Friday, September 23, 2016

Hacking Teaching in "Brick and Mortar" Schools and E-Learning

One of the great fears that educators have with respect to change in education is that:

  1. They will be out of a job, or
  2. There will be more tasks added to already overflowing daily work tasks which will result in them not performing their job up to expected standards from a number of levels of government and as a result, they lose their job. This becomes a real possibility especially during government election periods.

In this age of exponential increase in knowledge and the rapid development of technology, the learning curve for educators appears to have risen steeply and for some, it has driven them into early retirement. When the educator first entered the profession of teaching, the feeling was akin to a child's first week at school. There was fear, excitement, dreams, creativity and the need for reassurance that this adventure was worth taking. Contrasting those feelings with the last day of teaching, for many it is similar to a teenager in high school. Cynicism has replaced wonder, pragmatism has replaced creativity and reassurance has been replaced by fatalism. The question to ask is:

"Why would educator and student arrive at the same state of mind and emotion which in the end profits neither them or their society?"

The answer is simply that there develops a sense of betrayal of the promise that education made to both educator and student. The talents and gifts that both educator and student bring to education are muted by a "command and control" mindset within the education sector by people more concerned by public image than the enrichment of the education lives of educators and students. They apply a Darwinian "survival of the political fittest" as their mantra with anything that might reflect badly upon them. Bureaucracy was originally envisioned as a means of freeing educators and students from the administrative tasks that were tangential to the act of teaching so to allow them  to use their talents and gifts to enrich education. Instead it has become a quicksand pit that both educators and students struggle in daily.

Going back to the definition we are using for hacking which is, " it refers to a procedure or a way of doing something that:

  • Demonstrates cleverness or ingenuity
  • Solves a meaningful problem
  • Is not a common or well known solution to the problem
  • May not be the most straightforward or appropriate solution"
 Our first hack of teaching is to take education bureaucracy back to its original intent which means that administrative tasks that are tangential to the act of teaching should be taken off the desk of the educator and either automated through the use of effective computer AI or put back on the desks of the well paid "Educrats". This should not be considered a political move even though some of its potential ramifications will be rabidly political.

The second hack of teaching is to take the teacher off the stage and off of the task of teaching content for content's sake. If your goal is to teach content to students for them to remember, then unfortunately, you are on a "fool's errand". In this age of knowledge explosion on the web, more information is accessible to the student without your intervention than you could teach them in several lifetimes and the digital natives know this to be true! Educators are still vital to the education of students but as mentors to teach them how to use and think on the web. The use of "flipped classrooms" and "blended learning" was only the beginning. Using the new advances in technology that are required by a new and agile online pedagogy means that the innovative and creative talents of educators can be used to enrich education and in turn enrich the learning of their students.


 What this essentially means is that by removing time consuming layers of administrative tasks that have been downloaded to educators, educators will now be able to capitalize on their gifts and talents by:
  1. Spending more time on the design of irresistibly engaging learning experiences for their students
  2. More time for educators to learn the potential of different technologies that would be useful in putting the creativity and innovation back in their profession
  3. Engaging students more directly by teaching them how to learn in an online environment and helping them to learn collaborative skills that allow them to network with others over the Internet tasked with solving complex real world problems in ad hoc real time relationships.
  4. Educators would have time to build real world networks with global organizations that are willing to volunteer time to engage students in projects as well as mentor them in necessary skillsets. The evolution of online learning communities is not a "frill" but in this age is an essential.
Obviously, for online educational institutions such as private online high schools and colleges, the avenues to accomplish the tasks above are greater and perhaps easier to implement given the developments that HTML5 has brought to enable online education anywhere and on any digital device with the automatic scaling features. Mobile learning can really take off in the online education world. However, it is worth repeating that this all rests not on advances in technology but the evolution of pedagogy to take advantage of the potential that the online world holds for education.

However, we still face one dilemma in regards to hacking teaching, that being the teachers entering education even now. They are being turned out into educational institutions still trained in the model and practices of a past world which is not the world that students, as agents of change, will enter into.

 Next....Hacking Higher Education and Teacher Training Institutions

Monday, September 19, 2016

Hacking Education

The term "hacking" has a sorted history in that it often referred to the actions of people who were technologically astute but often had criminal motives when it came to computer systems that were not their own. However, in 21st century slang in the computer world, the term has taken on a new and more interesting meaning. This new meaning basically states that "hacking" refers to a procedure or a way of doing something that:

  • Demonstrates cleverness or ingenuity
  • Solves a meaningful problem
  • Is not a common or well known solution to the problem
  • May not be the most straightforward or appropriate solution
MIT hacker, Phil Agre states that:

"In fact, hack has only one meaning, an extremely subtle and profound one which defies articulation. Which connotation is implied by a given use of the word depends in similarly profound ways on the context."

So, if we apply the above definition to bringing about change in the monolithic institution of education, rather than being a negative thing, hacking education is exactly what needs to happen. As Phil Agre points out, in order for this to happen in an effective manner, we have to ask the following question:

" In what context do we hack education?"

"How can we apply change to education that demonstrates cleverness or ingenuity, solves meaningful problems, that involves uncommon or should we say creative and innovative solutions to problems and that mentors students in the attitude that the most straightforward or seemingly appropriate solution may not be in the end the solution that yields the greatest possibilities for further development?"

Hacking Curriculum Organization

The compartmentalization  or silo organization of subjects has trained students in the mindset that the knowledge of the disciplines are completely separate and not interdependent for the advancement of knowledge. Educators have tried to overcome the mindset in ways that show the importance of other subjects to the furtherance of knowledge in their discipline by presenting students with the problems that involve the need of the knowledge of other disciplines but still receive the same type of question from students regularly:

"Why do I have to do Math when this subject is History or why do I have to know Science to do this problem when the subject is English?

For students, they do not see the reality of the interdependence of knowledge to solve problems because the silo organization of knowledge is what they base their reality on. As long as we maintain this type of silo organization of curriculum, students' ability to solve real world complex problems, an important skillset that in the 21st century they need to master in order to become effective agents of change, will elude us.

Therefore, if we want to hack the curriculum in order to bring about change what ideas must be brought forward that:
  • Demonstrates cleverness or ingenuity?
  • Solves a meaningful problem?
  • Is not a common or well known solution to the problem?
  • May not be the most straightforward or appropriate solution?
There are good signs both in the university communities and in some education organizations globally that the need to move away from the silo concept of education to one that recognizes the cross disciplinary nature of knowledge is happening. Unfortunately, it is happening only in one grouping of disciplines that being the Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Maths. The writing of S.TE.M. curriculum is an important step and the proposal of extending STEM to include the Arts is an even better step forward but if it remains within a "silo-based system" without a configuration change, it will be only "band-aid" solutions that neglects a larger problem. There are still other disciplines which should recognize that they have complementary traits with each other and need to seek cross curricular harmonization.

In this "hack" of curriculum, solving a meaningful problem means that applications within a curriculum that are superficially, contrived problems that don't go beyond the classroom are out and the identification of complex real world problems that emphasizes meaningful collaboration among the students as well as with stakeholders outside the school are in. This means that the role of the educator takes on a new dimension which replaces roles that are no longer in sync with the needs of 21st century society. This means a renewed emphasis on and real world application of critical thinking skills.

One thing to understand clearly is that hacking education will lead to a cascading effect of changes that will bring learning and teaching in sync with the real needs of 21st century society and the creative and innovative skillsets that need to be nurtured in learners will finally be able to overcome the penchant drive of the "command and control" mindset that is entrenched in education.
Hacking the curriculum has implications for the way that we design irresistibly engaging learning experiences and also how we assess learning in the desired context of life long-learning.

Next --Hacking Teaching in Brick and Mortar Schools and E-Learning

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Spectre of Social Engineering in E-Learning: Part II--Curriculum and Trojan Horses

Making sure that educators teach learners how to think and not what to think is important in the "brick and mortar" school but it is even more important in E-Learning because of the power of social media and the reach of the web, it is very easy for learners to be manipulated into one way of thinking about things. One interesting detail concerning this is that this is counter-productive because it in fact stifles innovative thinking and open collaboration.

Area of Concern #2: Curriculum Initiatives or Trojan Horses?
According to the story of the fall of the ancient city of Troy taken from Virgil's epic poem called "The Aeneid", the covert strategy employed by the Greeks was for the Greeks to present the Trojans with a gift of submission that looked intriguing enough to raise their curiosity. As the story goes, the  hollow Trojan Horse was brought within the city gates as a prize of victory over the Greeks but what they didn't know of  was the 9 Greek warriors who were hiding inside waiting to strike. The rest is history.

Credit: PBS

 Many curriculum initiatives that have been adopted by the education sector in many countries looked good on the outside but critical thinking on the part of stake holders in education was absent. Important questions that needed to be asked were not asked of these curriculum initiatives. Some of the important questions that should have been asked were:
  • Who is driving this change?
  • Do the motives that they claim in public for the change match up with what they have said in the past? Do they represent one facet of society and its interests or do they represent all people regardless of their socioeconomic status and political affiliations?
  • Who stands to gain from its adoption and who loses out?
  • What research is it based on and has the research been vetted by a cross section of stakeholders in education rather than one specialized group?
  • Who funded the research, the public test trials and if funded by private corporations, what are their goals and mission as a business organization?
In 2016, there are a number of controversial curriculum change initiatives in North America that need to be looked at in terms of the questions above. In Ontario, Canada, two such initiatives deal with: sex education curriculum changes in the Elementary level and Discovery Math. In the United States, the Common Core curriculum and the No Child left Behind initiatives are two in which a divide has formed. If you apply even some of the questions above to these initiatives some interesting patterns take shape. The education "closet" is full of education initiatives that failed the people but enriched the people pushing the initiatives in many ways.

What Do These Social Engineering Exploits Look Like?

 Obviously, if we feel that the education of young people is being used to manipulate their thinking and discourages critical thought on their part, then we need to know what to look for and more importantly we need to educate them to recognize these techniques of persuasion and counter them. Here are some warnings or red flags that learners should be engaged to watch out for and challenge:

  1. Use of Emotional Trigger Words: In our societies, words have impact on the behaviour of others. With the use of social media, a whole new level or dimension is added to communication between people. However, one of the social engineering techniques designed to dismiss another person's point of view and discourage open and honest debate is to use emotional trigger words that essentially says that the speaker does not need to hear any arguments that might provide evidence to get them to think about their point of view. All they have to do is use the trigger word and debate is shut down. Trigger words in education that have been used uncritically and frequently erroneously are words such as: bullying, misogynist, racist, and a variety of terms based on the concept of the psychological term "phobia". It is not the fact that people who exhibit what these terms describe do exist. They most certainly do! What is contended is the validity with which they are used and the fact that rather than provide compelling, verifiable evidence to support a point of view, the label is thrown out at the opposing individual in order to silence and censor healthy debate on the issue.
  2. Manipulation Through Selection Bias: When learners are presented with information to read in regards to an issue, is there an equitable balance of information supporting both sides of the issue or is it skewed towards one side only? If it is skewed to only one side only then it becomes quite apparent that an attempt is being made to uncritically accept one point of view on an issue BUT this may not be apparent to the learner unless he or she has had guided  opportunities to identify it for what it is. This type of manipulation through selection bias can even give the appearance of being legitimate by presenting and exaggerating the claims of information on the opposing side to make this point of view seem absurd when compared to the manipulator's point of view.
  3. Lying With Statistics: Statistics when presented in a powerful way can cause the learner to have an emotional response which leads to action. However, statistics can also be used to lie to the learner. Very often statistics are used to imply cause and effect relationships when in reality the relationship is correlational in nature. As a simple example, if you see a dramatic ad on television that shows someone in a white lab coat and a stethoscope around his or her neck  telling you: "9 out of 10 doctors choose Anacin for fast pain relief!" A learner might be convinced that this medication must be the best since 9 out 10 doctors choose it. There is much that is left up to the learner to assume that may not be a valid assumption at all about this ad.


 Social Engineering and E-Learning

When it comes to E-Learning, we are faced with a much higher potential for social engineering to be used to manipulate what people should learn and think. The problems that arise are largely due to the nature of the Internet and the World Wide Web. The Internet has some of these characteristics:
  • The Internet is open to anyone who has a computer and access to an online service. This means that regardless of whether a person has expertise in a particular field or not, if they feel strongly enough about an issue, they can publish what may look like compelling and knowledgeable arguments in support of one side when in fact there is no valid foundation for what they are saying. They can use multimedia to make what they publish look official and flashy but the whole thing could be a mirage of falsehoods causing people to make decisions that are premature or faulty.
  • Due to the fact of the global reach of the Internet and the fact that every day millions of people are on the web, something can be published, then tweeted, re-tweeted and shared on Facebook that could be a serious collection of misinformation. What you have is the "telephone game" except on a global scale.
  • If we use E-Learning, then because of this environment, there is a repertoire  of new skillsets that learners must be mentored on that revolve around how we learn how to learn in an online environment. Critical thinking skills take on a whole new priority when working in an online environment where bodily "tells" indicating an attempt to manipulate are not visible except perhaps in Skype or Google Hangout sessions. Even then, such tells could be explained away as transmission anomalies. 

Most educators would say that we address this type of manipulation with our classes BUT the question that needs to be asked is:

"Are you as an educator aware of your own biases and how they can be implied to learners in the way that you present ideas and in instruction? Do you separate your personal biases out of what you teach and proceed in an objective and equitable manner?"

For example, if you are for freely available abortion, are you able to with integrity in place to objectively select strong argumentation for both sides and mentor students on how to objectively using critical thinking tools, evaluate and draw conclusions for both sides of the issue?

 E-Learning is becoming a center stage means for life long learning but it is not without its pitfalls. Most of the pitfalls are more about human nature than the technology that is used. Educators and trainers in the learning culture of business organizations need to take the time to educate learners how to learn in a new environment such as the online world. It is one of  the "basics" that needs to be a priority if we want to have learning that enriches the quality of life for all people.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Spectre of Social Engineering in E-Learning: Part I--The Problem

When we hear the term "social engineering", we will often think about the type of criminal behaviour demonstrated by "hackers" and "crackers" to obtain information illegally from a computer system often belonging to a company. A "hacker", by the way, is a person who breaks into other computers out of curiosity and usually not with a malicious intent whereas a "cracker" breaks in to computers either to profit by it, to destroy the reputations of others or to create a cyber terrorist attack for the purpose of maximum damage to the greatest number of people.

The process of social engineering to covertly obtain marketable data usually involves the exploitation of the weakest link in the company chain of personnel.


We often think of such legendary "crackers" as Kevin D. Mitnick who made a habit of breaking into presumably secure computing networks and taking valuable intelligence from government computers. The recent revelations in regards to "Wikileaks" and the political fallout that occurred has made such exploits on human vulnerabilities front page news and front and center in the public conscience.

However, we need to ask this question:

"What if a more insidious form of social engineering was being designed and used on our most vulnerable every day and yet these most vulnerable people were the key to how our future takes shape? What if it was our children and the context of the social engineering exploits was their schooling?"

I am not a fan of outlandish conspiracy theories but I have been an observer of education on many levels, first in the "brick and mortar schools" and now in the world of E-Learning. When you can step back and view what is happening in education on multiple levels and then look at the state of our societies, it would be quite naive not to believe that what has been happening in education has not had the effect of changing the fabric of our societies and especially in regards to the way in which life is conducted by people in relation to other people. Education has become a maze that has many serious dead-ends with consequences.


Area of Concern #1: Teaching Learners What to Think Vs. How To Think?

If we think about how the definition for social engineering might be interpreted within the context of education, there is reason to be alarmed of the reality it presents. This reality has been with us for many decades and as stakeholders in education, we have surrendered our vigilance and our willingness to be astute critical thinkers to the large cabal of expertise made up of educrats, administrators and power brokers at high levels of governments. As we carry on our day to day lives, we essentially say to these groups that we are relying on their integrity to educate our most vulnerable citizens in ways that will enable them to be effective agents of change dedicated to the enrichment of the quality of life for all people.

Then, we stop, step back and look carefully at our societies to see the fruit of that trust.

We really have to ask those people whether they truly want and are working towards educating learners to be effective critical thinkers in our societies or are they working towards shaping learners to become citizens who do not take the time to learn, to think, to weigh evidence on all sides of issues and are citizens who can be socially engineered to meet goals which are not their own.

" Do governments really want critical thinkers for citizens who can look at issues, weigh evidence, question candidates in intelligent, well thought out, ways and then make a thoughtful ballot cast or do they want citizens who are too busy in trying to raise their families have a decent life to really care about thoughtful voting?"

The type of learners I want to see in our societies are those who:
  • see the importance of looking beyond the hype, spectacular multimedia presentations, emotional trigger words and rhetoric and ask what are all the sides to the issues being presented, what is the legitimate, verifiable evidence that supports the sides of the issue and when and if I choose, will my choice honestly represent my concern for improving the quality of life for all people and not just loud, special interest groups in my society.
  • will not allow the censorship of open and free debate on issues that affect the lives of all people.
  • will work to develop effective critical thinking skills and problem solving skills and as citizens, denounce attempts by special interest groups to silence free and open debate on issues that affect us all.
As citizens, in which ever society we are part of, how we educate our most vulnerable should reflect what Cicero said so long ago:

"Salus populi suprema lex esto"

Translated it means: "The Good of the people should be the supreme law." Do you see this reflected in your own society or do you see something else at work leading to a growing cynicism and a paralysis of the will?
There are many ways to influence people into thinking the way another person wants people to think and our learners need to be aware of all these techniques and use them as a database to critically evaluate how they are being used in important life events such as elections which have serious effects on how the future unfolds or in some cases, unravels to our despair. This skill is one of the new "basic skills" in our societies that needs to be mastered because to not do so will have a profound on how we are able to live our lives in the future. With respect to E-Learning, which I will go into more detail on in Part II, this skill is absolutely a first level, must have skill for all learners.

Even statements as the above that seem to appeal to a life principle, needs to examined using effective critical thinking skills.

Next.... Part II: Essential Curriculum or Trojan Horses?