Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Martha Lane Fox's Dimbleby idea: DOT.EVERYONE SHOULD HAVE A PONY....

Martha Lane Fox’s Dimbleby lecture was an opportunity lost. Rather than present a vision of the future it simply reinforces the past. When the recommendations focus on an institution, national regulation and gender, you know that it’s an all-too-British view of the digital world.
Oh no – an ‘institution’
Her key idea, the only concrete recommendation, is an ‘Institution’. When in doubt – the Brits always recommend an institution. This is the British way. I’ve asked a number of internet entrepreneurs what they thought of this and the replies were scathing. Steve Rayson was typical “The US does not dominate the internet because they set up an institution. I just spent the last week on the West Coast and things are accelerating at a pace. There is huge energy, investment, risk taking and urgency. The UK will fall behind because it moves too slow.”
I emailed my local Digital Catapult (latest of many institutions in the Digital field) in Brighton, five days ago – still no reply! We spawn institutes and quangos like slurry on fields – most fail. The budget gets gobbled up by head-hunters hiring expensive staff, many of whom come from other similar organisations that have failed. Then there’s the expensive building, usually in the most expensive city in the UK – London. Then the expensive, London-based staff with researchers galore. The CEO is often a civil servant and the chair one of the great and the good, with a board of buffers who finger-peck away at their tablets in meetings, thinking that this is what it feels like to be in ‘tech’. New website, new IT, usually some awful membership offer and plenty of networking events with canapés.
The problem with institutions is that they start to serve not the cause they were set up to tackle but themselves. As they have high overheads so after the initial funding runs out they need income, and as the membership model has had its back broken by that huge free institution, the internet, they struggle. That’s when survival becomes their goal and people lose interest. If you want a perfect example, look at the Institute for Learning.
Regulation
She’s all wrong on this. This is NOT about UK national regulation – that’s cornershop thinking. The internet is borderless, so international regulation is the real battleground. No mention of the big issues from Martha. No mention of the most important concept - net neutrality. The problem with localised, national regulation, is the pettiness and, to be frank, ignorance, of politicians. I’m glad Martha’s in the House of Lords, but I’m not sure that she’s even in my top 100 people when it comes to really contributing and knowing about the regulatory issues. That aside, because the House of Lords brims with lackeys and political appointees, with an average age well over 70, they are far removed from being able to even grasp the issues, never mind tackle the issue of regulation. So we end up with impractical filters and laws that do nothing to really tackle the issues at hand. On the whole they see the web through a pathological lens, as an uncivilised pit of vipers, corrupting the young. On a national level it is avoiding awful regulation that is the task at hand – not the introduction of Middle England and Victorian values into laws that simply don’t work.
Gender
Women in IT is an issue but gender politics is not, in my view, the key to success. It’s sometimes difficult to even express this view as people confuse the political with the practical. No one would argue that more women should be involved in the digital world but to what problem is this the solution? The technology, open internet and international regulation are the great equalisers. Let equality of opportunity bloom but don't confuse this with getting on with the job of getting things done.
Establishment
When Martha was given the title UK Digital Champion, the Inclusion Tzar, so removed was she in terms of background and experience that the joke was that her idea of equality and participation was to ‘give everyone a pony’. It sounded good, but the Soho-based organisation was filled by her posh mates and little was really achieved.  She’s as ‘establishment’ as you get and the solution to raising access and participation was never another privately-educated, Oxford type. Interestingly as the talk unfolded one question kept coming back to me – she failed to solve this problem, despite the considerable funding last time round, so what makes us think she has the solutions now? It was all a bit lastminute.com – lots of tired old destinations and ideas, aggregated together in a talk. There was nothing new. As for the strapline ‘to be brilliant at the internet’ it's meaningless and awful.
Conclusion

My disappointment was confirmed when I tried the website  - it was down for most of yesterday. It’s up today but is nothing more than a transcript of her talk. When I really looked for new ideas I found nothing. Even worse, I found a lot of vague and weak nonsense. Here’s a typical sentenceIn this 800th year anniversary of Magna Carta, why don’t we establish frameworks to help navigate the online world?” What the hell does this even mean?

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Saturday, March 28, 2015

The fake 'Wellness' cult in education & the workplace

As a Board member of an organisation, with over 100 employees, I was shocked to discover that we’ve embarked on a ‘Wellness’ survey. This comes on the back of a wave of ‘Mindfulness’ courses I’ve witnessed in organisations and education, and before that the obsession with ‘Happiness’. I’m suspicious of these anodyne ‘…ness’ words. For me it’s a morass of unsubstantiated therapeutic theory, fuzzy terms and feeble thinking. But there’s a more worrying side to all this….
Wellness in children
In Scotland, this has taken a rather spooky turn. The Nationalist government, fuelled by electoral success, has sneaked in a policy that is not far short of a Stasi 2.0 approach to childcare. Every child is to have a ‘state guardian’ who is NOT the parent. Children automatically become wards of the state under the watch of an army of named persons (state employees). The idiotic mnemonics already employed include; SHANARRI (Safe, Healthy, Achieving, Nurtured, Active, Respected, Responsible, Included) and GIRFEC “Getting It Right For Every Child”. This results in this type of horror story, one of wellness gone bad.
Wellness in education
A large number of US Universities have taken to Wellness contracts. The University of Massachusetts, along with many others, has a Campus Wellness Contract. Undergraduates are asked to sign a contract that commits them to a healthy lifestyle (roughly conforming to white, Christian values). The last thing many need at that age of joy, curiosity and exploration, is some contract that turns you into a dull, conformist. Is that the real goal of education, to be ‘well’, as defined by some dull, abstentious benchmark?
Workplace wellness
Workplace ‘wellness’ programmes abound, largely surveys and weak documents no sooner read than forgotten. Since when did HR think they have the right to take over the role therapists and responsibility for the emotional welfare of employees? HR, rather than sticking to their worthy role of development, pay and rations, has always wanted to be taken more seriously. This just opens them up to ridicule. What gave them the right to take control of our emotional lives? Why do they think they are qualified to become therapeutic and moral experts? In practice, this means reading one or two self-help books or a short course run by people who themselves cobble together some evidence-empty, PowerPoint and downloaded a survey template. It’s all so superficial and hollow.
How did this happen?
This debate goes back to the Greeks and reached its peak with Bentham, Mill and subsequent philosophical and political debate around `Utilitarianism’ in the late 19th C. ‘The Greatest Happiness Principle’ led to a definition of happiness in terms of pleasure and the absence of pain. However, Bentham’s ‘hedonic calculus’ proved too awkward to use in any practical sense. Mill opted for quality, not quantity, with a focus on higher pleasures, but there were still problems of definition, and measurability. The arguments that ‘happiness’ is vague, difficult to measure and cannot be used as a guide for moral or social well-being, remain a problem for positive psychology.
Unfortunately, just as we thought it had receded into history, specious psychoanalysis brought all of this back under another guise – the culture of therapy. It all started with Freud (impact on education here) but it is Rogers (critique here), and more recently Seligman (the pied-piper of positive psychology), that dragged it into the world of education and training.
The great Barbara Ehrenreich, in Smile or Die, (detailed review here) is one of many who have criticised the rise of positive psychology and thinking. She thinks the ‘happy’ and ‘wellness’ movement replaces reality with positive illusions, and I agree. You can think positively but “at the cost of less realism”. Seligman’s book Authentic Happiness was been seen by as Ehrenreich as a “jumble of anecdotes”.  She found his formula for happiness banal: H= S+F+C (Happiness = set range, circumstances and voluntary control). In the Journal of Happiness Studies she reads study after study linking happiness to every conceivable outcome but it’s a lop-sided view of the world, with no room for the realism of negative results.
The Wellness Syndrone
The Wellness Syndrome by Carl Cederstrom and Andre Spicer,  is another welcome antidote to this wave of woolliness. The authors rightly expose it as a faddish syndrome, really a moral obligation and imperative to regulate your feelings and behaviour. The happy/unhappy dualism slips into the good/bad moral imperative. What they posit as the real mechanism for this movement is an appeal to narcissism. It’s a programme actually appeals to the ‘me’ in all of us.
Their main point is that it is counterproductive. The more you seek wellness, the less well you become. Constantly worrying about how well you are is no way to live your life. In this clever but simple little study two groups watched a happiness inducing video. Those who had undergone exposure to ‘happiness’ treatment before watching the video felt worse than those who had not.
Conclusion
In all of these cases an unwelcome, and I suspect, unintended consequence, of all of this happiness, mindfulness and wellness effort, is a condescending attitude towards the rest of us who ‘don’t get it’ or ‘don’t live up to these standards’. There is a smugness about the whole affair, a stink of righteousness. It’s the modern equivalent of a meme-inspired cult, a touch of the Temperence movement and smattering of Scientology. 

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

10 reasons why ‘Hands up…’ teaching kills learning….

A teacher on Twitter today bemoaned the fact that his students don’t ask questions. I’ve also heard academics complain about the lack of critical thinking and inquiry among their students. What was absent in both instances is a lack of critical reflection on the problem. This is a teacher, not a learner problem. I’ve witnessed it in classroom observations and ask any pupil when they last experienced this behaviour and you’ll get all the evidence you need, as an old hand-me-down practice, it is still a deeply embedded behaviour in teaching. Here’s some reasons for getting rid of this practice:
Hands up
Hands up anyone who knows…..
1. The people who put their hands up usually know the answer. Asking these learners to provide an answer does nothing to improve their learning – they know it already.
2. On the other hand - this technique destroys the confidence and self-esteem of those who are not sure or don’t know the answer.
3. It excludes those who are introverts as it’s an invitation for extrovert behaviour.
4. Teachers allow far too little time for learners to think about the answer and choose someone tooquickly, demoralising those who are giving it some thought.
5. Note that most questions asked by teachers are not designed to make people really think. They are all too often quick fire questions that focus on atomic facts or names. Try this question:
A bat and ball cost £1.10.
The bat costs one pound more than the ball.
How much does the ball cost? (Answer at bottom)
This is a good question, as it really is a test of mathematical thinking but it needs time to think through before you answer. These are the questions you should not be shooting out at the whole class.
6. It can expose learners to ridicule, if the answer is way off-piste and encourages peer-pressure in the sense of exposing learners to ridicule from their class colleagues.
7. Worse of all, it conditions learners to see the learning process as one of providing correct answers to questions. It does NOT encourage students to ASK the questions or engage in critical thinking themselves.
8. If the practice of ‘Hands up…’ is thought by teachers to command attention. It actually instils in learners the fear of being exposed, that’s why most keep their heads down and don’t put their hands up.
9. Another excuse is that allows the teacher to do whoe class assessment, to know who kows and who doesn't know. First it doesn;t do this at all, many with their hands down are simply scared to answer. And if this is the reason, as we've seen above, it does more harm than good.
10. This is not active, collaborative or constructivist learning. It’s an insidious way to reinforce didactic teaching and get learners, not to think for themselves, but to fear authority.
Conclusion
Research from ‘The Practice of Questioning’ by James Dillon, showed that in both primary and secondary schools, children were rarely asked to come up with their own questions. One study, astonishingly, found that pupils asked only 2 questions to the teacher’s 84. Over a year, pupils were asking questions, on average, just one a month. It’s an easy ‘script’ for teachers to fall back on. But it’s illusory participation that inhibits rather than enhances learning. Teachers need to be giving a helping hand not asking for hand signals. Getting them to ask the questions wins - hands down. It’s a clear example of why seeing teaching as a practice is flawed, as that simply begs the question of what practice.
5p

Most answer 10p but that’s why the feedback matters – 10p+110p=120p (Try again) then 5p+105p=110p.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Finland’s greatest export isn’t education; it’s Angry Birds!

Lots of talk about serious games and games in learning. Some simply add ‘scores’ or ‘lives’ to their e-learning and call it gamification. But much of it is from people with limited knowledge of the games industry producing educational apps by the dozen, most of which are never used. This is a look at one of the world’s most successful games to see what magic dust we can glean from games in learning. My choice for a game that teaches us real lessons in learning is Angry Birds, and although I’m critical of putting Finland on a pedestal ineducation, this is arguably Finland’s greatest ever export.
So what exactly made it more popular than Mickey Mouse?
1. Flying start
You can learn to pay the game in seconds. All you need is your finger to operate the catapult – it’s that easy. That’s something most teachers and educators can learn from; no long sign-in process, none of those boring learning objectivesat the start or long dull introductions on the history of the subject. Jump right in, grab them by the throat and get the party started.
2. Play is easy
Then playing is easy. As games designers and players often say – it’s all in the ‘gameplay’. It’s addictive, has dozens and dozens of levels, is unbelievably simple to use yet has complexity under the hood that makes it different as you progress. This ‘ease of use’ did not come easily. It took a team of highly specialized experts, lots of user feedback and rigour in design. One of the problems with learning content is that the teams are weak, user feedback rarely sought and the user interface woefully inadequate.
3. Long or short bursts
Learning is too often delivered in overlong, sometimes marathon sessions – lectures, hours of e-learning, semester long MOOCs. Angry Birds can be played for less than a a minute, a few minutes, ten minutes, an hour or longer. It’s up to you. In learning we need to take advantage of those breaks and irregular slots for learning – on the train, on the plane, in the car, waiting, when we’re bored. Learning needs to be both short and long-form.
4. Constructive failure
By far the most interesting feature of games, in terms of learning (something that is often absent or shunned in learning practice) is ‘failure’. Most games have catastrophic failure (you die) but this is the precisely the key driver. You respawn or start again on that same level. You’re not allowed to move on too quickly, which is all too common in learning and leads to permanent and catastrophic failure in learners, especially in subjects like maths, where knowing one thing is a necessary condition for knowing another. Constructive, not destructive, recoverable failure should be built into all learning experiences
5. Repeats within levels
Games designers have been applying the Zone of Proximal Development with more rigour and regularity than most learning professionals for decades, and they’ve never heard of Vygotsky. They know that levels have to both ‘be’ and ‘feel’ achievable. As soon as game players feel that they are being ‘punished’, the game is up. They must know that failure can be overcome. You must ‘want’ to try again. A mark is never final, only a temporary marker on the way to further success. That’s the difference between marking and game scores. . Marking is such a destructive force in learning – it acts as an end-point, even for those that succeed – smart people stop at 80%, those who score badly get demoralized, fail and stop completely. This is the opposite of what happens in games.
6. User feedback
Rovio had tons of user feedback taken from behind glass screens, where users voiced what they liked, didn’t like, found difficult, found easy, excited them, bored them. How often does teaching. lectures or e-learning get trialed with a clear process for harvesting the results of that trial through market research? Rarely. I used to run an e-learning test lab ‘Epicentre’ that tested usability. It is something that needs budget, a rigorous process that needs real expertise.
7. Smarts under the hood
All the work is done by the engine, which is largely invisible to the user. There’s a physics module, that isn’t quite real physics but does all of the ballistic movements and collision software. Everything is finely calibrated and finessed to produce a seamless gameplay, largely through smart software. This is the way online learning is going as AI and adaptive learning come into play.
8. Experienced team
Rovio had completed 50 odd games before Angry Birds. This wasn’t some creative epiphany. It was an experienced company with loads of design, technical and games design expertise. Sure there was the inspirational act of first designing the characters (they’re irresistibly cute) but it was mostly the sweat, blood and tears of incrementally producing a game that led to success. There were no short-cuts. People often forget that good learning content also requires a team of people – project manager, designer, writer, graphic designer, audio engineer, developer, tester.
9. Business experience
These guys didn’t pop up from nowhere. They were in the ‘business’ of games design and had solid experience in the marketing and selling of those games. They had put in the time. Far too many apps are being created by far too many ‘get rich quick’ types or ‘grant chasers’. What you need is experience, a good team and relentless focus, sensitive to users needs.
10. Brands matter
These guys were calculating with their brand. It wasn’t called ‘Catapult’ but took the intriguing title ‘Angry Birds” and a ton of marketing expertise went into their strategy for selling. They hired a professional marketing company, in the UK, and now don’t see themselves as a games company, preferring the term media or brand builders. So many courses and learning experiences are poorly branded, if branded at all.
Conclusion
We have a lot to learn from the games world in learning but it is often not what we think. Games aren’t always wise in learning as they can be a distraction from the actual learning, create nothing more than extra cognitive effort, put people off, be costly or simply end up being a poor game, poor learning or both. On the other hand, learning needs to embrace quick starts, ease of use, short/longer use, constructive failure and competence levels. Learning designers, especially in online learning, have to work with smarter software, leverage experience, see this as a business and think also in terms of marketing and brands. That’s what gamification brings to the screen.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

7 reasons: Why we need to kill boring ‘learning objectives’!

At the end of this course you will….” zzzzzzzzz……. How to kill learning before it has even started. Imagine if every movie started with a list of objectives; “in this film you will watch the process of a ship sail from Southampton, witness the catastrophic effect of icebergs on shipping, witness death at sea but understand that romance will be provided to keep you engaged”. Imagine Abraham Lincoln listing his objectives before delivering the Gettysburg Address. Imagine each episode of Breaking Bad starting with its objectives. It makes NO sense.
1. First impressions matter
We know that people make very quick judgments of other people, often in a matter of seconds, and if you as a teacher are forced to do this prescriptive, unnatural act before you get a chance to put yourself across as an expert, practitioner and teacher, you will have got off to the worst possible start. To force teachers and lecturers to state learning objectives at the start of every session is to be over-prescriptive.
2. False start
Anyone who knows anything about speaking, writing for TV or film, designing web sites or games or any form of content that needs to keep an audience engaged, knows that immediate engagement matters. If those first impressions are a bureaucratic list of objectives, framed in teacher or training-speak, you’ll have set the wrong dull tone. It’s a behaviourist approach at odds with what we know about motivation, engagement and attention.
3. Attention killer
Let's take just one example, the phenomenon of arousal or attention. Arouse people at the start and they will remember more. Yet if the first experience many learners have is a detailed registration procedure followed by a dull list of learning objectives, attention is more likely to fall than rise. There is a strong argument for emotional engagement at the start of the learning experience, not a jargon-like list of objectives.
4. Gagne misapplied
There’s always a villain and in this case it’s Gagne. ‘Stating the objectives’ was the second in his nine steps of instruction. Unfortunately few remember that the first step was ‘Gaining attention’ THEN ‘Stating objectives’. Most start by stating objectives putting the second step first. In any case, I have serious doubts about including the second step at all. Indeed, this nine-step approach, as I have previously stated, tends to produce formulaic, often uninspiring and over-long courses.
5. Over-prescriptive behaviourism
It is important that teachers come across in a way that they feel comfortable with. Education and training has a habit of using theory, in this case 50-year-old theory, that simply refuses to budge and gets fossilized into prescriptive rules that constrict teaching and learning. The problem with this older theory is that it came when both the theorists and teacher-training world was dominated by behaviourism. It’s time we moved on.
6. Little learning a dangerous thing
Even if this were a good practice, it’s not easy and few have the experience to write objectives well. They end up being short and imprecise lists full of fuzzy terms such as ‘understand’, ‘know’, ‘learn’,  ‘be aware of’, ‘appreciate’ and so on. Writing a good objective in terms of actual performance, with the pre-requisite conditions (tools, conditions, presumptions), actual performance in terms of what the learners will know or be able to do and the measurable criterion such as time and so on, is not easy.
7. Time wasted
How much time is currently wasted by teachers and designers thinking about writing and delivering learning objectives. Even worse, how much learners’ time is wasted reading them. Even worse, how much attention and motivation is lost in learners by being made to sit through this bureaucratic stuff? My guess, especially if teachers, lecturers, instructors and trainers do this at the start of every lesson, lecture or module, that the waste is in the many, many millions.
Better to Top and tail
Rather than state learning objectives, we’d be much better focusing on productive techniques that focus on improved retention. For example, to ‘top and tail’ lectures, modules etc. so that reinforcement of learning takes place through spaced-practice. Explicit learning objectives are over-prescriptive for teachers and unnecessary for learners, doing more to hinder than help learning.
Conclusion

Note that I’m not criticising the use of learning objectives or learning outcomes, as defined by Mager, in the design of courses. That’s a skill and practice that’s far too often absent in learning professionals. My arguments focus on boring learning objectives made explicit to learners at the start of a course.

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