Let there be tech: what “creation myths” tell us about control

Lawrie’s been at it again! Following a conversation with Amber Thomas, he posted last night about classic tales and our relationship with ed tech referring to classics like “Stone Soup”, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and so on and he asked for people to contribute ideas for other narrative types that characterise the ed tech landscape.

So, like a bad student who doesn’t read the question properly, I started thinking about Creation Myths. You know, go big or go home! More specifically, how the stories that are told of the genesis (small G) of technical innovations tell us about the values of the different parties involved.

I started out reflecting on how the creation narrative around MOOCs panned out with some focussing on the efforts of Sebastian Thrun, Andrew Ng and so on with the likes of Coursera and on the other hand looking to the deeper roots of the approach pioneered by Dave Cormier, George Siemens, Stephen Downes et al. It’s hinted at in this article from University Affairs.

Then I got thinking about Facebook. There was an advert recently that FB put out to try to salvage some of its reputation in the fall out from the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Here it is:

It’s an attempt ot reclaim that origin narrative. It’s the line that goes “when this place does what it was built for then we all get a little closer.” Is that really what it was built for? I mean, really? If you watch another version of that narrative, David Fincher’s Social Network movie, that phrase takes on a different meaning.

Lastly, I thought about a talk I saw a few years ago at the Thinking Digital conference in Gateshead by the economist Mariana Mazzucato where she effectivley dismantled the received wisdom that products like the iPhone were all to do with the innovation and entrepreneurship of the private sector and pointed out that it was public sector-funded developments that had made it all possible in the first place. Watch it, it’s brilliant

In posts and workshops in the past I’ve mentioned the hackneyed and serially misattributed phrase “those who tell the stories, rule the world”. Stories are how we make sense of events but they’re never neutral .You can tell a lot by looking at contrasting narratives as a way of taking control.  And who is telling them can be instructive. Ask yourslef, in whose interests is this story being told. It pays to be critical.

And if you’re the storyteller, it pays to do this responsibly.

A house of cards? – Netflix as a model for elearning

I subscribed to Netflix a few weeks ago so I could finally watch the US version of House of Cards (enjoying it, btw) so I read Donald Clark’s recent post on “what does learning have to learn from Netflix” with some interest.

Donald paints a picture of a learning landscape that I just can’t get excited about. He says:

“We badly need some big, global education content delivery. Brilliant, scalable content that teachers and learners love.”

So much of the debate about elearning revolves around the question “will it scale?” but I want to resist the idea that this is how we do elearning now. Bigger doesn’t always mean better.

It’s a question of experience. Technology allows us to do really interesting and exciting things with learning but what works for a group of a dozen won’t always work for a group of thousands.

The tyranny of the algorithm

One of the reasons that we need algorithms to curate learning experiences is if we want large scale in our online learning programmes.  The job is just too big if you have 150,000 individuals taking a course or are subscribed to your platform.

I’m just not that impressed by the ability of algorithms to shape my online experience, at least at the moment. The complicated, messy reality of any online interaction has to be reduced to something very simplistic in order to make it computable.

I reflected on this last year when Facebook presented me with a robot-compiled video of my life called Look Back that felt like the story of a stranger!

I’ve given Netflix a lot of clues as to my preferences by the things I watch and the quite sizeable favourites list I’ve created but of the things it recommends for me I’m interested in a very small proportion. It’s not a good hit rate and it would be interesting to compare it against a list of randomly selected titles.

If that’s the adaptive engine that $1million dollars buys you I don’t think it’s great value for money. Sure, it’s early days in my use of Netflix but it’s a pattern I see repeated in my experiences of Facebook, Amazon, Spotify and so on.

Learning as a collective endeavour

The masters I completed in 2013 was an online course but was very small scale, fewer than a dozen people in my cohort but it was a powerful, transformative experience for me.

What I responded to and kept me motivated and learning throughout was that fact that the model of curriculum design was collaborative. There were many opportunities for us to shape how the course was run as it was run. It was scarey, sometimes messy but ultimately very empowering. Technology helped us to do this with a group spread over the whole of the UK and beyond.

Also, one of the things I valued most was my relationship with the course tutors like Guy Merchant and Richard Pountney. There was something really exciting about the potential that not only could they change my mind about how I thought, the potential was there for me to do the same to them.

Online learning at scale, especially if it feels like a Netflix experience, is going to find it really difficult to accommodate that sort of thing. It only works if what you are concerned about is delivery of content and that’s only a part of what learning is about.

“Learners who studied this might also like…”

I was intrigued that House of Cards’ casting was shaped partially by the data on audience preferences.

If a+b+c=ratingssuccess, that doesn’t leave much room for surprises or creativity. It’s a way of baking existing preferences into the system, making it harder for new talents and voices to emerge. We hardly have a perfect system for nurturing new talent at the moment

I don’t necessarily know what I want when it comes to learning either. I want to be surprised as much as I want to find out stuff that is useful.

“Will it scale?”

The answers to education’s problems can’t be found purely in the economies of scale.

Technology gives us a great management tool when dealing with massive scale courses but I worry that we then compromise on the learner experience.

We should be as interested in what technology helps us to do at the small scale as well as the massive.

Image: Minihouseofcards.jpg by Arealast CC-BY-SA 3.0