Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Michael Werner Interview

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Nov 24, 2008

Originally posted on Half an Hour, November 24, 2008.

Interview questions from Michael Werner for inclusion in the e-newsletter

Q1: Please provide a 3-4 sentence description of what you do for work.

I don't really divide life into 'work' and 'non-work'.

But I get what you are asking, and so I will outline the exclusive services I offer to NRC in exchange for financial compensation. These services are defined through a process of negotiation with NRC management, who in turn receive research objectives from upper management and government policy. I provide these services most overtly through a combination of original design (such as, say, software), project work (in collaboration with NRC research clients), original writing, presentations, and general support for the community. This contribution is evaluated on a metric of indicators, including patents, development agreements, original papers, presentations, meetings with industry, and similar items.

Q2: What’s the career path that got you to this point?

Indirect. I studied computer science in college and spent time in industry in that field. Then I enrolled in university as a physics major, obtained a background in the sciences, but then switched to philosophy, where I displayed an affinity. I completed my Masters and went ABD (All But Dissertation) on my PhD. I began teaching critical thinking by distance for Athabasca university, along with more traditional philosophy courses for the University of Alberta and Grande Prairie Regional College. This l;ed to my doing some development work in online learning, which led to a position with Assiniboine Community College as a distance education and new instructional media design specialist. At the college I contributed original work to the field and became an Information Architect with the University of Alberta. This led to my current research position.

Q3: Okay, here’s your chance . . . if you could change one thing about “the educational system” what would it be?

The idea that you can change one thing is misleading. It's like trying to change just one thing in physics – the gravitational constant, say. Either everything else changes as well, or you have simply created a mess of contradictions.

So the one thing I would change could only be the system itself, and indeed, the idea that it is a 'system' and in some important way separate from the rest of our endeavours. The educational system, thought of in isolation, is at once both too far removed from society, and at the same time, too easily distorted by particular forces in society.

Q4: I realize you want to say a tad bit more about that last question. So, what’s the second thing you’d like to change?

The only other thing I can change is society itself. Though government is, nominally, democratic, the bulk of our remaining institutions is not. We need to develop a society in which individuals are empowered and entitled to self governance not only politically but also socially and economically, which in turn demands a certain set of social and economic rights and freedoms not currently enshrined. These, generally, involve the gradual elimination of the right of (undemocratic) social and economic forces to exercise what amounts to a droit de seigneur over individuals in society – rights of ownership that include control over resources, control over intellectual property and ideas, and restrictions on movement and sovereignty.

Q5: What’s your take on the state of technology integration in our schools?

It is currently being interpreted as an agency – as a 'tool' – of the instructor, intended to increase the instructor's capacity and reach. Consequently, as the model of instruction remains static, the effectiveness of technology remains limited. Though technology could serve as an empowering and enlightening agent for students, it does this without regard to the teacher's agency, and sometimes even in spite of it, or in defiance of it, and consequently technology use in schools is typically closely regulated and controlled. As a result, the full power of technology as an educational tool is being felt only outside our schools. Outside the schools, however, we see none of the beneficial aspects of the educational system; strict control is replaced only with a vacuum, into which corporate and political agencies are delighted to fill with their own ideas and opinions.

Q6: What’s your own vision for integrating technology in the classroom?

Get students out of the classroom. Equip students with useful and powerful communications devices, and enable them to participate in the full measure of society while working, using technology, with the educational system to obtain guidance, counseling and support where needed.

Q7: What would have to happen to get us from the current state to your vision?

This is not a simple causal system; there is nothing in particular that would lead to this outcome, though there is a set of confluent forces that could be said to be leading us toward it.

Ironically, the education system's inability to understand technology except through an interpretation of power and control is one of the major drivers toward the development of an alternative mechanism in society at large.

What I expect should and will happen is that the influence of the educational system over a student's life will be gradually diminished. For example, while a student normally spends 6 hours a day in a classroom setting, this time will decrease bit by bit as the student replaces in-class activities with 'real world' out-of-class activities. As it becomes increasingly apparently that the traditional educative function of schools can be supported through personal technology, this trend will accelerate.

Q8: Which educational technology sites, bloggers, or other resources do you depend on?

Um... all of them?

At the risk of sounding like Sarah Palin, I am reluctant to cite any particular resource as one I 'depend' on as, over time, the relative importance of different resources ebbs and flows as the writers devote themselves to things of more or less importance to me personally.

Unlike Sarah Palin, however, I can provide readers with a full list of the resources that I actually read on a (more or less) daily basis:

Q9: What kind of advice would you give to non-tech teachers who are afraid to get involved with technology in the classroom, but know they should?

I sincerely doubt that the problem faced by these non-tech teachers is 'fear'. I recognize that their intransigence is frequently classified as fear, but I would none of them (or very few) would actually assert that they are afraid. The more common barriers to integrating technology in the classroom usually have to do with time constraints, complexity of the technology, and an inability to see how technology would help them in their current position.

In this, the teachers are mostly right, and a fair-minded assessment of their situation would take this into account. Technology may make it possible for teachers to do things better or even more effectively, but at the cost of it taking more time than they have in a day to master the software and to produce useful work. In very few cases is easily used technology introduced in such a way as to make their work easier or to free up more time. The fact that their work does not change even with the introduction of new tools does not make this more likely. If you define a teacher's job as 'hammering' and then replace their hammer with a computer, they will not see the benefits of the new technology.

So the advice that I give them is the most practical I can offer: hunker down, keep doing what you're doing, and take early retirement.

More practically, I encourage teachers to explore how technology can help them in their personal lives. We have a lot more control of our lives than our work, and aren't usually forced into particular ways of doing things. Online banking, for example, can make financial management much easier, since it eliminates the whole cycle of paying bills by writing cheques and mailing letters. Digital photography is much cheaper than traditional photography, and they can post their photos online instead of paying for prints, and they can even, if they want to, edit their pictures to get rid of the red eyes. Examples like this abound, and I share them with people one by one as I encounter them.

At a certain point, teachers realize that what's going on in their classes is a joke, and that they are not really being asked to get involved in technology in the classroom, but rather, they are being asked to perpetuate obsolete business practices despite the presence of technology in the classroom.

Q10: When you’re not working, where and how do you spend your time and why?

I don't really divide life into 'work' and 'non-work'.

But I get what you are asking, and so in addition to the things listed in Q1 I spend time at home and in the community:
traveling, touring, cycling and taking photographs
growing plants in my garden, with moderate success
engaged in carpentry and woodworking, renovating my home
watching movies, television and rock concerts
reading science fiction, history and scientific books

Q11: Any must-read books out there for teachers?

Not really. Try to read widely. Become cultured. Read more than just novels and biographies. Select books from the science, culture and philosophy sections – if you feel out of your element, read the “Introducing...” books.

Q12: What are your favorite free tech resources that every teacher should know about, and why?

Firefox, for reading the web.
Google, for finding things.
Blogger, for writing things.
Last FM, or CBC Radio online, or some such thing, for listening.
YouTube, for videos.

Q13: Please provide a 3-4 sentence mini-biography of yourself in the third-person, and include links to any blogs or websites you maintain.

Stephen Downes has spent the last seven years working as a researcher for Canada's National Research Council. He specializes in e-learning and new media and is best known for his online newsletter, OLDaily. Downes has become known for his work on learning resources and resource metadata, weblogs and web 2.0 media, social networking and network learning, and personal learning environments.

Q14: What two or three questions should we have asked you, and what would your answers be?

How do you program a computer? What are knowledge and learning? What is important to you in your life?

The answer is not 42.

The answer is – to quote an old Star Trek episode – that there are only two kinds of people in the world: those that believe in themselves, and those that don't. And that the secret to programming a computer, to knowledge and learning, and to finding what's important in your life, is to make the leap being one of those that believe in themselves.

To much of education – and too much of media generally – are directed toward making all of those things a mystery, far beyond human ken. The idea is that computers can only be understood by wizards, that knowledge and learning can only be understood by gurus, that the meaning of life can only be understood by mystics.

And in fact, exactly the opposite it the case. The wizards, gurus and mystics are charlatans. They are shams, crooks, cheats. They try to make you feel inadequate in order to convince you to cede control of your life, your finances, your possessions, or your rights over to them. They accumulate power by lying to you.

YOU are the only person who can program your computer, learn and gain knowledge, and find what is important in your life. As soon as somebody starts telling you how to do any of these things, they are taking this power away from you. Stop listening to them. Stop listening to me.

Q15: What else would you like to tell our readers, the non-tech teachers of the world?

Computer programmers and software architects are the garage mechanics of the future.

There was once a time when the internal combustion engine represented the height of technology, when only a few people knew how to build and run one, and when people like Edison and Ford were the elite of society, the Steve Jobs and Bill Gates of their time (they were, in turn, replacing the titans that brought us the steam engine and the railroads – the Pullmans and the Watts).

Today, the people who fix internal combustion engines are the graduates of vocational school and those involved in steam technology are unemployed.

Don't lose sight of that.

And don't lose sight of the fact that, a hundred years ago, education was very different than it is today. Teachers – educated women as yet unable to find a husband – were responsible for a wide range of tasks, including stoking the coal furnace, cleaning the classroom, and maintaining the books and blackboard. They answered directly to parents who, while themselves illiterate, demanded strict adherence to a set of social and moral principles designed mainly to ensure that their children did not become substantially different from themselves. Schoolteachers were poorly paid, even more poorly than today, and could be dismissed on the whim of parents or administrators.

This life was seen as far preferable to the life of a governess who, subject to the complete will and whim of her rich employer, spent the totality of her time taking care of a family of privileged (and petulant) children.

What does this all mean?

With each advance of technology, technologists have lost ground and teachers have gained ground. The more something becomes specialized and arcane, the less attractive it becomes. There will be a time when everyone in society is expected to teach, and those who have teaching as a profession will be the best of them all. The danger lies in the other direction, as technology is left increasingly to technologists, and as these technologists become increasingly marginalized with each successive generation. Who will tend to the machines, when only the lowest in society tend to the machines?

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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