students have some control over what they are learning? Or is the what the express domain of the best seller? Why is there no mention that maybe, just maybe, students will come up with better material than the master teacher? The underlying implications here are all old school thought wrapped in the facade of truly moving.

I've seen this happen in haphazardly managed change initiatives in organizations. Management believes that if they make enough alterations to the structures (implement new "customer-focused" database software, new employee incentive programs, etc.), they're finished with their job. However, they so rarely deal with the levels underneath the structure: behavior, knowledge, skills. What happens is the facade is changed, but it's out of alignment with the folks affected. Education appears to suffer from the same issue.

Commenter wrote:
But many, when left to their own devices, ignoring even the guides on the side, sandbagging in collaborative groups, gaming the system, are lapsing into higher and higher levels of ignorance

Absolutely! This is what happens when education becomes more about an end rather than the journey of learning. I only wish I had used my own college experience to LEARN rather than constantly worry about how a class in Greek Mythology was going to get me a job. We've sacrificed learning for instrumentality.

I had the terrific experience of taking a Masters level course in decision-making and the first assignment on the first day was to design the class. The 10 of us taking the class just looked at each other for about 5 minutes until we realized what was being asked of us. It was a foreign experience to be given that type of control after experiencing years of authoritarian-based education. And what did we do? We immediately tried to create an authoritarian-style class structure. It wasn't until 45 minutes into the class that we got comfortable enough with each other for me to suggest that we have the ability to create whatever we want within the three guidelines established by the professor. It still ranks as one of the best classes I ever took.

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