How we learn is changing

Learning is what makes us human. Our ability to adapt and change has given us an evolutionary advantage when facing adversity or threats. While this is particularly relevant in this pandemic, I wonder how this crisis will impact our learning institutions.

On an individual level, learning currently represents the difference between life and death, or health and illness. The research, public health advisories, and conditions of this pandemic are always changing.

Those who remain passive, run the risk of being confused, or even misled, and may find themselves without the knowledge or tools to prevent infection or the consequences of panic and social chaos. Whether this means showing up at the grocery to find empty shelves, or not wearing a mask, or not using that mask carefully, the ability to learn and adapt is important, if not essential.

However an on institutional level, this ability to learn, not to mention teach, may have an even greater impact than it does for individuals. For many organizations it will mean the difference between success and failure, survival or bankruptcy. This could be as basic as working remotely, or maintaining secure practices, let alone adapting to changing market conditions, and adjusting to new kinds of supply and demand.

Previous to this crisis, there had been a certain level of complacency among educational institutions. They knew that our learning habits and desires were changing, and while they were taking modest measures to adapt, they were also arrogant in their belief that their business model was not broken, in spite of it depending upon the incredibly inflated fees charged to foreign students.

However now that foreign students are not able to travel, will they pay the same ridiculous fees for virtual classes? Or alternatively, will the value of that certification or institutional affiliation remain inflated, or is it overdue for a correction?

Similarly will domestic students return to school in the fall, especially if there are no promises that it will be anything but remote? Will the programs they choose change as a result of an economy that will be even worse by then? Will taking on significant amounts of student debt make sense when employment prospects are relatively diminished?

I don’t have the answers to these questions (and as always would love to hear your thoughts on the matter), but there has been a rash of think pieces and hot takes arguing that education as we know it is gone, and something new is emerging. Let’s take a walk through some of the weeds and see what we can find.

The first and obvious concern is surveillance. Previous to this pandemic there was already widespread surveillance of students, no surprise that it would get worse:

When student Marium Raza learned that her online biochemistry exam at the University of Washington would have a digital proctor, she wanted to do her research. The system, provided by a service called Proctorio, would rely on artificial intelligence and a webcam to monitor her while she worked. In other words, as tests must happen remotely in the Covid-19 crisis, Raza’s school is one of many using a mixture of robots and video feeds to make sure students don’t cheat.

“We don’t have any transparency about how our recorded video is going to be used or who is going to see it,” Raza told Recode. “The status quo should not be visualizing each student as someone who is trying to cheat in any way possible.”

Raza wasn’t the only one in her class who felt concerned about new levels of surveillance. Another student in the class, who did not want to be named, said that in addition to privacy worries, they were concerned that they didn’t even have enough RAM to run the Proctorio software. Worse, the tool’s facial detection algorithm seemed to struggle to recognize them, so they needed to sit in the full light of the window to better expose the contours of their face, in their view an indication that the system might be biased.

Today’s issue is largely inspired by my step-son Murley, and our chat on the drive home Monday, regarding how his first year of University ended. The confusion, chaos, and general failure of the online measures taken by his University would be hilarious if they weren’t so tragic.

While his experience was not as bad as some of the incidents detailed in this article, it does hint at a larger catastrophe taking place among the virtual halls of institutional education.

In particular, the rapid adoption of automated tools seems particularly problematic:

For instance, Examity also uses AI to verify students’ identities, analyze their keystrokes, and, of course, ensure they’re not cheating. Proctorio uses artificial intelligence to conduct gaze detection, which tracks whether a student is looking away from their screens. The company founder and CEO Mike Olsen, apparently bullish about the service’s automated nature, told Recode in an email that the company has fewer than 100 employees and doesn’t need “humans in call centers.”

It is an obvious fallacy to synonymize technology and automation, or remote learning with surveillance, and yet here we are. Amplifying the worst elements of education, in particular the policing and coercion. All that fosters is learning how to object or outwit these systems:

Some students seem to hate these services, and social media ischock-fullof theirgrievances, from criticisms of the software to objections that the tool is just plain annoying. And some, such as Raza, have turned to their campus newspapers to express their privacy objections. Earlier this year, students at Florida State University started an online petition to protest their school’s use of Honorlock, and over 5,500 have signed it so far. The University of California Berkeley has already banned online exam proctoring, with some students saying they may not have the high-speed internet connection or living situation to make remote exams happen effectively and equitably.

These services are not perfect, and it’s easy to find online tips and tricks for duping remote proctoring services. Some suggest hiding notes underneath the view of the camera or setting up a secret laptop. It’s also easy for these remote proctoring services to find out about these cheating methods, so they’re constantly coming up with countermeasures. On its website, Proctorio even has a job listing for a “professional cheater” to test its system. The contract position pays between $10,000 and $20,000 a year.

Obviously a new approach to education and learning needs to take place. There may even be a role for automation:

Baker is an advocate of adaptive learning, which can use algorithms to adapt lessons to individual students, as well as other computer-based learning tools. For instance, he’s now adjusting one of his fall courses, which might be online, to make use of a mathematics platform called Assistments, which allows students to receive automatic feedback on their answers and gives teachers analytics about what kinds of mistakes students are making.

Although when automation depends upon surveillance, is there a risk that subverts our notion of education? To what extent are we just automating the administration and supervision yet not empowering or encouraging the learner?

Ironically, when we actually empower teachers, and give teachers room to do the job as they see fit, that’s when innovation and resilience emerge, and students get the chance to really learn.

To address the educational crisis, the most inspiring actions have been taken by individual teachers in both rich and poor countries. Many teachers across the globe have taken the initiative to switch to a distant education mode with whatever tools and competencies they had. Teachers enthusiastically have come into the forefront of emergency teaching and learning with strong sense of self-reflection and self-management. By creating informal, participant-driven groups in social media, teachers experiment with new technologies and build new partnerships to exchange resources, teaching ideas and methods. Independent from the governments, teachers have found new ways to shape their local educational environments.

Within national and international communities, some enthusiastic teachers recorded tutorials on how to use interactive platforms for online education; others created lesson plans and methodologies, and shared them with each other. Yet others became involved in brainstorming policy options of how to reach out to students in remote villages without internet connectivity, or discussed educational solutions for minority populations or students with special education needs. Many of them initiated partnerships with local charities to help socially disadvantaged students receive internet access, laptops, or mobile phones. Some enthusiastic teachers got involved in designing and developing programs for nation-wide TV lesson broadcasts.  

This experience showed vividly that when educators were given freedom and autonomy, they came up with context-appropriate solutions; when existing hierarchies lost their power, albeit temporarily, teachers improvised, thus becoming the agents of change. Most important, such actions have strengthened local capacities, which will be more sustainable in the future. We demand so much from teachers, but often forget to trust them.

A reasonable lesson to draw from our current situation is that teachers genuinely deserve more freedom and autonomy, especially when it comes to choosing tools and platforms that support education.

Which makes sense, as there are a growing range of tools available. It seems silly to maintain the old system of procurement, which saw schools, or even school boards, decide which tools should be used, rarely resulting in the right tools being chosen. Perhaps it makes sense for teachers and students to choose, with some sort of standards or advisory body providing independent evaluations.

The World Economic Forum is *not* that body, but their perspective is interesting in this context:

In particular, the reason I find this article relevant, is it provides some detail of the online educational tools and platforms being used in China.

Other companies are bolstering capabilities to provide a one-stop shop for teachers and students. For example, Lark, a Singapore-based collaboration suite initially developed by ByteDance as an internal tool to meet its own exponential growth, began offering teachers and students unlimited video conferencing time, auto-translation capabilities, real-time co-editing of project work, and smart calendar scheduling, amongst other features. To do so quickly and in a time of crisis, Lark ramped up its global server infrastructure and engineering capabilities to ensure reliable connectivity.

While I haven’t written recently about ByteDance’s ongoing conquest of social media, I find it fascinating to learn they’re making considerable inroads in the online education industry.

Many are already touting the benefits: Dr Amjad, a Professor at The University of Jordan who has been using Lark to teach his students says, “It has changed the way of teaching. It enables me to reach out to my students more efficiently and effectively through chat groups, video meetings, voting and also document sharing, especially during this pandemic. My students also find it is easier to communicate on Lark. I will stick to Lark even after coronavirus, I believe traditional offline learning and e-learning can go hand by hand."

This argument that articulates a hybrid, a mix of class based and Internet based education, is an emerging consensus. Nobody wants to argue that the old ways are dead, and yet it is equally clear that online alone is insufficient. Although it is interesting to see the WEF make the following assertion:

For those who do have access to the right technology, there is evidence that learning online can be more effective in a number of ways. Some research shows that on average, students retain 25-60% more material when learning online compared to only 8-10% in a classroom. This is mostly due to the students being able to learn faster online; e-learning requires 40-60% less time to learn than in a traditional classroom setting because students can learn at their own pace, going back and re-reading, skipping, or accelerating through concepts as they choose.

Which begs the question, will students have to do less school, or will the schooling stay the same, but the overall work load will increase?

Although maybe this is all baseless speculation, as there are many people, most notably those who operate post-secondary educational institutions, who do not believe that things are changing, rather we’ll return to how things were, if and when this crisis ends.

But while all of this is widely being referred to as online higher education, that’s not really what most of it is, at least so far. As for predictions that it will trigger a permanent exodus from brick-and-mortar campuses to virtual classrooms, all indications are that it probably won’t.

“What we are talking about when we talk about online education is using digital technologies to transform the learning experience,” said Vijay Govindarajan, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. “That is not what is happening right now. What is happening now is we had eight days to put everything we do in class onto Zoom.”

That what is happening now is not what people originally conceived of as online education is a fair point. Yet utopias are never achieved. Rather the vision of the utopia informs our path, but where we end up is never where we think we were going.

Which is why I don’t believe there will be a normal for us to return to. Although that doesn’t mean that the current configuration is one that we’ll keep either.

If anything, what people are mistaking now for online education — long class meetings in videoconference rooms, professors in their bathrobes, do-it-yourself tools made of rubber bands and cardboard — appears to be making them less, not more, open to it.

“The pessimistic view is that [students] are going to hate it and never want to do this again, because all they’re doing is using Zoom to reproduce everything that’s wrong with traditional passive, teacher-centered modes of teaching,” said Bill Cope, a professor of education policy, organization and leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Kind of hilarious that the big insight is that students dislike the traditional configuration of education.

More than 75 percent said they don’t think they’re receiving a quality learning experience, according to a survey of nearly 1,300 students by the online exam-prep provider OneClass. In a separate poll of 14,000 college and graduate students in early April by the website, which rates schools and colleges, 67 percent said they didn’t find online classes as effective as in-person ones.

Among college-bound high school seniors, fewer than a quarter said in December that they were open to taking even some of their college courses online, Eduventures reported; by the end of March, after some had experienced virtual instruction from their shutdown high schools, fewer than one in 10 polled by said they would consider online college classes.

The problem with constructing such a false dichotomy is that it assumes students have a choice. It also assumes that in person learning will be an option or available.

What do you think? Where are the educational industries headed? Are our expectations changing, or will we be as complacent about learning as institutions expect us to be?

I am of course an avid proponent of socialized learning and education. We don’t learn alone, and in person education tends to be the most accessible and conducive to social interaction. Yet it doesn’t have to be, as many of us are quite comfortable interacting in online environments.

For example, I’ve learned quite a bit in the IRC room that Ken Chase operates. Similarly Ben LaHaise has been teaching me tons about connectivity and the telecom industry, almost all via chat (whether IRC or Telegram).

When I reflect on how I learn, and I am an avid and voracious learner, almost all of it is online, self-directed, on-demand, and quite social.

I also don’t see the offline and online modes as being mutually exclusive. As I’ve spent this pandemic living in a rural community, I’ve been contemplating how to transform my property into a new kind of school.

Part of what I’m anticipating is long term restrictions on events and gatherings. So I’ve been imagining how distributed learning could take place on my property.

For example, trails in the woods that lead to learning locations where benches and multimedia enable sharing and discussion. In thinking of a course as a literal course through the woods, might allow students to engage each other without being in close physical proximity yet still being physically connected, albeit at different times.

Students could show up, receive instructions, and then head off into the woods to do the course and engage the content. There’s no classroom per se, and mobile devices and the Internet would be essential, but in combining that with the natural world and natural settings, could learning be more enjoyable or efficient? The best of online tools combined with inspiration and stimulation from nature?