The Balance Fallacy

“There’s a kind of notion that everyone’s opinion is equally valid. My arse! A bloke who’s been a professor of dentistry for 40 years doesn’t have a debate with some eejit who removes his teeth with string and a door!” – Dara O’Briain

I ran into this article from the TES this morning, which embodies many of the things that annoy me about how education and technology are presented in the media.  What this piece illustrates so clearly is the balance fallacy, where two arguments are presented as having equal value even though they are clearly of different merit.  The article starts off by referencing proper research:

Research published last year found that devices such as iPads could help students become more creative and independent learners.

But the rest of the article goes on to quote a teacher and a union leader who are calling for a ‘factsheet’ for educators outlining the problems of tablet use:

symptoms of tablet addiction include “withdrawal”, “loss of interest in or ‘crowding out’ other activities”, “lack of control”, “irritability” and even “deception and furtiveness”.

And further noting that, as devices are small, parents are often unaware that children stay up late at night playing on them.

So basically we’re supposed to see the arguments made by these teachers, which are based entirely on opinion and anecdote, as equivalent in merit to actual research (disclaimer: I haven’t actually read the study they linked to – it may be a crap study, but it’s the principle I’m on about here).  I’d argue it’s even more biased than that, since the claims by teachers are given the bulk of the article, while research findings are simply referenced in a hyperlink which few readers will bother to actually click.

Luckily, it put me in mind of my favourite Dara O’Briain clip, which has happily mollified my rage.


I’m moving

I’m migrating to a new blog, so pretty soon this one is going to disappear.  Most of the content has already been moved.  And, to keep with my resolution to blog more often, I’ll be updating the new blog more often.  Check it out.


Getting off the escalator

I’m currently in the middle of comps, or comprehensive exams, for my PhD.  I’m supposed to write three papers, each of 5-7000 words.  One on ‘curriculum’, one on ‘methodology’, and one on ‘theory’.  I’ve been working on them since September and I’ve now reached the point where I’m completely done with them.  Figuratively, not literally.  It’s pissing me off.  If I’d been slacking off, I could totally understand why I’ve not got them done yet.  But I’ve been working stupidly hard on them, at my desk from 9-5 every day.  Well, days that I’m not sick, taking care of a sick kid, dealing with mom being in and out of hospital, buying and selling a house, talking to doctors, teaching, conferencing, marking… I try to squeeze some work in after (eventually) getting J to bed, but most nights I’m so exhausted the only reading I can manage before falling asleep is 20 minutes of a trashy novel.  And they’re just not getting done.

I know part of the reason they’re taking so long is that I am actually invested in them.  I’m learning a hell of a lot, my thinking is becoming clearer, and my proposed research is coming together.  But at what expense?  I keep saying no to my son – the planned trip to see Santa up the mountain got replaced by a day on the couch watching more episodes of Peppa Pig then any human ever should while mommy plugged away on her computer.  I’ve neglected my mom.  Told her we’d do the Christmas lunch next year, though I know it’s highly unlikely she’ll be functional, if even alive then.  I’ve had some sort of cold/flu for over a month now that I can’t shake because I can’t take a day off.  My husband and I haven’t had a date night since June.  It’s been a week since the dog got a walk.  I’ve missed my friend’s birthdays.  Hell, I missed my own birthday.

And for what? I don’t get the point of ‘comps’, especially not in the ridiculous form that they do here in North America.  I’m supposed to demonstrate I can read and write at an academic level, but shouldn’t that be judged during the admission process?  It seems to me that this process is more about judging if I’m cut out for academia.  If I’m willing to join the cult of busy, sacrifice everything that’s important to my life, and drink the kool aid of academia that equates my self worth with my citation metrics.   Not that it’s even really an option any more.  The number of tenured jobs is plummeting faster than Miley Cyrus’s reputation.  Not that I’d ever get one – I don’t have time to do the apparently required blogging or Tweeting.  and even if I did I’d likely get fired for what I said.
If I decided to work as an adjunct I’d need to sell organs on the side simply to survive.   Besides, I study MOOCs, which, everyone knows, are dead.

So you know what?  I’m done.  My comps may be late, but I will have a photo of my kid in a hideous jumper, traumatised by sitting on Santa’s knee.  I might not start my research on schedule, but I’m going to take my mom shopping tomorrow afternoon and let her buy whatever ridiculously inappropriate gifts she wants.  I’m going to pour myself a strong eggnog, dig out my neglected knitting, and waste my evening drooling over David Tennant and a rabbit.  I’m getting off the elevator, at least for a week.  And if that means I’m not a proper academic, I’m ok with that.  In the immortal words of Judge Smails, ‘the world needs ditch diggers too’.

My thoughts on imposters

The lovely @rjhogue wrote a blog post yesterday that’s incited a bit of discussion amongst the #mri13 attendees.  She shares her reflections on feeling a bit like an imposter at the conference.  If you’ve not read her post please do, as she  contextualises what she means very well, but what’s been picked up by others is the phrase “I did not leave the conference feeling that I was part of the community.”   I agree with her, to an extent.  I too felt a bit like an outsider in comparison to a group of people who clearly had formed strong ties around the topic long before the conference.  I arrived at the conference feeling already a bit off balance since through Twitter it had become obvious that, for select people, the conference had started on Wednesday.  Now I totally understand that those sessions may have been intended as a meeting or workshop for a certain group, but the fact that there was no mention on the conference site of what Wednesday was, coupled with the fact that the participants were tweeting it as ‘the first day of #mri13’ left some of us feeling a bit like outsiders from the start.  However, I also really don’t think that was intentional, and I know some of the organisers have already noted that perhaps there was something overlooked there.
But in a bigger sense, I think part of what causes that ‘imposter’ feeling is related to this ‘tsunami’ changing traditional higher education that we’re all interested in.  As a grad student, I’m well versed in the academic hierarchy.  I expect to be an outsider at most conferences, where those with PhDs, professorships, and list of publications longer than any paper I’ve ever written make up an elite clique.  After all, they’re the ones with the expertise and wisdom that we undeserving accolytes are there to sop up.  But, as was tweeted repeatedly during the conference (I think it came from @gsiemens keynote on Wednesday), there are no experts in MOOCs.  Where I’m used to seeing keynote panels made up of grey haired professors decked out in tweed jackets, at #mri13 they were made up of doctoral students, ed tech designers, researchers, and writers wearing jeans and funky boots. No one at the conference suggested that they had the answers; most of the speakers opened by saying they were just as unsure about their topic as the rest of us.   And it’s hard to know how or where you fit in that lack of hierarchy.  But isn’t that precisely what we want?  Isn’t that sort of possibility for the ‘democratisation of knowledge’ precisely why we’re excited about MOOCs?

I can see exactly why it’s making universities and the media uncomfortable, because it makes me uncomfortable.  And, if I’m being honest, it pisses me off a bit, since my current ‘slow route’ through the traditional academic path is costly, both financially and in terms of opportunity costs, and I’m increasingly realising it’s unlikely to have the payoffs I expected. I have little time to blog or tweet or interact in the ways that might help me become a part of this community – I’m currently writing this while shovelling down breakfast and trying to keep a ’sick’ three year old from beating me over the head with a stuffed shark before I run off to teach a traditional academic class that I’m increasingly seeing less and less value in.  But what I left #mri13 feeling was that, while I may not be a part of the community right now, the doors are open and there’s a standing invitation to become part of it.  And it’s an invitation I very much want to take up.  When I have time.

Ofsted needs to get its collective head out of its ass

I should start this with a disclaimer.  I’m by no means an expert in the English educational system.  I lived there for 4 years and taught for only 4 months, and I’ve not paid that much attention to it since I left.

Today my Twitter stream was populated with headlines like ‘Ofsted: more exams for primary school pupils will drive up quality of teaching’  and ‘England’s schools falling behind due to ‘mediocre teaching’, making it obvious that the annual Ofsted report had been released.  And after just a brief perusal of the media commentary all the reasons I hated teaching in England came back to me.

For those not familiar with it, Ofsted  is the government body that rates schools (and related education/service providers).  Basically, each school is given a rating based on a triennial inspection (in which inspectors spend two days going over paperwork and observing for about 20 minutes in each classroom).  Student achievement data, based on high stakes testing and reports generated every 6 weeks measuring students against ‘expected attainment’, plays a large part in both the overall rating and an individual teacher’s rating. So as a teacher, especially a teacher in a school that ‘requires improvement’ you spend most of your time frantically teaching to the test and making sure the paperwork the inspectors might want to see is complete.  For example, when I taught Year 5 in England, I’d already taught in Canada for 6 years.  I’d been head of maths for our school and for our grade level across the district and been asked to participate in a pretty selective maths teacher enrichment program through the university.  I was pretty good at teaching math.  Yet as a ‘new’ teacher in England, I was required to submit all my math lesson plans, in detail to our school’s head of maths.  These plans required detailed minutiae, taking at least as long to prepare as to teach.  And they were often sent back to me as ‘needing improvement’ by our maths head, the kindgergarten teacher with two years of experience who only had the ‘head of maths’ designation because no one else wanted it.  So instead of putting my time and effort into my kids, I put it into paperwork, and felt continually more worn down and un-valued.  I was so restrained by teaching to the ‘expected outcomes’ that almost daily I’d see one of those ‘teachable moments’ pass by – those moments that when I taught in Canada often ended up leading to real, unexpected, deep and transformative learning, and that brought about the personal connections between teachers and students that make the classroom a true community.

So sure England, bring back day-long standardised tests for seven year olds.  Because there’s just so much evidence to show that teaching to the test is what makes good teachers and what helps students learn.  I love how you hold up ‘Poland’ as model for justifying the increase of exams.  Clearly you looked at the PISA results and thought ‘Hmm, how can we justify more standardised testing?  Ah, Poland is slightly above us and they do it!’  Instead, maybe you should try looking at those PISA results and asking ‘What are the practices of the high achieveing countries that we could learn from?’  Or better yet, ask your teachers how education can be improved – I’m pretty sure if they were given a few minutes free of trivial paperwork they’d tell you it’s not putting even more pressure on kids to regurgitate meaningless facts on yet another high stakes test.  As I said in a tweet this morning, Ofsted needs to get its collective head out of its ass.  Though really, what else would you expect from an organisation led by someone who, when criticised by teachers, replied with “If anyone says to you that ‘staff morale is at an all-time low’ you will know you are doing something right.”  Guess you’re doing a pretty great job then.

The greatest MOOC conference in the history of MOOCs

I spent a few days last week at the MOOC Research Initiative conference(better known by the participants as the ice-pocalypse) in Arlington, Texas.  It was, without question, the best conference I’ve ever attended.  A relatively small group, it seemed nearly everyone was not just interested in MOOCs, but held a common understanding that there was so much more to them than what the hype and stereotypes would have us believe.

Thursday morning began with a keynote by Jim Groom who set the tone for the conference with an inspiring recounting of the amazing work he’s done with a digital storytelling course.  What stood out for me were his comments on how important it is for students to see relevance for themselves in the work we ask them to undertake.  It’s an ideal that I’ve always taught towards, but Jim put a focus on identity that I’d missed before.  He also spoke of the importance of a community based on people interacting to influence and support each other’s work, and cited Ravelry as an example, thus endearing him forever to us knitters in the audience (sadly I was too enthralled to note who the other knitters there were!).

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Currently in Texas for a conference around MOOCs.  Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve likely heard of them – the newest ‘who needs schools when we have technology’ media darling.  They’re going to equalise access to education; anyone living in an impoverished developing country can now get the same education as a Harvard student (well, if they have an interenet connection… and of course the clean water, sufficient food, prevention of disease, lack of oppression, and oodles of free time necessary to both survive and complete the coursework).  And obviously, by 2020 we’ll see the fall of the ivory towers; now that information and knowledge are easily available how could universities possibly survive (never mind the same claims were made after the printing press meant books were easily available, or when radio/film/television enabled communication across vast distances).
But like most such phenomena, the hype and the reality are barely related.

MOOCs are massive(ly) open online courses.  Basically, an online course that’s offered pretty much free of charge to anyone who’s interested.  But beyond that, they’re hard to define.  Some are built on ideas of openness, learning from peers, and building knowledge.  Others are pretty much a first year lecture in a can.  Most fit somewhere in between.  Some are being built into more traditional structures and used as part of a degree based course.  Some offer certificates of completion (though what value these are is debatable).  Others offer nothing, except of course the intrinsic satisfaction of having learned something, and really, what value is that?

Heading off to the conference now.  Will likely be blogging about MOOCs lots over the next while, since I seem to have decided to look at them for my PhD research.  That is, if they don’t die off before I get started…

Why I dislike the idea of a ‘professional identity’

There’s a lot of attention given to the idea of using social media to ‘craft a professional identity’.  People suggest either tempering one’s writing or creating separate blogs/Twitter/FB accounts for  professional and personal lives.  I don’t agree.  Such ideas are a part of the intertwined concerns over privacy and identity that have accompanied the growth of the internet.  And I see them as anachronistic, not entirely in a negative way, but as something left over from a time where not sharing yourself publicly was both possible and, due to restricted communication technology, necessary for most people.

We increasingly make ourselves public, putting ourselves ‘out there’ on the internet. Some would say for narcissistic reasons, others believe it’s part of a growing need to feel connected in a world where connection often isn’t possible in other ways.  Whatever the reasons may be it’s happening, and fear mongering about possible repercussions isn’t helpful (I’m referring to adults here, implications for children who don’t yet understand potential real dangers are clearly a different issue).  While I don’t think ideas are going to change overnight, as we grow up as generations used to the open participatory practices of the internet, I do think we’ll see a shift in beliefs around what privacy actually means.  We’re coming to understand that we can no longer expect to maintain different identities in different areas and that openness bring with it a necessarily collapsed audience.

So what does this mean in terms of ‘professional identity’?  No longer do I enact fully separate identities as ‘mother’, ‘academic’, ‘friend’, or ‘sarcastic malcontent’.  Instead, I carry a more singular self through all the strands of my life.  And while I could censor that self, it seems to much work; I prefer maintaining an authentic identity across audiences.  Will Tweets sharing my contempt for organised religion offend some?  Probably.  Will swearing in blog posts put people off?  Entirely likely. Will the fact that I’m holding a beer in my hand in a goodly number of Facebook pics mean certain companies may not hire me?  Possibly.  But then it likely wasn’t a good match anyway.


Finally resurrecting this blog.  No idea why I haven’t kept up with it, except for the usual reasons (laziness, mainly).  But I keep being told how important blogging is for an academic, and though I may not consider myself an academic it would seem that I have indeed fallen down that rabbit hole.

So where has life taken me since I last blogged?

Still working away on this PhD, though I’ve focussed in on looking at MOOCs rather than looking at general learning practices (more in an upcoming post).
Still married to an awesome husband.
Kid has grown from inert baby into a pre-schooler with non-stop energy, a great sense of humour, and a love of Doctor Who.
Still taking care of my mum who is in mid-stages of ‘definitley not Alzheimers’, ‘maybe Alzheimers’, ‘a variant of Alzheimers’, or ‘possibly a combination of Alzheimers and other’ dementia.

So it goes.

Facebook is like a credit card

Found this article on Mashable about how Facebook is becoming a necessity in our society.  They call Facebook a type of “currency for the digital world”, not only in terms of social expectations, but in how many other apps/sites require you to have a Facebook account to take full advantage of their services.  I’ve noticed that a lot in the past week: sites asking me to sign in with my Facebook account, stores with displays asking customers to ‘Check us out on Facebook’.  Even my favourite pizza place puts out weekly coupons on Facebook … I suppose I could both argue being without Facebook makes me healthier in that I’m not eating as much pizza, but realistically it’s just making me a few dollars poorer each week since I’m still eating the pizza just without the coupons.

It wasn’t long ago that having a credit card was something completely optional, and even sometimes looked down upon.  Facebook seems pretty similar.  And it’s clearly not just an economic thing.  The social pressure to have a Facebook account is greater all the time.  I know that I’ve missed out on lots of things by turning it off, but am I also losing social capital by doing this?