Going underground

It’s Deleuze week here among the deckchairs, a problem I’m keen to sheet home to Michael Feldstein. I’m not normally a Deleuze reader—even in the brief moments of my life when I’m not thinking about what’s wrong with the OpenClass marketing strategy (see below)*—but the coincidences are piling up, including that a colleague has just pointed me to the 1990 conversation between Deleuze and Antonio Negri, on “Control and Becoming“.

And in a genuinely rhizomatic sort of way, I’ve been following links between other people’s conversations, particularly the rolling edupunk houseparty that seems to involve something called “DS106”.  For the uninitiated, this is all a bit “Area 51”, but I’m getting the hang of it—I think.

Listening to Dave Cormier talk on Livestream yesterday about the principles of rhizomatic educational practice, I started to wonder whether the rhizome is a popular metaphor at the moment precisely because so many educators are bored and annoyed with the command and control principles of our institutional lives.  Everyone loves the surreptitious, subtle, self-perpetuating rhizome under these circumstances. It imagines the recuperation of education from its bureaucratic life, offering self-authorising, disintermediated, straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth learning opportunities, and it makes us feel good on the days in which filling out the forms, fighting with administration, and losing a sense of career traction are making us feel bad.

That is, until the point that we get to grading. And at this point, all of us working in formal, accredited, standards-sensitive educational institutions have to figure out whether one person’s rhizomatic experience was demonstrated with more grace, more facility, more all round goodness than the next person’s.

Student readers, look away now.

The secret conversation among educators is that the increasingly fervent application of quality assurance processes to protect grading consistency in any area involving the exercise of judgment has reached epidemic proportions of ridiculousness. We moderate and standardise and fuss, particularly over any deviation from last year’s results. With the rise in distributed learning, especially any involving offshore partnerships, we build complex data queries to ensure that there is no risk of locational advantage, no grading bias, no unexplainable bump in the smoothness of our statistical curves.

But despite the increasingly scientific efficiencies of our QA processes, we have all talked about throwing a pile of papers down the stairs and grading according to the step they land on, because we might as well.

Maybe because they suspect us of doing exactly this, our institutions are fanatically attracted to the twin weapons of grading rubrics and learner analytics. Working together they promise that there is no chance of irrational, autonomous, discretionary thinking, and now we’ve got that out of the way, we can centrally and neutrally identify students at risk of not achieving the standardised learning outcomes, so that we can target our resources towards preventing them from drifting further. Our investment in retention might not be as benign as we make it appear, but the language of quality makes it all sound like a particularly good thing to be doing.

(As an aside, my favourite risk analysis tool is the hilarious Skip Class Calculator, launched last year and the funniest thing to come out of student-driven analysis of higher education performance since Rate My Professor introduced its chili pepper hotness rating.)

Edtech vendors didn’t invent this mania for quality assured grading; they’re simply providing the tools that will service our belief in its efficiency. This is why companies like Instructure are going out of their way to promise us that the first and only waymarker on the 2012 horizon, is their shiny analytics tool. But the idealised vision in which any teacher, using the same rubric, would come to the same conclusion as any other teacher about a piece of work, is ours. To aim for anything less would surely be unfair, we say, ignoring for a moment that the logical consequence is the infinite substitutability of all teachers for each other.

But wait, there’s more. If the rubric is sufficiently grainy, then left alone in a room with it the student ought to be able to grade her own work.  So it’s only logical that your be-all LMS will take on this task for you, and shoot the result on to the analytics department.

This is where find myself clinging to Deleuze while not really embracing the rhizome. I don’t disagree at all that the rhizome is a powerful metaphor for a certain kind of educational freedom, and I’m moving closer and closer to the view that we need to find better ways to champion informal and community-based learning, things being as they are in higher education. But while we’re still drawing a salary to provide a service, we can’t simply sidestep the calculation that students have to make every day as they decide whether to go on acquiring debt in pursuit of a qualification accredited on the basis of our grading systems.

So I’m more convinced by what Deleuze had to say in 1990 about the rise of the control society and the peril of life seeming to become more open while in the same process becoming more amenable to surveillance:

One can envisage education becoming less and less a closed site differentiated from the workspace as anoth­er closed site, but both disappearing and giving way to frightful con­tinual training, to continual monitoring of worker-schoolkids or bureaucrat-students. They try to present this as a reform of the school system, but it’s really its dismantling. In a control-based system noth­ing’s left alone for long.

And in the end that’s why I’m unconvinced that automation of the grading process addresses the real problem of grading.  Like the firing squad and the general, one of Deleuze’s less celebrated rhizomatic metaphors, just because the firing squad can now take aim without the general’s specific authority, this doesn’t make the process good. Fixing this is going to take some much tougher and more imaginative institutional reforms, and some really visionary and creative edtech.

* OpenClass: like everyone else who clicked on the link on the Free. Open. Easy. Amazing (Not) website a few weeks back and then wondered, Alice-like, what actually might happen, this morning I’ve had a marketing email inviting me to join a webinar where all my “burning questions” about OpenClass will be answered—providing I can join them at 6am Sydney time. Never mind, Australia. “This is just the beginning”, they’re assuring us, in bold. And in case you’re wondering, it’s all going terrifically well for them. 1000 institutions have signed up—given that they’re offering a free LMS to a global market bristling with frustration at their competition, this seems a surprising total.

What is it that makes today’s North American edtech marketing announcements so familiar, so unappealing?

The mosquito and the raindrop

From Lindsay Tanner’s “adapt to eLearning or die” speech to Australian higher education, to Adrian Sannier’s soothing evolutionary metaphors to spin Pearson’s arrival as a predator in the LMS ecosystem, all sorts of people are drawing on the history of everything-until-now to figure out where we might be going with edtech.

It’s evolutionary thinking, baby.

I’m now trying to figure out how to make sense of the latest move that joins up Pearson and Knewton to deliver content, platform and analytics. The slightly offputting company vision of jacked in kids learning through a secret sauce mix of tracking and psychometrics has quite a bit in common with Club Penguin’s new predictive text feature, that finishes and cleans up your children’s sentences for you so that even poor spellers and the potty mouthed can pay to play in Disney’s branded social network. (And thanks to Audrey Watters for both of these.)

But by adding reporting and analytics Knewton’s going a step further, presenting itself as a transformative horizon of accountability that will meet the needs of educators, parents and government (memo to Knewton: when talking to educators, remember that it’s not universally accepted that these are the same needs) and so it fits well with Pearson’s self-concept as the most benign big fish in the sea.

Worrying about where actual educators come in all this, especially since sitting through the Knewton video, I’ve become distracted by two metaphors for cooperative co-existence, and a fable. What they’ve helped me to think through is that not all partnerships are mutual, and that in the long term, not all partnerships arrive at the same destination, even when they set out to work together.  Sometimes, instinct is just too strong.

So this isn’t just cautionary thinking for Pearson and Knewton, but for the rest of the educational ecosystem, and particularly for educators, as our role in this kind of threesome is far from clear.

The first story involves the orchid and the wasp. Philosophers Deleuze and Guattari use this to try to explain how the apparently fixed identity of anything gives way to the more important business of what it is that thing is actually used to do. It’s attached to another part of their thinking, involving the rhizomatic way that meaning can get about with a central distribution point, a metaphor that Dave Cormier brought into the conversation about open education in 2008. The rhizome gets a lot of attention including from Michael Feldstein and his readers, but the story of the orchid and the wasp less so.

Its explanatory value involves the way that the wasp and the orchid evolve in cooperation. By producing a reasonable facsimile of the markings of a wasp, for example, the orchid persuades the wasp to come a little closer to take a look, and as a result this fragile species that likes to grow in out of the way places (presumably off the flightpath of regular bee traffic) lives on. The wasp is still a wasp, but is lured into collaborating with the reproductive needs of the orchid, so it’s also part of the orchid world. At the heart of the bargain is a bit of deception and possibly some waspish disappointment, but no real harm.

The second metaphor is the mosquito and the raindrop. Mosquitoes thrive in rain, but how exactly do they survive the impact of raindrops that are in general 50 times heavier than they are? Apparently, there’s been an urban myth that mosquitoes do this by thinking ahead and navigating around the rain, but this has now been disproved by researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology, to whom we all owe this immensely touching scrap of slow motion photography.

What they’ve found is that mosquito survival depends on their offering no resistance at all to the raindrops. As a result the raindrops, which really do have momentum and somewhere-to-be, simply push them aside:

High-speed videography of mosquitoes and custom- built mimics reveals a mosquito’s low inertia renders it impervious to falling drops. Drops do not splash on mosquitoes, but simply push past them allowing a mosquito to continue on its flight path undeterred.

In other words, the mosquito has evolved to survive in the rain by making itself very inconsequential as far as the raindrop is concerned. The raindrop isn’t really involved in the deal.

And then there’s a third metaphor, which isn’t a truly evolutionary story, but a fable: the scorpion and the frog.  In this well-known tale, the frog agrees to give a ride across a river to the scorpion on the grounds that—as the scorpion argues—it makes no sense for the scorpion to kill the frog as they will both drown.  The frog goes along with this, although its motives in doing so aren’t all that clear. When the scorpion stings the frog after all, the frog complains, to which the scorpion’s reply is simple: it stung the frog because that was its nature.

So I can see why it makes sense for powerful companies to promote competitive evolution in the market system as a form of coexistence that can pay off for everyone, but stories of species collaboration aren’t always so reassuring: there’s the orchid’s self-serving deception, the raindrop’s indifference born of superior size and power, and the helpless dishonesty of the scorpion. The wasp does well out of it, the mosquito makes the best of it, and the frog comes off very badly indeed.

The fact that each of these relationships is constructed in the awkward space between mutuality and sharing helps explain why external partnerships alarm risk-averse educational institutions looking to make be-all LMS contract decisions. It’s like going on holiday with a couple: so much could go wrong.

So if we’re also going to thrive as the combination of platforming and vendor concentration places extreme pressure on the smaller and more specialised edtech players, we’re going to need to do more than watch nature do its thing. Specifically, it makes sense to remember the power that lies in the fact that we’re the clients, we have relatively large budgets, and we have urgent reason to invest in protecting the health and diversity of the global edtech ecosystem—especially in Australia, where the goal of our startups is already to make it to America.

So one way we might do this is to create better opportunities for educators to become much more actively and routinely invested in supporting small edtech startups—but how to do this without becoming either the mosquito or the raindrop? That’s going to take some smart thinking.

Edtech and the evolutionary arms race

In 1944, in response to a question about whether there could be a “purely American art”, Jackson Pollock said this:

The idea of an isolated American painting, so popular in this country during the thirties, seems absurd to me just as the idea of creating a purely American mathematics or physics would seem absurd …  the basic problems of contemporary painting are independent of any country.

It’s a famous move in the history of exnomination that plays differently, I think, outside America. By exnomination, I mean the straightforward work that language can do to make some features of any situation seem so obvious that they don’t need to be named. It’s a card trick of some subtlety.

The concept has often been used to think about exactly how cultural power makes itself both invisible and taken-for-granted in terms of gender or race.  But it transfers easily to edtech, where the exnominated term is “North American”, and it seems just as absurd to suggest that cultural context influences either the design of educational technology (surely all university systems are the same, aren’t they?) or the kind of content that will come down the pipes. But there you have it: I think it does.

And those of us working outside America run into the cultural paywall that’s erected around US-based edtech all the time.  Six months ago, my niggling reminder of global insignificance was the notification from Ning that the special deal co-sponsored by Pearson to relieve the pain of Ning’s transition to a user-pays business model was only available to educators working in the US.  This week, it came from edtech startup Educreations, whose sign-up process included a pull down menu to register my institutional location … but only as somewhere in the United States.

(I did get a very nice email from them about this, and apparently recognising the existence of the rest of the world is on their short to-do list, for which our heartfelt thanks.  And this puts them ahead of any major vendor still using US-focused promotional videos to sell to college systems outside the US.)

But my broader worry about the way in which we accept the proposition that the “basic problems of [educational technology] are independent of any country”, to misquote Pollock for a moment, has come from a different direction.  I was asked this week, by none other than Adrian Sannier, why I had reservations about “evolutionary arms race” as a metaphor for market-driven technology innovation.

Again, I think this is one that plays very differently in America than it does in smaller economies like Australia’s, for whom any mention of an arms race is a metaphor for gross defense dependency. To sort out my ambivalence about this, I’ve been reading up a bit about something called the Red Queen’s Hypothesis, because the “evolutionary arms race” is in fact a double handled metaphor, where the competitive nature of military development comes to stand in for the ways in which species co-evolve in response to the threats that they pose to one another.

The reason it’s called the Red Queen’s Hypothesis is lovely: it involves the passage in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass in which Alice spends a bit of time chasing the Red Queen around trying to make sense of a disturbing landscape of directional quirks, reversals, and paradoxical pathways. After a while, she complains that as much as they both run, neither of them is getting anywhere, at which point the Red Queen says something along these lines: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.”

The adoption of this hypothesis to explain co-evolution suggests that the result isn’t as bad as it seems, and this is precisely what makes the “evolutionary arms race” a benign metaphor to push one further step into the context of competitive edtech innovation.  But if we strip back to the original metaphor for a moment, the “arms race” is actually a reminder that the last time we really thought about equilibrium in arms development, we called it “Mutually Assured Destruction”, which does start to sound a bit less attractive.

So the question is whether what we’re seeing in educational technology is the capacity for mutually beneficial co-evolution, as Sannier argues, or superpower standoff, or a more troubling lurch towards monopoly, in which case it really will matter where the cultural headquarters are located. Michael Feldstein’s discussion of why OpenClass really is a big deal puts it this way:

What does Pearson get out of all this? They potentially get all the data on your students and an iron grip on the point of sale for all curricular content. Everything that worries you about what Facebook and Google know about you and everything that worries you about the control that Apple exerts over the iTunes and App stores should worry you about Pearson’s ambitions. If ClassConnect succeeds in massively disrupting the LMS market, then Pearson potentially controls the center of the chess board for ePortfolios, digital educational content, transcripts—possibly even schools themselves.

The harmonious co-evolutionary potential in this scenario is really hard to discern if you aren’t one of the other giant North American technology and platform innovators (although it’s obviously terrific if you are). Certainly, smaller edtech providers pitching in the same market as OpenClass are likely to find it hard to keep up with Pearson’s business capacity to turn the campus LMS into a loss leader.

But for those of us beyond the North American educational market, who are having to take seriously the promise that thanks to edtech we’ll no longer need our own chemistry professors because Harvard have got one whose superior content they’re prepared to share online, the health of the global education ecosystem is an even more serious concern. Ferdinand von Prondzynski is arguing for vigilance on this question, because the world’s regional universities are more than simply outlets for content generated elsewhere, piped in via systems developed elsewhere. We are contributors to our own local economies and cultural ecosystems because we’re able to generate both research and curriculum that are tailored to where we are.

So while we may be bystanders rather than key players in this particular evolutionary arms race, that doesn’t mean we can afford to be indifferent to the way it turns out, or even sanguine about the values on which it is built.

Analyse this

Like Jonathan Rees, I’m really trying not to arc up in response to each inflated claim about technology’s power to save education from its own dismal, maladjusted, unimaginative future. Maybe it’s the EDUCAUSE effect, but it’s a whole keg party of edtech Kool Aid out there at the moment, and I’m feeling like someone’s disapproving mother.

The problem is the tsunami of corporate PR from edtech large and small that goes well beyond spruiking individual products, and extends to a generalised Mexican wave of enthusiasm for the whole techno-enterprise, often couched in such evangelical terms that it’s hard to imagine an educational problem for which edtech doesn’t already have the answer, in triplicate.

Take, for example, the startling announcement that “The future of education lies in technology”, that was dropped into the conversation this week by none other than Adrian Sannier. Compelled by this understated claim I wandered off to have a look, and found this article by Drew Olanoff, that introduced me to the now familiar figure of “a for-profit enterprise looking to invest time, experience, energy and resources in entrepreneurs who have a passion for education and the technical know-how to create their vision. Over a three-month period, we will draw on our extensive entrepreneurial experience, understanding of the Silicon Valley ecosystem, and knowledge of the education industry to help bring your idea to life, get your company funded, and to get your company on the road to success.”

Thrilling stuff, unless of course you’re a micro-entrepreneur who’s already been bruised by goldfield promises.  Jarrod Drysdale’s latest post on what’s wrong with “simple-minded, one-sided business advice” is really terrific, and Philippe Monnet in the comments introduced me to the lovely term “entreporn”.  I think Jarrod’s exactly right to argue to his fellow developers that they should start to work together to resist the sale of cheap prospecting maps and kits, particularly when so much of the terrain is in reality fenced in by large corporate interests.

But the second problem isn’t to do with the power of the big tech competition, so much as the problems that are internal to education. Joanna de Franco in Campus Technology makes the point clearly: too many large institutions are carrying around three-year old be-all LMS solutions for which there is insufficient, and insufficiently effective, take-up by their staff.  To this I’d add that their design doesn’t naturally build demand among students raised on very sticky social media.  So it’s hard to persuade CFOs to spend on really imaginative new technology when the old technology is still underutilised, or is even the subject of substantial internal backlash.

Low internal take-up is a problem edtech can’t solve on its own, because it relates to the ways in which education is itself subject to resourcing constraint and political pressure. Across traditional higher education institutions, for example, increasing student enrolments mean less and less time that can be spent by individual teachers in learning thoroughly how to use a new LMS, or on the front-loading required to curate or develop high quality resources for online teaching.  Skilled and forward-looking institutions will find ways of planning to support teacher innovation, but many won’t have the luxury of doing this, as more time and resources are diverted to the endless raking of the parade ground of our research.

Low take-up is also the reason why the core promise at the heart of the “technology will save us all” claim is still a hollow one:

Educational institutions have a huge flow of data, some not even digitized, and have no way to pour through it to make smart decisions for their schools or more importantly for their students. Some of the companies have come up with ways to use data to incentive students with behavioral issues, make better use of a Principal’s time by giving them a dashboard of student and financial data in real-time, as well as share lesson plans all over the world.

As ever, we’re back to analytics. As ever, the capacity of schools, colleges and universities to make use of the additional data generated by online learning practices, as well as the rest of the huge flow of data they’re already trying to manage—some of which is indeed not even digitized—is going to be limited by the extent to which individual educators are able to use new learning tools easily, quickly and thoroughly, particularly assessment tools.

But at the moment, I suspect many institutions aren’t sure what kinds of learning practices we want to analyse, and some of us are starting to wonder about the risks of imposing further data-driven behavioural stereotypes on our students as the consequence of our new fascination with countable things.


One of the reasons I’ve been trying to take a more positive approach is Kim Thanos’ beautiful post on open education at e-Literate.  Kim makes this very important point:

When we choose not to engage with the commercial players, we lose the chance to shape their investments and contributions. We also lose access to great minds and genuinely good people who choose to contribute to improved education through a .com rather than a .edu affiliation.

I think she’s right, but I think this also means being really clear with commercial players about why we’re not engaged by their claims of overestimated uniqueness.  That’s not the conversation we’re trying to have, at all.

And this is what matters about the impression that had been created that Pearson entered into an exclusive embrace with Google in developing OpenClass, a scenario that has been adjusted by Google (and several other commentators) this week.  As someone from CourseDirector whispered among the deckchairs a few days ago, they are also “an existing LMS in the Google Apps Marketplace”.  Google is certainly the bride here, but there’s more than one bachelor.  And we’re not going to improve education by being casual with details like this.

UPDATE: I can’t recommend too highly Michael Feldstein’s excellent just-minted post on OpenClass.  It seems we’re all trying to figure out how to solve the “open, free, amazing” puzzle, but this post helped me understand how and we should all be invested in working constructively with commercial developers to ensure that education doesn’t inadvertently become the hapless mark to an irreversible (even if well-intentioned) long con.  As Michael writes, the issue continues to be one of “general trust”.

One professor at a time

I’m still worried about the missed potential for edtech entrepreneurs large and small to engage in more substantial dialogue with educators at an earlier stage in their thinking.  At the moment, the pattern of bringing a mostly non-negotiable product to the RFP table involves both parties in an awkward clash of expectations that Joshua Kim has aptly described as a “bake-off”, and that certainly has reminded me of MasterChef more than once.

So the award for persistence in communicating with educators goes to the Instructure team who have been pursuing me from Sweden to Australia over the last month for a chat and a walkthrough of Canvas.

Instructure are the other company emphasising disruption to the standard LMS at the moment.  Anyone who has dealt with them seems to agree that this hard yards approach to consultation is their signature: they’ve been wearing out their shoes walking the hallways of higher education trying to figure out what educators actually want. To this, I can add that they’re really open to criticism of their product from someone with no technical background, and when they don’t have an answer to a question, they say: “We don’t know.”  This is actually a very good way to talk to people who teach, and it’s quite a bit less frustrating than the approach that’s been taken by several big edtech market announcements recently, where a curiously warped vision of education driven by content, analytics and automated workflow has been sculpted in haste by marketing communications.

The problem facing edtech marketing is that this vision might sell in the university boardroom or the engine room of strategic planning and quality assurance, but it’s one that most individual educators end up pinning to their mental dartboard.  So it’s just as hard for major corporates as it is for bootstrappers to figure out, I think, whether their intended audience sits at the institutional level, with the CIO, the CFO, and CEO and the hand that signs the paper, or whether their appeal should be pitched at users–teachers and their students.  What seems to happen is an awkward amalgam of the two, and this is never more offputting than in the corporate video spruiking the vision of the imaginary college experience.  We’ve all seen them.

So this brings me to Adrian Sannier’s response to Joshua Kim’s invitation to Pearson to do better at communicating with both their potential customers and those who are more sceptical about whether or not OpenClass is really aiming to change anything.

I’ve been genuinely impressed by Sannier’s willingness to front up to the criticism that OpenClass has been premature in its marketing announcements.  The OpenClass webpage has come in for sustained criticism from the education community, which is hard on Sannier as he is the only substantial piece of content on it.  And the unfortunate “see you at EDUCAUSE” answer to most questions hasn’t really worked for those of us not within a hemisphere of the northern American trade fairs, although I agree with Phil Hill that EDUCAUSE itself probably prompted the jumpy timing of the premiere.

Still, when I’m not seeing Sannier herding cats in a cowboy hat, I’m uncomfortably reminded of Quade Cooper; it’s the flipside of both corporate and sporting celebrity that there are times when the camera holds its tight close-up for what must feel like a very long time.

So, to be clear, I think his approach to taking these questions wherever they pop up is helpful, and I just want to follow up on one comment that has caught my eye.  In response to a question about the positioning of OpenClass in relation to other Pearson products, Sannier writes:

Pearson LearningStudio and OpenClass serve different markets. Pearson LearningStudio is the de-factor standard for fully online programs at scale, allowing programs a great deal of control over the academic experience. By contrast, OpenClass is designed for the campus market, where curriculum decisions are made one professor at a time. We understand the needs of these markets are quite distinct and have made OpenClass with that in mind.

We recognize that there is more than one set of institutional requirements around the world for a LMS. OpenClass complements Pearson’s other platform offerings very effectively.

This fleeting attention to the “one professor at a time” model of what actually happens in the classroom is rather lost in the subsequent strong focus on institutional buy-in that infuses the rest of Sannier’s answers, but the flicker of recognition is nevertheless there.

What this brings into the conversation is the most important shift in educational technology, that pre-dates the current potential for modes of managed promiscuity at the institutional level.  Individual educators have been quietly sneaking over the back fence like teenagers for some time, searching for the tools and applications in social media that will enable them to compensate for the limitations of big LMS solutions focused on analytics, workflow and content management (and frankly, we could sum all this up as educational CRM).

Most of us have found our tools through word of mouth—I know I came to Ning and Voicethread via Jane Hart’s excellent annual list of Top 100 Tools recommended by other educators; I started using Flickr memory maps as a learning tool after a bit of searching for something else entirely.  Diigo for Education is a list that provides me with a daily hint to think of something new that might work.  But sometimes the ideas come over coffee with colleagues: what really works for me is when someone who has tried something can tell me what I should avoid.

Educators are naturally good at this kind of crowdsourcing for social learning, and this seems to be the wave that OpenClass is trying to catch.  This is precisely why they’ve garnered so much attention without showing so much as a screenshot: the desire for change is really there.  So even if it’s not clear that OpenClass have the answer, or that anyone actually wants the future of education managed by big publishing, the passionate level of frustration with OpenClass should be giving other edtech entrepreneurs claiming to be disruptive something to think about in terms of their audience: the keenest advocates for disruption are also those who really don’t respond well to a conventional sales pitch.