Teaching, AI, Automation

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This is just a brief comment on probable conditions and possibilities as teachers deal with increasingly automated digital tools and environments animated by AI agents. In all honesty, for the short and middle terms, it is unlikely that teachers will be “replaced” or have their status greatly undermined by these technological developments. However, online teachers will definitely need to adapt and learn to work with automated and AI-informed tools.

Why am I so confident that teachers are not likely to be replaced by AI? There are three primary reasons.

First, learning is a core human trait. Machine learning and AI are not nearly complex and adaptive enough to mimic or overtake human accomplishments in learning or teaching. A teacher’s attunement to learners’ emotional lives, intellectual development, and social well-being is an extremely complex set of skills. Being able to use that awareness to guide learning effectively adds a layer of complexity and complication to that skill set. However impressive sci-fi visions of AI may be, they do not match the realities of today or even of tomorrow. I truly do not believe that any AI process will outstrip human social skill and emotional attunement any time soon. Not in formal education. Not in informal learning.

Secondly, many humans resist learning from machines. They see teaching and learning as human activities that require social connection and relationship-building. For them, learning may not be reduced to mere cognitive accomplishment. Even those who enjoy MOOCs and other kinds of highly automated learning environments often desire some degree of contact with real human beings, with identifiably human artifacts, images and behaviors. Machines do not have the same charisma, passion or charm as humans and they are unable to produce credible counterfeit versions of human interactions. (Mr. Turing’s test has not yet been passed.) Effective teachers — even those who work remotely online — know how to reach the learners that they are working with. They know how to stimulate their enthusiasm and model intellectual performance and critical inquiry for learners. Machines will have a hard time learning to mimic those comportments in authentic and convincing ways, although they certainly can lead learners mechanically through certain processes, thereby teaching some skills.

Third, machine learning and human learning are too different to mesh easily or well, especially since machine learning is relative primitive and simple, even as it develops complexity with great rapidity.

In contrast to all of the foregoing, I would also warn that teachers would be well advised to pay attention to intelligent digital tools, automated apps and AI agents that can help support human learning. It is the way of the future, based on extrapolation from the ways in which companies, educational institutions and individual learners treat use AI apps and agents now. The future of this kind of cooperative arrangement, this human-machine assemblage, will require both skill and desire on the part of humans if the distinct elements are to mesh well. It would behoove us to learn to interact and cooperate with machines flexiily and skillfully for more effective, targeted and efficient learning. In truth, despite their shortcomings in imitating or supplanting humans, many automated tools are superbly helpful. So…

Teachers, please, do not fear AI. At the same time, be sure that you avoid ignoring it. Doing so could be a grave error.

Digital Education for Whom?

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I’m wondering whom digital education might serve and whom it might serve particularly well.

As we think about the many characteristics, preferences, filters, socially constructed ideas, and comfort levels of learners with respect to different kinds of processes, tools and approaches, it ought to become clear that digital education is not for everyone. Or not equally appropriate for everyone. Indeed, I’d say more broadly that education generally — in the sense of formal education, with specific, socially-approved, institutionally-determined goals and methods — is not for everyone. Given how, in the United States, indeed through much of the world, we organize and execute instances of education, schooling, and programmatic, verified learning, it seems unlikely that each system will necessarily be effective for each learner. That applies to face-to-face education. That applies to digital education.

So questions need ought to be asked of digital education: Why? To what purpose? For whom? How are the modalities, channels of communication and collaboration optimized and targeted for the intended learners? What are the pedagogical or andragogical approaches? Of course, the answers will depend on which institution or community is answering the questions and which particular content is the topic of the teaching, or which outcomes are intended for the particular unit, course or learning mechanism.

In short, a plethora of questions must be answered before one can begin to consider the fundamental question of my blog post. And that, in and of itself, is quite an education.

When we say “digital education,” it does not necessarily refer exclusively to formal programs that certify particular kinds of learning through the issuing of diplomas. (In this case, we are talking about the acquisition of academically determined disciplinary knowledge, along with particular kinds of discipline-oriented skills development certified by progress through a relatively rigid formal curriculum of general education content and a sequence of specialization course.) Yet “digital education” can also refer to self-directed and informal education enacted through digital and connected resources. It can refer to supplementary or complementary activities that are associated with but distinct from formal education (for example, “extracurricular learning,” or experiential learning, internships, participation in clubs, leadership roles played, etc._) It can refer to affinity learning. It can refer to community based learning. Or “continuing education.” Or job training. Or not-for-credit lifelong learning activities. Or… a plethora of other options. So how we answer the baseline questions depends on the kind of “digital education” that we mean.

Here, I will talk about formal education, particularly postsecondary education in the United States. There are a number of “digital initiatives” in the realm of undergraduate postsecondary education. The question that I will ask is about those courses, those programs. So… whom are they intended to serve? I’m thinking, for example, of the low-cost “Global Freshman Academy” offered by Arizona State University via edX.org, or open courses (offered under an arrangement that allows students to earn up to a year’s worth of college credit at no cost) on modernstates.org.

So whom do those open courses serve? My guess is that it’s folks who are already relatively privileged — first world — and benefiting from a number of social and educational advantages. Even though they might not be as socially and economically affluent and resourced as others in their own society, they are highly prosperous and thriving abundantly in comparison to most other human inhabitants of this planet. So when we talk about digital education and the promise of open education mediated by OERs and MOOCs and such, let us not kid ourselves by believing that it truly will serve all people. That’s patently untrue. Relatively few outside of developed and advanced developing countries have access to high-speed internet, via hard wiring or wifi. Relatively few individuals or communities outside of the affluent West and East can afford to invest in computer technology and distribution systems that would permit widespread exploitation of the “open” and “free” digital tools that are available for learning. Few outside of those zones have access to education that would set them up for success in digital learning. Only some have significant levels of digital literacy. These individuals are not likely to be able to complete a U.S. or European undergraduate curriculum. I’m not even sure that the most motivated learner who gets free internet access will be able to learn successfully without some help and guidance.

Now, it is true that even in poor communities that lack infrastructure, learners can figure a lot out for themselves (as per Sugata Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall” project, see https://www.edutopia.org/blog/self-organized-learning-sugata-mitra or experiences associated with initiatives like One Laptop Per Child, see http://one.laptop.org/). But how often do such moments of opportunity and communal learning occur? Alas, it seems that many of the promises made about the liberating power of digital education and the likelihood of spreading learning throughout the globe are relatively hollow, because project like Mitra’s and OLPC’s are rare. The vast majority of the poor and underserved of this world will gain very little benefit from digital education. There is a deep problem of inequity that DE will not solve. There is a fundamental educational gap that high-quality information, good software, even if that software is free, and superb educational programming offered by edX, Coursera, futurelearn or FUN.fr are not going to solve. (On top of which, some of those platforms offer less-than-superb courses.)

So… who is digital education for? At the moment, it looks like it’s mostly for an audience of mostly affluent folks. It could work well for the least affluent citizens within the most affluent nations. Yet, generally speaking, it serves the global affluent. The global impoverished, the illiterate, the vastly underserved populations that make up a large part of humanity are unlikely to derive much benefit. Digital education and the promises that have been made about its impact seem less and less impressive, the more one looks at the world as a whole, with a focus on serving the vastly underserved. DE just does not do the job. What is more, it cannot do the job without a lot of changes happening first.

I’d love to hear alternative perspectives. Better yet, I’d love to work to prove that my vision of the present and the near-term future of digital education is inaccurate or overdrawn.

Learning vs. Education in the Anthropocene

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Human beings are biological learning machines.

This is an idea I return to, continually, probably because it has deep roots in truth. Our brains are extremely well adapted for learning. (I note that I am saying “our” as if both the persona writing now and any potential readers of the resulting text are all, of necessity, part of Homo sapiens.) There is a kind of embodied and experiential confirmation of the notion that human brains are focused on learning, are excited about learning in different ways, have a high level of potential for learning and are very effective at it. Learning is a quasi-natural, quasi-effortless activity for humans. Humans are “natural born learners.”

Alongside other characteristics of human cognition, like counterfactual thinking or counter-reality thinking (which comprises lying, creativity, reflecting on the past and anticipating the future, fantasizing, posing “what if” questions, conjuring robust alternatives to manifest reality, theorizing, thinking abstractly, writing literary narratives, etc.), learning is probably what the human brain does best. We notice patterns, analyze them, hypothesize about what they mean, then we recall both the the pattern-sensing activity and the information that we draw out of it. That reiterated activity — thinking, coming to new understandings, inscribing them as retrievable memories, retrieving them readily — and the ways in which those cognitive events change our perceptions and behaviors for the future are the phenomena that comprise “learning.” It’s what humans do, even without guidance or teaching. It’s built in. It’s evolutionary.

The capacity to learn, a set of neuro-chemical and microscopically anatomical processes (new patterns of brain activity and neural connection), must be distinguished from “education,” which is a cultural construct. Learning is largely innate. Education is artificial and imposed.

Granted, there are significant areas of overlap. Learning can be social and collaborative. One could even consider learning to be capable of developing organically and naturally into a systematized process that looks like education. Quite frankly, education, for all of its complex, social, constructed nature, cannot be divorced from learning as a process. Still, one can distinguish between innate, fundamental or naïve learning, which is enabled primarily by evolutionarily shaped brain functions (supported by the most fundamental level of social order, like family or clan), and educated learning or formal education, which is complex, highly structured, with many rules and criteria. Education is institutional. It is about social values, social order, facilitation of social functions and the efficient or effective pursuit of socially significant actions, decisions, communications, collaborations and other kinds of communal effort. Education is about society. It is not about the learner.

I recognize that there is value in education. Indeed, one can hardly imagine modern society without it. That necessity, though, does not mean that education is consistently good or that it is moral. One can admire the efficacy of education in Victorian England, for example, which seems to have offered benefits to many (primarily men), across social classes. Viewed from a certain perspective, it seems like it was a nearly optimal result. However, we must also note that the real benefit was for the Empire, which developed a ready supply of colonial administrators and bureaucrats who had all been certified through education as being literate and numerate, who, furthermore, typically embraced and re-propagated imperial values and prejudices.

Granted, one can make critical thinking and the questioning of authority a part of the educational system, as a means for avoiding the abuses or errors of Victorian England, for example. Indeed, one can produce literate, thoughtful graduates who will refuse to fall in line as imperial bureaucrats or doing what they are told unquestioningly. However, it is rarely done. Indeed, its is nearly impossible to strip education of the ideological underpinnings that promote and support a society’s orientation, prejudices, and strongly held views.

Education necessarily reproduces the blinders, the cultural prejudices, and the ideological lenses of the society that mandated it. That inevitable phenomenon is a significant part of why so few in the U.S., for example, can take a step back from the economic system to observe and evaluate in a truly critical manner what might be described as the dishonest, inequitable, corrupting, environmentally destructive, and dehumanizing aspects of market capitalism. (NB: Being clairvoyant about the dysfunctions of capitalism is not incompatible with believing in some of its values, which I do.) What is more, it is nearly impossible in highly digitized societies to insulate oneself from digital technologies and media, which, in this case, have a firm hold on American citizens’ mental models, preferences, predominant metaphors, and prejudices.

To make these observations personal, indeed, self-critical, I note that the ideas that initially motivated this blog (specifically, credentialing and the educational certification of skills valued by potential employers) are problematic. Those ostensibly innovative approaches to higher education are about employment and little else. They are all about producing qualified workers, not about fostering engaged citizenship. In a word, much of the original impetus for this blog proceeded with little concern for environmental stewardship or ethical decision-making. It aligned more with the goal of manufacturing compliant, competent, productive workers of a sort that employers desire and will pay good money for — so that more product can be generated and more sales made, which also entails more resources being cosumed, more air and water polluted, more carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere.

At this point, I’d like to take a deep breath. It’s not just that I am feeling sour about education. It’s that, whatever social good our educational systems have produced, they have also reinforced a certain “productivist,” capitalistic, consumerist mentality that virtually guarantees that our species (along with nearly all other parts of the web of life) will plunge headlong into climate catastrophe long before a majority of first-world human beings begin to pay serious attention to questions like whether or not serious environmental interventions and climate-change mitigations are called for. We will fiddle while the world burns down, then realize, in a stupor, that we are fools, and that it is far too late to save our home. That is the real tragedy. Let us have the integrity and the courage to acknowledge that it is because of the hypnotic power that unquestioningly pro-capitalist, pro-technology, pro-consumerist “education” has over learners in industrialized societies.

This is part of the evolutionary paradox of Homo sapiens, where we risk leading ourselves to an evolutionary dead end (i.e. extinction). I might add that while those of us in First-World and Rapidly-Industrializing societies are committing species-wide suicide (without fully understanding what we are doing, obstinately refusing to learn from the warning signs along our path), we are taking along with us a multitude of others life forms. We are imposing drastic climate change on poorer, more vulnerable nations and peoples. We are extinguishing plant and animal species at a prodigious rate. We have greatly degraded biodiversity and destryed complex equilibria in ecosystems across the planet. We are burning down our planetary house even as we refuse to invest in fire-fighting resources and tools.

Is there not some way for us to return to a simpler, more web-of-life-connected experiential kind of learning that does not simply indoctrinate folks to be good workers, good consumers — which is to say, resource-depleting, high-carbon-footprint, profit-maximizing consumers — or complacent and compliant citizens who fail to see the vast failures of the systems in place? Freire and Illich were right. Biesta, I’m afraid to say it, is wrong. Radical change is called for, by which I mean de-schooling, stripping things down to a kind of primitive, back-to-nature, questioning, critical learning, then rebuilding for justice and sustainability. I suspect that we probably need to toss virtually all of “education” out on its ear for the good of the world.

More on quantity of engagement vs. quality of production

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This entry will be short because I do not have much time and wish, simply, to capture a few thoughts for further elaboration later. The basic idea that the previous blog post landed on arose in part from thinking about how learning proceeds in MOOCs, both xMOOCs and cMOOCs. In most cases, there is not a lot of professorial agonizing over providing granular feedback on quality, on sentence structure, on the fine characteristics of the learner’s thought or argumentation, or the lack thereof. In the case of many xMOOCs, the rubrics simply capture whether or not the work done is “good enough” in a particular way or across a set of characteristics. (Was there a clear argument? Was evidence presented? Are all sentences complete and grammatically correct? Did the response answer the prompt? And so forth.)

On the other hand, many of us, when we teach face-to-face and evaluate student work, we agonize over providing highly detailed feedback, particularly on writing tasks, and we offer abundant, detailed suggestions for improvement. Experience and anecdotal evidence suggest that much of that effort is futile. In contrast, a highly motivated learner in a cMOOC gets very little formal feedback from a “professor” and, in fact, draws most of her or his learning experience (and whatever other benefits the xMOOC offers) by paying attention during conversations with others, i.e. peer learners, by reflecting deeply and critically, by working out things for him- or herself, by trying new tools. There is a structure and a highly productive flow to a cMOOC experience. Learning definitely takes place, but it’s not via “teacher” to “learner” feedback/critique.

To be honest, I think that for someone who enthusiastically invests her- or himself in the process, learning in a totally informal cMOOC is as robust, as meaningful and as persistent as anything that one does in a face-face class for a grade. Indeed, a lot of my own intellectual rejuvenation in the past half-decade or so has its impetus in learning via MOOCs of different sorts, along with pursuing my own readings and engaging in reflecting, whether on my own or following suggestions from others.

A reasonably scaffolded experience where the reflection and writing are “good enough” over a significant quantity and variety of tasks is probably just as productive and meaningful for the learner, perhaps more so, than a lot of granular, detailed, picky feedback and overabundant suggestions for improvement. What is the better way for an instructor to spend time? I’d say that it is more productive to spend more time on carefully organizing the learning materials & activities, scaffolding well, and providing less but more judicious feedback than in spending a lot time over each student product, detailing every error or wrong turn and providing a long list of detailed suggestions.

What Promotes Learning: Practice, Practice, Practice, Reflection (Digital Tools Can Help)

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This reflection meanders a bit before it gets to the heart of the matter. Its object is teaching practice in general, but much of the thinking that took place as my fingers worked at the keyboard was overshadowed and inflected by the notion of e-learning. The genesis of this piece lies in a note that I wrote to myself some time ago about online teaching, and that I have been trying to understand and elaborate on: “Quantity of engagement. Not necessarily quality. Just something to keep in mind.”

This semester (spring 2019), I will be teaching an online (read: e-learning) course. This is my second iteration of formal/group teaching online, and the fourth time that I have taught in a fully digitally mediated way. (I have also done two digitally mediated tutorials.) Having learned a great deal and having benefitted enormously from “e-learning” myself via MOOCs, however imperfect these vehicles might be, I am convinced of the value of e-learning, of digital technologies for communication and/or collaboration, and digital spaces for learning. Unlike many colleagues in my academic department, indeed, across the College of Arts and Sciences at my university, I believe that undergraduate students can indeed learn robustly, significantly and consequentially online. I believe quite sincerely that digital technologies can — but do not necessarily do so — permit real and consequential communication, knowledge-building, research and shared reflection, even among ostensibly immature undergraduates. I believe that digital technologies allow a greater range of possibility in learning.

Of course, and therein lies the rub, it generally depends on the seriousness, attention and self-discipline of the learner who engages in digital learning. In the case of mature and highly motivated adult learners, instructors can count on significant levels of engagement and focused intellectual performance. What is more, adult learners have more experience and more cognitive slots to accommodate new knowledge and new experiences. Those conditions contrast with, for example, general-education teaching of immature undergraduates who sometimes have difficulty focusing on tasks, or manage their time poorly, or just generally fail to do what it takes to understand, to learn, to grow intellectually.

So… it depends on the learner. It also depends on the instructor. Some professors are quite adept at facilitating digital conversations and digital collaborations. Indeed, some professors know how to use the affordances of digital environments to promote and facilitate connection, collaboration and communication for high-quality communal learning. Some professors are adept at motivating even “unmotivated” students.

Increasingly, I am of the opinion that what is important is not so much the quality of what students do as it is the quality of the instruction and the pre-organization and scaffolding of learning experiences. For the learner, what is important is the quality of their attention and motivation, not the quality of their performance. So, it is the instructor’s duty to motivate and scaffold in order to assure a certain quantity of learner engagement with well-defined, well-organized activities, reflective practices and collaborative knowledge-building. Indeed, there are ways in which what we call “quality” turns out, in fact, to be a question of quantity. (How much time, how much thought, how many reasonable arguments generated, etc.) The optimal result is to encourage all students to engage in significant amounts of practice, in a number of different helpful learning activities, and to pursue substantive amounts of sincere and engaged reflection. That’s what it takes. Practice, practice, practice — and experience and reflection. If you properly manage that combination, learning happens. I don’t quite want to say: “Quality be damned.” But I do believe that, say, in writing, an intense professorial focus on providing highly detailed feedback about the quality of writing, or offering suggestions for improving its quality, will ultimately be less useful than simply providing many opportunities to write, stoking motivations that push the learner to spend large swaths of time engaged in the processes of writing, reflecting on writing, and revising that work.

In my own teaching, I think I’m going to shift my rubrics from a focus on quality per se to focusing on the amount and intensity of certain kinds of intellectual labor that learners devote to tasks. To teach well, it’s not a matter of monitoring the quality of student products and promoting increases in quality of production. It’s about assuring that learners make a lot of effort in a variety of learning tasks, lots of efforts and products that are “good enough.” That’s more important, probably, than striving for perfection or excellence by pushing my own standards of quality.

This idea — preferring quantity of practice that is “good enough” and is varied vs. focusing on the quality of each student product or performance — is worth considering further. It is inspired largely by the way some e-learning experiences are structured and evaluated, with the effect of maximizing practice and reflection without focusing explicitly and obsessively on teacher assessment of the “quality” of student products. It think that there is real merit to this intuition.

Developing Collective and Cultural Metacognition…?

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One of the learning approaches that I think needs to be developed a bit more broadly is the human capacity for metacognition. There needs to be more critical thinking about our own thinking, not just on an individual level, but also collectively. Indeed, it is something that ought to be inculcated as a fundamental value across all cultures. One way to do this would be through teaching, learning and mentoring.

To a significant degree, human cognition, both conscious and unconscious cognition, together with the human behaviors that result from that part of human nature are deeply flawed. Or, to put it more neutrally and more precisely, our cognitive processes and our behaviors can, at times, be nonsensical, counterproductive, and destructive. They can lead us into situations that undermine our health and safety, generate unproductive interpersonal conflicts, provoke ignoble and harmful emotions or ingrain self-destructive habits of body and mind.  Generally speaking, much of what human beings do collectively works against our own individual thriving and our collective survival. There are ways in which we incarnate an evolutionary paradox.  (Click here for an interesting, compelling and somewhat flawed reflection by John Scales Avery on this state of affairs, where Homo sapiens, ostensibly the most advanced and most adaptable organism at the apex of evolutionary processes, seems bent not on survival and persistence, but on planet-wide mass murder-suicide.) Human beings are destroying biodiversity, increasing global warming, poisoning water and air, destabilizing and disrupting the planetary systems that underlie and assure our thriving and our persistence as a species. Why do we do this? Because as a species, we follow our fiercest and most alluring impulses, with little regard for the long term, with disdain for other species and for the planet, our home, out space ship, our habitat.  Our emotional instability and puerility and our biased, erratic and error-prone thinking induce us to persist in following evolutionarily undesirable pathways.

Developing a process of collective metacognition or a way to inculcate deep and self-critical reflection in all human beings, across cultures, so that we become aware of the ways in which our emotions and our mental character undermine the conditions that will help assure our long-term survival. Indeed, let’s figure a way to teach all students to use metacognitive strategies themselves to gain some critical distance on the evolutionarily programmed flaws in our thinking and emotional lives. But also, let’s  teach them to teach others. Let’s teach them to cultivate their own influence, so that they can teach metacognition to others and teach them to develop predispositions and behaviors at a proper critical distance from flawed ways of thinking and acting.

Individually and collectively, we need to be more fully aware of the ways in which the disjunctures between our biological evolution and our social evolution as gregarious, culturally-programmed, status-conscious creatures lead us astray. We need to realize the ways in which our unconscious and automatic reactions or behaviors arise from a mismatch between our biological past and our socio-cultural present. It would be helpful, as we try to construct and manage rational, deliberative, cooperative social arrangements for ourselves and as we function as integral parts of the planet’s complex of ecosystems, if we were to be deeply thoughtful and critically self-aware, if we assured that we were not sliding down slopes of compulsion, bias and disproportionate, massively destructive appetites. We need to develop individual and collective metacognition, to be aware of our our thinking and feelings may be leading us into erroneous and self-destructive choices.

How, though, does one develop and encourage this kind of growth in wisdom and self-mastery through metacognition? How does one inculcate this way of proceeding as a cultural norm? How does one scale up and propagate both the learning and the teaching of metacognitive approaches? Indeed, why haven’t we already come to a universal consensus about the desirability of not giving in to our most foolhardy evolutionary weaknesses? Why don’t we collectively value and teach self-mastery and emotional maturity? Why don’t we act like wise apes, instead of like vicious, greedy, self-serving, bloodthirsty ones who happen to possess and control nuclear weapons and vast economies that pollute, destroy habitats and mechanically drive species to extinction?

Indeed.

Seeking Wisdom in the Anthropocene?

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If one thinks of learning as it fits certain formal notions of education (learning chemistry, learning math, learning to speak French, learning to write), it seems ludicrous to talk about the “future of learning” given our current circumstances, when our planetary home is burning to the ground, so to speak. Humankind is foolishly, some might say suicidally, destabilizing planetary systems and disrupting the web of life to a catastrophic degree. Under these conditions, what good does it do to memorize verb declensions or to solve polynomial equations or earn diplomas that certify that we can do those things?

On the other hand, if we think about learning as being focused on developing a capacity to discern and address the problems of the Anthropocene, it may be worth thinking about and pursuing. If learning is about developing the capacity to collaborate, developing effective problem-solving strategies, and building consensus around sustainable and stabilizing approaches to our interactions with the world and with each other, it might be worthwhile. If “the future of learning” is about seeking to achieve a sufficient level of collective wisdom, where we face our responsibilities maturely and do what is necessary to assure the survival and thriving of not only all humans currently alive, but also other species and, indeed, the entire web of life, then it could be extremely helpful.

In this blog, I probably ought to focus “the future of learning” in the second sense, where learning increases collaboration, develops critical and complex thinking, encourages learners to seek broad-based, iterative, and practical solutions to wicked problems. I might add that the kind of learning that I believe we need in this troubled time is learning that promotes “deliberative democracy,” where citizens seriously and responsibly consider good and true information, debate potential solutions with the greater good in mind, and come to a productive consensus based on broadly shared values that include respect for truth and goodness, the survival of humanity, the protection of our collective safety, and concern for everyone’s ability to live decently. Of course, these results ought to be the true goal of any democratic process, but as we all know, alas, it is not. Democracy in post-truth America seems to be more about oneupmanship, scoring points dishonestly, making one’s enemies look like fools, serving extremist ideologies, and serving one’s own interests and/or paying off debts to lobbyists and sponsors by corruptly using the power of the state, with reckless disregard for the common good.

If I can focus on learning that not only teaches individuals how to learn for themselves, how to think critically, how to discern what is important, but also how to get others to do the same, then it will be worthwhile.

So, for the foreseeable future, that will be one of the principal goals of this blog. The future of learning IN THE ANTHROPOCENE, which includes inculcating true wisdom, tolerance, deliberative democracy in the best sense of that term… That’s what I’ll be shooting to elucidate and flesh out.

Future? Learning? in the Anthropocene? Really?

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About a year and a half ago, I started of this blog, thinking of it as being about “the future of learning,” even if that is not the formal title. I hesitated and gave it a certain amount of thought before proceeding. I was not entirely certain that I truly wanted to write a blog. Ultimately, a large part of my motivation for doing so, as I have noted repeatedly in the blog entries themselves, is that certain MOOCs required me to write blog entries or required me to keep an online journal. Additionally, I convinced myself to take this plunge because I am a proponent of so-called “writing to learn.” That is, I recognized that pursuing research then writing it up was a good way to learn material. (This was something that I knew from my own self-directed learning and that I had learned and internalized from some of my better classes.) Indeed, as a teacher and as a learner, I know that by reading and reflecting, then writing (and doing this reading, reflecting, and writing with concrete, meaningful goals in mind), I am able to advance my intellectual development and commit material more completely and more securely to long-term memory. When you have, as is said colloquially, “skin in the game,” in the sense that you must commit your thoughts to legible form, stand behind your ideas, and defend them, or when you are compelled to articulate your perceptions and reasoning for sharing them with others so that they may closely examine and critique the results of your cogitation, it highly effective for learning. Certainly, it is more effective than, for example, reading alone or simply trying to memorize material by repeating it. When you submit your ideas to critique, it is more difficult and feels a bit more risky than keeping your thoughts to yourself and refusing to submit them to scrutiny, which allows you, with little risk, to proclaim yourself a genius in your own mind.

When I started the blog, I conceived of it as being about learning, rather than education. Why? Because I did not want to focus on institutions or institutional practices. The problem, now, is that I am not certain that I can speak effectively about the future of learning. I might be able to blog effectively about the probably bleak future of higher education. I might be able to talk about trends in education and learning practices in general. But it makes little sense to talk about the future of learning. Learning is an innate process, a cognitive emergence that is a part of any and every human’s fundamental character (or more precisely, the fundamental character of any and every sentient being endowed with neuroplasticity). It’s not specific. It’s not concrete.

So… one of the problems is that the word “learning” is an inaccurate representation of what this blog is about. It might be more proper to call this blog something like “the future of learning practices.” Except, of course, that label sound bloated and foolish.

The other major problem with the formulation behind this blog is the word “future.” There are a multitude of ways in which I think it improper and misleading. First, it is dishonest for me to claim to know the future of anything at all, much less to claim to predict or foresee something as complex as learning practices in the distant future, or even in the middle or near term. Indeed, I cannot be certain what I will be doing in an hour, nor do I know with certainty how I will be doing it. It is ludicrous, then, for me to pretend to talk about the “future of learning.”

Another dimension that leads me to be skeptical of my own formulation is my concern for the future of this planet. Not just education. Not just learning technologies of classroom practices or insights from cognitive science research. The future of everything on this planet. Well, of nearly all forms of life on this planet. How does one talk about learning in the Anthropocene — or the Anthropozoic — when the course of human history makes it abundantly clear that Homo sapiens, collectively, learns very little, acts irrationally, and repeats foolish, self-destructive errors on a massive, indeed, planetary scale. If one were to judge the species as we might judge an individual, we are a greedy, selfish, heedless, thrill-seeking fool. We are a danger to ourselves and to others.

I am afraid that the time for “learning” in the sense that I have been discussing it in blog entries has now passed. It’s time for something else. When the entire village is catching fire, hurting and killing nearly everyone in in the conflagration and destroying nearly all foodstuffs, tools and other materials needed for long-term- survival, does the village teacher spend time thinking about intellectual development, critical thinking, good practices for acquiring and processing knowledge, for solving problems, for reading and writing effectively and well? Probably not.

About the only value that I can see in thinking about “effective learning” is to focus on ways to impart to younger learners the strategies and tools that they will need to survive long-term — or the tools that they will need to radically alter the course of collective human action, so that we don’t fan the flames or spray not-yet-destroyed houses with kerosene. Granted, the fire burning down the village seems like a slow-motion one. At the same time, our response is in slow motion as well, and we are doing very little to fight the fire. Indeed, many of us are stoking flames and fiddling while the village burns.

So… it is very hard for me to see how I can persist in writing this blog. (Of course, I note the irony of my questioning the validity of persisting in this practice by continuing to write in the blog.)

Where do we go from here? What do I write about? Can I continue talking cogently and meaningfully about learning? Or ought I eliminate this project and focus on more important things, like making action-focused decisions about facing the Anthropocene as one of a relatively small group of deeply concerned thinkers who also happen to be teachers? How do we learn and develop new, proper, fitting learning practices in the face of the Anthropocene or the Anthropozoic?

Matière à réflexion. I will give it some thought and perhaps comment further, later.

[Heavy sigh.]

Doubts, hesitations, and self-focused critique…

[ 701 words ]

Somewhat like the last blog, this one is personal and addresses my affective, creative and cognitive life as a teacher (and as a scholar). One of the major factors that seems to have an impact on my performance as a teacher is time management, or more precisely, planning ahead and effective managing my personal effort and investments of time to assure that tasks are done according to my plans. In a word, temporality counts, prioritizing counts, persistence on task counts. And I don’t always work consistently and persistently enough. I forget to plan ahead. Then, in order to catch up to where I ought to be, I take shortcuts, and that includes just lecturing rather than setting things up so that students do the learning activities with minimal guidance from me. So… yeah.

My student evaluations from this past semester were not bad, but they did note a number of flaws or weaknesses present in my teaching — and they are precisely the ones that I had pledged to correct in 2018. That result leads me to a feeling of incompetence and a strong sense of self-doubt. The problem, of course, is that my inadequate planning and my poor execution of time/effort/task management disallows teaching the way I think it ought to be done. That is, instead of having a full, well-scaffolded set of tasks leading over multiple lessons to a particular accomplishment or well-designed and pertinent set of new understandings or a well-integrated or complementary new skills, the lessons end up being somewhat haphazard. Students feel inspired but confused. It is not clear how everything fits together. Students can’t make sense of things on their own and I do not do a sufficient job of explaining and framing activities. Students are not certain what they have accomplished or what they have learned, even though I know that they have made good progress in many ways.

What is more, I recently allowed my frustration and irritation to get the upper hand, and I spoke to some colleagues in ways that were not fair or admirable. I did little to inspire folks with ideals and strategies of pedagogy, but instead turned them off. Again, my poor handling of my affective life (poor self-awareness leading to the eruption of excessive reactions) undermines my sense of competence and confidence. And…

On top of my feeling terrible about my teaching, I’m doing a terrible job on the scholarly front as well. I have let slip my work on a volume of essays that I’m supposed to be co-editing for publication in summer 2019. I need to get that project back on track. I also need to get back on track for the special issue of a journal that I am supposed to co-edit.

In short, I have allowed a multiplicity of tasks, obligations, demands and deadlines to influence me, to back me into a corner, to incite panic in my mind and heart. Allowing that to happen made me lose contact with the conceptual and organizational threads that I had imagined as my intellectual guides. So now I’m in a bad spot. I need to get back on track, then work in a very intentional way to plan and to manage tasks. My sanity, my reputation and my sense of self depend on it. I’ll need luck as well as clear vision and hard, persistent work.

Clearly, this is what my summer will be shaped by. A lot of my thinking in June, July and early August will be about teaching, with robust planning for the fall semester. I will pay particular attention to the formative feedback and student comments that I have received, along with my self-reflections and self-critiques. I also need to establish some strategies and mechanisms to help me be consistent and persistent in address the flaws in my teaching and lesson-planning (to do lists, a set of clear standards and reminders to guide my thinking, etc.). I need to get back on track and to manage time/tasks better. That’s my job for now.

Whoever said that teaching is “easy” and who considers that summers are “vacation” for teachers and professors probably never really lived in the skin of a conscientious teacher-scholar. It’s hard.

 

Co-Facilitating a Faculty Learning Community:

[978 words]

Let me begin by saying, quite honestly, that it was an honor to be asked to co-facilitate the inaugural Faculty Learning Community at my university, which took place over the  2017-2018 academic year. Each part of the process was interesting and engaging, from preliminary conversations with the Director of the Office of Teaching and Learning at my institution during the preceding academic year, through more concrete and focused discussions over the summer of 2017, and the actual implementation of plans for our first meeting in October, to subsequent meetings through the spring 2018 semester. (Our final regularly scheduled discussion will take place in about ten days, on 18 April 2018. That will be followed by a workshop session in early May, where some FLC participants will draft revised syllabi for our targeted courses and discuss changes we have already implemented or that we intend to implement.)

Learning communities can function in a variety of different ways. In this case, my co-facilitator and I designed it as a learning community for teachers at our institution, with a focus on potentially helpful instructional strategies. We were hoping to have a mix of tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty members; we also hoped for a mix of experienced teachers and relatively new ones. As it turns out, only one non-tenure track teacher joined the group and none of the faculty learning community members was relatively inexperienced or new to our institution. Still, we had a good mix of disciplines and a variety of personalities that made for interesting discussions.

We settled on two books to inform and direct our readings, Make It Stick and The New Science of Learning. The former was more central to our discussions and the latter provided supplementary perspectives and information.  Each of the participants agreed to target one particular course and pledged to revise the syllabus to that course to reflect concrete, specific changes as a result of participating in the learning community (e.g. modifications in the manner of teaching, in the manner of information presentation, in particular learning activities or in the general structure of the course).  Beyond the two co-facilitators, there were eight participants, The ten of us (or a large majority of the ten of us) met once or twice per month through the spring semester.

For me there was frustration and ambivalence in the experience of facilitating discussions among the faculty members of the learning community. First, I was not sure just how much authority to assume in nudging the conversation in particular directions. I created prompts, questions and an agenda for each meeting. However, it was not always easy to keep the participants on task and focused on the proposed talking points. The conversation veered periodically into tangents that, in my view, had little to do with the subject matter of the books under discussion, the proposed agenda, or the overarching goals of this learning experience. What is more, I often had the impression that my colleagues were more eager to speak about their own teaching, than they were willing to listen to and to learn from others. In some moments, I felt a little bit like the flustered teacher at the front of a classroom who begs students to turn their minds and conversations to a particular assigned topic or to focus on a particular idea or dataset… and is immensely frustrated to see all students ignoring those directions and continue to chat about matters irrelevant to the pre-planned.

As I pause to take a step back, however, and think about how I prefer to teach, by giving up a large measure of control, allowing students significant responsibility in each class session for constructing their own meanings, gently guiding students as they develop and integrate their own “new” knowledge and forge their own connections, I realize that my frustration is a bit silly. Part of my problem is that over these past weeks I did not consistently follow the lead of my co-facilitator, who consistently accepts faculty engagement at whatever level our colleagues give it and seems to consider any progress made by any FLC member to be a good thing. My feelings of frustration point more toward a problem with my attitude as a co-leader and co-facilitator, along with my perhaps unreasonable expectations than toward a lack of productivity in Faculty Learning Community on the whole. Indeed, if I am honest and objective, I note that most of the members of the faculty learning community have been expressing real excitement about the ideas and strategies that we evoke and critique. FLC members are very intellectually and emotionally invested in rethinking their teaching, their classroom practices, and the manner of presentation and/or organization of their courses. In truth, the Faculty Learning Community has had a real impact.

The real ambivalence has to do with my desire to control the entire experience. No, wait, it’s not even desire. It’s my belief that somehow I would prove to be negligent and irresponsible if I failed to control every moment of the experience or if I lacked mastery in directing the conversations. This notion is, I have come to realize, an unnecessary and counterproductive way to view this experiment. I need to let my overzealous illusion of control fall to the wayside. My true responsibility is to influence the gist of conversations ahead of time by providing good prompts and by framing certain ideas or expectations for the conversation. However, the actual exchanges and crosstalk during our meetings are not my primary responsibility and are not really under my control. I can reasonably expect my colleagues to invest in our shared intellectual work only as much as they want to and need to. To state the lesson for myself, in a nutshell, I need to prep conscientiously, then to chill and let the experience unfold, trusting participants to engage with each other and with the ideas and frameworks. Amen.