Category: short reflections Page 1 of 2

Edtech history, erasure, udacity, and blockchain

This thought in Audrey’s newsletter (update: link added March 30th) caught my attention, and encouraged me to share a related story.

 [Rose Eveleth] notes how hard it can be to tell a history when you try to trace a story to its primary sources and you simply cannot find the origin, the source. (I have been thinking a lot about this in light of last week’s Udacity news. So much of “the digital” has already been scrubbed from the web. The Wired story where Sebastian Thrun claimed that his startup would be one of ten universities left in the world? It’s gone. Many of the interviews he did where he said other ridiculous things about ed-tech – gone. What does this mean for those who will try to write future histories of ed-tech? Or, no doubt, of tech in general?) Erasure.


Remember how blockchain was going to revolutionize education? Ok, let’s get into the weeds of a related idea and how most everything that happened around it has also disappeared from the web.

One way through which blockchain was going to revolutionize education was through the development of education apps and software running on the blockchain. Around 2017, Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) were the means through which to raise money to build those apps. An ICO was the cryptocurrency equivalent of an initial public offering. A company would offer people a new cryptocurrency token in exchange for funds to launch the company. The token would then provide some utility for ICO holders relating to the app/software (e.g., you could exchange it for courses, or for study sessions, or hold on to it hoping that its value would increase and resell, etc). The basic idea idea here was crowdfunding, and a paper published in the Harvard International Law Journal estimates that contributions to ICO’s exceeded $50bn by 2019. The Wikipedia ICO page includes more background.

A number of these ICOs focused on education. Companies/individuals/friends* would create a website and produce a whitepaper describing their product. Whitepapers varied, but they typically described the problem to be solved, the blockchain-grounded edtech solution they offered, use cases, the team behind the project, a roadmap, and the token sale/model.

To give you a sense of the edtech claims included in one of those whitepapers:

“The vision is the groundbreaking disruption of the old education industry and all of its branches. The following points are initial use cases which [coin] can provide … Users pay with [coins] on every major e-learning platform for courses and other content they have passed or consumed… Institutions can get rid of their old and heavy documented certification process by having it all digitalized, organized, governed and issued by the [coin] technology.”

I was entertaining an ethnographic project at the time, and collected a few whitepapers. For a qualitative researcher, those whitepapers were a treasure trove of information. But, looking online, they’re largely scrubbed, gone, erased. In some cases, ICO’s founders’ LinkedIn profiles were scrubbed and online communities surrounding the projects disappeared, even as early as ICOs didn’t raise the millions they were hoping for.

Some of you following this space might remember Woolf, the “world’s first blockchain university” launched by Oxford academics. And you might also remember that, like other edtech projects, it “pivoted.” See Martin Weller’s writing and David Gerard’s writing on this. Like so many others, the whitepaper describing the vision, the impending disruption of higher ed through a particular form of edtech, is gone. David kept a copy of that whitepaper, and I have copies of a couple of whitepapers from other ventures. But, by and large, that evidence is gone. I get it. Scammers scam, honest companies pivot, the two aren’t the same, and reputation management is a thing. But, I hope that this short post serves as a small reminder to someone in the future that grandiose claims around educational technology aren’t new. And perhaps, just perhaps, at a time of grandiose claims around AI in education, there are some lessons here.



Reflections: 100 Year EdTech Project design summit

Last week, I was at the 100 Year EdTech Project Design Summit in Phoenix AZ, and I thought it might be worthwhile to post some raw reflections here, captured throughout the days, and unedited. At the event

“Leaders, educators, futurists, designers, students, lifelong learners, visionaries –  all will be invited to explore the last 50 years of technology’s impact on education, observe where we stand today, and imagine the future of education for generations to come.”

I appreciated the event starting with a student keynote panel. Some ideas I heard included attention to equity, excitement about the role of AI (i have lots and lots of thoughts on this, including how much space these conversations are taking and concern around the kinds of conversations it’s displacing), the inevitability of technology, the limits of our imagination (e.g., a comment made around how X years ago “my concern was about walking to the library and spending hours looking for an article, and so no i couldn’t have imagined the progress of tech”), emphasizing community, expanding access to tech (e.g., broadband for all), and sharing wealth and resources.

And because I’m obviously reflecting on these from my own perspective: These conversations are somewhat similar in Canada, but there’s a stark difference: The starting point there, or at least in the conversations I was part of, was typically decolonization, conciliation, indigenization, equity, and inclusion. The starting point here, or at least at this event, is technology in the service of similar ends… in other words, there’s a more pronounced technosolutionist stance at this event. Granted, that’s the focus of the event, which makes solutionism a difficult pattern of thought to escape/resist.

The slide below from Kiran Budhrani recentered some ideas around the broader issues, that don’t have to do with tech, but shape education nonetheless

This was punctuated by Bryan Alexander highlighting climate adaptation, and especially climate migrants and the impacts of that impending reality. I say reality because I’ve reached the conclusion that climate collapse is more likely than otherwise. I hope I am proven wrong.

A great question from a medical professional was the following: what do medical professionals need to know when patients (all of us) come to them with some basic knowledge of their ailments? The focus here was  on skills and knowledge relating to empathy and communication on the medical professional’s part, as well as the ethical issues around AI systems that will invariably support patients (e.g., what data were they trained on? how trustworthy are they, etc etc). I also think this area relates to patients navigating the flood of information/misinformation circulating online and their use of various technologies to make sense of their ongoing and new ailments. This reminds me of Dave Cormier’s book, which argues that we ought to be preparing people to navigate uncertainty at a time of information abundance.

Much of the event focused on small group discussions around approaches that might address certain challenges. I thought that framing the role of edtech in the future in terms of scenarios was grounding and valuable. The discussions in my group were rich, and there lots and lots of thoughts and ideas about our topic.

Finally, it was great to catch up with Philippos Savvides, fellow Cypriot at ASU, who partners with and supports edtech startups around the world. I also appreciated a short tour of EdPlus (ASU’s internal-focused OPM) and learning more about their work. Rather than outsourcing online program management, like so many other institutions, EdPlus focuses on innovating and scaling ASU offerings. I believe that  operations integral to the institution (and OPM is one of them) ought to stay within the institution and ought to be cultivated. I like what ASU is doing here. And through luck or foresight, it’s perhaps avoiding the entanglements of an OPM market in turbulence.


Update #1: The paper “Climate imaginaries as praxis,” showed up in my inbox a few hours after posting this, and I wish I had read it prior to the summit. Abstract reads: As communities around the world grapple with the impacts of climate change on the basic support systems of life, their future climate imaginaries both shape and are shaped by actions and material realities. This paper argues that the three globally dominant imaginaries of a climate changed future, which we call ‘business as usual’, ‘techno-fix’ and ‘apocalypse’ – fail to encourage actions that fundamentally challenge or transform the arrangements that underpin systemic injustices and extractive forms of life. And yet, to meet the challenges associated with food production, energy needs, and the destruction of ecosystems, people are coming together, not only to take transformative action, but in doing so, to create and nurture alternative imaginaries. This paper presents empirical findings about how communities in north and south India and south-east Australia are pre-figuring alternative futures, locally and in most cases in the absence of broader state support. An analysis of communities’ actions and reflections indicates that their praxes are altering their future imaginaries, and we consider how these local shifts might contribute to broader changes in climate imaginaries. At the heart of the emerging imaginaries are a set of transformations in the relational fabric within which communities are embedded and how they attend to those relations: relations within community, with the more-than-human, and with time.

Quote: I won’t ever really understand what it feels like to work here, because I know that I get to leave

It’s been a few difficult and long months – more on this soon –  but this week was the first time in I-can’t-remember-when that I was able to sit at a coffee shop with a book with no schedule, without a pressing sense to spend my time on more productive and pressing activities. I’ve missed it. At said coffee shop, a local chain called Serious Coffee,  I was reading Emily Guendelsberger’s On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane in which she describes what it is like to work at a McDonalds, an Amazon warehouse, and a call centre.

I’ve always been drawn to ethnographies, stories from the inside, and such – please offer favourite books and articles in the comments – and this quote was a good reminder of the challenges we face in our efforts to understand other people’s experiences (p. 56-57):

I came to SDF8 [an Amazon fulfilment centre] to try to understand what it feels like to work in a fulfilment center. But the thing I really and truly understand now is that, regardless of how broke I may be, I’m the upper class. I always will be. I won’t ever really understand what it feels like to work here, because I know that I get to leave.


Tidying up this website

I’ve spent some time this morning updating a few of the static pages on my website, including

  • the consulting page (updated the list of clients to indicate work completed with institutions, governments, non-profit, and for-profit organizations)
  • the affiliations page (to indicate relationships beyond my employer)
  • the public scholarship page (to bring up-to-date my op-ed and public writing)
  • the grants page (to include recent grant received)

So very tired of predictions about AI in education…

By people who aren’t AIEd experts, education technology experts, education experts, and the like.

Case in point: “AI likely to spell end of traditional school classroom, leading [computer science] expert says.”

I appreciate cross disciplinary engagement as much as I love guacamole (which is to say, a lot), but I’d also appreciate that we stop wasting our time on these same unfulfilled prophecies year after year, decade after decade.

Will AI impact education? In some ways it will, and in others it won’t. Will education shape the ways AI comes to be used in classrooms? In some ways it will, and in others it won’t.

Truth be told, this negotiated relationship isn’t as appealing as DISRUPTION, AVALANCHE, MIND-READING ROBO-TUTOR IN THE SKY, etc, which are words that readers of the history of edtech will recognize.

Issues that hybrid, online, and blended modes of teaching and learning introduce to collective agreements and bargaining

A few weeks ago, I was invited to offer input to a committee at a Canadian university examining issues that hybrid, online, and blended modes of teaching and learning introduce to collective agreements and bargaining. I appreciated that the committee identified experts to speak with in order to gain an evidence-informed understanding of the issues they were facing rather than allow their deliberations be guided by assumptions and beliefs (which, to be honest, many of the conversations around modality default to!).

I thought the questions I was asked were relevant to many, and so I am sharing them below. The gist of my responses follows each question.

  • What is your sense of the future of online, hybrid, and blended course delivery in Canadian universities?
    • Necessary, valuable, and growing. Ignore them at your own peril.
  • How do you see the work, the workload, the rights, and the responsibilities of faculty changing within this shifting terrain?
    • Rising workloads at first, but shifting over time (similar to how workload is higher when assigned a new course; opportunity to learn & explore relationship between online/hybrid and pedagogy, which may transfer to other settings). Responsibilities around quality similar, if not higher (which is unfortunate given that conversations around quality are different in relation to in-person courses). Rights: an opportunity for expanding the conversation to encompass in-person practices: reflect on ownership and where the real value of faculty lies – it’s not content.
  • What would you suggest are the biggest advantages to these delivery modes, and what would you flag as the biggest challenges that institutions face in moving towards these modes?
    • advantages: rethinking pedagogy, flexibility, supporting justice and EDI, reaching and supporting different kinds of learners; challenges: institutional infrastructure to support online/hybrid learning quality at the same level as supporting in-person.
  • What kinds of supports—technological, training, in-class, infrastructural, workload-based, or other – do you see as necessary for faculty to successfully deliver course through online modes?
    • This is the right question to ask. It’s not just about individual skills, competencies, and perceptions – it’s about how the institutions will support these learning modalities at the system level. In addition to the ones mentioned in the question, my answer highlighted that online/hybrid learning is a team sport and noted the need for instructional design support.  
  • As part of our own deliberations, we are concerned with the process through which mode of delivery for particular courses is determined. Do you have any advice on how this best happens? Are there any lessons from experiences at other universities about this?
    • This is a difficult one, especially at a time of many circulating viruses. I emphasized the need for flexibility and a decision-making process that is based on mutual trust and cooperation, and that is informed by student input. Ideally one where decisions aren’t top-down and aren’t solely guided by individual preferences. Also: the proportion of courses that are online need not be uniform across departments.

EdTech, magic mushrooms, and magic bullets

In my inbox, an email says:

Alberta’s new regulations on psychedelics to treat mental health issues come into effect today, making it the first province to regulate the use of hallucinogens in therapy.

Today in The Conversation Canada, Erika Dyck of the University of Saskatchewan walks readers through the new regulations, as well as the history, potential and pitfalls of hallucinogens both inside and outside clinical settings.

Psychedelics — from magic mushrooms and ayahuasca to LSD — are having a moment in the spotlight, with celebrity endorsements and a new generation of research on potential clinical uses. There is certainly a need for therapeutics to treat mental health issues, the growing prevalence of which could place a strain on the health-care system.

“Psychedelics are being held up as a potential solution,” Dyck writes. “But, magic mushrooms are not magic bullets.

That last line captures so much of what is happening in our field, and education more broadly, that it is worth repeating.

  • AI is being held up as a potential solution, but it is not a magic bullet.
  • A return to in-person learning is being held up as a potential solution, but it is not a magic bullet.
  • Online learning is being held up as a potential solution, but it is not a magic bullet.
  • Microcredentials are being held up as a potential solution, but they are not a magic bullet.
  • … and so on

These things – and others – can be solutions to some problems, but they consider them to be part of a Swiss army knife, part of a toolkit. And while sometimes your Swiss army knife will work, this isn’t always going to be the case, especially when we’re considering some of the most major challenges facing higher ed, the kinds of things that we’re not talking about (e.g., precarious employment and and external regulations that encourage and foster conservatism, etc).

And perhaps, that’s the crux of the issue: That these solutions are used to respond to the symptoms of larger problems, of the things we’re not talking about, rather than the root causes of them.

Image credit: Wall-e output in response to the prompt “a magic bullet in the style of salvador dali”

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