Category Archives: Introspection

What are we building? And under what assumptions?

Here’s what I said to a group of doctoral students, the incoming president of SoLAR, and a handful of other researchers and practitioners at the Learning Analytics and Knowledge Conference:
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picture of a staircase that is underwater
In the 1970’s a philosopher named Hubert Dreyfus began criticizing some of his colleagues at MIT who were working on early versions of Artificial Intelligence- folks like Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert. In his seminal “What Computers Can’t Do” Dreyfus challenged what he called biological, psychological, and epistemological assumptions- basically any a priori claim about human consciousness and being-in-the-world. Dreyfus challenged a popular conception of the mind as functioning like a computer, that humans are rational agents in rule-bound systems, and the self-rationalizing ouroboros of instrumentalism.
Ultimately, what he was challenging was a scientific way of thinking about people and the world that was largely formed during the enlightenment, but that was explicitly applied to human behavior by folks like Edward Thorndike, and later B.F. Skinner.
It is important to question the claims and ideologies present in any discourse, as a closer interrogation might reveal internal contradictions as well as broader social and structural forces. Specifically the method of Immanent Critique seeks to probe into discursive claims and how they relate or conflict with other discourses.
Now, I’m not trying to start a philosophical argument. Oh wait, yes I am.
I am researching the discourses (texts, media, and other representations) of learning analytics and how they interplay with the discourses related to the purpose of higher education.
When learning analytics claim that they will provide insight into the learning process, I tend to go, “huh, what is the definition of ‘learning process?'”
When higher education discourses say they will advance knowledge creation, I wonder how that jives with adaptive learning language that will make the acquisition of knowledge more efficient. Especially in that latter statement I wonder if efficiency is necessarily a good thing when it comes to learning, or if it might represent broader economic motivations.
What I like about immanent critique is it’s subtlety. It is not intended to replace claims or value judgements with alternative facts, but it is a method of interrogation and exposure. It makes me think of Matlock: “I’m just a small town country lawyer just trying to discover the truth.”
Using a more theoretical discourse analysis is also useful in analyzing meaning both in terms of local or semantic concepts but also in terms of the structural or paradigmatic concepts.
The goal of learning analytics are to predict the likelihood of success or failure and to turn insight into action. The phases of learning analytics are describe, diagnose, predict and prescribe. IBM is already floating trial balloons about how cognitive computing can predict a child’s “learning styles” and career predilections (they call it learning styles- a term that makes education scholars cringe) and custom tailor a personalized, individualized learning pathway from kindergarten to career! Mo Rocca does the voiceover in the YouTube video, though uncredited. I swear it’s Mo Rocca.
Knewton has a video that describes how to increase or decrease the level of student agency.  . .
It may be problematic to leave assumptions unexamined, especially those that are validated by their own logic system.
The assumption that people are rational agents within formal structures who simply need to be nudged and prodded toward correct actions. Each of these concepts needs to be unpacked.
Not to sound like an alarmist that we’re heading towards some Orwellian or dystopian future, but language matters- it influences our beliefs and social practices. Language represents power and motivation. I don’t have some maxim or platitude to offer here; and, maybe I’m slow, but I’m just hanging out here at the “describe” stage. And rather than confidently diving into the “what” or the “how” of learning and education, I’m still wondering about the “why.”
Gert Biesta in his book “Good Education in an Age of Measurement” challenges notions such as learning outcomes and evidence based practices, as these things are not devoid of power structures.
Suggesting a critical orientation, Biesta proposes freedom as a goal of education:
we should not think of freedom as sovereignty, that is, of freedom as just doing what you want to do [but] rather. . . a ‘difficult’ notion of freedom, one where my freedom to act, that is, to bring my beginnings into the world, is always connected with the freedom of others to take initiative, to bring their beginnings into the world as well so that the impossibility to remain ‘unique masters’ of what we do is the very condition under which our beginnings can come into the world.
Now I have to admit, framing my research from this critical or philosophical orientation has caused me some ambivalence. I’m an IT administrator- a true blue technocrat. I keep systems running and we measure success by numbers of users. I think it has also broadened my perspective to really think like a humanist, and ponder the ineffable qualities of being human.
I grew up in a very small town in northern Wisconsin. We lived in a hand-built log cabin. For a while we didn’t have electricity or plumbing.
My dad was a high school dropout but later earned a college degree.
I’m part Native American but I check the box for white because that’s how I identify.
By high school I took a career inventory test that said I should become a puppeteer. My GPA took a nosedive but I got several scholarships because of my involvement in clubs and organizations.
It took me six years to earn my bachelor’s degree- I changed majors four times from Business, to undeclared, to Philosophy to English, I failed math three times. I took a bunch of music credits after a jazz instructor who saw me drum once asked if I would be the drummer for the college jazz band. I meandered through my undergraduate experience. I changed my mind. I questioned my own motives and identity.
Many university mission statements talk about personal exploration, creativity, freedom, exposure to a broad range of subjects, and critical thinking.
I breezed through a Master’s degree in Educational Technology.
Charles Eliot, the former president of Harvard talked about the idea of “liberalization before professionalization” as he was proposing a new requirement for students to go through a traditional undergraduate experience in the liberal arts tradition before going on to a professional degree track.
I have no regrets about my education– its errancies or pace
I’m not sure what Learning Analytics interventions would have been applied to me or how they would have altered my life. I did not stay on track nor did I finish on time. I left and came back. Now I’m earning a doctorate and taking longer than I had planned, but don’t really feel too bad about it.
I have no regrets about my education– its errancies or pace.
That being said, my wife uses data to reach out to first generation and minority students to engage them in mentorship programs and other support services. I use data to understand tool adoption and trends to target our training interventions and messaging.
I think about dualisms and strive for synthesis.

The Business of Learning Technology: Meditations on My Career In Higher Ed IT


I used to think the value of learning technology was self-evident and obvious, but I realize that we all view the world through the lens that is most familiar to us. My lens has been colored by 10 years of pursuing both a career and an advanced education in learning technology, or educational technology, or whatever you want to call it.

I prefer the term learning technology, because “instructional technology” sounds too teacher-centric. It implies a model of education where there are discrete facts to be learned, and the role of the educator is to simply transmit those facts from one source (a textbook, a professor’s brain, etc.) into the student. The student should remember said facts for a certain amount of time. Perhaps long enough to reproduce the facts on a test.

“Educational technology” is very broad- to me it connotes all the technologies and systems required by an institution to function and operate.

Learning technology puts the focus on learning.

I often hear about how education, and how IT in particular, is a business. It’s true. We have business processes and business needs. We are a business. Until we become more like Finland or Germany and can call education a public service or a right, we must acknowledge the fact that there are financial transactions conducted in exchange for products and services.


But what is the business that we’re in? What is the product or service that we deliver? Is it an efficient financial aid request process? Is it a cohesive web portal? Is it computer virus removal? Password reset? Wi-fi?

The reason a student attends an educational institution, one presumes, is to learn.

So what is learning technology? When I was an academic applications administrator and support specialist, I thought I knew what learning technology was. Professors would ask me for help; I would walk them through some steps; I would find efficient ways to map rosters from the SIS to the LMS. I would write documentation, and I could pronounce the word pedagogy.

When I was an instructional designer/technologist, I thought I knew what learning technology was. I managed some open source systems; I evaluated clickers and lecture capture solutions; I had an advanced knowledge of the LMS; I could regurgitate things that I had read about constructivism. I began to teach.

When I earned my master’s degree in Educational Technology, I thought I knew what learning technology was. I could wax intellectual about cognitivism and connectivism. I became an evangelist for tech because I knew the “best practices.” I was cocky about the fact that PhD’s never had any teacher training, and I could tell them what good instruction was really about (“It’s the guide on the side; not the sage on the stage,” I would say).  I was managing people and platforms. I was making friends in the industry.

Eventually, I began reading the critics, the anarchists, and the humanists. Learning should be an act of rebellion against the status quo, they claimed. Education was a system of indoctrination, they believed.

I re-read the classics: Vygoskty, Dewey, Gagne, and Bloom. I researched the history of the world and the strange tapestry that education wove across time and space.  I read the brain scientists and the social scientists. I drew connections between biology and art.

I know now that there are many approaches to learning. I know that social interactions are often mediated by technology. I know that knowledge and meaning are nebulous terms. I know that transformations can be behavioral or spiritual. I know that technology can be wonderful or frustrating, boring or magical, tedious or seducing.  I know that the interplays between people and things, people and information, and people and people have limitless variables.


It took me ten years of a career and an education in learning technology to begin to realize that I will never really know what learning technology is (or should be). But I will continue to learn and practice.

I still love reading the critics and the anarchists. I love reading the classics. I love reading about the early behaviorists and smirking at their modern recapitulations.  I get excited when I learn about a new learning theory that changes my perspective. I feel like I’m meeting a movie star when I have dinner or drinks with an author or a thought leader. I gush with joy when my friends receive grants, get published, or are honored with awards.

I speculate about the future. Some days I worry that higher education is in its death throes; or that the sexy new startups will swindle the taxpayers with promises of “better student engagement!” “retention!” and “wait, there’s more!”


Some days I beam in my daydream of flexible, personalized systems that also promote creativity and agency– technologies that spark the imagination, trigger aha! moments after aha! moments, challenge learners to strive for excellence and engage with knowledge and each other in new and deeper ways they never thought possible.

I dream of a world where students control the technology. They create with the technology and learn how to plan, produce, and fail. I dream of a world where students learn how to solve the world’s most complex and dire problems. I dream of a world where students form strong relationships, and they develop a deep and rich appreciation for all the diverse facets of culture and nature. I dream of a world where, empowered, students learn how to learn, mediated by technology or not, and they do it well, and they love it.  After all, isn’t that the business we’re in?


Why I don’t write

My dad once told me that for him, the problem with making art was that the artist must strive to create a piece that captures the entire world and gives it back in a meaningful way. This is both impossible and the greatest aim.

I don’t write because I know it will be largely unread, pedestrian, and straddling the line between self-deprecation and narcissism.

But maybe we should all try to capture the language that makes sense to us and our situation in time and place. Camus implores us to rail against torpidity. Rorty reminds us the language will change anyway. Vygotsky assures us that a multitude is a good thing. And maybe it gives something back.

I don’t write because I am so humbled by and in awe of the people I admire.

But, the ethos that has been a constant thread in my life is that everyone has an important voice if their message is told with sincerity, passion, and clarity. The cacophony of real human voices, of individuals revealing themselves in a morass of media that is otherwise dominated by the dominant, might just paint an authentic picture of humanity, and, one hopes, add meaning to all of them and to each of them.

So while I do not write, I do think everyone should.