Thursday, September 14, 2017
I am at the Smart Learning Institute at Beijing Normal University and visited NetDragon in Fuzhou while here. In various discussions, I have arrived at the thought that learning systems of the future might become organic as opposed to merely being adaptive to different learners. An organic learning system would have two important characteristics, both of which involve a developmental aspect.
First, an organic learning system would have the ability to learn. This could occur through a process of examining large sets of data about learners or subject matter and noticing patterns among the data; when a pattern is identified, it could become a new rule in a relevant database and used to guide and support subsequent learners and learning activities. An organic learning system might then be said to mature and grow more intelligent over time and with experience.
Second, an organic learning system would view learners as developing individuals. What the system knows about learner X1 at time T1 might not apply to that learner at a later time. The learner might have developed new interests or changed majors and become engaged in different outside activities, all of which could be used to customize learning activities for that learner. An organic learning system, then, recognizes that the primary users of the system are organisms that change over time. In recognition of that fact, an organic learning system would support learner choice and control with regard to what to learn, when, in what order to proceed, at what pace, and with which learning activities.
Well, it’s just a thought … I must add that I was totally impressed by how Dejian Liu has created and organized an amazing work environment at NetDragon (see, for example, http://netdragon.com/about/picture1.shtml).
Thursday, August 3, 2017
Thinking Beyond Oneself – Additional Thoughts
For a number of reasons, I have been thinking more about the notion that it is important to think beyond oneself. It is important not only for the sake of creativity and critical thinking. It is important for the sake of developing a humanistic (other-oriented) perspective to guide what one does.
When I reflect on my personal life and think about things I regret doing, what comes to mind are instances when my actions and decisions were guided by thinking about myself first. To avoid self-abasement, I shall not offer examples as nearly all of them involve my children. Had I been a better parent, I would have been putting my children first and foremost all of the time.
When I reflect on my professional life and think about things I regret doing, what comes to mind are instances when I was thinking about my own welfare and values rather than those of others. Again, there are many examples but those cases would be less flattering than I care to reveal in a public blog. I imagine that every person could find both personal and professional cases of thinking primarily about oneself first and not trying to think beyond oneself. I also imagine that many of those cases might have resulted in things that person regrets.
On the other hand, when I think about a very few cases when I made an overt effort to think beyond myself, I find things in which I take some pride. For example, I think about a comprehensive school reform quality initiative project that I led with poorly performing rural K-8 schools in the southeast. Normally, a project has a beginning and an ending, and that was the case with the U.S. Department of Education project. However, a typical educational project also involves service and support. The problem with so many educational projects is that the service and support ends with the project. This did not happen with one of the 8 schools involved in that effort. After the project ended, I managed to invite a school representative to participate in a smart education conference in Beijing, China. A year or so later, I gave the school a 3D printer knowing that the innovative teachers there and the very supportive principal would make good use of it. I am about to donate another technology involving geography education some 6 years or so after the end of that project.
Another example that comes to mind is the USAID Distributed Basic Education project in Indonesia in which I participated for 5 years. That project ended about 7 or 8 years ago. I have maintained contact with a number of Indonesian educators ever since. I helped initiate the AECT Asia summer research meetings based on the interest of Indonesians and participated in the Educational Technology World Conference in Bali in 2016 co-sponsored by Indonesians and AECT.
Those two examples are cases in which I managed to think beyond myself and think about service to and support of others over and above my own personal interests as an academic interested in publications or as a principal investigator or co-investigator interested in funding. Things that may begin as projects often involve service to and support of others. It is important to remember that fact and make an attempt to ensure ongoing service and support.
I often say that it is not about the technology - it is about the learning. Likewise, it is not about the publications and funding – it is about service to and support of others. Or, as Bob Gagné said on many occasions, our job is to help others. Or, as my father demonstrated on so many occasions, the task is to listen, reflect, encourage, guide and not turn away. Or, as Rabbi Hillel said, “if not now … when?” (see https://www.voices-visions.org/content/poster/collection-poster-rabbi-hillel-pirke-avot-114-daniel-bennett-schwartz).
I have recently noticed a tendency of many, including my students, to respond to complex situations and issues based on their own rather narrow personal experience. This seems completely natural as we come to have beliefs, habits, and predispositions based on our experience. However, the nature of many complex situations and issues exceed things we have personally experienced yet many still base their beliefs about those situations and issues on personal experience that is somewhat removed from the problem or situation being judged.
For example, with regard to online learning, someone who has taken an online learning course might have experienced feeling that the instructor was distant and perhaps aloof and not very involved in their progress. Is that sufficient reason to conclude that many or most online courses have instructors who appear distant, aloof and uninvolved to their students? Perhaps not.
I have on occasion argued that the primary job of being a teacher is to get students to have questions, which involves (a) admitting that one does not know, (b) committing time and effort in searching for a suitable resolution, (c) being open to alternative explanations, (d) being willing to question one’s own assumptions, and (e) perhaps revisiting the problem and explanation more than once.
I am now thinking that such an inquiry process is basically learning to think beyond oneself – beyond one’s personal and direct experience. I recall in high school when I was on the debate team that part of the preparation was to argue both sides of an issue. That seemed reasonable at the time. I remember learning in a college literature course that there was a dramatic turn toward the self and writing in the first person several hundred years ago, and that turn to the self impacted how stories were told and what was told. At the time, I related that to Descartes’s cogito ergo sum or je pense, donc je suis – I think, therefore I am (or I exist). We are after all thinking beings. Is it not remarkable that consciousness and self-consciousness exist at all?
However, over-reliance on one’s beliefs and prior experience can lead one to make many errors of judgment. I have made my fair share, and now when I consider the ones that come to mind first, I notice that my errors were due to an overconfidence in my own beliefs. I had a wrong-headed confidence in the absolute truth of what I believed to be true, and many of those so-called truths turned out not to be true.
Rather than further embarrass myself with true confessions, I only wanted to point out that I have often believed more than I could possibly have known. At an advanced age, I am just learning to think beyond myself.
Monday, May 29, 2017
Like many others, I am very disturbed by the divisiveness that now pervades American politics and characterizes America for many around the world. Sharp divisions also exist in academia where many artificial barriers have evolved that prevent academics from collaborating and learning from each other; even worse, these barriers result in superficial thinking about those not in one’s particular academic clique. Peter Goodyear has written about such barriers calling those barriers false dichotomies.
I have wondered why they exist and persist in spite of evidence that suggests such arbitrary divisions are misleading or unjustified. My current thinking is that people have a natural tendency to simplify. There is probably some survival value in simplifying (as in, “Was that sound I heard in the bushes a bear or just the wind?” followed by a hasty retreat away from the bushes … just in case). Simplifying is a natural tendency because simplifying is linked to the notion of mental models and creating internal representations in order to understand new or unusual phenomena (such a noise coming from the bushes). A model – mental or otherwise – is necessarily a simplification of that which is modeled. A model – mental or otherwise – is not an exact replica. From the perspective of instruction, a model can help the person viewing the model focus on that which is most relevant to a particular task. From a learning perspective, a model also can be used to help a learner focus and interact with that which is most relevant to a learning task. As I have often said, Ludwig Wittgenstein remarked in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that we “picture facts to ourselves” (others call these mental models; see http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5740?msg=welcome_stranger). While Wittgenstein argued for a correspondence theory of truth in that book (aligning statements with observable facts), he failed to note that we also picture things that are not acts to ourselves. This latter tendency seems to be increasing and becoming more pervasive.
A description of something is a kind of text-based model and is clearly not the same as that which is described. Wittgenstein’s later work (e.g., Philosophical Investigations) went beyond the strict confines of the Tractatus in part because he realized that people have another remarkable ability. In addition to being naturally able to create internal representations of things experienced, people have a natural tendency to talk about some of those internal representations. We engage in what Wittgenstein called language games (see https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/wittgenstein/). Language games are rule-based and proceed based on the assumptions that those involved know and generally follow the rules and conventions associated with the language in that context, which is why Wittgenstein argued that it is the use of language in a context that provides the meaning. Then meaningful discourse can extend beyond the more narrow scientific structure presented in the Tractatus. The following remarks about love and hate fall into that extended territory opened up in Philosophical Investigations.
One of my philosophy professors at UT-Austin became an advisor and later a friend and colleague. We had many discussions about all kinds of things ranging from Bob Dylan to lacrosse to religion. He was Presbyterian and knew I was Jewish. He knew my father was a Rabbi and often inquired about my religious views. On one occasion, he characterized the fundamental difference between Christians and Jews in the form of a single commandment. For Christians, the fundamental commandment was “thou shalt love” – no restrictions – everyone, at all times. He went on to argue that for Jews, the fundamental commandments was “thou shalt obey” – based on his having read that there were some 613 commandments in the Torah, which basically say that one should do that which God had prescribed in those 613 mitzvot (which refers to actions decreed by God but is used more commonly to simply refer to good deeds).
While I recall the professor making that distinction, I do not recall all of the details of the subsequent discussion. I did take exception as I thought it was a misleading simplification for several reasons. First, I do not know anyone who loves all others at all times. I only learned what the emotion of hate was until years after that conversation, but I did know at the time that there were people whom I did not love and that there had been people whom I could not imagine loving. I also pointed out that one of those 613 commandments was essentially what Christians call the Golden Rule – it can be found in Leviticus (Vah-yik-rah) 19:18 – “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Rabbi Hillel’s version of that passage and related passages in Leviticus is simple – that which is hateful to you, do not do to others.
Then there is a question if a single statement or commandment can characterize an entire religious perspective. I learned both the power and the limitations of such a simplification. My professor said and believed that anyone who was not acting on any occasion or in any circumstance on the basis of love was not being Christian. He admitted that it was a goal (loving everyone at all times in any circumstance) that no human could attain while arguing that it was a worthwhile goal. I am not sure but I believe I argued that understanding what that meant required many examples and elaboration of cases, which is perhaps why there are 613 mitzvot.
So much for George Miller’s 7 +/- 2 rule about the limits of short term memory. Even the basic 10 commandments exceed the memory capacity of most persons according to Miller’s memory research. Can you recall all 10?
I recall one because the differences in translation are fascinating. It is the sixth commandment (Low Tirzach) – which in ancient Hebrew meant not to murder rather than not to kill, according to the modern English translation of that commandment. I used that distinction as my final rebuttal to my professor’s claim that loving vs. obeying was what differentiated Christians and Jews. I argued that for Christians, the challenge was never to kill anyone or anything at any time in any circumstance. However, for Jews the challenge was never to murder another person. He seemed to accept that differentiation, which is still an oversimplification.
What brought back that conversation from more than 40 years ago was the divisiveness that is so deep and so persistent in America and other places. I recently had to admit to my kids – who are all adults now with graduate degrees – that I think things are more deeply divided now than they were when I, as an intelligence officer during the Vietnam conflict, refused to carry a gun when sent to an air base in Thailand. I recall battling bumper stickers from those days saying such things as “America: Love it or Leave” or “America: Change it or Lose it.”
When one is overcome with hate, one loses oneself. My father taught me that. When a country is overcome with divisiveness, it loses itself. That is my worry in these troubling times.
Tuesday, May 23, 2017
It is fine to be optimistic about the potential to use technology to improve learning and instruction. I am optimistic – otherwise I would not be in this profession. However, I do maintain that there is very little evidence of large-scale (e.g., nationwide) sustained improvement in learning and instruction due to the various uses of technologies in recent and not so recent years in the USA. I have found two funded educational projects that managed to have large-scale and sustained impact over the years (perhaps there are others): Sesame Street (see http://www.sesamestreet.org/) and Headstart (see https://www.acf.hhs.gov/ohs/about/history-of-head-start).
I argued years ago in a paper that the success of an educational technology project should be based on whether or not there were subsequent projects building on the findings of earlier works. In that sense, Jasper Woodbury (see https://jasper.vueinnovations.com/) was somewhat successful as it eventually led to such efforts as Marcia Linn’s WISE (see https://wise.berkeley.edu/). One could argue likewise for some success of Seymour Papert’s Logo (see http://el.media.mit.edu/logo-foundation/what_is_logo/history.html) which eventually led to Scratch and Co-Lab (see https://www.media.mit.edu/people/mres/projects/). However, none of those efforts resulted in large-scale, sustained adoption in American classrooms although they demonstrated positive outcomes, as have other works.
The point I have been making in recent years concerns a failure to connect theory and research with practice, policy and the management of educational systems – that is the purpose of the major online reference work entitled “Learning, Design and Technology: An International Compendium of Theory, Research, Practice and Policy” (see http://link.springer.com/referencework/10.1007%2F978-3-319-17727-4). I am not optimistic that my efforts with that work will have the intended impact.
I stand by my comments to the Beijing National Day School (BNDS) visitors and think it is time for those in our profession to stop over-promising and to realize the challenges in turning good research into practice that lives well beyond specific studies and experiments. My guiding mantras are these:
- It is not about the technology – it is about the learning.
- It is not about the technology – it is about the use of the technology.
- It is not what one says that matters – what matters is what one does (Gagné said that our job is to help people learn – he said that to researchers at AERA who were asking about publishing their research results).
- What matters is the will of a society to value and support education – this is what I regard as the most fundamental challenge in the USA.
There are no doubt successful research projects in the sense that they demonstrate some of their intended outcomes. What I have not seen are the translation of those outcomes into sustained practice on a large scale in this country. I do believe the UVA-Smithsonian STEAM effort (see https://news.virginia.edu/content/smithsonian-curry-give-students-chance-reinvent-famous-creations) will have a positive impact. It is not clear that school districts will change curricula or invest in innovation in the way that those at BNDS have been doing since 1952.
And then I think about my experience in Indonesia with multi-grade rural schools – it led to a dissertation studying 12 such schools. I visited a rural school in the Bogor District that took two hours by car to reach a village and then walking for two miles to reach the school that served three somewhat remote mountain villages. It was a three-room schoolhouse, no computers, electricity wired outside buildings, one blackboard and chalk in each room – one room for 1st and 2nd grade, one for 3rd and 4th grade, and one for 5th and 6th grade students. There were about 50 kids in each of those rooms, three to a desk sharing one pencil, one pad of paper and a straight edge. I observed the 5th and 6th grade classroom. The teacher only had a two year degree but was also going full-time to get his baccalaureate as had been mandated by an Indonesian law. He was amazing. The 5th grade students were studying math – geometry. The 6th grade students were studying science – botany. When he looked at the left side of the room (5th graders), the others worked quietly on a problem. When he shifted to look at the other side, the 5th graders worked quietly. After an hour or so, the 6th graders all got up and left the classroom. He then showed the 5th grade students how to calculate the perimeter of a polygon, constructed with a right triangle on top of a rectangle. To solve the problem, they had to know the Pythagorean theorem – 5th grade students in a rural, multi-grade school in Indonesia. I was riveted. After working two examples on the board, the teacher set them to working a problem on their own in the groups of three to a table. I watched each group work together to solve the problem - no fighting over the one pencil or straight edge and they understood the Pythagorean theorem and used it to correctly solve the problem.
Then I began to wonder what happened to the 6th grade students. My Indonesian colleague told me that they had been sent outside to find plants that could reproduce without seeding – e.g., by plant cloning. I went outside to observe. What I saw were small groups of students (3 to 5), sharing one knife finding plants and cloning them – all without adult supervision. I was again amazed.
At the end of the day, the parents came up from the fields to greet us and exchange ideas. They wanted to know how to improve the school and the teaching – we had nothing to offer. Nothing. We then asked them what their goals were. Through a translator, we were told they wanted their kids to get a high school education – that meant the kids would have to leave the village and spend the week or year in Bogor (two hours away by bus). How many now go on to high school? we asked. About 10%. What happens to them? They find jobs in the city. What is your goal for these kids? For 75% to go on to high school. What happens to the village if they do not return? We only got shrugs in reply. They valued the education of their kids more than the survival of their villages. Given that amazing experience, we wanted to see if it held up in other situations, so we had an FSU doctoral student visit and study 12 other schools (I visited several of them with her and saw the same kind of commitment to education in other rural multi-grade schools in Indonesia).
The challenges education faces in Indonesia are arguably more formidable than those we face in the USA, but I am inclined to believe the will of the people to educate their children will play a greater role than almost anything else – technology or otherwise. That is why I am optimistic. And realistic at the same time.