Archive of December 2018

Cynicism, Not Gullibility, Will Kill Our Humanity

Mike Caulfield has been working on teaching web literacy, in part as an effort to address misinformation spread and impact. These preliminary results from some of his classes, and his conclusions, are compelling.

Prototypes and production

Jeremy Keith differentiates:

So these two kinds of work require very different attitudes. For production work, quality is key. For prototyping, making something quickly is what matters.

B. F. Skinner: The Most Important Theorist of the 21st Century

Audrey Watters:

Design matters. Engineering matters. But so too does the context and the practices around technology. Culture matters. All of these systems and practices have a history. (That’s one of the key takeaways for you, if you’re taking notes.)

Why does the cursor blink, for example? How does the blink direct and shape our attention? How is the writing we do – and even the thinking we do – different on a computer than on paper, in part because of blinks and nudges and notifications? (Is it?) How is the writing we do on a computer shaped by the writing we once did on typewriters? How is the testing we take, even when on paper, designed with machines in mind?

Audrey has been working on a book, Teaching Machines, and gave this talk last month in Florida. I won’t try to summarize the whole talk here, because I think you should just go read her transcript. I’ll just whet your appetite with a couple more selections.

On B. F. Skinner’s influence (over Seymour Papert’s):

I maintain, even in the face of all the learn-to-code brouhaha that multiple choice tests have triumphed over democratically-oriented inquiry. Indeed, clicking on things these days seems to increasingly be redefined as a kind of “active” or “personalized” learning.

And just for fun:

“The most important thing I can do,” Skinner famously said, “is to develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us,” adding that he intended to develop “the social infrastructure for community – for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all.”

Oh wait. That wasn’t B. F. Skinner. That was Mark Zuckerberg. My bad.

See? I told you—go read.

Tobias Rechsteiner’s GT Zirkon

Everything about this is beautiful. I love the deep cuts in the letterforms, I love the weird growths on the website. And I love the simplified black and white user interfaces in the illustrations.

A boring education

Speaking of Lisa, her dissection of student needs vs. wants is withering:

It is obvious that the problems of the customer-service model of education continue to expand. The larger question is how it has become accepted wisdom that students require motivation in the form of entertaining behaviors on the part of instructors, that not to do so means being boring, and that boring is not OK and needs to be fixed. Regardless of what a student may need in terms of acculturation, self-direction, and scholarship, it has become more important that they be entertained into learning, then get a degree as quickly as possible to avoid wasting public monies.

Education should not adapt to such support goals, nor adapt to fit what students say they want.

Since I work in for-profit education, I see this bad habit of thinking of students as customers crop up all the time. I do believe that we should take a service-centered approach in supporting student learning. But I believe any input from students has to be filtered and interpreted, and that we have to rely on more sophisticated and less biased methods to determine what is working and what isn’t.

There’s an analog in user experience: designing for the user isn’t about giving the user whatever she wants. If you ask people what they want from their software, you’ll often hear very different things than you’d catch if you watch someone actually use their phone.

I learn more about improving my class by observing students work and asking them to explain things to me than I ever could by sending a survey asking them for suggestions. I do surveys like this, yes, but these are inputs I largely treat as noise that’s required by the larger organization—by people who aren’t in a position to do the boots on the ground work of figuring out what students need.

Lisa’s approach to learning outcomes

Lisa M. Lane:

An SLO is a Student Learning Outcome. Now, before you roll your eyes, be aware that when the History department was given the task of creating SLOs for all our courses years ago, we were given significant latitude. In our wisdom, we decided to make our SLOs skills-based rather than content-based. Instead of saying what content would be covered, what names and dates and events students had to learn, we would base our SLOs on what skills we wanted students to practice as historians.

Love this approach. Personally, I prefer to go a bit broad and overlappy at this high level, because it allows you to have a dialog about shared goals across subjects.

Beyond Digital Ethics

Cal Newport :

It’s hard to imagine companies of this size voluntarily reducing revenue in response to a new brand of ethics. It’s unclear, given their fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders, if they’re even allowed to do so.

By contrast, I’ve long supported a focus on culture over corporations. Instead of quixotically convincing some of the most valuable business enterprises in the history of the world to behave against their interests, we should convince individuals to adopt a much more skeptical and minimalist approach to the digital junk these companies peddle.

We don’t need to convince YouTube to artificially constrain the effectiveness of its AutoPlay algorithm, we should instead convince users of the life-draining inanity of idly browsing YouTube.

Maybe I’m just in a cynical mood, but I don’t personally see either of these approaches working. Honestly, anything that requires individuals or groups of people to shift their behaviors by first changing their minds sounds like tilting at windmills to me.

I’d love to be wrong about this.

On a less cynical note, I believe behavior is currently naturally shifting away from the excesses alluded to by Newport. Anecdotally, I see fewer students distracted on their phones throughout the day than I used to. And it’s clear people have to started to pay attention to the man behind the curtain in terms of advertising and content suggestions online. Give it some time, people know how to take care of themselves, and are surprisingly resilient.

Mathematics for social good

Dylan Kane:

Most of my students don’t see themselves as mathematicians because they can’t see pathways for mathematics to positively influence their lives. What if, as one small step toward creating richer perceptions of what mathematics is and creating a discipline that has a more positive influence on humans, we chose to center “mathematics for social good” as a core part of what we see as math?

Replacing 1 billion-user platforms

Manton Reece:

We do not need another social network with 1 billion users. Part of the problem is having so many users and so much power concentrated in one place. And setting out to achieve 1 billion users means it’s an ad-based platform that will inherently revisit many existing problems.

Agreed. And yet I am still bothered by the barriers of entry to alternatives, including Micro.blog. Apart from the usually-discussed technical and know-how barriers to entry (which honestly I find dubious on their own), what of social barriers? I see a lot of what faces whenever I check in on Micro.blog. How do we avoid revisiting this existing problem?

Coney Island Boardwalk

OMG I love these old postcards of the boardwalk at Coney Island.

The wood planks of the Coney Island Boardwalk were designed to accommodate two kinds of traffic: pedestrian and rolling chair. The sections with diagonal planks forming a chevron pattern were meant for foot traffic, whereas the two strips of straight planks were meant for rolling chairs.

If you ever visit New York, I really recommend the trip out to Coney Island. It’s kind of a bizarre place so close to such a huge international city. I recommend the freak show, a corn dog or two, and a stroll down the boardwalk.

If it’s nice out, take a nap on the pier. Don’t forget sunblock.