George Siemens and the Evolution of Ed Tech

English: Homo habilis KNMR 1813 discovered at ...

English: Homo habilis KNMR 1813 discovered at Koobi Fora (replica) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

George Siemens wrote a very thoughtful post on his current thinking about education technology called “Adios Ed Tech. Hola something else.”  Siemens has been very important in shaping my own thought on education technology and online learning. His work has not just shaped my thinking but how I work. The 2008 MOOC “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” was a seminal turning point in the field of education. I think my career has paralleled his in many ways: I too have been involved in education technology since the late 90s. I worked on online writing labs, MOOs, MUDs, early online tutor training sites, etc. on up to my work today. All the while I think I would also share his motivation when he writes:

Most of my career has involved using technology to help people get better access to learning resources and materials, to better connect with each other, to better access formal education, and to improve their teaching practices and pedagogies.

That is why I do what I do – to provide increased access for others to education. It is a simple mission. I think that is the most important thing that I can do – it is why I am also involved in open eduction, open education resources, and open textbooks.

George’s “Adios” seems to come from a pessimism about the current state of education technology which he feels “is not becoming more human; it is making the human a technology. Instead of improving teaching and learning, today’s technology re-writes teaching and learning to function according to a very narrow spectrum of single, de-contextualized skills.” I don’t see this happening in technology – I see this in the implementation of technology. He gives examples of bad implementations when he writes about Udacity:

So much of learning involves decision making, developing meta-cognitive skills, exploring, finding passion, taking peripheral paths. Automation treats the person as an object to which things are done. There is no reason to think, no reason to go through the valuable confusion process of learning, no need to be a human. Simply consume. Simply consume. Click and be knowledgeable.

I appreciate his frustration with this kind of “education” – Udacity and xMOOCs have set online education back 20 years. It is difficult to watch all of this money and effort go into projects that we who have been involved in ed tech for so long know will fail. I think the claims and hype are the disturbing part. We need to evolve past that hype and the promise of education automation and industrialization which has been the bane of education for the last 150 years.

Technology can do a lot of things. Some of those things are nonsensical or harmful. Some of those things are very useful. Technology can improve education and make it more human only to the extent that it facilitates our humanity. If technology is being used to create community, enable communication and engagement with one another, then it helps education. These are the kinds of connections that I found meaningful about Connectivism. And interestingly enough, communication and engagement are not on George’s framework list:

  • Does the technology foster creativity and personal expression?
  • Does the technology develop the learner and contribute to her formation as a person?
  • Is the technology fun and engaging?
  • Does the technology have the human teacher and/or peer learners at the centre?
  • Does the technology consider the whole learner?

That list of his five elements are important but the list seems to be missing the student-student engagement, the community, where real learning takes place. From what I know of his previous work, I know that he does not intentionally leave this out, but it is interesting that the main reasons that the xMOOCs failed were from a lack of that level of engagement and student support. And all of that failure was completely predictable by anyone who had even a casual eye on the research that has been going on for the last 20 years around online education and what makes it successful. My frustration as a teacher and practitioner is that I have participated in successful courses and programs, developed successful programs and courses, and there is little interest in that work because what it takes is old-fashioned hard work, talking to people, and creating community. It is terribly old-fashioned. I first came across the ideas around online learning as community if the work of Palloff and Pratt, Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace from 1999. The act of building those kinds of connections as education was reinforced by the work of George Siemens and Stephen Downes around Connectivism, which ironically, the one Article of Faith I had the hardest time getting around is “knowledge may reside in non-human appliances.”

We have been tool users for at least 2 million years when Homo Habilis started using simple flints. Using tools is part of the fabric of who we are. Learning to use them thoughtfully, purposefully, and with considered intention is what will take us to the next level. I look forward to following George’s evolution because I think it will, as always, invigorate and inform the discussions about what we are doing.

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One Response to George Siemens and the Evolution of Ed Tech

  1. I felt compelled to reply to George’s post, and I apologize for the copy-paste, but I believe many of the points I address within this reply are relevant to your concerns as well:

    I simply don’t agree – full disclosure, I’m an employee at Udacity (Program Manager for Web Content). Our product has become increasingly LESS about technology/automation and we’ve continued to iterate, learn, and improve our product. Over the past year, the most significant advances in our product (and the most successful in terms of student outcomes) has been in increasing the human component.

    I believe the feedback within this article is based upon the product Udacity was 2+ years ago. Sebastian has clearly admitted that was a shitty product (refer to any article related to our SJSU partnership). Since then we have learned, iterated on the product itself and we’ve found a niche – a product – that has been extremely successful.

    The Nanodegree product (and I’m not discussing the certification – we all know a piece of paper is not the point) guides the student through a series of portfolio projects that are a representative sample of what employers are seeking in the marketplace today – defined by the employers themselves. No one gets a job based on a piece of paper, they get the job based on proving they have the skillset for the position – and our Nanodegree programs are specifically designed to provide that. The course themselves (which we provide free to the world) are ancillary – if you need to “skill up”, they are there to help you within that effort.

    To address your five elements:

    1) Each project has a rubric containing three categories (Does Not Meet Expectations, Meets Expectations, Exceeds Expectations). In ALL cases the “Meets Expectations” category is directly related to the fundamental skills that project is addressing; furthermore, the “Exceeds Expectations” category directly correlates to instances in which a student personalizes the project, takes it above and beyond the minimum standards and truly makes it their own.

    2) The entire purpose of the Nanodegree program is to contribute to the learner and their formation as a person. Our primary demographic are those individuals making a career switch and the program has been very successful in that department. Not only do we provide the technical education/portfolio to support their desires for a career shift but we have extensive career development services including mock interviews, resume/LinkedIn/GitHub reviews. We’ve directly hired a number of our graduates, industry leaders like Google have hired our graduates, and we’ve partnered with numerous companies that have met great success in placing our graduates. For students not interested in the Nanodegree program, we offer all of the same courses as well as the Nanodegree project description, for free – for self-directed personal growth and learning.

    3) Fun and engaging is, obviously, a difficult and subjective metric. But we spend A LOT of time considering this during our course development process. We do our best to create compelling and meaningful interactions within the course that reinforce the learning. For projects, we spend a lot of time making sure they are compelling, representative of the skills desired, and worthy of being highlighted within a personal portfolio. We’re increasingly encouraging the student to “dive into” documentation and experiment – to discover and learn things on their own. Of course, we could do a better job in this department and we’re always iterating – as I’m sure everyone else that is passionate about education is as well.

    4) Students First is our motto – it’s painted on our wall. It’s the tenant we live by. The teachers, additional mentoring staff and peers are abundantly at the center of the experience. Teachers and mentoring staff directly engage with the students via our forums, one-on-one appointments and vastly attended, regularly scheduled office hours. Each student is placed within a team of their peers that are working on the same projects as they are, so they can support one another in real-time chat and participate in weekly feedback sessions. Each team is assigned a guide (a graduate of the program) that assists in moderating these discussions and helps the students within their team. Student projects are evaluated by the network of professional developers – not only against a functional rubric (does the program do what is expected) but as well as a line-by-line code review and 90%+ of these evaluations are returned within 24 hours. The same is done for resumes, LinkedIn, GitHub, mock interviews. We have an active alumni community that collaborates on open source projects, provides referrals for one another, provides code reviews on personal projects and – generally – is just there to be a friend. The community and network of peers a Nanodegree student develops during the program is one of the most compelling and rewarding results.

    5) The whole learner. There are many interpretations as to what this defines but I’ll lean on my military background in which the “whole person concept” was one of the ways in which we were evaluated. Our job at Udacity is to help people meet their goals. If you want to learn something new in your spare time, everything we do is freely available and we encourage you to take advantage of that. If you’re trying to teach others, everything we do is freely available for you to use in that effort. If you’re looking for a career shift, if you feel you need to develop your skills towards a certain job description, if you’re looking for direct actionable-feedback (both functionally and at the code review level), if you desire a community of your peers working towards a common goal, if you desire a compelling portfolio that proves your skillset to the marketplace, and if you would like to develop your “soft skills” and market presence within the job hunt – our Nanodegree program provides that at a very reasonable price (and we’re starting to explore/develop regional pricing for markets in which $200USD is not feasible).

    Overall (wow – this response got super long), I respect your opinion/feedback but I believe it’s based upon a misconceived notion as to what Udacity is today and the path we’re headed in the future. We’re certainly not perfect, no educational institution is; but we’re honestly approaching this problem in the most humblest of manners. Our only concern is for the students – we consistently ask ourselves, “What is Students First?” Our only goal is to help students achieve their dreams and we’ll do everything we can to make that happen.

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